Point Of View

Was Bhagat Singh a Marxist?

[Excerpted from Introduction of Amar Kant’s forthcoming book Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh. The book deals with India’s three most popular icons namely Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and Pt Jawaharlal Nehru and analyses how the revolutionary wave was skillfully blunted by Mahatma Gandhi and Pt Nehru, especially after execution of Bhagat Singh and his close associates. Injustice was done to Bhagat Singh by those who refused to consider him a Marxist. It was a tragedy that many communists considered Pt Nehru and not Bhagat Singh a Marxist.]

—  "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist" —Anonymous.
—  "Speech is really free only when it hurts" —Anonymous.
—  "The World owes much to rebels who would dare to argue in the face of Pontiff and insist that he is not infallible" —Dr Baba Saheb B R Ambedkar.
— "There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech."—Chief Justice of Madras High Court, Mr Sanjay Kishan Kaul.

Innumerable books have been written on each of these three icons—Bhagat Singh, Gandhi and Nehru— appraising their roles in the country's freedom struggle but the critical part of the same had been generally in moderation. Often it was left at—'though he had his faults' and nothing more was said in these narratives. Any piercingly critical analysis was generally frowned upon and was considered to be akin to showing disrespect to the great personalities. "We give too much importance to hero worship. If a person is considered great, no negative views are tolerated. The same thing happened with my criticism of Rabinderanath Tagore", said Mr Girish Karnad, an eminent actor-director-playwright, in an idea exchange session with 'Loksatta' in Pune, published in 'Sunday Express' of September 8, 2013. The situation in the Western countries was different where one could see their leading personalities in the various fields of life critically appraised vigorously and rigorously.

Revolutionaries did not shun criticism. They rather welcomed it. It helped them in explaining their position, programme and ideology. They neither indulged in rhetorics nor were they hypocritical. They practiced what they said.

"Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary. Because Mahatmaji is great, therefore, none should criticise him. Because he has risen above, therefore, everything he says may be—in the field of Politics or Religion, Economics or Ethics—is right. Whether you are convinced or not, you must say, ‘yes, that's true’. This mentality does not lead towards progress. It is rather too much reactionary". [Bhagat Singh—'Why I AM AN ATHEIST']

Mahatma Gandhi, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandera Bose, Rabinderanath Tagore, Dr Baba Saheb B R Ambedkar and other icons were not divine and above criticism. They did not consider themselves to be so and would have never liked themselves to be contemplated as such. Criticism of an icon or a popular leader showed his relevance and popularity, and more the criticism was, the more relevant, respectable and popular he was in the political life of the country as well as in her history. The tendency to turn the icons into mythical figures, as if they were above human fallibility, was a mistake and injustice to them as well as to the people.

Bhagat Singh was an Atheist. He did not believe in the existence of God. But if there was an Almighty God, he criticised him vehemently for overlooking millions and millions of starving human beings in slums and huts and for watching the blood of the exploited labourers sucked by the capitalist vampires and for sitting quietly and peacefully in his heavenly thinking as if "all was well".

Bhagat Singh asked the omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God, "Why does he not infuse altruistic enthusiasm in the hearts of all capitalists to forego their rights of personal possessions of means of production and thus redeem the whole labouring community—nay the whole human society from the bondage of Capitalism".

Mahatma Gandhi and Pt Jawaharlal Nehru were geniuses and so was Bhagat Singh. Many of their colleagues were talented. While the geniusness of the first two icons had been superabun-dantly glorified, there was an element of restraint and frugality in Bhagat Singh's case, for his geniusness had not been recognised commensurately. He was praised to the sky for his bravery and for smilingly embracing the guillotine. His writings delineating his ideology which were as relevant, rather more relevant, today as those were 85 years ago, were often ignored and distorted. In his pamphlet, 'To Young Political Workers', written on February 2, 1931, just a few weeks before his hanging, he had outlined some very definite and indubitable guidelines about how to prepare for the socialist revolution. Marxism was not a dogma for him, as repeatedly stressed by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and V I Lenin, though many of the Marxists in India as well as elsewhere had been often quoting it like a dogma, thereby, committing blunders leading to irreparable damages to the cause of revolution and Marxism.

