Understanding Bhagat Singh

Left Traditions in South Asia

Radha D’Souza

Bhagat Singh is to South Asia what Che Guevara is to Latin America—a popular iconic figure who continues to inspire generations of youth in the subcontinent in their struggles against imperialism and the trajectory of national politics after independence. In India successive generations of social justice movements have taken the name Naujawan Bharat Sabha (Youth Society of India), the organisation founded by Bhagat Singh and his close followers in 1926. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha phase in the lives of many concerned citizens left an indelible mark in the kind of choices people made in later life. During Bhagat Singh's times the British Left were familiar with the figures in the nascent Indian Left movements. Tnree British communists were imprisoned and tried along with Indian communists in the Meerut Conspiracy Case decided in 1933 under the anti-terrorism laws introduced by the colonial government. The trial inspired the Red Megaphone street theatre group in Manchester to stage a play titled Meerut.[1] International interest. in the South Asian Left faded somewhat after World War II.

In India the radical Left tradition never died down. The first action by the Indian state after independence was to send armed forces to the Telangana region in Southern India to put down the revolutionary movement there. The Telangana armed struggle liberated 3,000 villages spread over 16,000 square miles, home to a population of 3 million people, and held the region from 1946 to 1951.[2] It was put down by one of the bloodiest repressions in a context when independence was still under negotiation and the constitution was being written. The trials of 10,000 Telangana insurgents kept the movement alive until the Naxalbari, Srikakulam and other revolts from 1968 onwards infused the revolutionary tradition with renewed energy. Once again India witnessed one of the bloodiest armed state repressions, and India contributed a new phrase, 'encounter killings', to the English vocabulary. In the aftermath of the repression many on the international Left wrote off the radical Left in India. With globalisation and the renewed corporate invasion of India, however, the radical Left resurged again under the banner of Communist Party of India (Maoist). The point to note here is that in India figures like Bhagat Singh are important factors in the resilience of the radical Left. Bhagat Singh does not leave a "legacy" in that he is not a memory from the past. Bhagat Singh lives in the struggles, its songs and stories, in Telangana, Naxalbari, the Central Indian plains and elsewhere in the subcontinent. His life and the lives of his associates provide a frame of reference for contemporary youth to make sense of the nation they inherited after independence.

Bhagat Singh was born on 28 September 1907 in Lyallpur district (renamed Faisalabad) in the part of Punjab that fell to Pakistan after partition of the country in 1947. His father and two uncles were involved in the freedom struggle. The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in 1919 made a deep impression on 12-year-old Bhagat Singh. British troops 'kettled' (in contemporary policing vocabulary) protestors in an enclosed area and opened fire on unarmed people, killing many. He was executed in Lahore, also now in Pakistan, on 23 March 1931 at the age of twenty three. Bhagat Singh's trial is perhaps the only known judicial proceeding conducted under a special ordinance introduced by the British government specifically for the trial of a single case (p 53).[3] In his book Understanding Bhagat Singh*, Chaman Lal refers to Jinnah's speech on the issue (p. 83, ch. 10). New facts surrounding his trial continue to surface to this day. On 5 May 2014 newspapers in India and Pakistan reported that Bhagat Singh was not named in the First Information Report for the murder of John Saunders in 1928.[4]

Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, was murdered in December 1928 in retaliation against the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, a moderate nationalist who was killed in a baton charge during nationwide protests against the visit of members of the Simon Commission. The Simon Commission was an all English-parliamentary commission appointed by the British Parliament to recommend constitutional reforms in India. Until now it was widely believed that Bhagat Singh was responsible for the murder. The recent news throws another question mark over his arrest and execution. He was arrested in connection with a different case which came to be known as the 'Assembly Bombing Case' in 1929. While the Central Legislative Assembly, set up by the British as a controlled experiment to introduce democratic institutions in India, debated the Public Safety Bill (the 'anti-terrorism laws' of that time), and the Trade Disputes Bill on industrial disputes, Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary friends threw fireworks made to create a loud noise but without explosive materials. Their reason was 'it needs an explosion to make the deaf hear' (p. 13). Their symbolic actions were inspired by the French anarchist Auguste Vaillant (p. 13).

