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Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary with the goal Socialism

Farooque Chowdhury

[On Bhagat Singh’s 112th birth anniversary, this article, 1st part of a series, introduces Bhagat Singh Reader by Professor Chaman Lal]

Bhagat Singh. The revolutionary. The visionary. The ideological warrior. The organizer. The voice of the exploited. The perspective was this sub-continent, brutalized, tormented, muzzled, appropriated and plundered by the imperialist United Kingdom with the so-called civilized face of an unashamed barbaric power. People in this sub-continent, Bangladesh-India-Pakistan, remember the fighting soul with love and reverence. People in this sub-continent recollect lessons the revolutionary imparted, and the lessons the revolutionary’s actions created. Summarization of these two types of lessons is the need in people’s struggle whoever strives to organize wherever – from teeming urban centers to industrial and rural areas – in whatever form.     

On the revolutionary’s 112th birth anniversary, a 638-page book – The Bhagat Singh Reader – by Professor Chaman Lal is worth looking into as the book presents a lot of information related to the revolutionary. Chaman Lal – a revolutionary, young in terms of spirit but turned aged by time-uncheckable – is one of the foremost veteran political activists in today’s Bangladesh-India-Pakistan striving to spread the message of Bhagat Singh, born on September 28, 1907 at village Chak number 105 at Lyallpur (now, Pakistan has renamed the place at Faisalabad). The British colonial rulers executed Bhagat Singh on March 23, 1931 in Lahore (today a major city in Pakistan). Pattabhi Sitaramayya, historian, activist and member of the Congress party, evaluated: Bhagat Singh’s popularity soared so high that it was equal to Mahatma Gandhi’s popularity. 

Chaman Lal, the retired professor and former chairperson of the Centre of Indian Languages at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, writes his first encounter with Bhagat Singh in the “Note on compilation and editing” of the book published by HarperCollins Publishers India (Noida, Uttar Pradesh) in 2019. It’s a part of a story of Chaman Lal’s revolutionary activism in yesteryears:
My interest in Bhagat Singh and other Indian revolutionaries began even before I was twenty years old. My interest was first aroused by Manmath Nath Gupta, a convicted revolutionary in the Kakori case, who later turned into a historian of the Indian revolutionary movement during the freedom struggle and wrote the Hindi book Bharat Ke Krantikari (Revolutionaries of India).”

Chaman Lal translated the book into Punjabi in the early-‘70s. Revolutionary movements and life of revolutionaries were always in Professor Lal’s mind. He edited Bhagat Singh aur Unke Sathiyon ke Dastavez, which was published in 1986. It was a book on Bhagat Singh and his comrades. He specified his interest, and began searching documents related to Bhagat Singh. He found: Bhagat Singh, as he writes, “the most organized in his thinking about the revolution and the means to achieve it. Bhagat Singh went beyond the tradition of the early revolutionaries and gave an ideological direction to the whole movement, which had been missing earlier.”

Prof. Lal, thus, brings an aspect – “ideological direction” – to the notice of readers. A section of today’s firebrand activists misses this ideological direction. Otherwise, this section wouldn’t have missed questions of class, mobilizing the masses, and imperialist design and interference in this sub-continent while getting busy with slogan mongering and showmanship; this section wouldn’t have embraced one faction of ultra-right forces in the name of opposing another faction of the same forces, and wouldn’t have ignored the question of imperialism. This section wouldn’t have chided masses of people for the people’s “stupidity and timidity” while they make near-zero ideological work among the people had the section any ideological direction.

Chaman Lal writes:
“Bhagat Sigh realized that the goal of the Indian revolution should be a socialist revolution, which aims at ending not just colonial rule but class rule as well.”

Professor Lal’s angle of viewing Bhagat Singh is now clear, and specific: “Ending class rule”. The class rule question is also missed by a section today although ending class rule is the only way of eliminating all forms of apartheid, repression, segregation, exploitation. So, there’s Lenin in Bhagat Singh’s political ideas. “On 21st January, 1930, Bhagat Singh and his comrades read out a telegram in the British Court that they wanted to send to Russia. The telegram sent ‘REVOLUTIONARY GREETINGS TO THE GREAT LENIN’. [….] When, finally, Bhagat Singh was summoned to be hanged, he was reading Lenin.” (Amaresh Mishra, “Why Lenin is special to India?”, The Citizen, March 8, 2018)

Chaman Lal draws a demarcating line while discussing Bhagat Singh:
“Before Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary movement was the study of the bravery, fearlessness, and patriotism of the revolutionaries. With Bhagat Singh, it took an entirely different turn and became a study of ideas of the revolutionaries, and not just about their brave actions.”

The 8-page “Note …” by Chaman Lal carries a lot of facts on the great revolutionary. A few of those include: (1) At the age of 16, the revolutionary penned his first essay. (2) His first published essay was “The problems of language and script in Punjab”. (3) Most of his essays are found in print form, and almost all are attributed to fictitious names. (4) The only documents found in Bhagat Singh’s handwriting are either letters or the Jail Notebook.

