Legacy of the Left

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Three books on Bhagat Singh mark an effort to recover his legacy, which is distinctly associated with the revolutionary Left.

IT might be difficult to find parallels in the way the legacy of two individuals Bhagat Singh and Che Guevara has been (mis)appropriated. Whereas the image of Ches face has been literally hijacked by United States capitalism and is a billion-dollar industry, Bhagat Singh has been a favourite for a variety of individuals ranging from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to K.S. Sudarshan. This is indeed an irony of history.

Whereas Che was a frontline fighter against U.S. imperialism, Bhagat Singhs views were diametrically opposite to those advocated by Bhindranwale and Sudarshan. Interestingly, right-wing thinking is particularly amnesic about Bhagat Singh, as is abundantly clear in the recently published autobiography of L.K. Advani, My Country, My Life, where the author articulates that Bhagat Singh was hanged for lobbing a bomb into the Central Legislature.

It is perhaps in this context that one needs to know about the life and times of Bhagat Singh, who was born in 1907 and hanged (along with his comrades Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar) when he was just 23 years old for his involvement with the Second Lahore Conspiracy Case. When it comes to nationalist historiography, Bhagat Singh is most certainly upheld as an icon with a virtual erasure of his vision and ideology.

After all, he was not only a front-line fighter against British colonialism but was equally serious about destroying the inequalities within India in order to build a secular, socialist and egalitarian society. The three books under review mark serious efforts to recover a legacy distinctly associated with the revolutionary Left. What is more, they were published in 2007, which marked the birth centenary of Bhagat Singh, and will be welcomed by all those interested in Indias freedom movement beyond the received wisdom that has the imprint of nationalist historiography.

Both S. Irfan Habib and P.M.S. Grewal project the background that conditioned Bhagat Singhs ideology and political career. They refer to the colonial enslavement of India and the development of anti-colonial sentiments that were triggered by the anti-imperialist struggles at the beginning of the 20th century. Inspired by the vision of freedom and the end of the economic exploitation of the country, common people propelled Congress leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak into action and to advocate mass struggle.

In this context, the Swadeshi Movement led to a serious questioning of colonialism. The pressures of the First World War on the colonial economy, the opposition to the Rowlatt Act and the bloody excesses in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre stirred a people fettered by colonialism. Alongside, the October Revolution of 1917, besides providing the possibilities of an alternative world, infused vigour and considerably polarised anti-colonial movements across the world.

Bhagat Singh, a file photograph. The prison years were very crucial and saw shifts in his position on Marxism.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

It is out of the interactions of these diverse processes that one sees the emergence of the Ghadar Movement (1913), Gandhi, the Communist Party of India (founded in Tashkent in 1920) and a number of other communist groups in different parts of India. It was Kartar Singh Sarabha a martyr of the Ghadar Movement who was an inspirational figure for Bhagat Singh. Grewal develops his argument succinctly by discussing the logic of Gandhian politics of retreats and compromises associated with the sudden withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement on February 12, 1922.

This created a lot of disillusionment and frustration that forced Bhagat Singh and a generation of young people to grope for alternatives. It also saw a revival of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha in 1923 and the establishment of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in 1925.

This implied the rise of divisive politics, with 112 major communal riots taking place between 1922 and 1927. It was in this context that the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) was formed in 1923, which Bhagat Singh joined in 1924. On the basis of meticulous research S. Irfan Habib delineates aspects of the HRAs ideology.

Its manifesto, The Revolutionary (1925), spelt out its ideological position. It did not refer to socialism though it talked about class struggle, focussed on the need to end exploitation and nationalise major public works and industries, and preferred cooperative unions. The young revolutionaries were clear about secularism. The name HRA was changed to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) after Bhagat Singh joined the revolutionary group.

In fact, as Habib informs us, this followed detailed discussions in 1926 among revolutionaries from Punjab and United Provinces at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi. Bhagat Singh and his associates formed the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) in Lahore the same year as a front of the otherwise secret group of revolutionaries.