There has been a controversy over calling Bhagat Singh 'a terrorist' or 'a revolutionary terrorist'. The term 'terrorist' is a derogatory, rather a defamatory terminology. It obliterated his ideology. Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary colleagues time and again had denied being called terrorists or anarchists, for their opponents used to conveniently denounce them under these names even during their life-times. The proper term that could be used to describe them is 'revolutionary freedom fighters'.

There are 15 chapters, beside, introduction, acknowledgements by the author, a preface by Dr Neeraj K Gupta and another by Dr Shalley K Gupta and appendices of relevant documents not given in the main narrative. Each of the three icons namely, Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and Pt Jawaharlal Nehru has been assessed, from the perspective of the revolutionaries by citing what the concerned icon had said, written and practiced or not practiced.

In a lengthy chapter entitled 'The Indian National Congress, Gandhiji and Revolutionaries' Mahatma Gandhi's views on some of the national issues have been elucidated. He had supported Zamindari System, (Landlordism] and Capitalism, was opposed to workers' strikes, supported the Caste System, though opposed untouchability, urged the women to act like Sita and Daraupadi and had even few words of praise for Hitler. In another chapter entitled 'Was Gandhiji Duty-Bound To Save Bhagat Singh'?, it has been clarified that requiring Mahatmaji to save Bhagat Singh and his two colleagues from the gallows was not justified. Both Gandhiji and Bhagat Singh held opposite political views which were poles apart from each other.

Citing what Bhagat Singh had repeatedly stated showing his firm faith not only in Class Struggle but also in the Dictatorship of the Proletariat as per touchstone given by V I Lenin in his 'The State and Revolution', Bhagat Singh is brought out to be a true Marxist in the chapter captioned 'Was Bhagat Singh A True Marxist?' There is a separate chapter spelling out outstanding features of Bhagat Singh's ideology titled 'Salient Features of Bhagat Singh's Ideology' in a nutshell. There is in Appendix Sir Denzil Ibbetson's Report written in 1907, on political situation in Punjab in the first quarter of the 20th century exposing how terror-stricken the British rulers were due to the revolutionary activities of the people of Punjab who were called 'agitators' [Read revolutionaries]. Bhagat Singh's writings captioned 'Religion and National Politics'; 'Students and Polities'; 'Communal Problem and Solution'; 'The Problem of Untouchability' besides four write-ups on 'Anarchism' and 'Russian Nihilists' have been added. These were written for 'Kirti', a Punjabi magazine, edited by Sohan Singh Josh and have been translated in English by Professsor K C Yadav. These are highly-educative and amazingly were written while Bhagat Singh was just 21 years old. Other chapters are equally relevant to understand and evaluate the three icons.

The book includes the statement of the well-known French revolutionary and anarchist, Auguste Vaillant before the Court. Vaillant was asked by the Court, "Why did he throw the bomb in the French National Assembly and why did he not adopt some other method of protest?" To this, Vaillant replied, "I held meetings, held demonstrations of workers, gave speeches, but it had no effect on the Government". He said, "Political-financial scandals were arousing popular anger and that it was necessary to thrust the sword into the heart of public powers, since they could not be conquered peaceably." Explaining further his act, he said, "I carried this bomb to those who are primarily responsible for the social misery." "Gentlemen, in a few minutes you are to deal your blow, but in receiving your verdict I shall have at least the satisfaction of having wounded the existing society, that cursed society, in which one may see a single man spending uselessly, enough to feed thousands of families; an infamous society which permits a few individuals to monopolise all the social wealth, while there are hundreds of thousands of unfortunates who have not even the bread that is not refused to the dogs, and while entire families are committing suicide for want of the necessities of life....." ".....I conclude, gentlemen, by saying that a society in which one sees such social inequalities as we see all about us, in which we see everyday suicides caused by poverty, prostitution flaring at every street corner a society whose principal monuments are barracks and prisons—such a society must be transformed as soon as possible, on pain of being eliminated, and that speedily, from the human race."

