History is a complicated subject. Predicting what happened in the past is as difficult as predicting the future. In the general populace, history is seen as stories of times we have never been to; times we know existed because of its legacies. Yet history, no matter how much we claim to have learned from it, almost always repeats itself. Bhagat Singh is probably one of the most loved and yet controversial figures in India’s history.
In the common discourse of history, we always prefer individuals over issues, events over ideas, the vital few over the trivial many. Of course, we as human beings love stories. We love to see things as good versus evil, right versus wrong. We love heroes.
India’s Freedom struggle
The history of India’s Freedom movement is a story too; a good story. Rather, a perfect story. It starts with India being a golden bird, prosperous it was, which was caged by brutal foreign forces. Then a bunch of heroes rose up from the ground and freed our Bharat Mata – a damsel in distress. This glorious story of victory of truth over evil begins sometime in the Mughal era, and ends on 15th August, 1947, with India waking up when the world slept to rekindle the lamp of freedom – our tryst with destiny. India was free, our problems were solved. India was once again a golden bird, ready to take flight. Yes, it is a perfect story.
Our freedom fighters are a bunch of faces we love and worship. We sing songs and write poems in their praise. I am sure, many of us spent our childhood carrying those A3 sized charts to school with faces of these heroes printed, and fantasizing over them. There was Ambedkar, Sarojini, Gandhi, Subhash. Then there was Bhagat Singh in the third row, second column, next to Savarkar, right before Nehru.
The British are seen as the ultimate villains. I am sure there is a sense of racism involved here, like the way the colonials saw us as a warring tribe and decided to civilize us, of course, without our permission. Lest we forget the business side to it. But then it is also the British who gave us the constitution, the parliament, the idea of democracy. Of course there were instances of democracy in ancient Greece and in certain Janpadas of ancient India, but after a long feudal age, democracy in its current form showed up only after the French Revolution. Communism, Socialism, Nationalism are all European ideas. The idea of nation states came up in nineteenth century Europe and was brought to India by the British. Or in certain cases, Indian scholars, including Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash went abroad, were exposed to such ideas and brought them back home. India’s lifeline, the railways was built by the British. Cricket, India’s most followed religion, although I am an atheist here too, was brought to us by the British. These are not debatable, but hard facts. And once we accept these facts, our history does not remain as simple as it sounds. It becomes a bit murky.
The good versus evil story is always easy to understand. Looking at the faces of our freedom fighters and worshiping them is always the easy thing to do. The greatest weakness of history has been its complexity, and hence leads to the simplified tales of one man does it all stories. This one man, when seen through different political lenses that exist in India, are projected differently. They were humans after all. Gandhi suddenly transforms from a leader of masses into a stubborn old man who favoured Nehru over Patel and Subhash when seen though the political lens of the Hindu Nationalist Right. But they don’t tell us that it was Patel who banned the RSS after one of their men shot Gandhi dead. They conveniently forget the fact that Subhash, the founder of Forward Bloc, was a socialist and a secular leader, and would have preferred India in any state but the communally polarized form we find it today. Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism to protest the caste system within Hinduism, always makes way into posters championing the cause of a Hindu state.
Who was Bhagat Singh?
Bhagat Singh, a communist and an atheist, has transformed into the flag-bearer of the Hindu Right wing too, because his family members were followers of the Arya Samaj. But they conveniently forget to mention the diary he maintained in jail, his courtroom speeches, his writings and letters. Anyone who has read a tad bit of Bhagat Singh’s writings will find these communal claims absurd and laughable. But that’s not the point of concern either. Facts are not debatable. And pouncing on the dead makes us no different from hyenas. These are dead people. Let them be. Great people, but dead. Dead! Probably even before most of us were born. It is not these faces that matter, but the ideas they stood for; ideas which lived long before they existed, and which continue to live after we are long gone. It is these ideas that need rekindling.
Today, we have assembled here to discuss Bhagat Singh. What we have already discussed, and what we will be discussing further are the ideas he stood for, the ideology he represented and the people he died for. But unlike most figures of history, in the case of Bhagat Singh, we have his writings available in plenty to help reconstruct who he was. Within just a period of seven years, he wrote on various subjects like god, mysticism, language, art, literature, culture, politics and revolution. Today, let’s spare some time to think and get acquainted with Bhagat Singh, the person; and more importantly, his ideas. And this, unlike how many tend to deal with this subject, is not a selective reconstruction. Bhagat Singh’s writings are extremely consistent in ideology, and reading of any paragraph from any of his writings will lead to similar conclusion.
