Manufactured anger

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Bhagat Singh. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Bipan Chandra. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Members of the Bir Khalsa Dal during a protest outside the Delhi University campus on April 29 against the book's reference to Bhagat Singh. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Former JNU professor Chaman Lal. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

A BJP leader’s attack on an authoritative book on India’s freedom struggle for referring to Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary terrorist is of a piece with the Sangh Parivar’s attempt to malign critics of its version of nationalism.

EVEN before the dust on the nationalism debate settled down, a new controversy has erupted over the portrayal of Bhagat Singh in a history book. The determined effort of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government “to correct historical wrongs” in the education system took a new turn during the Budget session of Parliament. On April 27, Anurag Thakur, a BJP Member of Parliament, while commenting on the role of history in nation building, referred to events that happened in February on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus and launched a full-blown attack on a book authored by the late historian Bipan Chandra and four others. Pointing to a reference to Bhagat Singh as a “revolutionary terrorist” in the book, he claimed that the same professors had depicted the Congress vice president (Rahul Gandhi) as a charismatic leader. The book in question is India’s Struggle for Independence, covering the period from 1857 to 1947, and published in 1988. It had already sold over one lakh copies. While the usage of the term terrorist could be a matter of debate, given the context in which it was written, the accusation that the historian had described certain contemporary political leaders as charismatic was preposterous as the book covered the period ending 1947.

Reliable sources point out that the book, which was translated into Hindi by the Delhi University (D.U.) Hindi Implementation Board in 1990, was immensely popular. The uproar over the terms that were considered offensive spilled over into television channel debates, where historians who sought to explain the context in which the term was used were pilloried endlessly. It was as if the nationalism vs anti-national debate had taken a new form. The colonial and imperial context seemed inconsequential as far as the critics of the book were concerned. The politicisation of Bhagat Singh had begun afresh. When the issue was raised in the Rajya Sabha, Deputy Chairman P.J. Kurien expressed concern over the usage of the term “revolutionary terrorist” and ordered the government to remove the term from the book. (Kurien later clarified that he had not asked for a ban on the book.) Within no time, the university ordered an embargo on the sale and further publication of the book, which in any case was not a part of the syllabus but was only recommended as additional reading material for students of Indian history. The Minister for Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani, said on a TV channel that the use of the word “terrorist” to describe Bhagat Singh was an “academic murder”.

While one section of the family of Bhagat Singh, represented by the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Brigade, demanded that the description be dropped, another section of the family condemned the attack on historians. Jagmohan Singh, one of Bhagat Singh’s nephews, said in a written message that the present debate occurred at “a time of great challenge to free spirit of enquiry, learning and questioning”. He pointed out that it was Bipan Chandra who initiated the Bhagat Singh Research Committee in 1978. It was Bipan Chandra’s introduction to Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist and An Introduction to Dreamland that threw new light on the personality and thoughts of martyrs. He said it also “initiated a whole new understanding of the period of the Indian struggle for independence. It is because of Professor Bipan Chandra that I could collect all possible documents on the history of the Indian Independence movement from the family, co-patriots and other living freedom fighters and thus have the benefit of appreciating this great heritage. I stand in solidarity with the cause and defence of history and the great contribution of Professor Bipan Chandra.” On the controversy over the usage of the term “terrorism”, he said a more thorough understanding was required and that the discussion was “deliberately focussed on single words quoted out of context. And this is what suits pseudo anti-nationalists.”

Historians of all hues echoed the views of Jagmohan Singh. They felt Bipan Chandra, who had popularised Bhagat Singh’s writings and ideas, was being vilified. The criticism by sections of the government was, therefore, ironical. What was equally baffling was the BJP MPs’ demand to withdraw the term and ban the book. One MP even said that Bipan Chandra had been a member of the Communist party. Trinamool Congress members pointed out that Surya Sen, who led the Chittagong armoury raid, was also described as a revolutionary terrorist. The reference was to the chapter in the book titled “Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen and other revolutionary terrorists”. It was another matter that the same chapter described Surya Sen as a “brilliant and inspiring organiser, an unpretentious soft-spoken and transparently sincere person. Possessed of immense personal courage, he was deeply humane in his approach. He was fond of saying: ‘Humanism is a special virtue of a revolutionary.’ He was also very fond of poetry, being a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam.”

