Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh

Bhagat Singh, teri soch te, pehra deyange thok ke! / Bhagat Singh, we will guard your thinking vigourously
                Popular Punjabi slogan often heard in protests and demonstrations

Those corpses of young men,
Those martyrs that hang from the gibbets –
those hearts pierced by the grey lead,
Cold and motionless as they seem, live elsewhere
with unslaughter’d vitality.
They live in other young men, O kings!
They live in brothers again ready to defy you!
They were purified by death – they were taught
and exalted.
Not a grave of the murder’d for freedom,
but grows seed for freedom, in its turn to bear seed,
Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the
rains and the snows nourish.
Not a disembodied spirit can the weapons of tyrants
let loose,
But it stalks invisibly over the earth, whispering,
counseling, cautioning.

From Walt Whitman’s Poem of The Dead Young Men of Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States found copied in Bhagat Singh’s Jail Notebook

Come March 23 and the popular press almost always features a slew of articles on Bhagat Singh. One could perhaps cynically read it as something akin to the many rituals that have come to occupy the checklist of political life in India. Since it is his martyrdom day, newspapers and websites choose to feature an article on his life, his ideals and so on. And then very soon, life moves on.

But is that really so? Is Bhagat Singh like Gandhi? Are the rituals that are conducted every year mere lip-service or do they mean something else? Not really is the argument of Chris Moffat’s new book India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh. How is Bhagat Singh different and what prompts people to treat him differently from the others who were active in the anti-colonial movement like Nehru, Gandhi and Bose or those who were pre-eminent in interrogating the social order and demanding a new one in addition to independence like Ambedkar?

Bhagat Singh’s is an ‘afterlife’, asserts the author and an afterlife, unlike say, the afterlife of Gandhi and Ambedkar. Bhagat Singh’s early death prevented him from compromising himself and his ideals by getting entangled in the nuts and bolts of hardcore politicking, negotiation and administrative responsibility. These revolutionary ideals which were articulated in a number of writings remain available and his actual record hasn’t sullied those ideals.

He has therefore been assured of a ‘presence’ in the sense of being held up as an ideal/polestar who serves as something of a minder for the politics of the present-day. And Maoists, rationalists, the Indian army, Pakistani pacifists and irony of ironies (given Bhagat Singh’s atheism) those on the religious right – Sikh separatists and more recently, the Hindu right-wing – have all claimed him as one of their own.

The memorials to Gandhi and Ambedkar, claims the author, seek to keep their memory and work alive. But the memorials to Bhagat Singh are an attempt to do the exact opposite – they are in effect, an attempt to entomb his ideas, given their revolutionary anarchic potential. In this, Bhagat Singh is rather like Steve Biko, the South African revolutionary who too died young. Bhagat Singh’s memory is one of ‘action and critique rather than idle acceptance and compromise’ and in that lies its potential to disrupt existing orders. While the author doesn’t explicitly state this, in this potential for disruption lies the key to his appropriation by a wide variety of groups for whom disruption is a political tactic.

This tendency to disrupt and dissent was noticed early in Bhagat Singh’s life and it is even more interesting given that Bhagat Singh’s family was one of dissenters. His father, Kishan Singh was a political activist. Uncle Ajit Singh even more so to the extent that he was externed from India for decades. And even amidst such company, he chose to plough his own furrow – escaping from an attempted arranged marriage as a teenager and later, when on death row, refusing to appeal from mercy inspite of his father’s repeated urging.

The site where Bhagat Singh ‘performed’ much of his dissent was the city of Lahore, a hotbed of anti-colonial politics and the spot where Bhagat Singh came to political maturity through interacting with its various dissenters and the institutions like the National College and the Tilak School of Politics that its dissenters established, formal meeting spaces like Bradlaugh Hall and informal spaces like tea shops and hotels where people congregated. The importance of Lahore is discussed in the very first chapter of the book.

The founding of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NJBS) in 1924 or 1926 (exact year is uncertain for various reasons) and the Hindustan Revolutionary Association (HRA) – it became the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Asscoation (HSRA) later – took place in Lahore. Equally importantly, it was in Lahore that ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ was likely adopted by Bhagat Singh and his comrades in preference to the prevalent ‘Vande Mataram’ with its religious overtones.

Among the book’s most interesting chapters is the second one – ‘What is to be done?’—echoing Lenin’s famous work of the same name and his call for action as opposed to words. This chapter goes over the many things that the NJBS and HSRA ‘did’ as opposed to merely pontificate. More importantly, it goes over the arguments made by Bhagat Singh and his comrades and does not stick at merely describing their actions. One key argument that BC Vohra made was for physical force i.e. violent action, to be added to the soul force that Gandhi talked about and through which he sought to convey to the British the error of their ways. And this stress on action is evident in the assassination of Saunders in December 1928 post Lajpat Rai’s death owing to police beatings and the frenetic period of activity that followed which resulted in a bomb being hurled in the Delhi Legislative Assembly in April 1929 which resulted in Bhagat Singh’s arrest, trial and hanging on March 23, 1931.   As the author says, ‘The contours of this militant life – partisan commitment, unflinching action, heroic self-sacrifice – continue to colour Bhagat Singh’s afterlives.’ Indeed, it ‘haunts’ power configurations.

The courtroom was the stage for much of this to play out which resulted in the revolutionaries’ arguments being widely popularized as well as their actions receiving both public adulation. The trial period which resulted in much drama both in the courtroom and beyond is discussed in great detail in the third chapter. And its importance stressed. This is a key chapter in the book given that period of Bhagat Singh’s life has received limited attention.

