Even Che Guevara (1928-1967) lived till he was 39. Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) did not get the chance; the British Raj executed him when he was just 23. Most people in their early twenties have just begun to breathe by themselves, to learn what they are capable of and to test out this new, exciting knowledge.
Bhagat Singh’s life was precocious. He grew up fast, and matured both socially and politically in the midst of a whirlwind time in the Indian freedom struggle. Not a month after he was born (a century ago this year), some Indian nationalists tried to blow up the viceroy’s carriage in Midnapore. But Lord Minto survived, reluctantly pressured to bring some reform to the country’s authoritarian political system (he must have longed for Canada, where as governor-general he had spent his spare time ice skating). When just eight, Bhagat Singh was moved by the execution of the accused in the first Lahore Conspiracy Case (1915-17), where the British went after the Ghadar Party radicals. One of those put to death was Kartar Singh Sarabha, whose sacrifice became the guiding star of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, founded in 1926. Bhagat Singh was 12 at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar; thereafter, he kept a vial of its soil on his person at all times.
In such turbulent times, it was normal for young people to be drawn into the myriad struggles against British rule. Bhagat Singh’s contemporaries were his equals: Ashfaqulla Khan (born in 1900), Chandrasekhar Azad (1906), Sukhdev Thapar (1907), Shivaram Rajguru (1909), Pritilata Waddedar (1911), Bina Das (1911), Kalpana Dutt (1914) and countless others. But there is something that makes Bhagat Singh rise above these others in our estimation. His image is iconic. Perhaps this is because he was not just one who acted, but one who acted and wrote, who studied, whose prose was the equal of his practice.
Everyone claims Bhagat Singh. Anand Patwardhan’s gentle documentary In Memory of Friends (1990) makes this very clear. During the late 1980s, Patwardhan took his camera across Punjab, and found that the Congress, the Khalistani Sikh Students’ Federation and the communists all wanted to celebrate Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary, and to draw him in as the precursor to their own struggles. Patwardhan’s sympathies are plainly with the left; the degeneracy of the Congress weakens their claim to Bhagat Singh’s legacy, while the Sikh Students’ Federation has had a hard time with his famous 1931 essay, “Why I am an Atheist”. Since Patwardhan made his film, the Hindutva movement too laid claim to Bhagat Singh, and Bollywood has gone along. There is an overdone scene in Dharmendra’s 2002 film 23rd March 1931: Shaheed in which Bhagat Singh is blessed before an enormous map and Mother India figure. The iconography is entirely out of the playbook of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and it evokes the kind of ‘mental stagnation’ that Bhagat Singh derided before he died.
Whetting stone of ideas
The Congress and Bollywood, the RSS and the Sikh Students’ Federation can only turn Bhagat Singh into their hero if he is reduced to his image – and if this image is nothing more than a young person who is so enveloped by patriotism that his own life is easily sacrificed. This is the cult of the suicide bomber. And it helps that he is an attractive figure, whose face can stand in for his mind. Played by Bobby Deol or even by Ajay Devgan (in the better 2002 film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh), Bhagat Singh is reduced to bravado, and to the stereotype of the brawny Punjabi man who is easily moved to action. What draws the youthful imagination is not what the powers that be want to depict; for power, a combination of patriotism and senselessness is more amenable than Bhagat Singh’s own cautionary dictum, “Bombs and pistols do not make revolution. The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting stone of ideas.”
Before he went to jail for an essentially non-violent act (the low-powered bombs thrown into the National Assembly in April 1929 were directed away from people in the vicinity), Bhagat Singh believed that a few courageous people should act to inflame the many. Drawing from the same kind of anarchist energy that electrified revolutionaries from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, from Russia to Spain, the Hindustan Republican Association manifesto broadcast its aims in 1924-25: “A spirit of utter helplessness pervades every strata of our society, and terrorism is an effective means of restoring the proper spirits in the society without which progress will be difficult.” Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt’s leaflet that accompanied their bombs quoted from the French anarchist Paul Valliant: “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear.” The deaf could be either the powerful or the quiet masses.
When Bhagat Singh went to prison following the Assembly bombing, he believed that the masses were dormant and could only be roused by these episodic, anarchistic actions. In jail, Bhagat Singh studied and changed his mind. It is this, the education of Bhagat Singh, that is censored from his icon. He is remembered for his act in the Assembly, and not for his political development till his execution in March 1931. Writing a few months before his death, Bhagat Singh offered a formula for action that is driven by neither mysticism nor blind faith. “Realism became our cult,” he recalled. “Use of force justifiable when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity; non-violence as policy indispensable for all mass movements.” Study and experience enabled this transformation. Now, Lenin appealed more than Bakunin.
The two recent books on Bhagat Singh offer insight into this transformation. P M S Grewal has turned this into the central theme of his short but observant book, Bhagat Singh: Liberation’s blazing star; while a second volume, The Jail Notebook, offers readers a window into the papers written by Bhagat Singh himself. In the early 1980s, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library acquired, but agreed not to publish, Bhagat Singh’s Jail Notebook from his brother, Kulbir Singh. Ten years later, Bhupinder Hooja published the Notebook, but the edition failed to make an impact. Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Chaman Lal, who is the editor of the Hindi collection of Bhagat Singh’s writings, has now resurrected the Notebook. The Notebook is not a systematic study of any text, or a sketch of Bhagat Singh’s own views. Instead, it is a scrapbook of quotations and statistics, of haphazard jottings from Upton Sinclair to Hooker, from Engels to Marx, and from Lenin. The evening before he was killed, Bhagat Singh requested a volume on Lenin’s life, which he read till his final hour.
The Jail Notebook and
by Bhagat Singh, edited by Chaman Lal
LeftWord Books, 2007
These notes offer an indication of the rebel’s transition to Marxism, as do the two most mature essays he wrote before he died, “To Young Political Workers” and “Why I Am an Atheist”, both from 1931. In the former, written just a month before his execution, Bhagat Singh laid out his most complete sketch for the dynamic of the Indian struggle. The task was to fight for a “political revolution” – although this alone, he cautioned, was not sufficient. As power is transferred from the British to the Indians, the “revolutionary party through popular support” must “proceed in right earnest to organise the reconstruction of the whole society on the socialist basis”.
In these mature texts there is still the call for a few young people to take the initiative – not to organise the masses, but to conduct deeds. It is in this context that Grewal finds it curious that Dipankar Bhattacharya, of the Communist Party of India (ML) Liberation, considers these texts as a “blueprint” for the Indian revolution. Bhagat Singh was not an oracle, a 23-year-old who was able to settle all the theoretical and practical problems that continue to bedevil the Indian left. Indeed, Grewal is right to be critical of Bhagat Singh’s limitations, because the best form of homage is to take someone seriously.
Bhagat Singh was not a man driven only by the “propaganda of the deed”. He believed in thoughtful action, on thought based on the potentiality of action and on action based on thought. But even thoughtful action was insufficient. What one also needed was an ethic of love for one’s fellows. As Che Guevara said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” Such a sentiment is echoed in Bhagat Singh’s 1929 “Letter to Sukhdev”: “As regards to the moral status of love, I may say that it in itself is nothing but passion, not an animal passion but a human one and very sweet too. Love in itself can never be an animal passion. Love always elevates the character of man.” And love motivates, as theory guides, the human being to bring justice into our social relations.