A radical legacy

Published : November 10, 2020 08:00 IST

A handcuffed Bhagat Singh being interrogated in Lahore after his first arrest, in 1927. The photograph was apparently taken secretly by the police and was discovered in secret police records after 1947. Photo: THE TRIBUNE

Excerpts from an assessment of the contribution of Bhagat Singh and his associates to the national movement, on the occasion of the revolutionary’s birth centenary, by Nalini Taneja, published in the November 2, 2007, issue.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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