A radical legacy

Print edition : November 02, 2007

Chandrasekhar Azad he commanded the Hindustan Socialist Republican ARMY. -

Bhagat Singh and associates radicalised the national movement by broadening its scope and creating space for popular interventions.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades belong to those momentous decades in Indian history the late 1920s and 30s when options were more open, popular aspirations ran high and revolution and national liberation were current in the political vocabulary and intrinsic to the national agenda of a well-defined stream within the national movement. They were among that remarkable set of people whose deeds made them natural heroes and who, by their words and actions, exposed the weaknesses of the national movement in those very years that it was becoming a mass movement. That in the process they also influenced it very deeply has largely been erased not just from official recordings of Indias political heritage, but even in the general recalling of its history. Despite all the emphasis on peoples history, current historiography on that period has simply failed to give them their due. It is time the record was set straight.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades like all other progressive groups and individuals of the time cannot be understood without reference to the historic impact of the Russian revolution of 1917 on India. No event before it had such an impact on the minds of the people in the colonies. Suddenly it seemed that it was possible to throw off the yoke of oppression. Nations could be free, sovereign and equal, and people within those nations could be free, sovereign and equal. National liberation, world revolution, popular interests and socialism could be talked of in one breath and this was the inspiration and the message of those decades. Bhagat Singh and his comrades and all other progressive, socialist and communist groups in the country were inspired by this heritage of the Russian revolution, and would not have done much of what they were able to without it. Among them no single individual did as much by his words and deeds in the late 1920s to communicate this message within the national movement as did Bhagat Singh.


It can be easily said that Bhagat Singh and his comrades and the organisations to which they belonged, the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, played a central and foundational role in popularising the left-radical agenda within the national movement and giving visibility to this agenda in the national political life of those years.

The few books brought out this year underline the fact that Bhagat Singh and his comrades were a significant stream within the left, and by their heroism and deeds played a central role in both broadening the scope of the Congress-led movements and in popularising the slogans and goals of the Communist movement in India. One cannot think that ideas of revolution and socialism could have become as popular as they did then, or that Gandhi could have felt the challenge that he did then, were it not for the political intervention of Bhagat Singh and his comrades and their firm alignment with Communist politics.

Rajguru, who went to the gallows along with Bhagat Singh.-

They left their impress on the Congress politics of their time. It is difficult to imagine a Congress Left or the polarisation within the Congress without their activities and campaigns. It is they among the Communist groups who succeeded in creating an unease and embarrassment for Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, which exposed the divergence between word and deed among the best of Congresspersons. They contributed to inspiring many to come out of the Congress, even as the more right-wing leadership of the Congress was upholding policies of the organisation that defended the class interests of the bourgeoisie and landlords. The churning within the Congress was played out at all its conferences, where resolutions critical of the activities of Bhagat Singh and his comrades could be passed only by very thin majorities, and only at the personal insistence of Gandhi himself.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades publicly put forward a scathing critique of Gandhi and the Congress politics. They worked along with the Congress for a time as other Communists did, and pressured the leadership to adopt many resolutions that were beyond the scope of the Congress agenda or the Congress was not prepared to accept until then. This they did largely by their independent campaigns and examples of heroism, which the Congress could not match. They participated wholeheartedly in the Non-Cooperation Movement, and members of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association manned the committees at the district, tehsil and taluka levels in many parts of north India during the Civil Disobedience Movement, infusing a more radical content into it. They aligned these movements with slogans pertaining to peasants and workers demands. In this way, they broadened the scope and canvas of the national movement, and created space for popular interventions and initiatives.

Protest against the Simon Commission. Bhagat Singh and associates formed the backbone of the popular mobilisation against the Commission.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Protest against the

They exposed the hollowness of the demand of dominion status for India and put forward the idea of complete independence and opposition to imperialism in general. They formed the backbone of the popular mobilisations against the Simon Commission and political repression of the British. They went to the people with an alternative not only to Congress politics, but also its organisations. Bhagat Singh became as popular as Gandhi, and more popular than him among the youth. The revolutionaries slogans and cries for revolution found an echo among all sections of people almost in all corners of the country. Every heart beat for them during the years of their trial, confinement and execution at the hands of the British. Gandhis compromise with the British on their executions made him unpopular, and he was greeted with negative slogans and black flags wherever he went. Cries of revolution rent the air even in Congress platforms and conferences.

