Remembering Sukhdev, Rajguru And Bhagat Singh
By Maanvender Singh
23 March, 2016
It is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill the ideas. Great empires crumbled, while the ideas survived- Bhagat Singh (1929)
The mainstream historiography of Indian freedom struggle has been selective in its narration, where on one hand undue importance is accorded to certain events on the other, few events are either distorted or neglected, and one such example being the depiction of ‘revolutionary nationalist’ as an aberration to an otherwise non- violent struggle. Such understanding totally undermines the fact that it was not through the terror of their guns but through the dissent that these young men encouraged had left British scared. Infact it was to suppress this dissent, that on 23 March, 1931 three men Sukhdev, Rajguru and Bhagat Singh were hanged to death. Among them Bhagat Singh still remains the most celebrated and respected figure for the current generation. However the figure itself is deliberately distorted and mostly misrepresented. It has been erected in a manner that seems more convenient and digestible to the popular narrative of nationalist history. So much so that the episode of Bhagat Singh in Indian independence struggle is reduced to the story of heroic sacrifice that he made for the nation and very little effort has been made to unravel his revolutionary ideas and motives. Similarly his treatment in popular media has been mostly dramatic, and creates a persona of a macho man with hat on his head and pistol in his hand, who unlike Gandhi responds British with violence. However what is most ironical is the recent claim laid by the BJP-RSS over the legacy of Bhagat Singh. This comes from an organization that has not produced even a single freedom fighter. Therefore there is a need to liberate Bhagat Singh from these different versions that political parties and historians have produced conveniently to suite their own kind of nationalism.
The Idea of Bhagat Singh
The most important question is that whether we are going to celebrate the legacy of Bhagat Singh as the idol of sacrifice or as a reasoned young man who contributed in various different ways to the idea of revolution? It is very true that it started with killing of John Saunders as then it was felt necessary to send a message to the British for the brutal killing of Lala Lajpat Rai. However with the peaceful bombing of parliament in 1929, the tactics of revolutionary nationalists completely changed. It is a fact that bombs were only meant to make a noise to those who refused to hear the voices of suffering masses. The more immediate context being two bills that were proposed by the parliament- the Trade Dispute bill and the Public Safety bill- both these bills were meant to curtail the rights of workers to strike and protest. And after throwing the bombs that meant no harm, both Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt willfully courted their arrest. Then, the courtroom was used by Bhagat Singh and his comrades to carry out their revolutionary propaganda one of the best the nation would ever see again.
His actions continued even inside the prison, as he along with his fellow comrades sat on hunger strike that lasted for 112 days, demanding the status of political prisoners. This was a different Bhagat Singh from one who idolized Kartar Singh Saraba and the revolutionary means adopted by the Gadar movement to one who accepted the tenants of non-violence by rejecting the path of individual terrorism. The philosophical evolution of Bhagat Singh has started, something he acknowledged himself and wrote:
“I began to study, my previous faith and convictions underwent a remarkable modification. The romance of the violent methods, alone which was so prominent among our predecessors, was replaced by serious ideas. No more mysticism, no more blind faith. Realism became our cult. Use of force justifiable when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity: non- violence as policy is indispensable for all mass movements” (Why I am an Atheist: 1930).
Therefore it is more of a construct than reality that his differences with Gandhi were due to his disliking of Gandhain principles of non- violence. His disagreement was with the mainstream nationalist movement, which according to him by far has remained aloof of revolutionary class. These concerns are reflected in his letter addressed to ‘Young Political Workers’ in 1931, where he has vehemently opposed the idea to make any compromise with the British, which according to him will result in the establishment of the old exploitive system. It was for this reason he thought that the Congress and Gandhain utopia would only produce changes in the political power, without any alteration in the socio- economic condition of the masses. To substantiate his point he has argued that “what difference does it make to them (peasants) whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas? What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin! It is useless to appeal to his national sentiment”. It is to be reminded that he was just 23 and still had a great sense of history, proposing a goal beyond the elimination of the colonial ruler.
Further not to forget that at times when religious fervour was on rise, he rejected the very existence of God, which was strongly condemned by his comrades. To which he wrote the following in the “Why I am an Atheist.”
“I deny the very existence of that Almighty Supreme being… My grandfather under whose influence I was brought up is an orthodox Arya Samajist. An Arya Samajist is anything but an atheist. After finishing my primary education I joined the DAV. School of Lahore and stayed in its Boarding House for one full year… Later on, I joined the revolutionary party… My previous faith and convictions underwent a remarkable modification… I had become a pronounced atheist”.
It is this version of Bhagat Singh that most of the political parties are reluctant to associate with. What makes it more uncomfortable is his ideological inclination towards likes of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Since such revolutionary ideas cannot brew alongside the celebration of capitalism, therefore it is convenient to dilute it in principle. However let’s hope this time as the democracy is butchered by the current BJP government we will find more reason to celebrate the ideas of Bhagat Singh, because people like him would not have submitted to the fascist tendencies that deny the basic tenets of free speech. Further to remind ourselves that he died for a dream that the future nation will attain ‘Azadi’ from the various forces of imperialism, fascism and religious fundamentalism, to establish a nation where people will live free from all kind of bondage. In contrary to that most of these tendencies have survived and more recently imposed in the name of nationalism. Therefore as nationalism become monopoly of chosen few, chants for ‘Azadi’ seem more appropriate, similar in their tone which were once raised by Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
Maanvender Singh, PhD Scholar, Department of History, Sikkim University, Gangtok.