The Central Assembly action was organised by the Hindustan Sccialist Republican Association (HSRA). The HSRA was formed after Gandhi called off the popular nationwide upsurge against the visit of the Simon Commission because of an incident in Chauri Chaura where a group of protestors turned violent and burnt a police station. The loss of confidence in Gandhi's leadership in the country led Bhagat Singh and his followers to form the HSRA. Their popularity outstripped Gandhi's. Bhagat Singh did not escape arrest even when he could well have done so. Indeed Lal points out that the organising committee of the HSRA had initially opposed sending Bhagat Singh for the Central Assembly actions because of fears that he may be arrested for the murder of Saunders. Sukhdev, another martyr, taunted Bhagat Singh for backing out of the action and that prompted Bhagat Singh to insist he should be sent on the Central Assembly action (p. 52). From that moment Bhagat Singh knew he would be a martyr and he embraced it. Contrast the extraordinary efforts that the Bolshevik Party took to provide security for Lenin because they recognised the importance of his leadership for the success of their political goals. Martyrdom brings near divine status in Eastern societies even to atheists.

Understanding Bhagat Singh is a collection of essays written by Chaman Lal since he launched a national campaign to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh which fell in 2006. The essays were written over a period of 5-6 years prior. Lal has published extensively on the life of Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries in Hindi, Punjabi and English. In 2007, the birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India's premier federal universities established the Bhagat Singh Chair to study revolutionary movements in India since 1757. 1757 was the year when, after the Battle of Plassey, the British East India Company first began to govern parts of India. Lal's persistent campaign no doubt contributed to the establishment of the Chair. It took 75 years for Bhagat Singh to gain official recognition and ironically it has come in the wake of renewed corporate invasions after the WTO trade regimes and new military alliances in the wake of the so-called 'global war on terror'. During the interim, the memory of Bhagat Singh's martyrdom in 1931 lived on largely through oral histories, in political movements and writings by intellectuals, most of them outside the English academia. There are over 400 books published on Bhagat Singh in India, Lal notes (p. ix), including ballads and epics (ch. 16), most of them in Indian languages, but very few attempt to understand or analyse his thought. The task has not been an easy one for those who have attempted it.

Facts about Bhagat Singh's life, political thought, British conduct of the trial and the nationalist leadership's ambivalence towards him have dribbled through in dribs and drabs over eighty-three years as the recent news report indicates. The opening of the archives, the discovery of new documents from the older generation of freedom fighters, the Supreme Court's exhibition of documents exhibited during the trials of revolutionaries, the centenaries and jubilees of various martyrs and other similar circumstances have contributed to a revivalism that seeks to take a fresh look at the revolutionary strand in India's struggle for independence. Lal reproduces some of these materials as Annexure to the book. The British government proscribed Bhagat Singh's writings (p. x). After independence the liberal intelligentsia in India and Britain privileged the elitist strand in the nationalist historiography led by Gandhi and Nehru and marginalised the contributions of the revolutionary strands.5 The collaboration between Indian and Western liberal intelligentsia continues to play out in particular ways under globalisation and to privilege certain political trends over others in India. The book is therefore a timely contribution.

What were the liberals marginalising and privileging, though? In the received narratives of independence Bhagat Singh and his co-workers are portrayed as idealists and Utopian youth. Typically the argument goes : the hearts of Bhagat Singh and his party activities were in the right place but their thinking was misguided, if they thought at all, which is excusable given their age. What the articles in the book bring out clearly is that far from being 'misguided youth', a phrase widely used to discredit successive generations of political opposition to the state in India, Bhagat Singh and his associates were intellectually astute and capable of providing a different type of leadership to nationalist movement in India after the Ghadar movement was brutally suppressed by the colonial administration.[6] Indeed Bhagat Singh and his HRSA activists were products of the Ghadar movement. The Ghadar movement originated among the migrant Indian workers and expatriate communities in North America and mounted a formidable challenge to the colonial state. Lal argues that Bhagat Singh's essay 'Why I Am an Atheist' written in Lahore jail in 1930 and published after his execution in 1931 and other jail writings demonstrate that far from being 'misguided youth' he was a mature intellectual with a good grasp of the revolutionary movements in Russia and elsewhere at the time. Lal has edited The Jail Notebooks and Other Writings (New Delhi Leftword, 2007), a collection of Bhagat Singh's writings. 'A rebellion is not a revolution. It may ultimately lead to that end' writes Bhagat Singh and further that a revolution is the 'spirit of longing for change for the better' (quoted at p. 16).

Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries provide the bridges to understanding the anti-imperialist struggles in post-Independence India in the same way as the First War of Independence in 1857 (known as the Indian Sepoy Mutiny in Britain and in Marx's writings),[7] provided the bridges to understanding the Ghadar movement in the early twentieth century. These crucial historical moments establish continuities in the anti-imperialist movements from 1857 to the present. Breaking crucial historical links dehistorisizes the present and mythologizes the past. In the process of ploughing through the voluminous publications on Bhagat Singh in India, Lal observes: 'I found... that Bhagat Singh is more misunderstood', and further 'my focus [for the book] is more on documentation to clear the air about many myths or half-truths' (p. x). One of the many half-truths concerns the role of Gandhi at a critical juncture in the struggle for independence. That Gandhi did not intercede with the Lord Irwin to commute Bhagat Singh's execution is well known. His friendship and admiration for Lord Irwin is also well known. Gandhi's motivations for his silence over the executions were always opaque. The book (ch. 11) reveals the extent of Gandhi's complicity in the execution of Bhagat Singh stooping, according to Lal, even to outright lies. The book is full of interesting episodes. For example Lal corrects the record by pointing out the hunger strikes/fasts by political prisoners is not Gandhi's non-violent political innovation, another myth about Gandhi, but rather the real progenitors of fast/hunger strike as a political weapon are Irish revolutionaries (p. 71). During 1916-1920 the conscience of the world was shaken by the fasts of Irish revolutionaries in prison. Their actions inspired Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries, one of whom, Jatin Das, died in prison. There are references to interesting details. For example the sister of the Irish martyr Terence MacSwiney sent Bhagat Singh and other political prisoners a solidarity message in support of their hunger strike in prison. These details give the reader the feeling of rediscovering Bhagat Singh.

Bhagat Singh's most significant contribution to the struggle for independence was to replace the earlier slogan of the nationalist movement which was 'Salutations to the Mother ' (i.e. India) with the slogan 'Death to Imperialism! Long Live the Revolution!' Both these slogans continue to echo at protests and demonstrations throughout the country to this day.

As a collection of articles published in newspapers and magazines over 5-6 years, each article addresses a target readership in a particular context. The book does not work well as an edited collection. Facts are repeated in a number of different places and the book lacks a narrative structure. The author could have reworked the rich materials in the book giving it a thematic structure, clarified the aims, and provided a concluding chapter on how, according to him, the reader should understand Bhagat Singh. These shortcomings notwithstanding, the collection of articles is useful in the present context. With the state aligned to the 'war on terror', fundamentalisms and dispossessions and a wide range of resistances to the state in the subcontinent, understanding the past holds the key to understanding the present. India stands at historical crossroads. Home to one sixth of humanity, the way India turns at the crossroads will undoubtedly have a wider impact beyond India. These are good reasons for international and national readers to know Bhagat Singh and through his life better understand a formative period in modern India.

Notes :
1.    See, Working Class Movement Library at (accessed on 28 May 2014).
2.   Putchalapalli Sundarayayya, Telangana People's Struggles and Its Lessons (New Delhi: Foundation Book Pvt Ltd, 2006 [1972]).
3.   The practice of setting up special tribunals to try specific individuals (as opposed to a general law applicable to all) in particular countries was revived in 1991 when the UN Security Council Resolution set up the International Court on Yugoslavia. The special ordinance to try Bhagat Singh, critical legal scholars will be interested to know, is another example of the incorporation of legal practices within the Empire into international law.
4.   'Bhagat Singh Not Named in FIR for Saunders' Murder, Hindu, 4 May 2014.
5.   Radha D'Souza, R (2014), 'Revolt and Reform in South Asia: From Ghadar Movement to '9/11' and After,' Economic and Political Weekly (49.7, 15 February 2014), pp. 59-73.
6.   D'Souza (2014)
7.   Karl Marx, 'Indian News', New York Daily Tribune (14 August 1857)

*Understanding Bhagat Singh

by Chaman Lal,
Aakar, 2013, Delhi, pp. 245

Vol. 47, No. 19, Nov 16 - 22, 2014