"Hail to him who labors, by no matter what means for this transformation! It is this idea that has guided me in my duel with authority, but in this duel, I have only wounded my adversary, it is now his turn to strike me", shouting "Death to the bourgeoisie", "Long Live Revolution", "Long Live Anarchism".

There is also the speech of Alexis de Tocqueville given in the French National Assembly, on the eve of the revolution of 1848.

These speeches are practically a part of Bhagat Singh Literature. Such speeches had reverberated in India during the British imperialist rule. These continued to reverberate throughout the length and breadth of the country during the Prime Ministership of Pt Jawaharlal Nehru as well as in the reigns of his successors. In fact these speeches are reverberating throughout the Capitalist World in the 21st century as the same did in imperialist France of 19th and 20th centuries.

Reviewing Bhagat Singh, at the outset, it may be stated that not only his countrymen at large including political outfits of various hues, even his revolutionary colleagues had not been able to fully appreciate the theoretical and political value and relevance of his writings. Bhagat Singh's writings, many a time were distorted, suppressed or cited suiting the writer's own views.

Bhagat Singh had explained, 'what is revolution'? In more than a dozen unique ways but most often in books and articles, written about him, the following one was quoted: "revolution does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol...."

The above was true but this did not fully explain his idea of revolution as it got his revolutionary approach disregarded. His and his Party's firm declaration and stand on the liberation of the country by means of organised armed rebellion, their conviction in classless society, free from exploitation of man by man and resolve to reorganise the society on Scientific Socialist lines and the establishment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, their firm denial of being terrorists and many other components of Bhagat Singh's theoretical writings were generally glossed over.

Bhagat Singh had not been considered a Marxist. One of his colleagues went so far as to declare: "it would be an exaggeration to call him a Marxist." What had been conceded at the most was that "he was very close to a Marxist understanding of society and the change".

Another leader of a mainstream parliamentary party had written a 'Foreword', to one of the books on Bhagat Singh's writings, stating: "Communist literature was rare in those days. [Bhagat Singh's times] Apart from a few copies of selected writings of Marx, all that was available were publications giving an obscure and vague idea of the concept". He goes on to state further that, "given this background, one should not expect that Bhagat Singh and his colleagues had matured enough or displayed that amount of awareness of the theory and science of Marxism and Leninism as communists today equipped with an over-abundance of material." This had been stated although Bhagat Singh's 'Jail Note Book' captioned 'Miscellaneous Notes by Bhagat Singh Taken In Jail' was a part of the book for which the 'Foreword' had been written. These 'Notes' had been taken by Bhagat Singh from the books of more than 110 world-renowned philosophers, poets and other authors.

These included Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V I Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kautsky, Bernstein, Maxim Gorky, Upton Sinclair, Rousseau, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Carlyle, Danton, Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, Dostovesky, Charles Dickens, Tennyson, Words-worth, to name a few. Beside these 110 authors noted in the 'Jail Note Book', there were some others such as Bakunin, the greatest amongst the anarchists, Proudhon, Peter Kroptkin, Karlo Kafiars, Mala Tamta, Stepniak, Bhagat Singh had read. He had written four articles on 'Anarchism' and 'Russian Nihilists'. These are cited by some of his critics as proof of Bhagat Singh's leaning towards Anarchism, instead of appreciating the sweep of his study and reach of his knowledge. It might be a surprise to his detractors that he had read Marx's 'Capital' before the formation of his Party [HSRA] in 1928. And the number of books estimated to have been read by him would go upto 300 or more if the books, he had gone through during his National College and Dwarka Das Library days, were counted.