Part II of this book concerns itself with the nature of Bhagat Singh’s thoughts, how he is interpreted in the present-day to take action and how he has been memorialized, both in redundant ways that have rendered his work meaningless, but equally in creative ways that have captured attention.

Chapter 4 discusses how the life and work of Bhagat Singh has taken various shapes and forms in the hands of those who took it upon themselves to go behind the popular image of self-sacrificing martyr and unearth his ‘corpus’ and in that process create a ‘corps’ of people who would publicise the ‘real’ Bhagat Singh – in a sense Bhagat Singh Limited which was the mainstream Congress-sponsored historical discourse would be expanded to a Bhagat Singh Unlimited which would do full justice to the martyr and his work.

This chapter particularly discusses the work done in Punjab by Jagmohan Singh, Amarjit Chandan, Prof. Chaman Lal and many others in unearthing and presenting the corpus, publishing it and allowing it to speak for itself. This interest in engaging with primary sources is unlike the first phase of Bhagat Singh’s afterlife when his presence was more through legend and story, perhaps culminating in the release of Manoj Kumar’s film ‘Shaheed’ in 1965. The interest in Bhagat Singh that sparked off the second phase has been prompted by the excesses of Naxal violence, the failure of Indira Gandhi and the destructive tendencies of globalization prompting many to seek to understand how Bhagat Singh could ‘talk’ to each of these situations, to serve as a guide to dissent and also to evolve alternatives.

Of particular interest in this chapter is also how Bhagat Singh served to motivate the naxals of late 1960s Punjab and how Punjab therefore handled naxalism differently as opposed to states like Bengal and AP who too were in the throes of the Naxal movement at the same time and how the mainstream Left which had initially dismissed Bhagat Singh in the late 1920s has for some decades striven to reclaim him citing his Marxist leanings. Equally interesting is the discussion of how the Right reads between the lines of Bhagat Singh’s corpus and seeks to enshrine him as a ‘patriot’ and ignore his atheistic and Marxist thought processes.

Cover image for Naujawan Lehar (March 1978), with Punjabi translation of ‘Why I Am an Atheist’.

If Chapter 4 was about Bhagat Singh’s thought, Chapter 5 is about his objective – what did he want? Clearly, there can be no one answer to this. There is the protagonist of Mridula Garg’s 1980 novel (in Hindi) Anitya who grew up in the 1930s, was imprisoned in 1942 and at work in the 1950s is tormented by thoughts of ‘yeh azaadi jhooti hai’ unable to reconcile the promise of independence and the reality of what he faced. He confronts the question of what Bhagat Singh would have wanted and passes on some of his angst to his daughter who then ‘does’ as opposed to merely stagnating under the weight of the question. There are the protagonists of the 2006 movie, Rang De Basanti who too confront this selfsame question and proceed to take action. Anna Hazare invoked Bhagat Singh and his comrades in his movement and dealt with the same question as did an unholy figure like Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga with his Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena and his brand of muscular politicking in the name of patriotism. Bhagat Singh has now come to stand in for dissidence. Also, leftist student organisations and popular cultural figures like the Punjabi singer, Jazzy B too have contended with this question in their own ways and the chapter discusses all of that as well. An interesting aside in this chapter is a discussion of a short 2011 movie – Inklab – made by Gaurav Chhabra which seeks to look at how Bhagat Singh could be of relevance in a world gone digital. Bhagat Singh is therefore a ‘figure of clarification’ in all of these different contexts.

Chapter 6 is about how Bhagat Singh has been memorialized – in statues in different places, with or without Rajguru and Sukhdev, in trilby hat or turban, with a gun or without and how these instances can be interpreted. And how politicians have used these memorials to demonstrate their commitment to Bhagat Singh’s ideals without actually ‘doing’. The most ridiculous of these memorials appears to be the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Shopping Complex in Delhi inaugurated in 2003 by LK Advani which is perhaps proof enough of the chasm that separates Bhagat Singh’s thinking from the Right’s. Perhaps this chapter’s most interesting discussion is about how Pakistanis have attempted to establish a place for Bhagat Singh in the nation.

The empty memorialization discussed earlier stands in contrast to how activists have used street theatre to portray Bhagat Singh and his ideals to audiences and this has happened in both India and Pakistan.

Chapter 6 concludes thus:

[su_quote]While I have noted the vitality of alternative commemorative practice in Indian Punjab – from new pedagogical projects to robust theatre activism – I have suggested that the promise of Bhagat Singh is especially tangible in contemporary Pakistan, precisely because in the context it is repressed, unacknowledged or mobilized against. In this urban environment, marked by extraction and erasure, the dead revolutionary’s promise persists, an incitement to action and fidelity waiting to be seized, a possibility in the shadows of Pakistan’s uncertain twenty-first-century present.[/su_quote]

Is India then moving away from Bhagat Singh? Why? How could we reintroduce him into our politics?

The book provides much food for thought. Several possibilities crop up at the end of the reading about how Bhagat Singh’s inheritance could possibly be reclaimed. His story will remain unfinished. There will forever be many who will seek to mine his thinking for their work (case in point – the slogan that is the title of the article)

And in that lies the eternal radical promise of the ‘living martyr’.


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Karthik Venkatesh Written by:

A few words about myself. I am originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took me to Punjab where I lived and worked for more than a decade. This resulted in a keen interest in things Punjabi – history, literature, culture and politics. I have written on aspects of Punjabi history and translated Punjabi poetry. I'm now back in Bangalore and work as an editor with a publishing firm.

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