The book in five sections and appendices begins with letters and telegrams. The section with letters include letters from school, college, revolutionary life, political and personal letters, and telegrams, in separate sub-sections, from jail, and letters to the colonial administration/judiciary from jail. The list cited here is enough to tell that the book is useful for a study of Bhagat Singh. At the same time, it tells at least a part of the “civilized” rule of the barbaric colonial masters. Similarly, the appendices include (1) Manifesto drafted in consultation with Bhagat Singh, (2) Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, (3) Manifesto of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, (4) Language-wise details of Bhagat Singh’s writings, (5) genealogy, (6) ordinance by British viceroy, (7) Lahore Conspiracy Case judgement, (8) Privy Council judgement, (9) a list of newly-found materials. These two sections are enough to comprehend the professor’s labor with the revolutionary. Other sections confirm the claim made here – labor, intensive labor with the subject of study.

The editor’s “Note …” tells, known to many, but unknown to many of today’s new comers in people’s politics, a few more facts, which echo spirit and commitment of the revolutionaries of the colonial time:
(1) Bhagat Singh joined revolutionary movement at the age of 16 in 1923 and had less than seven years to achieve the goals of the revolution he dreamed.
(2) Bhagat Singh not only carried out political revolutionary acts, but also wrote prolifically.
(3) He wrote in four languages – Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English.
(4) He had a good command over Sanskrit, and understood Baanglaa very well.
(5) Bahagat Singh could recite Tagore’s and Nazrul’s poems in Baanglaa fluently.
(6) He began learning Persian.
(7) He wrote 130 documents in seven years, and the documents spanned nearly 400 pages.
(8) Bhagat Singh wrote his first political letter to his father in Urdu.
(9) He was most comfortable in writing Urdu, as it appears from his letters of personal nature to his family members.
(10) He had a good command over Hindi.
(11) He studied Sanskrit in school.
(12) Two of his essays – “Vishwa Prem” (“Universal Love”) and “Yuvak” (“Youth”) – published in Kolkata-based Hindi journal Matwala were written in Sandkritized Hindi.
(13) All of his writings from jail, between April 8, 1929 and March 22, 1931, are in English.
(14) Even though Bhagat Singh had not studied beyond F.A. (Faculty of Arts) Program of at college level he had a powerful command over English language “so much so that at a court-hearing in the Delhi Bombing Case, the judge told Bhagat Singh’s counsel, Asaf Ali, that the judge suspected it was the counsel and not Bhagat Singh who was drafting the ‘statements’ by the accused.” Historian V N Datta has even speculated in his book Gandhi and Bhagat Singh that perhaps Nehru was drafting or polishing the statements by Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
(15) During his underground days, Bhagat Singh read world classics voraciously.
(16) Bhagat Singh worked as a member of the staff of many journals and newspapers including the Punjabi and Urdu Kirti, the Hindi daily Pratap, and Delhi-based Hindi journal Arjun between 1923-’28, prior to his arrest.
(17) Bhagat Singh’s writings in Hindi were published in Arjun, Maharati and Matwala.
(18) His essays in Kirti were published under the penname “Vidrohi” (“Rebel”), and in Pratap, “Balwant”.
(19) Bhagat Singh wrote nearly 37 sketches on the lives of revolutionaries out of total 48 in Phansi Ank (Gallows issue) of the Hindi monthly Chand (Moon) in November 1928.
(20) Many of his letters were published immediately after his execution in Lahore-based People, the Urdu journal Bande Mataram, the Hindi Bhavishya, Abhyuodey from Allahabad, Kanpur-based Pratap and Prabha, and Kolkata-based Hindu Panch.
(21) It’s not that Bhagat Singh is now-a-days identified as a Marxist or Socialist. Newspapers and journals in those days also described him in the way.     

Professor Lal makes his observations based on Bhagat Sing’s language proficiency: “[A]ny task is achievable for revolutionaries once they set their mind to it – even learning a new language all by oneself.” It’s not only a hollow announcement by the aged revolutionary, the initiator and the central figure in organizing the Bhagat Singh Study Group, still active in organizing political education and spreading of it. Proletarian revolutionaries in countries repeatedly proved it. It’s evident in the imperialism organized invasions and civil war days in post-October Revolution and in the days of Second World War in Russia, in the epical Long March days in China, in the days of seizure of the French colonial army in Dien Bien Phu and the war against the US imperialism in Vietnam, and in revolutionary struggles in countries including the Telengana in India.      

Chaman Lal presents 59 letters in the Reader. He claims, “the Sessions Court statements by Bhagat Singh can be compared to Fidel Castro’s statement in the July 1953 Moncada Garrison Attack trial in Havana with the apt title ‘History will absolve me’.” The information presented in this article introducing the Reader are only a few of many Professor Chaman has gathered. The Reader’s 35-page “Introduction” by Professor Chaman Lal is essential for readers trying to learn from Bhagat Singh as the section chronologically discusses developments related to the revolutionary’s life and political position.