Jitendranath Sanyal, one of his revolutionary colleagues in his book, 'Bhagat Singh, A Biography', wrote: "it was marvelous how he procured contraband and rare literature inside the jail. He studied and finished a detailed history of the revolutionary movement in India. For this purpose, he had learnt Bengali Language to the fullest extent.... He was also able to send out draft for some of the revolutionary pamphlets, notably 'the Philosophy of the Bomb'. Only short time before his execution, he drafted and sent out a statement 'To Young Political Workers' which is regarded as his will and testament to the nation".

Another example of Bhagat Singh's resourcefulness could be seen in procuring the then Premier of Great Britain, Mr Ramsay MacDonald's book on 'The Government of India' and on the basis of which he sent a notice for the then Legislative Assembly. It was reported in 'The Tribune' of January 7, 1931 on its first page. It is being reproduced here: "LAST CHAPTER IN HISTORY OF BUREAUCRATS IS REPRESSION".

Mr Bhagat Singh has given notice of the following question for the forthcoming session of the Legislative Assembly.

'Will the Government be pleased to state whether they have taken note of the following passage occurring in the chapter on "Press" in the present Premier, Mr Ramsay MacDonald Book on 'The Government of India?'

"The Indian Press, though its foundation may be to act as a part of the constitutional opposition to the Government, cannot do its work in the full way that 'PAPERS' in this country [England] do, until there is really a free Press in India, but the Press Act will never finally disappear there, though both their contents and their administration may vary in stringency whilst the Government is a bureaucracy. To demand the complete abolition of the Press Act is equivalent to demanding that the Government itself should be put on a more liberal foundation. The problem of the Indian Press is at the root that of inherent conflict between bureaucracy and public opinion. The last chapter in the history of bureaucracies is repression. They pass away like an old monarch, driven from his throne, hurling accusations of sedition against his approaching successor".

Beside the available documents, Bhagat Singh had also drafted four more manuscripts : These were (1) The Ideal of Socialism (2) Autobiography (3) History of Revolutionary Movement in India (4) At The Door of Death. These precious documents got lost due to the mistake of a colleague.

Bhagat Singh had boundless and titanic intellectual and physical faculties which had not been duly acknowledged. His available documents have been taken in casually. It is, therefore, no wonder that not only his political adversaries, even eminent historians called him a terrorist or revolutionary terrorist in their history books.

'The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association' was a Party that strictly observed its rules and regulations and its members fully abided by its discipline. Bhagat Singh was the General Secretary and Bhagwati Charan Vohra, the Propaganda Secretary while Chandra Shekhar Azad was the Party's overall incharge as well as the Commander-in-Chief of its armed wing called 'The Hindustan Socialist Republication Army'. They could not openly see and consult each other but were surreptiously maintaining some contacts. Bhagat Singh would be planning and drafting all the documents of the Party including the Manifestoes of 'The Naujawan Bharat Sabha' and 'The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association', 'The Philosophy Of The Bomb' and various letters, notices and other documents. This had been corroborated by Jitendra Nath Sanyal on page 108 of his book captioned 'Bhagat Singh—A Biography' recently reprinted by 'Hope India Publications'. These were clandenstinely smuggled out to Bhagwati Charan Vohra for getting the same typed, printed and published and issued. Many of these writings were brought out in the name of 'Bal Raj' or 'Kartar Singh'—fictitious names. It was being done secretly and some jail official sympathetic to Bhagat Singh would be helping him. Obviously, these could not be circulated to other co-accused colleagues including Ajay Ghosh and Shiv Varma as they were lodged in Borstal Jail, Lahore and Bhagat Singh was in the Central Jail. They, therefore, could not be well-conversant with what Bhagat Singh read, thought and wrote including the extent of his knowledge of the Marxist Philosophy. They, it seemed, simply saw him with his pockets full of books and reading them whenever and wherever he would find time. They did meet during their trials in the Courts and sometimes were allowed to meet in the jail on the pretext of holding consultations on the legal issues pertaining to their Case. But that was not enough to exchange views on serious political and theoretical issues.

