More light on a hero

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Bhagat Singh. He and his comrades were totally against communalism and casteism, which afflict India even now. Photo: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The book serves a useful purpose in preserving the revolutionary legacy of Bhagat Singh.

AT a time when desperate attempts are being made by right-wing Hindutva forces to appropriate the legacy of revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, the publication of this book serves a useful purpose. It is not a monograph on Bhagat Singh but a collection of articles written by Chaman Lal at different times in various newspapers and magazines. A professor of Hindi who retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) a few years ago, Chaman Lal has made a name for himself because of his lifelong interest in researching Bhagat Singh. His tireless zeal to unearth documents connected with the life of the great revolutionary, to edit and translate them with annotations, and to conduct a campaign for preserving his revolutionary legacy have brought him praise from several quarters. He has even been awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for translation.

When the British colonial rulers hanged Bhagat Singh on March 23, 1931, he was not even 24. It is said that at that time his popularity had surpassed that of even Mahatma Gandhi. Even today, he remains the most revered and loved revolutionary in India and Pakistan. Recently, attempts were made to name a prominent square in Lahore after him. The prominent Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz wrote a poem in Urdu on Bhagat Singh and translated it into English. The poem, Bhagat Singh ki Moorat (Statue of Bhagat Singh), is included at the end of the book. In the preface, Chaman Lal informs: “Till now I have been able to collect references or actual publications of more than 400 books, out of which half are in Hindi alone.” Books have been written on him not only in various Indian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati and Manipuri, but also in German. Yet, as Chaman Lal acknowledges, “Bhagat Singh is a more misunderstood and less understood political personality of India.” This despite the fact that he left a plethora of his writings behind for posterity so that no confusion could arise regarding his political, social and religious views.

However, it is also an unfortunate fact that the Left movement largely ignored him and his other revolutionary colleagues for many decades despite Bhagat Singh’s ideological proximity to it, leaving the field open to the right-wing Hindu communal forces that were able to make quite a successful attempt to show him in their own light. His adversaries, who espoused the Hindutva brand of nationalism, imposed on him the image of a “brave patriot” who made a selfless sacrifice for the nation and portrayed him in paintings as a bomb- or pistol-holding terrorist. However, care was taken never to discuss his political or religious views because he was a Marxist and a self-confessed atheist. Chaman Lal informs that in one of the recent books, even Bhagat Singh’s knowledge of the English language was frowned upon although his correspondence with British officials and his writings that were published during his lifetime as well as soon after his martyrdom leave no doubt regarding his linguistic competence.

The Left shook off its indifference in the 1980s, and Shiv Verma, a close associate of Bhagat Singh and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Uttar Pradesh, brought out Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh in March 1986, on the 55th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. He edited the volume and wrote an illuminating introduction on “Ideological Development of the Revolutionary Movement: From Chapekars to Bhagat Singh” while the Marxist leader B.T. Ranadive contributed a foreword. Chaman Lal builds upon this solid edifice and brings out many unknown facets of the famed revolutionary’s personality and thinking. As he has devoted several decades to collecting original documents, he has provided scanned copies of Bhagat Singh’s seminal writings such as “Why I am an Atheist” from the newspapers or journals where they were first published. Chaman Lal published in The Hindu (August 15, 2011) along with an introduction scanned copies of Bhagat Singh’s letters written in his own handwriting to British officials as well as to the High Court.

The book begins with “Revolutionary Legacy of Bhagat Singh”, an article that Chaman Lal first published in Economic & Political Weekly. In view of the fact that he is an academic, it is rather surprising that he does not feel the need for proper referencing and fails to give any details about when the article was published and in which issue. None of Bhagat Singh’s articles included in this volume offer any information about the date of their first publication. So, if some future researcher wishes to consult the original, s/he would be up against a wall. This is a serious lapse in an otherwise useful book.

Bhagat Singh’s uncle Ajit Singh was a revolutionary who was living in exile. Chaman Lal informs us that Bhagat Singh became very much attached to his wife Harnam Kaur, who was childless. Not many might know that Bhagat Singh worked in Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s Hindi daily Pratap in Kanpur where he came in contact with Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Shiv Verma, Jaidev Kapoor, B.K. Dutt and Ajoy Ghosh (who later became the general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India, or the CPI. By the time he was 17, Bhagat Singh had matured so much that he penned an essay in Hindi on the language problem of Punjab. Shiv Verma’s book contains this article in English translation. It mentions the names of Mazini, Garibaldi, Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Rousseau, Voltaire and Maxim Gorky, among so many other prominent writers, offering a glimpse into the kind of varied reading Bhagat Singh was doing even during his teens. At age 17, he comes to the conclusion that the Gurumukhi script was “more incomplete than Urdu”, and makes out a case for adopting the Hindi script for the Punjabi language. So far as the language is concerned, he was all for Punjabi because “Hindi is still far from the Punjabi heart”. One can only guess what the history of the Punjab would have been in the last century had the adolescent Bhagat Singh’s suggestion been taken seriously.

Chaman Lal is of the opinion that Bhagat Singh was “practically part of the Communist movement in India since its very inception”. As is evident from his jail writings, Bhagat Singh had become convinced that the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army would have to “take recourse to mass organisation of workers, peasants, students and other potentially revolutionary sections of society”. The author also brings to light the fact that Bhagat Singh enjoyed a good rapport with national leaders such as Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, and even Lala Lajpat Rai despite his Hindu communal leanings. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were totally against communalism and casteism, which afflict India even now.

The book contains two informative articles on the personal and political correspondence of Bhagat Singh. It is worth recalling that in a letter to Ramanand Chatterjee, the celebrated editor of Modern Review, Bhagat Singh wrote: “Revolution did not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. It was not a cult of the bomb and pistol. They may sometimes be mere means for its achievements.” This was in response to Chatterjee’s comments that ridiculed the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad”.

Chaman Lal has also brought out the fact that it was not leaders such as Nehru and Bose but Muhammad Ali Jinnah who rose in defence of Bhagat Singh. He discusses the relationship between Gandhi and Bhagat Singh in a review of Prof. V.N. Datta’s book, published in E PW. He finds Gandhi utterly unsympathetic towards Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries and accuses the Congress of having used their popularity to make political gains for itself without doing anything for them in return. His article “Two Indian Epics on National Heroes” is most interesting as it discusses a Hindi and a Punjabi epic written by Shree Krishan Saral in 1964 and Didar Singh in 1968 respectively. A fact not known to many is that Bhagat Singh has been the subject matter of epics in Hindi and Punjabi.

The book is rich in annexures and the reader, perhaps for the first time, reads an obituary on Bhagat Singh written by ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy in his Tamil weekly Kudi Arasu on March 29, 1931. Periyar criticises Gandhi for his various acts of omission and commission as also for his overall political strategy and methods. The book offers a detailed bibliography of books and articles published in English and Indian languages that will help future researchers a great deal. It also contains many photographs of historical importance.

However, the book seems to have been put together in a terrible haste. The copy-editing is awful as hardly any attention has been paid to correcting errors of syntax, usage of words, and spellings. This hinders the reading of an otherwise eminently readable book.