The same chapter (page 254) describes Bhagat Singh thus: “Bhagat Singh, born in 1907, and a nephew of the famous revolutionary Ajit Singh, was a giant of an intellectual. A voracious reader, he was one of the most well read political leaders of the time. He had devoured books in the Dwarakadas Library at Lahore on socialism, the Soviet Union and revolutionary movements, especially those of Russia, Ireland and Italy.” The chapter also points out that Bhagat Singh, before his arrest in 1929, had abandoned his belief in terrorism and individual heroic action. “He had turned to Marxism and had come to believe that popular broadbased mass movements alone could lead to a successful revolution; in other words revolution could only be achieved by the masses for the masses. That is why Bhagat Singh helped establish the Punjab Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1926 as the open wing of the revolutionaries.”

Clearly, if Bipan Chandra wanted to denigrate the revolutionary, he would not have used laudatory terms to describe Surya Sen and Bhagat Singh.

In a letter to D.U. Vice Chancellor Yogesh Tyagi, some of the co-authors said Bipan Chandra had stopped using the description in his later writings and that he had even publicly stated that he would not like to use the word “terrorist” any more. Aditya Mukherjee, Professor of History, JNU, and one of the co-authors of the book, sent to the Vice Chancellor a statement issued by Bipan Chandra in 2007 (the centenary year of Bhagat Singh), which was published in a mainstream newspaper. Bipan Chandra was quoted in the newspaper article as saying: “It was a phrase of praise and was used to distinguish Bhagat Singh from the other streams of freedom struggle. But the word terrorism has assumed a different meaning now. I would not like it to be used any longer.” He also said that all the co-authors had “decided and announced publicly that in accordance with the wishes of Bipan Chandra they will make the necessary changes in the book. On behalf of the co-authors, Mridula Mukherjee, K.N. Panikkar, Sucheta Mahajan and myself, I want to convey to you our intention to make the necessary changes in the book, which was published in Hindi in 1990, ... with immediate effect.”

In a letter addressed to Asha Gupta, Director of the Hindi Implementation Board, Aditya Mukherjee referred to his letter to the Vice Chancellor and Bipan Chandra’s 2007 statement and assured her that he would help work out the modalities to make the necessary changes in the book. Despite all these assurances, the controversy refused to die down as it became clear that the issue at hand was not the denigration of Bhagat Singh or the other revolutionaries and patriots of his time but branding the surviving co-authors as anti-national in the context of the debate on nationalism. It was a strange coincidence that the lead author and the co-authors were and are associated with JNU, a university that is facing a litmus test for 21st century India’s patriotism.

Professor D.N. Jha, as head of the History Department in D.U., recommended the translation of the book into Hindi. Jha told Frontline: “The Hindi Implementation Board was set up to supply reading material in Hindi not only for Hindi texts but also for social science textbooks. Not only textbooks, but other books, too, were recommended for translation. When I saw India’s Struggle for Independence, I immediately recommended it even though it was not a part of prescribed readings as I felt it would be of some use. Those who are raising an issue now are illiterate. This is a manufactured controversy. There are more important academic issues. Bhagat Singh used the term political terrorist to describe himself. I don’t see why history should be written according to the descendants of Bhagat Singh. Historians should not be guided by what Bhagat Singh’s descendants think. The Vice Chancellor should have acted with a bit more sense. If D.U. has stopped the sale and reprint of the book, it is foolish.”

In a separate rejoinder to the controversy and the attacks on them, the co-authors said that a “deliberate misrepresentation of Bipan Chandra’s views on Shaheed Bhagat Singh is being done by saying he used the term ‘revolutionary terrorism’ to denigrate the martyr”. They pointed out that using the term for the first time on page 142, Bipan Chandra had clarified that it was “a term we use without any pejorative meaning for want of a different term”. They said Bipan Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I Am an Atheist, which was published in 2006, did not use the word terrorism. Quoting Bipan Chandra, they said: “Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues… this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandrashekhar Azad” ( The Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India, From Marx to Gandhi, Orient Blackswan, 2012, page 465).