Many of Bhagat Singh's colleagues, after their release from the prisons on the completion of their jail terms, had joined the Communist Party instead of reviving their own Party [The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association] and their political views and assessment of Bhagat Singh's political thoughts reflected the ideology of their new Party. Bhagat Singh was not dogmatic as he did not treat Marxism as a dogma and he had never expressed his agreement with the Communist Party. His knowledge, grasp and understanding of Marxism and the analysis, of the country's socio-political situation was consistent and accurate and what he foreboded came true. He is sometimes criticised stating, "he differed from Communism on the concept of proletarian leadership in evolution and that according to him, the middle class youth alone were capable of giving the lead while the workers and peasants would supply the soldiers for the revolutionary army." Bhagat Singh never gave such a statement. Some statements are wrongly attributed to him and this is one of them. Here it might be added that Karl Marx, F Engels, V I Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and many other leaders of various communist parties including that of India's belonged to the elite classes. Only J V Stalin belonged to the proletariat class as his father was a cobbler. The proletariat—the workers and peasants are generally poor and mostly semi-literate whom the well-educated youngmen from the middle and other classes, well-versed in the ideology of Marxism and Socialist Revolution, and joining the Party as professional revolutionaries, would be in a position to educate in the Marxist ideology.

Pt Jawaharlal Nehru too had viewed the revolutionaries led by Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh poorly and wrongly. After Azad had met Pt Nehru at his residence at Allahabad in early February of 1931, he wrote: "Many of them, [revolutionaries] it seems to me, have definitely the fascist mentality." [Page 262, 'An Autobiography']

For Bhagat Singh, the British Capitalists were not the only sinners. He held the Indian Capitalists equally responsible for the exploitation of the Indian masses as well as India's natural resources. In all his writings, he had stressed upon the two foes—the British Capital and the Indian Capital. He had been repeatedly emphasising on the necessity of replacing the present social order by a new social order based on the Scientific Socialist ideology.

Bhagat Singh was a personality possessing a strong will power. It was said of him that he would not allow his left hand to know what his right hand does.

There was one Borodin, a powerful and influential Bolshevik advising the then nationalist Chinese Government leadership in the 1930's but then Mao tse Tung also appeared. In India there had been many Borodins though not from Russia but Bhagat Singh by then had been executed. As foreboded by him, the nationalist leadership had compromised with the British imperialist rulers. There was, thus a change of masters at the top. The British rulers had peacefully handed over their power to the Indian leaders. The British colonial administrative set-up planted by Macaulay in the 19th century so often condemned in the past by the Indian leadership, including Pt Nehru, remained intact and fixed.

Bhagat Singh was not infallible. No one is. His and his party's decision to kill J A Scott that resulted in the killing of J P Saunders to avenge Lala Lajpat Rai and the nation's humiliation was a mild denouncement and a soft impeachment of the British imperialist rulers, for they [Scott and Saunders] were just like hired assassins. The real culprits were the British Imperialist rulers. The tragic incident of Lala Lajpat Rai's death should have motivated the leadership of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and its rank and file to have themselves spread into as many villages and industrial slums as possible, making the huts and hovels as their new abodes, educating the peasants and workers about what the socialist revolution would mean to them and thereby make them battle-ready for the revolution. They would, of course, be doing it incognito. They were young and within the next twenty or thirty years, they would have educated and prepared a huge number of workers and peasants who would be politically class conscious and a part of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. A programme of action on the lines given by Bhagat Singh in his pamphlet entitled, 'To Young Political Workers' would have served as a useful guide for action.

Vol. 49, No.22, Dec 4 - 10, 2016