Transcending myths about the 'real' Bhagat Singh

Bhagat Singh lived many lives. One was his actual lived life, which was cut short by the British government in 1931 when he was only 23. The remaining lives of Bhagat Singh were constructed by others, interested in reaping a rich political harvest. He became a convenient icon for various political parties.

In the 1960s, Bhagat Singh’s portrait adorned the walls of the offices of the Bhartiya Jana Sangh and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He was actually one of the 2 non-Hindus (the other being Guru Gobind Singh) who was recognised by the party as a great Indian patriot. The thick layers of mist around Bhagat Singh precluded a clear understanding and thus made it easy for any political party to appropriate him.

In the 1970s, however, it began to change. Many new facets of Bhagat Singh’s politics and ideology came to light. An important discovery was made that in addition to being a nationalist par excellence, Bhagat Singh was also a secular socialist revolutionary.

The historian who brought these aspects to public notice was none other than Bipan Chandra. He got hold of a rare article written by Bhagat Singh in 1931 when he was in jail. The article was titled “Why I am an Atheist” and brought in clear focus Bhagat Singh’s views on religion, revolution and social transformation. The article was published as a pamphlet by People Publishing House and Bipan Chandra wrote the introduction. The pamphlet was priced at Re 1 (now Rs 5) and thousands of copies were sold to young students, researchers, journalists and general public interested in Bhagat Singh. They now began to see him in a new light.

The new Bhagat Singh was a radical thinker, committed to secularism and one who had an extremely complex and sophisticated understanding of religion. It was no longer possible to portray him as a “Hindu icon” and adorn the walls of the offices of the right wing political parties with his pictures.

In his introduction to the pamphlet, Bipan Chandra wrote: “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. Unfortunately, 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 Chandra Shekhar Azad.” He also added: “It is one of the greatest tragedies of our people that this giant of a brain was brought to a stop so early by the colonial authorities.”

Bipan Chandra continued his research on Bhagat Singh and further developed his ideas along these lines. He highlighted Bhagat Singh’s contribution and intellectual development in his textbook Modern India, written for students of class XII and published by the National Council of Educational Research And Training (NCERT). He wrote further on Bhagat Singh and the strength of his secular socialist ideology in the book India’s Struggle for Freedom, currently under attack for calling him a terrorist.

Understanding terrorism

However, Bipan Chandra did use the word “revolutionary terrorist” for the politics of Bhagat Singh. We need to understand this usage by placing it in its context. The end of the famous Swadeshi movement in 1908 created a wave of demoralisation among the people. This demoralisation added a new political dimension to the anti-British struggle.

The new politics was based on the use of underground violence to target unpopular British officials. In the 1920s, this politics spread to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh also. It acquired a name “revolutionary terrorism.” Quite obviously, the “terrorism” practised by the revolutionaries was very different from the terrorism of the 1980s and since, in which innocent people have been killed indiscriminately.

Bipan Chandra used the word “revolutionary terrorism” for the revolutionaries of 1920s, but made it clear that the “revolutionary terrorists” of the 1920s were very different from the terrorists of our times. He realised that the word “terrorist” had now acquired a different meaning.

Bipan Chandra said in an interview in 2007 that he would not like the word terrorist to identify the politics and ideology of Bhagat Singh. Towards the last years of his life, he was busy writing the biography of Bhagat Singh. Had the book come out, this anomaly would have been certainly removed, but unfortunately that was not to be.

Therefore, given the fact that terrorism today stands for a very different politics, we should not use this word to designate the politics of Bhagat Singh. This would be wholly inconsistent with the manner in which Bipan Chandra described the politics of Bhagat Singh. We should definitely find better and more appropriate terms both in English and Hindi. That would be fair to both Bhagat Singh and Bipan Chandra.

All this, however, should not obscure some very important points regarding this debate and the unfair manner in which Bipan Chandra has been targeted. Bhagat Singh was a nationalist, secular and revolutionary. He was one of the finest minds of his times. Bipan Chandra played an extremely important role in highlighting these facets of Bhagat Singh’s life. In so doing, he earned the wrath of the right wing, communal politicians, who lost all justification for claiming Bhagat Singh as one of their own.

Right wingers the world over, tend to be conservative and status quoist, mortally afraid of a radical change. Bhagat Singh stood for a radical social transformation and, therefore, cannot belong to them. Bipan Chandra’s real ‘sin’ was to have snatched away Bhagat Singh from the clutches of the right wing communalists.

(The writer teaches history at Ambedkar University Delhi)

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