Bhagat Singh’s India in ferment

22 Sep 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IT will be Bhagat Singh’s birthday next week. The legendary revolutionary was born on Sept 28, 1907, in Banga village in erstwhile Lyallpur, the current Faisalabad district of Pakistan. The Pakistan government has declared his birthplace a national heritage while India’s Punjab state has offered to help set up the site as a world-class memorial.

The two countries had earlier promised in vain to build a joint memorial to Begum Hazrat Mahal — an older freedom icon — who lies buried near a footpath in Kathmandu.

Prof Chaman Lal, an old friend from Jawaharlal Nehru University, has avoided such lofty pursuits. He works on collecting every letter, article, photo, or scrap of paper that would help our understanding of the truer hero that Bhagat Singh was. Lal’s voluminous Bhagat Singh Reader has leaned on resources from both sides of Punjab and beyond that could throw light on his heroic life, struggles and dreams. Bhagat Singh’s charisma had touched so many Indians in his lifetime that historian and member of Congress party, Pattabhi Sittaramayya acknowledged the revolutionary’s popularity rivalled Gandhiji’s, says Lal.

An annual memorial fair is held in Bhagat Singh’s village on March 23, the day he was hanged in Lahore Central Jail with his two comrades — Sukhdev and Rajguru — in 1931, short of his 24th birthday.

The voracious reader evolved with new knowledge and newer experiences, and grew as a fearless partisan.

At that young age, Bhagat Singh didn’t stay fixed in his beliefs. The voracious reader evolved with new knowledge and newer experiences, and grew as a fearless partisan. He eventually began to rejoice (without being preachy) in being a self-confessed atheist. It was ironical therefore to see the atheist’s large image — and of his two non-atheist comrades — sketched inside the Babri Masjid.

Bhagat Singh’s picture smiled laconically from the southern wall at the rituals taking place 60 years after his death. Under the central dome, a few feet from his portrait, a pujari (Hindu priest) was receiving devotees to worship the image of Lord Ram. A policeman on duty with an archaic 303 rifle was sharing his insights, mouth brimming with tobacco spittle, that Ram was born 900,000 years ago at the spot where the idol now stood.

The instant historian’s account might have found resonance when the supreme court recently awarded the disputed land to worshippers who celebrated the constable’s grip on the ancient past. The verdict in any case enthused Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who promptly converted a mediaeval church into a grand mosque. Bigotry is not anyone’s national monopoly, Bhagat Singh would have learnt early on.

What would he have said about today’s India in ferment? That his portrait adorned the heart of Ayodhya clearly indicated the region was in the throes of revolutionary fervour during British rule.

For a stretch of time in newly independent India, the rural region became a hub of Marxist activism. Gandhiji was of course on the other end of the pole vis-à-vis Bhagat Singh’s militant quest for a socialist India. Gandhi had stopped at Ayodhya once, and though a devotee of Ram, he got off the train not to pray at any of the several temples to his favourite deity. He chose instead to berate restive peasants who were on the warpath against the ruling alliance of zamindars and British administrators.

Gandhi’s rejection of violence showed up in his pact with Lord Irwin that came about on the eve of Bhagat Singh’s hanging. Though he did canvas with the viceroy on behalf of the Indian people to commute the death sentence, he took care not to make it a condition for the crucial pact. The Gandhi-Irwin pact restored civil liberties for everyone involved in the salt satyagraha (Salt March). All prisoners were to be freed except those that were jailed for violence. So went the pact.

Ambedkar, not exactly a great admirer of Gandhi, rescued him, however, with a more reasonable explanation for why Bhagat Singh could not be helped. He blamed the bloodlust of British politics and its bureaucracy of the day. The Tory opposition would savage the Labour government had Irwin gone soft on the killers of a British official, Ambedkar reasoned. He also described the British bureaucracy as casteist.

John Saunders was assassinated on Dec 17, 1928, in broad daylight in Lahore. On Dec 23, in a proclamation pasted on Lahore’s walls, Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Army owned up to the deed.

Bhagat Singh and fellow partisan B.K. Dutt enunciated their understanding of revolution in a statement made in connection with the assembly bomb case on June 6, 1929: “By Revolution we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice must change. Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant who grows corn for all, starves with his family; the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies; masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims.”

Bhagat Singh and Dutt advocated “radical change”, saying it was necessary “and it is the duty of those who realise it to reorganise society on the socialistic basis”. For this purpose the “establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat” was necessary.

Indian peasants are restive again, not an unusual event for a largely monsoon-fed economy. Their perennial exploitation and periodic rebellion has been of a piece with Indian history. The Indian government last week passed a bill opening up the agriculture sector, according to prevalent fears, to depredations from big corporates. Given that 86 per cent peasants are small farmers, with five acres or less, the turbulence could be earthshaking. In Punjab, Sikh farmers usually assemble at Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar to launch their protest.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2020