Autumn Number 2019


'The Bhagat Singh Reader'

Anup Sinha

The book* under review is a collection of all the writings of Bhagat Singh (1907-1931). The editor, Chaman Lal, has done remarkably well in collecting and bringing together a wide variety of letters, essays, notes, court statements of the revolutionary who was hanged by British Imperial Government in Lahore Jail. The writings are compiled after detailed research from various sources. Since Bhagat Singh worked as a journalist in more than one newspaper, there are some unnamed pieces attributed to him. The editor has informed the reader about these issues of authorship. The book has five sections and a number of appendices. The first section contains letters and telegrams. The second section contains posters, notices and leaflets. The third section contains court statements. The next section contains essays, articles and sketches by Bhagat Singh. Section five is the Jail Notebook. The appendices are useful since they contain many details about Bhagat Singh's writings, major life events and the Lahore Conspiracy Judgement amongst many other official documents.

Bhagat Singh was remarkable in many distinct ways. The first thing that comes across to the reader is the sheer breadth of his knowledge. For a person who hailed from a small village in the then Punjab province and lived for only 24 years, his erudition is astonishing. Yet, by no means was he an ivory tower scholar who just spent his time reading voraciously. He was very much an activist who believed in actively contributing in changing the world. The second thing that emerges from his works was his ideological clarity about what constitutes a revolution and what would be the important objectives of the liberated world. Though he was rooted in India, he was international in his thinking. He was convinced that revolutionary Marxism was an effective guide to constructing an oppression free, classless world of which India would also be a part. In this sense, compared to the earlier revolutionaries in India who formed the nascent liberation movement but did not have a clearly shared ideology, he was the first to give the movement a specific direction. He was well read in world history and his writings confirm that he believed that the Indian revolution would have to be a socialist one, and the aim would not only be the end of colonial rule, but class rule as well. He was quite conscious of his differences with the mainstream freedom struggle of Gandhi and the Congress Party. Finally, Bhagat Singh was a polyglot as well. He was fluent in four languages—Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. It is also claimed that he could recite in Bengali too.

Bhagat Singh began his political journey at the tender age of fifteen when he was disappointed with the withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement by Gandhi in 1922. Bhagat Singh is also credited in popularising the slogan 'Inqlab Zindabad' (Long Live the Revolution). This was used by many other nationalist groups but was never adopted by right-wing organizations like the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. A Hindi translation 'Kranti Chirjivi Ho' was tried but did not catch the imagination of the people. This was the first line in the pamphlet that Bhagat Singh and B.K.Dutt threw in the Central Assembly Hall, and hurled a few bombs in the empty corridors. They were deeply suspicious of the Central Assembly and wanted people to know about the institution's lack of effectiveness against a ruthless autocratic rule. They decided that by courting arrest they could use the court to propagate their ideas to a wider audience. They wrote: "Solemn resolutions passed by the house have been contemptuously trampled underfoot on the floor of the so-called Indian Parliament." Gandhi declared the act of bombing as a 'mad act of two young men'.

Two issues on which Bhagat Singh's views are still relevant after almost nine decades of his death. The first is on his own atheism and his condemnation of communal violence—the riots between Hindus and Sikhs on the one hand and Muslims on the other. He was sure that organized religion cannot lead a person to freedom. In fact he repeatedly wrote that he found the communal riots not only abhorrent, he was convinced that communal violence could lead to the disintegration of the freedom struggle and even jeopardize the stability of society. It could only benefit the ruling class and vested interests of religion. His own atheism was based on his understanding of Marxism and the importance of rational thought. He wrote "Communalism has come like such a great deluge that they are not able to stem it. It appears as if the leadership of Bharat has gone bankrupt." He believed that only the rise of class-consciousness would help prevent communal violence.

The second issue with great contemporary relevance is terrorism and violence. According to Bhagat Singh terrorism was an admission that revolutionary convictions had not struck roots in the population of oppressed people. It can have a very limited use in the sense that it can be used to draw attention to a set of ideas about changing society. However, he was convinced that the violence should never harm any innocent person. It could be at best a temporary, transient tool to attract the attention of youth. If it continues to remain aloof from the lives of the ordinary people, then it can quickly become petrified into tyranny. He was aware of the role non-violence could play. Gandhi's tactics were closer to being a mass movement that ultimately all revolutionary movements must aim for. But he was aware that under the leadership of Gandhi, the proletariat would be used for the ultimate benefit of the propertied classes.

Bhagat Singh was very much aware of the other strands of political activity in India. He personally knew and had met many of the national leaders of the Congress. The Reader gives an intricate picture of the courageous life and times of an outstanding individual who gave his life for not his country alone, but for a dream of liberating all people from oppression and terror. Political freedom came a few years after his execution. However, the revolutionary struggle is far from over. Substantive freedom and liberty still eludes the majority of the people who live in India. State violence too remains comparable to the ruthlessness of the British government in the 1920s.

*The Bhagat Singh Reader
Edited by Chaman Lal
Harper Collins India 2019, Price Rs.799

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019