Sahmat statement

Defending Bipan Chandra’s historical assessment of Bhagat Singh, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat), in a detailed statement, said it was instructive to repeat what Bhagat Singh had said about “terrorism”, which showed that it was not a term of abuse at that time. In the manifesto of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), to which Bhagat Singh and his comrades belonged, it was written: “We have been taken to task for our terrorist policy. No doubt the revolutionaries think and rightly that it is only by resorting to terrorism that they can find a most effective means of retaliation….” The HSRA, stated that it was because of British repression that “terrorism has been born in this country. It is a phase, a necessary and inevitable phase of the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution and the revolution is not complete without terrorism.” It was eminently clear that the new-found admirers of Bhagat Singh had not read all his writings, including the basic manifesto of the HSRA. In a note written from prison to his associates in 1931, Bhagat Singh said: “Terrorists have done a lot of work and taught the world a lot…. in times of despair, terrorist methods can be useful in our propaganda drive… we are not completely dissociating from terrorist activities. We seek complete appraisal of it from the viewpoint of the workers’ revolution… such kind of work (terrorism) can divert the attention of the masses from combative mass struggle to sharp and flashy work ….hence this ideal should not be carried forward in any circumstance.” Academics cutting across disciplines supported the Sahmat statement. It was evident that Bhagat Singh was debating these ideas in his writings. And as it happened, Bipan Chandra, too, was debating and thinking about all these aspects, as he was deeply impressed with Bhagat Singh and his ideas. The co-authors pointed out that due to his failing health and poor eyesight, Bipan Chandra could not revise the book as planned, but they intended to drop the term in the revised version. To attack a great scholar, especially one who did “so much to bring Bhagat Singh to centre stage appears to be part of a larger design to silence critics”, they said. Bipan Chandra found and published Why I Am an Atheist as a pamphlet at his own expense in 1970, they pointed out. His last public lecture, Aditya Mukherjee said, was the one he delivered at the inauguration of the Bhagat Singh Chair at JNU in April 2011 where he said that had Bhagat Singh lived, he would have been the Lenin of India. Bipan Chandra’s last unfinished book was a biography of Bhagat Singh.

The 600-page India’s Struggle for Independence was part-financed by the Indian Council of Social Science Research in an effort to document the Indian national movement in all its dimensions, including the revolutionary component exemplified by the ideas and approaches of some of the freedom fighters. Apart from using traditional sources of information, the authors had interviewed nearly 1,500 surviving freedom fighters. Chaman Lal, former Professor of History, who compiled and edited Bhagat Singh Ke Sampoorna Dastavez in 2004, said Bipan Chandra had in the first Bhagat Singh Chair memorial lecture in 2011, said the term “revolutionary terrorism” was not a denigration of the revolutionaries at all and that Bhagat Singh himself had used this term. Yet Bipan Chandra felt that “revolutionary nationalism” could have been a more appropriate term.

Penguin Books’ statement

In a statement, Penguin Books India said: “Since first being published in 1988, India’s Struggle for Independence has been a recognised authority and positive appraisal of Bhagat Singh and his associates’ huge contribution to India’s freedom movement. At the time of writing, the author made it clear that the phrase ‘revolutionary terrorist’ was used ‘without any pejorative meaning and for want of a different term’. Language has evolved since the book was first published and we are already working with the co-authors to update and revise the phraseology to reflect both modern usage and the hugely important role Bhagat Singh played in the creation of modern India.” The publisher said it was open to changes but at the same time acknowledged the merit of the text concerned, the context and especially the appraisal of Bhagat Singh and his associates.

The reason for the present controversy may not be difficult to discern. The views and concerns of one section of the family seem to be in concert with the views of sections within the government. Chaman Lal said the issue was raised during the tenure of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA), too, and Bipan Chandra’s Modern India was attacked for “showing Jats in a poor light”. “I think they are targeting universities and, in particular, those that do not conform to their definition of nationalism. The Hindi version is very popular among young graduate students and therein lies the problem,” Chaman Lal told Frontline.

Bipan Chandra, who passed away in 2014, was the author of several books on colonialism, nationalism and communalism. He was also the chairperson of the National Book Trust. His colleagues and students are shocked not so much about the specific nature of the charge but about the BJP leader’s ignorance of Bipan Chandra’s commitment to Bhagat Singh and his views.

If D.U. decides to “pulp” India’s Struggle for Independence or take some drastic measure, it will be dealing a blow to intellectual and academic freedom and research and doing a disservice to the book, which remains one of the best ones to have documented the national movement in detail.

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