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Book Review

Why the Story of Bhagat Singh Remains on the Margins?

by Pritam Singh, 24 September 2008

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S Irfan Habib, To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2007), xviii+231pp. Rs. 500 (hb), ISBN 81-88789-56-9 and Rs. 250 (pb), ISBN 81-88789-61-5.

The publication of this book in the year of the 100th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh is aimed to highlight the ideological dimensions of the work of Bhagat Singh and his associates. S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and works with the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies in India. This book can be usefully read in the context of competing ideologies in the current political landscape of India. The year 2007 has been a year of many anniversaries relating to South Asia. These include the 250th anniversary of the 1757 Battle of Plassey, 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising and the 60th anniversary of India’s independence from British colonial rule and its partition into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu - majority, though formally secular, India in 1947. As an icon, Bhagat Singh can be called the Che Guevara of India. Yet, his 100th birth anniversary was the least celebrated of all the anniversaries except the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey.

All anniversary celebrations have political agendas and it can be argued that the Battle of Plassey is, perhaps, too far away in the political memory of South Asia and does not seem to fit in with any political agenda there. The celebration or commemoration of the 1857 uprising fits in with several political agendas. The agenda of the Congress party-oriented Indian nationalism is to project that the 1857 uprising symbolises Hindu-Muslim collaboration and, therefore, represents a critique of the Hindu nationalist vision of India. The agenda of the Muslim nationalists is to highlight that the 1857 uprising was led, at least formally, by a Muslim king Bahadur Shah Zafar against British colonialism, and represents a historical moment of contest between the Indian-rooted Muslim rule and the colonial British rule in India. The celebration of the 60th anniversary of 1947 is meant to highlight the birth of two post-colonial nation states of India and Pakistan. In contrast with this nationalist interpretation of 1947, the accounts that highlight the sufferings of the victims of the partition present 1947 as a massive human tragedy. The nation state aspect of the celebration was more prominent in India and the human tragedy aspect was more prominent in commemorations abroad.

Placed in the context of these different types of anniversary celebrations, the 100th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh represents a challenge to almost every tendency in Indian politics. Gandhi-inspired Indian nationalists, Hindu nationalists, Sikh nationalists, the parliamentary Left and the pro-armed struggle Naxalite Left compete with each other to appropriate the legacy of Bhagat Singh, and yet each one of them is faced with a contradiction in making a claim to his legacy.1 Gandhi-inspired Indian nationalists find Bhagat Singh’s resort to violence problematic, the Hindu and Sikh nationalists find his atheism troubling, the parliamentary Left finds his ideas and actions as more close to the perspective of the Naxalites and the Naxalites find Bhagat Singh’s critique of individual terrorism in his later life (p.123) an uncomfortable historical fact.

In judging the claims of different contestations to the legacy of Bhagat Singh, this book would prove a useful resource. It departs from the usual narratives of the Indian revolutionary tradition that describe the bravery and sacrifices of the revolutionaries. Habib has, instead, focussed on describing and analysing the ideas of the revolutionaries. He has made a valuable contribution to the literature on pre-1947 political traditions in India by emphasising that the overwhelming aspect that emerges regarding the ideas of Bhagat Singh and his associates is that they moved unambiguously to the perspective of ’scientific socialism’. Habib has put together a number of extremely important political documents in the form of appendices to this book. The two documents that deserve special mention are: Bhagat Singh’s essay on ’Why I am an atheist’ and the list of books read by Bhagat Singh. In this list, Marx’s Capital is the number one entry.

That Bhagat Singh had read Capital at such a young age (perhaps by 1926 i.e. when he was barely 19 years old), is a very important indicator of the making of Bhagat Singh as a thinker. An important achievement of this book is that it has been able to show convincingly that Bhagat Singh was a serious political thinker and visionary. That brings us to an aspect of this book which has remained underdeveloped but has the potentiality to develop into a serious debate on the competing political currents in India’s struggle for independence from British imperialism. The book provides very useful documentary evidence that by the time Bhagat Singh was hanged in 1931, he had risen in political stature to a level which was higher than all political leaders in India except, perhaps, Mahatma Gandhi. He was equal in stature and political popularity to Gandhi almost everywhere in the country but certainly higher than him in Punjab and, perhaps, in North India more generally. Nehru wrote in his autobiography that by avenging the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh seemed to vindicate the honour of the nation and that "He became a symbol [of the honour of the nation] and within a few months each town and village of the Punjab, and to a lesser extent in the rest of northern India, resounded with his name. Innumerable songs grew about him and the popularity that the man achieved was something amazing (1956: 174-75).2

Three days after the hanging of Bhagat Singh, at the Karachi Session of the Congress, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, a top Congress leader and Gandhi loyalist, conceded: "It is no exaggeration to say that at the moment Bhagat Singh’s name was as widely known all over India and was as popular as Gandhi’s" (quoted by Habib, p. 70). Out of loyalty to Gandhi, Sitaramayya was underplaying the popularity of Bhagat Singh. When Gandhi arrived to attend the Karachi Session on March 25, 1931, he experienced the humiliation of facing a black flag demonstration by angry youth who shouted slogans: "Down with Gandhi". (p. 71). Subhas Chandra Bose captured the moment: "Bhagat Singh had become the symbol of the new awakening among the youths..." (p. 102). Nehru acknowledged that the popularity of Bhagat Singh was leading to a new national awakening: "He was a clean fighter who faced his enemy in the open field....He was like a spark which became a flame in a short time and spread from one end of the country to the other dispelling the prevailing darkness everywhere" (p 102-03).