That Bhagat Singh was a great nationalist who sacrificed his life for the independence of the country is well known. Before we go any further, let us revisit the idea of nationalism too. Yes, nationalism is one’s love for his or her country. But what constitutes a country? Is a country the same as one’s government? If so, then there lies the ambiguity, and Bhagat Singh ceases to remain a nationalist. Does nationalism mean love for one’s country at the cost of hating another? If so, then Bhagat Singh’s ideas lose their meaning, since he raised concerns for the exploited proletariat everywhere in the world. A country comprises of its trees, forests, rivers, wild life, culture, tribes, and most importantly, its people. It is for this love of his country, he opposed the British rule.
Bhagat Singh’s view on religion, mysticism and existence of God shatters the general impression that the revolutionaries were religious people who freely used religion to propagate their ideas. Being inspired by the revolutionaries of the Ghadar Movement who separated religion from politics and had an international outlook; Kartar Singh Sarabha, the young revolutionary who was sentenced to death at the age of 20, being his role model; Bhagat Singh, till the end of his life fought against sectarian and communal ideologies. One cannot help but admire the authority and confidence with which he analyzed the highly complex philosophical issue of god in his essay, ‘Why I am an Atheist’, where he states, “Any man who stands for progress has to criticise, disbelieve every item of the old faith. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it must collapse. The first thing for him is to shatter the whole system down and clear space for the erection of a new philosophy.”
In his statement in the Session Court during the assembly bomb case, Bhagat Singh wrote, “By Revolution, we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such breakdown, and in which the sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognized and a world federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and misery of imperial wars.”
Yes. Bhagat Singh was an anarchist. But before we yell ‘sacrilege!’, let us be aware that Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were anarchists too. What is anarchy? Is it an opposition to order? No. Anarchy is a philosophical idea, an idea much older than the idea of nation states, and probably older than religion, too. Anarchy stands against the created order of things. It is against the artificial order that depends on police, violence, tear gas, jails and courtrooms for getting implemented. Anarchists believe in order, but the natural order of things, where people can collaborate and live in peace and harmony. Where people can work together and share the benefits equally. Revolutionary anarchists oppose the governments which are against this order and cause pain and sufferings to their people.
Unlike the non-violent sect of elite members of India’s freedom struggle, Bhagat Singh and his comrades believed in using violence wherever necessary. In their article ‘The Philosophy of Bomb’, they have stated, “Let us, first of all, take up the question of violence and non-violence. We think that the use of these terms is grave injustice to either party, for they express the ideals of neither of them correctly. Violence is physical force applied for committing injustice, and that is certainly not what we revolutionaries stand for. Satyagraha is insistence upon truth. Why press for the acceptance of truth, by the moral force alone? Why not add physical force to it?”
What shaped Bhagat Singh’s beliefs?
A number of factors contributed to the shaping of Bhagat Singh’s socio-political thought. First of all, Gandhi’s decision to suddenly suspend the Non-Cooperation Movement on the ground of the violent incident that took place at Chauri Chaura in 1922 disappointed the youth of India. Many of the future revolutionaries – Jatin Das, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Jogesh Chandra Chatterjee, Surya Sen, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Jaidev Kapur, among others, were initially part of the Non-Cooperation Movement, and were later disillusioned. Their burning desire to free the country from the British imperialist rule and to create a new social order continued to dominate their thought-process.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 offered them a way, and left strong ideological influence on these young comrades. If the workers and peasants of a relatively backward country of Europe could successfully organize a revolution, then why not those being oppressed by the colonial British rule? Bhagat Singh studied the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin which were available in Lahore at the Dwarkadas library, founded by Lala Lajpat Rai. That was the reason the ‘Naujawan Bharat Sabha’, the public over ground wing of the revolutionaries, celebrated ‘Friends of Russia Week’ in August 1928. During their time spent in jail and courtroom speeches, they celebrated ‘Lenin Day’ and sent their greetings to the people of the Soviet Union on many occasions.