Bhagat Singh, writes Chaman Lal, “was searching for ultimate ideology of human liberation from all […] oppression and exploitation, he had almost become a committed Marxist through his contacts with Kirti group of Ghadrite revolutionaries of Punjab. [….] The only difference he has with his comrades was about the programme of the revolutionary party; for Bhagat Singh and his comrades were convinced that to awaken the country from slumber, the youth need to perform daring acts of revolution and make sacrifices to advance the movement.”

Despite Bhagat Singh’s political position based on class-point of view, the revolutionary’s identity is still tarnished by a group of scholars. Historian, and Warwick University’s professor David Hardiman described Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad – as “terrorists” during a lecture in the UK in 2014, which sparked protests by the people from this sub-continent. The historian was delivering lecture at the 24th I P Desai Memorial Lecture – “Nonviolent Resistance in India during 1915-1947” – organized by Centre for Social Studies on February 14. Hardiman said:
Terrorist groups, who predate Mahatma Gandhi, were always there alongside Gandhi’s non-violent movement.
Some of these famous figures were Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, who were involved in organisations like Hindustan Republic Association (HRA) and Hindustan Republic Socialist Association (HRSA).
Hardiman’s remarks against the revolutionaries angered the audience, who compelled him to clarify, following which, he said, “I did not use the word terrorists as a derogatory term.”
Major Unmesh Pandya, member of executive council of Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, who was amongst the audience, stood up during the lecture and protested against Hardiman’s remarks.
“The UK-based scholar used word terrorists seven to eight times for the revolutionaries. There is a unanimous understanding between the academicians of the entire world not to use the word terrorist for the people who had not killed innocent civilians. One can use words like extremist or revolutionary,” Pandya said.
“A terrorist means who terrorises people. But freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh or Chandrashekhar Azad initiated armed movement against imperialism. If one considers any violent or armed movement as a terror activity, then under that definition British Raj or Queen Victoria's activities can also be defined as terrorism,” he added.
Defending Hardiman, Professor Ghanshyam Shah, a political scientist and member of the Board of Governors of Centre for Social Studies, said his remarks should be taken in a different periodical contexts.
Condemning Hardiman’s comment, human rights activists and a scholar of Bhagat Singh’s works, Hiren Gandhi termed the remarks as “logical in the context of a Britisher”.
“We believe he was a revolutionary, they (Britishers) believe he was a terrorist. That is very natural and logical for a Britisher. Bhagat Singh had done 79 days hunger strike that shows he also believed in non-violence and Satyagraha.”
Quoting from Collected works of Bhaghat Singh, Gandhi said, “To root out imperialism and its vested interests and to bring socialism, terror acts are necessary.
“Bhagat Singh believed that revolution does not mean change of power, but it also implies transformation of society. That transformation can be achieved after a long process, which includes violent and non-violent ways,” Gandhi said quoting Bhagat Singh.” (India Today, “Bhagat Singh, Azad were terrorists, says UK historian”, February 17, 2014)

The debate helped reiterate Bhagat Singh’s goal: Transformation of society.

Similarly, Chaman Lal’s book helps understand development of political ideas/theories, and of forms of struggle of a phase in this subcontinent.

The revolutionary – Bhagat Singh – was hanged to death by the colonial British raaj on March 23, 1931 in Lahore jail, in today’s Pakistan, with his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. According to the V N Smith, then Superintendent of Police (political), Criminal Investigation Department, Punjab, the time of the hanging was pulled forward by the executioners: “Normally execution took place at 8 A.M., but it was decided to act at once before the public could become aware of what had happened. [….] At about 7 P.M. shouts of Inquilab Zindabad were heard from inside the jail. This was correctly interpreted as a signal that the final curtain was about to drop.” (Memoir of V N Smith, cited in The Tribune (Chandigarh, India), December 11, 2005, “Was Bhagat Singh shot dead?”) The document about the execution of death sentence of Bhagat Singh says: “I [superintendent of the jail] hereby certify that the sentence of death passed on Bhagat Singh has been duly executed and that the said Bhagat Singh was accordingly hanged by neck till he was dead at Lahore Jail on 9 pm Monday the 23rd day of March 1931. The body was not taken down until life was ascertained by a medical officer to be extinct; and that no accident, error or other misadventure occurred.” (The Economic Times (India), March 26, 2018, “Pakistan displays Bhagat Singh’s case file for the first time”) Bhagat Singh was cremated at Hussainiwala on the river Sutlej.

Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary, introduced the slogan that turned into a war cry of the exploited people in their struggle for independence in this sub-continent: Inqeelaab Zindaabaad – Long Live Revolution.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.   

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Sep 29, 2019


Farooque Chowdhury [email protected]

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