Its recruits pledged to put the nation above their religion and were firm in their opposition to Hindu and Muslim communal organisations. In fact, the NBS criticised Lajpat Rai for joining hands with the Hindu Mahasabha. Lajpat Rai hit back by branding Bhagat Singh a Russian agent. Slogans of the NBS such as Inquilab Zindabad! and Hindustan Zindabad! echoed the basic essence of its ideology.

Grewal evaluates Bhagat Singhs ideology its shifts and transformation from anarchism to Marxism. This process, that saw the transition from upholding individual action to mass revolutionary action, was complete when he was in prison. Perhaps even Bhagat Singh did not realise that ideologically he had moved very close to the communists. More significant is Grewals effort to assess Bhagat Singh critically from within the paradigms of a Marxist position, without belittling his contribution in any way.

Thus, Grewal boldly suggests that Bhagat Singh lacked a clear understanding of the agrarian question, especially the need to fight feudal and semi-feudal forces represented by landlordism, which stood along with British colonialism to exploit agricultural labourers and peasants.

However, Grewal acknowledges that Bhagat Singhs last writing, To Young Political Workers, demonstrates signs of accepting landlordism as well as the revolutionary role of the peasantry in overthrowing it. Alongside, Habib touches upon the efforts to connect the NBS with the Kirti Kisan Party.

Nevertheless, this deficient position impacted Bhagat Singhs ideas relating to the struggle against caste oppression. As Grewal puts it, although Bhagat Singh called for a determined fight against caste, he did not develop the interconnectedness of the broader struggle for social liberation to include workers and peasants. Besides, he did not recognise the exploitation of women and the need for their emancipation as a part of the struggle for liberation. One should, of course, keep in mind that Bhagat Singh was hanged when he was just 23.

On the murder of J.P. Saunders, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Lahore, Habib mentions that leaflets explaining the logic of the revolutionaries in avenging Lala Lajpat Rais death were circulated the next day. Although everyone knew that this was an act of the HSRA, the revolutionaries managed to escape. Habib also refers to the way Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw bombs in the Central Legislature.

These were not intended to injure anyone but to produce a loud noise so as to make the deaf hear; this forms the title of Habibs book. The revolutionaries also threw bundles of red leaflets and raised slogans such as Long Live Revolution, Down with Imperialism and Workers of the World Unite that reflected their vision of politics. In fact, they could have easily escaped under the cover of smoke but they preferred not to.

Habib describes the way Bhagat Singh and his comrades converted their trial into a publicity front for their politics. The prison years (from April 1929 until March 23, 1931, when Bhagat Singh was hanged) proved to be crucial.

It saw shifts in his position on Marxism. It was this phase that saw him write several tracts and evaluate the political method and ideological position of the HSRA in a critical manner. Besides, it also marked serious shifts in his political and ideological position.

Bhagat Singhs writings in prison form the focus of the third book, compiled by Chaman Lal, who has also written an introduction that contextualises the tracts that are included. The collection includes Bhagat Singhs writings that range from the Jail Notebook and Statement before the Sessions Court and letters written to his friends and comrades to well-known pieces such as No hanging, please shoot us and Why I am an atheist.

The appendix is significant since it reproduces a powerful tract by E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, which appeared as an editorial in the journal Kudi Arasu on the day of the hanging.

The popularity of Bhagat Singh and his comrades was visible in the way common people across the country responded to news of their martyrdom. This prompted a leading Congressman, P. Sitaramayya, to write that at the moment [Bhagat Singh]was as popular as Gandhi, a fitting tribute to one of Indias leading anti-imperialist revolutionaries.

Paying tribute to Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh on the occasion of his birth centenary in September 2007.-PTI

Excellently produced, these three books will go a long way in providing the reader an opportunity to gain valuable insights about a personality who gave his life for Indias freedom and for a dream that is yet to lose its meaning.

After all, in many ways, Bhagat Singhs vision of a free India that is secular and based on socialism and equality is perhaps even more relevant today than at the time when he was hanged.

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