This book contains excellent historical material which, if further processed and analysed, could be the basis for proposing that in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there were two serious ideological contenders for leadership of India’s national movement. One was Gandhism and the other was what may fairly be termed Bhagat Singhism. Gandhism and Bhagat Singhism should not be reduced to the polarity of non-violence vs violence. Gandhism was a perspective of minimal socio-economic transformation as a replacement of British imperial rule. It was focussed on transfer of political power. There is ample historical evidence to show that Gandhi was even willing to accept a subordinate dominion status for India under the broad structure of imperial rule. His compromising role vis-à-vis British imperialism faced sharp criticism from Subhas Chandra Bose within the Congress and in muted voices even from Nehru. A part of the reason for his compromising stance towards British imperialism was the serious involvement of the top layers of India’s capitalist class (Birla, Purushottamdas Thakurdass, and Walchand Hirachand etc.) in the influencing of, if not making of, the Gandhian and Congress perspective. Gandhi’s strength was his unflinching, even arrogant, commitment to non-violence and what he considered to be truth. Gandhi’s weakness was his utter lack of understanding of the process of global capital accumulation and imperialism and the insertion of India into the global capitalist framework. Yusuf Meherali, a socialist, mockingly and yet aptly remarked that imperialism can not be overthrown through ’change of heart’ as Gandhi seemed to believe (p. 103).

Gandhi’s strength was in understanding the deep impact of Hinduism, or at least a version of it, on the consciousness of the majority Hindu population in the country. This led him to coin slogans such as ’Ram Rajya’ which resonated with the vast majority of the Hindu population. In this strength also lay his weakness. It was his alienation of Muslims which resulted eventually in the creation of Pakistan, and he never had any influence, whatsoever, amongst the Sikhs after his arrogant characterisation of Guru Gobind Singh as a misguided leader. It is doubtful if he had any serious influence amongst the Christians. Proximity to Hinduism allowed Gandhi to feel the pulse of India’s majority but that also resulted in an over-all conservative orientation to his ideas, perspectives and actions.

In contrast with these strengths and weaknesses of Gandhism, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were strong in understanding the logic of the world capitalist economy but were weak in building an organisational structure in comparison with Gandhi’s widespread Congress party organisation. The strength of their mass popularity was not matched by the quality of their organisational structure. In terms of their popularity, Habib demonstrates that they were popular not only with the majority Hindu population but also with the Muslims and the Sikhs. There was indeed a tinge of Hinduism in their political language but it was more than adequately compensated for by their non-religious and analytical discourse. Their political radicalism was a product of their analytical strength in understanding the class structure of colonialism. Their vision was not a replacement of the rule of the ’white’ capitalist class by the Indian capitalist class; it was a vision of replacement of the rule of capital by the rule of labour (Appendix B5).

Had Bhagat Singh not been hanged in 1931, there would have been a serious contest between the Gandhi-led Congress vision and the Bhagat Singh-led socialist vision. Bhagat Singh also had the advantage over the Indian communists that his radicalism was popularly seen as home grown and rooted. With Bhagat Singh in the leadership position of the Indian socialist tradition, he would have become the rallying force against the Gandhi-led Congress’s pro-capitalist vision. It is worth imagining that the polarisations in the country would not have been Congress vs Muslim League, Hindu vs Muslim and Gandhi vs Jinnah but would have been Gandhi vs Bhagat Singh, capitalism vs socialism and mere transfer of power vs socio-economic revolution. In situations of intense political struggles, the relative position of competing organisations and ideologies can undergo change very quickly. The shift from Menshevism to Bolshevism in Russia in 1917 within a time span of days and weeks is an example of such a historical conjuncture. It is worth mentioning here that the Russia of 1917 was no more or no less radical or conservative than the India of 1930s. Of the many possibilities open in the 1930s, there was this possibility - large scale migration of the Congress cadre to the fold of the Bhagat Singh-led radical alternative. That possibility died with the hanging of Bhagat Singh.

Individuals don’t make history but key individuals at critical moments do matter in making history. It is worth remembering that Trotsky, who himself was a hugely popular revolutionary leader in the Russia of 1917, had remarked that had Lenin not arrived in Russia in the crucial months of October and November of 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution would not have taken place. Gandhi and the colonial authorities understood the critical historical importance of Bhagat Singh. Gandhi did not protest against the decision of the colonial authorities to hang Bhagat Singh. This decision of Gandhi was not simply the result of the moralist/pacificist Gandhi not endorsing violence because by allowing hanging he was endorsing another kind of violence; it was the result of an extremely sharp tactician and strategist Gandhi realising that if Bhagat Singh survived, that would sound the death knell of his (Gandhi’s) political leadership of India’s independence movement. For the colonial authorities, the survival of Bhagat Singh could have meant facing a revolutionary movement against them in competition with the ever compromising Gandhi-led Congress movement. The Indian National Congress and the Indian State know and understand that Gandhi and the Congress party were deeply implicated in the colonial hanging of Bhagat Singh. Therefore, while 1857 and 1947 anniversaries continue to be commemorated, the 100th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh will remain an embarrassing and, therefore, a marginal affair for the Congress-led Indian government. The political economy of the current Indian nation state necessitates this stance. In helping us to understand this current political economy of the Indian state this book is not only a valuable contribution to Indian historiography but also to an understanding of the ongoing political contestations in India today and their future implications.

Pritam Singh
- Oxford Brookes University

1 This aspect was developed at some length in a paper entitled ’Competing contestations over the appropriation of Bhagat Singh’ presented by this reviewer at the bi-annual seminar of the Punjab Research Group at the University of Manchester on October 27, 2007 to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.

2 Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography, New Delhi, 1962.