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LAHORE: Could Bhagat Singh be considered the greatest Indian of all time, asked a member of the audience at the session, Inqilab Zindabad! Bhagat Singh of Lahore, held on the concluding day of the Afkar-e-Taza ThinkFest at the Alhamra Arts Center.

The question was posed to a panel of historians – Ammar Ali Jan of the Punjab University, and Daniel Elam of the University of Toronto – who had discussed various aspects of Bhagat Singh’s intellectual and political contributions to the anti-colonial movement in India.

Responding to the question, Dr Elam pointed out that Bhagat Singh’s ‘greatness’ could be deemed from the fact that his writings and letters often highlighted his own intellectual modesty. “He says I am not an expert...and he envisioned an egalitarian society worldwide,” said Dr Elam, adding that Bhagat Singh’s greatness came from his foregrounding of his oneness with the masses. And yet, it is important to read the young revolutionary’s writings as serious philosophy, he stressed.

Dr Jan pointed out that the assertion found its place in a current academic debate among intellectual historians, many of whom believed that the question of whether he could be considered a political philosopher had more to do with how we imagine political philosophers to be. Usually, only those who have undergone strict academic training at a university are considered philosophers. But there are a lot of political ideas and philosophy produced in jail, during exile and under duress, Dr Jan said, and pointed out that it was rare for political thinkers from the global south to be taught in western academia or thought of as serious philosophers.

“We must treat Bhagat Singh’s writings as philosophy...philosophy that is produced under duress,” said Dr Elam, “We must treat it like philosophy that cannot be reduced to Kant, Mill and others.”

Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader with a cosmopolitan worldview, he said.

But the 1920s and 30s were a time when the British were cracking down on ‘subversive’ literature being produced in India, Dr Jan said, sharing a little known factoid about how revolutionary literature was being transported from colonial empires to colonised lands in Asia and Africa by British sailors, who took advantage of their ‘racial superiority’ to avoid being searched at the ports. Bhagat Singh read this literature, down to the day he was hanged. He was reading Lenin when soldiers came to take him to the gallows and he asked for time to finish the chapter he was reading, Dr Jan said.

But Bhagat Singh was, after all, 23 years old when he was executed, Dr Elam said, while discussing the young revolutionary’s movie interests. He loved Indian and foreign movies, he said, some of his favourite ones included Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2018