Avenging the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh and his comrades mistakenly killed J P Saunders, instead of Scott. Justifying their action and taking responsibility, they put up a poster warning the British Indian bureaucracy, and at the same time, revealed their deep humanism. It read, “Sorry for the death of a man. But in this man has died the representative of an institution which is so cruel, lowly and so base that it must be abolished. Sorry for the bloodshed of a human being; but the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of the Revolution that will bring freedom to all and make the exploitation of man by man impossible, is inevitable. Long Live The Revolution!”
The climax of their political action came in 1929, when Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw a bomb in the Legislative Assembly as a protest to two repressive bills: the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill. Through the first Bill, the government was authorized to remove from India, the British and foreign Communists; and through the second Bill, the government intended to curtail the trade union rights of the workers. These Bills were designed to reduce the civil liberties and restrict the rights of workers to struggle for their rights. What is significant about their daring act was that the two bombs were deliberately made harmless. Nor did the two revolutionaries try to escape after throwing the bombs. During their trial at the District and Sessions court, they made their historic statement, and shouted the slogans of Inquilab Zindabad.
“The bomb was necessary to awaken England from her dreams. Our sole purpose was to make the deaf hear and to give the heedless a timely warning. To change the system based on injustice, we need revolution. Is it not a constructed injustice that the labours and producers, despite being the part of mainstream, are victim of exploitation and have been denied basic human rights? Farmers, who produce die of hunger. The weaver who weaves cloths for others cannot do so for his own family and children. Masons, Carpenters, Ironsmiths build huge palaces die living in huts and slums. On the other side, capitalist exploiters, anti social elements, spend crores of rupees on their fashion and enjoyment. Those who enjoy at the cost of hardworking and hungry people should understand that they are sitting on a volcano which is about to erupt.”
Attainment of independence for their countrymen was not the only objective of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. It was merely a means to achieve the broader goal – creation of a new social order, based on Marxist principles. What would be the result of such a revolutionary transformation? This was read out by Asaf Ali as the statement by Bhagat Singh and Dutt, “The revolution will ring the death knell of capitalism and class distinctions and privileges. It will bring joy and prosperity to the starving millions who are scathing today under the terrible yoke of both foreign and Indian exploiters. It will bring a nation in its own. Above all, it will establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and will forever banish the social parasites from the seat of political power.”
Interestingly, Bhagat Singh looked upon himself as a propagator of the ideas of socialism rather than as a freedom fighter. In his letter to Sukhdev, he wrote, “Marx was not the creator of Communism. It was the Industrial Revolution in Europe which produced many persons of a particular way of thinking. Marx was just one of these many men. I and you have not created the socialist or communist ideas in this country. They are the result of the impact on us of our time and circumstances.” Bhagat Singh and his comrades didn’t believe in one man does it all. They believed in organizing, working as a unit, and most importantly, placing the ideology over one man.
Bhagat Singh showed a very mature understanding of Indian politics, and his ideas are relevant even today. He told his comrades that communalism was as great an enemy of the Indian masses as colonialism. Two of the six rules of ‘Naujawan Bharat Sabha’ of which he was the founding general secretary, were ‘to have nothing to do with communal bodies’ and ‘create the spirit of general tolerance among the public, considering religion as a matter of personal belief of man.’
Why Bhagat Singh still matters?
If Bhagat Singh is seen as a pure nationalist fighting for the freedom of a country from foreign rule, his ideas may not be relevant anymore, because today we are a politically independent nation governed by democratic principles. But it is important to know that the idea of India as a nation with its current boundary, states, political setup, government, and constitution is more of a reality in retrospect. And our current belief of what constitutes of this country may not have been the same during the time of Bhagat Singh. So what is it that Bhagat Singh died for? He wanted social justice and economic freedom for the poor and the marginalised, for the people at the bottom of the pyramid. He wanted to put an end to communal forces. He wanted to establish a new social order based on the principles of equality of opportunity. He wanted an end to exploitation. He dreamt of a better and a more meaningful existence for the masses. Have we achieved this social order? If your answer is yes, then I will happily admit that Bhagat Singh’s ideas are defunct, and are not relevant today. But if you think the answer is no, then it is time to act.
As a conclusive note, I will read out an excerpt from a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough, which Bhagat Singh had treasured in his Jail notebook –
Ah! Not for idle hatred, not
For honour, fame, nor self applause
But for the glory of the cause
You did, what will not be forgot.
Disclaimer : Full text of speech delivered on 21st March, 2015, in a session organized by Progressive Writers and Artists Association at Freedom Park, Bangalore. Originally published in India Resists.