History Reviews

‘The Bhagat Singh Reader’ review: The secular voice of Bhagat Singh

This volume, bringing together Bhagat Singh’s writings, categorises them under five heads: letters and telegrams, posters/notices/leaflets, statements in court/essays, articles and sketches/and jail notebooks. The editor lavishes fulsome praise on this young man (1907-1931), who was executed by the colonial government at the age of 23. Chaman Lal’s introduction prompts a question. How should we remember heroes? Through hagiographies? Or through explorations of their political thought, thought which still prove relevant for the political condition we are in today?

Regretting violence

Bhagat Singh interpreted nationalism through the prism of Marxist theories of exploitation, revolution and emancipation. He lived in an age of revolutionary violence, but most of this violence was fuelled by religious passions, and ideas of ‘politics as theatre’. Bhagat Singh rejected this. He believed that the masses had to be politically mobilised. But the young are impatient. The martyr decided that the only way to rouse political consciousness was through violence. He was to regret that mode of politics later in his life.

The hero had resolved, along with his colleagues, to kill the man who had ordered a lathi charge on Lala Lajpat Rai. He had led a procession against the Simon Commission on October 30, 1928. The Senior Superintendent of Police, James Scott, ordered his deputy, John Saunders, to attack the leader. Lajpat Rai’s injuries were serious and he died.

The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association decided to punish James Scott. The editor describes the murder. Jai Gopal was chosen to identify the victim, Chandra Shekhar Azad to provide cover, and Bhagat Singh and Rajguru to shoot him.

On December 17, 1928, Rajguru shot Saunders even as Bhagat Singh hastened to warn him — ‘Panditji he is not Scott’! According to Chaman Lal, Bhagat Singh had no option except to pump more bullets into Saunders. No option except to pump bullets in a man who had already been killed by a bullet? Bhagat Singh killed the wrong man. He committed the same mistake as Madan Lal Dhingra.

At the annual function of the Indian National Association held at the Imperial Institute London on July 1, 1909, to commemorate the martyrs of 1857, Dhingra shot Curzon Wylie. Some historians suggest that Dhingra planned to actually kill Lord Curzon. The murder prompted Gandhi to pen his famous argument against violence in Hind Swaraj.

Bhagat Singh was not short of options. He subscribed to Marxist ideology that people have to be revolutionised before armed struggle. He, however, chose to take a life, and give his own, if that could inspire the people of India to rise against colonialism. “Bhagat Singh and his comrades were destined to die for the country,” writes Chaman Lal. It could have been otherwise if our hero had chosen to abide by the precepts of radical theories of freedom. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw two harmless bombs and pamphlets into the Central Assembly, onto frightened and cowering officials. Both were arrested and imprisoned.

Language of freedom

Chaman Lal chronicles details of Bhagat Singh’s life and career, but he does not distinguish between isolated violence, and the contribution of rich and fertile ideas to the political language of freedom. Though spectacular acts of political violence appear courageous and praiseworthy, they are illusive. The masses might admire and acclaim patriots for their bravery, but they remain untouched and steeped in passivity. No agent has invited them into history. Solitary acts of violence reduce the people to spectators and politics to spectacle.

What mobilises people to the cause of freedom are visionary ideas that spark off imaginations. Bhagat Singh gave to India the political slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ originally coined by Hasrat Mohani, and ‘Samrajyavad ka Naashho’ or ‘Destroy Imperialism’. These inspired generations of nationalists. ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ replaced ‘Vande Mataram’ in many circles.

Ideas have no end

Of equal importance is the statement authored by Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt that was read out in court by their lawyer, Asif Ali, on June 6, 1929. Let the imperial exploiters know, they wrote, that by crushing individuals they cannot kill ideas. Revolution is a spirit of longing that things will change for the better. This is the only belief that can check the onward march of reactionary power elites. Today we remember Bhagat Singh for his political sagacity.

Bhagat Singh contributed a secular strain to the struggle for freedom; an alternative to the religious fervour that permeated revolutionary terrorism.

His reflections and writings in prison contributed significantly to the political thought of India. Bhagat Singh and two colleagues were brutally executed by the British on March 23, 1931, and their bodies desecrated. We honour him not because he killed the wrong man. He told us what liberation is and how it can be achieved.

The Bhagat Singh Reader; Edited by Chaman Lal, HarperCollins, ₹799.

The writer is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University.


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