On this day, 110 years ago, a boy was born in Lyallpur district of the Punjab Province of British India (which now lies in Pakistan) who, along with a fellow freedom fighter, went on to trigger two non-lethal explosions in the Parliament in 1929 to make the ‘deaf’ Englishmen ‘hear’ the demands of Indian independence and ‘awaken England from her dreams’.
On March 23, 1931, this young man, Bhagat Singh, along with two other revolutionaries—Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar—was hanged to death at the age of 23 after being convicted in the murder of John P Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, in Lahore in 1928. The three bodies were disposed of in a great hurry and in an unprecedented manner.
In the mainstream historiography of India’s freedom struggle, which concentrates a lot on the Gandhi-Nehru-Congress narrative, not much has been written about the revolutionaries and their lives, apart from a few hagiographic tales of violent acts or suffering in Port Blair’s Cellular jail.
And this absence of detailed and well-structured writings has had its effect on the popular discourse about revolutionaries. In the nationalistic rhetoric of politicians across parties, mainstream cinema, various self-proclaimed patriotic websites and posts on social media, Bhagat Singh is often portrayed as a macho gun-toting freedom fighter who believed that violence is more effective a way of achieving independence from British rule than Gandhi’s non-violent means. That Bhagat Singh picked up the gun to kill a British police officer to avenge Lala Lajpat Rai’s death, and he threw bombs at Englishmen are emphasized a lot more than the thoughts and ideas guiding him. Such recurrent shallow descriptions completely overlook how mature a political thinker Bhagat Singh was.
“The significance of Bhagat Singh in the anti-colonial struggle was not because of his choice of violence as a method of resistance, as many including Gandhiji underlined, or his idealistic heroism for which he is rightly and universally admired. His real contribution lay in trying to formulate a revolutionary philosophy and a course of action, taking into account the travails of colonial subjection, on the one hand and the character of internal exploitation, on the other,” writes noted Marxist historian KN Panikkar in the Frontline.
A closer introspection into the life of Bhagat Singh reveals that there exists a narrative that is completely different from what mainstream historiography tells us about the revolutionist and his acts. A study of Bhagat Singh’s jail notebooks, letters written by him, statements he issued in the court, his essay on atheism, Why I am an atheist, reveal that there is a lot more to Bhagat Singh than his acts of murdering someone or throwing a bomb.
Bipan Chandra, the celebrated historian who passed away recently, notes in his book India’s Struggle for Independence, 1857-1947, “Bhagat Singh and his comrades also made a major advance in broadening the scope and definition of revolution. Revolution was no longer associated with mere militancy or violence…it must go beyond and work for a new socialist order, it must ‘end exploitation of man by man’.”
Bhagat Singh was one of the foremost socialist thinkers of the country—someone who argued that the country’s independence from the British rule would be truly effective if and when the issues of class struggle are taken care of. In the short life that he lived, Bhagat Singh transformed himself from an action-oriented teenage revolutionary to a rational, socialist and democratic thinker with an egalitarian view of society.
In fact, in his last message from jail dated March 3, 1931, he said, “…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”
Another striking aspect of Bhagat Singh which sets him wide apart from other revolutionaries is that in retrospection of his acts of violence, he realised the futility of attempts at mere armed struggles without a political ideology propelling the fighters.
In a note written to young political workers of the country, Bhagat Singh wrote, “Let me announce with all the strength at my command, that I am not a terrorist and I never was, expect perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods.”
On revolution itself, Bhagat Singh wrote during his trial, “Revolution did not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. It was not a cult of bomb and pistol. They may sometimes be mere means for its achievement. No doubt they play a prominent part in some movements, but they do not –for that very reason –become one and the same thing. A rebellion is not a revolution. It may ultimately lead to that end.”
Moreover, renowned intellectual and historian Irfan Habib, who wrote the book To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades, writes that Bhagat Singh had written considerably, among other topics, on issues of untouchability and communalism as early as in 1928.
“In speaking of the relationship of past and present we seldom stop to think of how much of our present hangs on what we assume to be the actual past,” writes historian Romila Thapar in her latest book The Past as Present. At a time when a Hindu-right government rules the country, Maoist movements are widespread, and social inequality rules the roost, a detailed study of Bhagat Singh’s egalitarian ideologies, anti-communal stand and his indomitable fight to remove inequality might hold the key for better times.
Bhagat Singh’s letters and notebook writings are available on www.shahidbhagatsingh.org and in the book, The Jail Notebook and Other Writings published by Left Word Books.