The gap between their ideological influence and organisational achievements is typical of the early stages of revolutionary and left movements throughout history, and does not detract from their contribution to national politics and national culture. It is pertinent that the Hindustan Republican Association was formed in 1924 and its manifesto The Revolutionary declared its commitment to secularism and revolution in 1925, precisely when Hindu communalism was consolidating itself in the form of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha. In 1926, the Hindustan Republican Association had transformed itself into the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, by identifying itself with socialist ideals and laying claim to the heritage of the world communist movement.

At Abbottabad in the North West Frontier Province, Mahatma Gandhi addressing a public meeting. Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan is seated on the extreme left. Gandhis compromise with the British on the executions of Bhagat Singh and his associates made him unpopular, and he was greeted with negative slogans and black flags wherever he went.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

At Abbottabad in

At a time when the Congress allowed dual membership to RSS and Hindu Mahasabha members, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association made a trenchant critique of religion and communal mobilisations. Even if they could not succeed in organising workers and peasants, they brought their issues into the consciousness of the youth. They popularised new symbols and slogans in public fora and mass politics. They linked national liberation with revolution in the minds of large sections of youth. Red flags became common and socialism became part of the vocabulary of the national movement. Cries of Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata were substituted by Hindustan Zindabad and Inquilab Zindabad. New traditions were created by them with pamphleteering, study circles and agitational programmes, and celebrations and commemorations of the Russian revolution, the Irish struggle, Kakori Day, May Day and Lenin Day. They translated into popular propaganda the economic analysis of British imperialism by Dadabhai Nauroji and R.C. Dutt. They were in close touch with many members of the Communist Party, and provided public platforms to Congresspersons, both radicals such as Subhas Chandra Bose and others such as Nehru, and Communist Party members such as S.A. Dange and Philip Spratt. In doing all this, they radicalised the national movement.

The Naujawan Bharat Sabha and its offshoots were the first left-wing mass organisations to attain national fame and public visibility, which encouraged young people from middle class and lower middle class backgrounds to work for ideals that transcended their own class interests. They initiated campaigns and networks that created huge space for Left politics at a mass level, particularly in Punjab and United Provinces, and some other parts of north India. Their resolutions, deliberations, emphasis on study and struggle, anti-imperialism, identification of national interests with those of workers and peasants, and their association of sacrifice with social radicalism rather than religion have left behind an ideological legacy and organisational forms that have endured.

Nalini Taneja is Reader in History, School of Open Learning, Delhi University.

From the jail notebook - page 173 Theory of Divine Rights of Kings* [Patriarchal Theory]

In this very age when great many thinkers were thus propounding these principles of Sovereignty of the People, there were other theorists, who tried to prove that kingdom(s) being enlarged families, the patriarchal authority of the head of a household was transferred by primogenitary descent to the representative of the first sovereign who could be proved to have reigned over any nation. Monarchy was therefore presumed to rest on an indefeasible right, and the king was held responsible to God alone! This was known as Divine Rights of Kings! This was known as the Patriarchal Theory!

Thomas Hobbes: In his various works written in 164216501651, he combined the doctrine of the unlimited authority of the sovereign, with the rival doctrine of an original compact of the people. Hobbes defence of absolutism passive obedience was secular and rationalistic rather than theological. He regarded the happiness of the community (as a whole) as the great end of government.

Man an unsociable animal! Perpetual danger forces them to form state!

Hobbes philosophy is cynical. According to him a mans impulses are naturally directed to his own preservation and pleasure and he cannot aim at anything but their gratification. Therefore man is unsociable by nature! He says in the natural state every man is at war with his fellows; and the life of everyone is in danger, solitary, poor, unsafe brutish and short.** It is the fear of this sort of life that impelled them to political union. Since mere pact wouldnt do, hence the establishment of supreme common power the govt.

Conquest or acquisition and institution the only basis of all states

Society is founded by acquisition i.e. by conquest or institution viz. by mutual contract or compact. In the latter case once the sovereign authority is established all must obey. Anybody rebelling must perish. He should be destroyed.

Unlimited Authority of the Sovereign!

He gives the rights of Legislature, Judicature and Executive one and all to the sovereign. To be effective, he writes, the sovereign power must be unlimited, irreclaimable and indivisible. Unlimited power may indeed give rise to mischief, but the worst of these is not so bad as civil war or anarchism***

* In all likelihood, these are not quotations, but Bhagat Singhs own observations.

** While the second part of the quote is from Leviathan, the first is Bhagat Singhs (or someone elses) paraphrasing. The Leviathan itself does not contain these words. Indeed, it is interesting that Hobbes hardly ever uses the terms natural state or state of nature.

*** Page 173 ends here. Page 174 has a line on top, totally illegible, which is presumably a continuation of this line.

Courtesy: Jail Notebook and Other Writings edited by Chaman Lal, LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2007.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor