The Revolutionary Legacy of Bhagat Singh: An Interview with Chaman Lal

Chaman Lal retired as professor of Hindi translation from the Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is now associated with the Centre for Comparative Literature as Professor-Coordinator at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda.  His most recent book is Understanding Bhagat Singh (Aakar Books, Delhi, 2013).

BD: March 23 marks the 83rd anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh.  Give us in the nutshell an account of the revolutionary’s times and what he stood for.

CL: Born in 1907 and martyred in 1931, Bhagat Singh lived just 23+ years.  1907 was the year when a powerful peasant movement took shape in Punjab.  The kind of indebtedness peasants face today, something akin to this existed then also.  Bhagat Singh’s uncle Ajit Singh was one of the organisers of the movement.  He was exiled to Mandalay first, then to South America in 1909, for 38 long years.  Bhagat Singh was then just a two-year-old, but later on, when he came to know what had happened to his uncle and why, Ajit Singh became the boy’s first hero.  In 1914, the Ghadar Party revolt took place in Punjab.  That party’s hero, Kartar Singh Sarabha, was Bhagat Singh’s personal hero as well.  Sarabha used to frequent Bhagat Singh’s home and his father Kishan Singh gave one thousand rupees to the Ghadar Party, a huge amount in those days.  This was the second big impact on the 7-8 year-old Bhagat Singh’s mind.  In 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar, where he went at the age of 12 and brought back blood-filled sand from there.

Bhagat Singh attended a few of the Congress sessions with his father Kishan Singh, who was a Congress Party activist.  In 1922, when Mahatma Gandhi withdrew the huge mass Satyagraha after the Chauri Chaura incident (wherein some policemen were killed when Satyagrahis set fire to a police station after they were subjected to cruelties by the police), Bhagat Singh and many other young men took the plunge into revolutionary politics.  Bhagat Singh joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), a reorganisation of some old revolutionary groups.  The next step was to reshape HRA into HSRA — Hindustan Socialist Republican Association — in September 1928, influenced by the Russian Revolution.  This was a qualitative leap in the revolutionary movement — to organise not just for “freedom of the country from British colonialism” but rather to reorganise the whole social system on socialist principles through revolution.

A necessary but undesired assassination of a British police officer, John Saunders, to avenge the ghastly killing of the tall nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, with whom the revolutionaries otherwise had many differences, put them in a difficult situation, as they could not proceed with their plans to create mass organisations of workers, peasants, students, youth and other sections for militant mass struggles to replace the prevalent tendency of militant violent individual actions among Indian revolutionaries at the time.  But then, in the circumstances, they did the best they could.  Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt threw harmless bombs in the Central Assembly (today’s Indian Parliament) to protest against the Public Safety and Trade Disputes bills — both oppressive anti-working-class measures by the British colonial government.  Then they used British courts and their trials as a public platform to propagate their revolutionary ideology.  Further, their prolonged hunger strikes inside jails for the rights of political prisoners made them hugely popular in India, and their message spread throughout the world by an imaginative use of media of the time.  And, Bhagat Singh’s insistence on facing the gallows, but on his own terms, and at the peak of mass opposition to their death sentence, and putting Mahatma Gandhi and Congress Party to great embarrassment, made the three young men supreme heroes in the eyes of the Indian people.

BD: You have recently authored Understanding Bhagat Singh (Aakar Books, Delhi, 2013), which helps bring the revolutionary legacy of Bhagat Singh to a generation of Indian youth that has just come of age, politically speaking.  A significant section of such youth is enamoured of the Aam Aadmi Party, a parliamentary political party which seeks to bring the ethical back into the political.  What message does your book have for them?

CL: There is, no doubt, that a large number of Aam Aadmi Party followers, particularly among youth, are enamoured by Bhagat Singh’s personality, and for them he is a source of inspiration.  Yet, only a section of them understands Bhagat Singh as a political thinker.  For a large number, and particularly among the leadership, he is just a figure for creating emotional appeal among youth, without ever referring to his ideas or ideology, his goal of bringing about a socialist revolution in India, based upon Marxist principles.  Aam Aadmi Party’s top leader Arvind Kejriwal does not even recognise Bhagat Singh’s atheist beliefs.  I am told that Kejriwal used to be an atheist before jumping into Parliamentary politics, but after entering the parliamentary arena, the first thing he did was to undertake religious rituals of all the main religions, following the old Congress formula of ‘Sarv-Dharm-Sambhav’ — equality of all religions.

So, at the very first step they have taken on the parliamentary path, they have betrayed their own ethical values.  How then would they bring back ethical values of a broader nature?  If they have to learn anything from my book relating to Bhagat Singh, then the core aspect to imbibe from Bhagat Singh is to “live and die for one’s convictions”, not compromise them for petty political gains.  If Aam Aadmi Party’s young cadres can influence their party leadership, then they should come forward to proclaim Bhagat Singh’s legacy of undertaking a socialist revolution in India through a mass upsurge of workers, peasants, youth and women.

BD: Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt raised the slogans “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long Live the Revolution) and “Death to Imperialism” (Samrajyawad Ka Nash Ho) while throwing harmless bombs in the central assembly on 8 April 1929 to “make the deaf hear”.  These rallying cries seem to be so relevant today, isn’t it?

CL: In fact the slogans “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Death to Imperialism” were the defining moments of the Indian revolutionary movement, i.e., to move from ‘Vande Mataram’ (Ode to Mother India) to make revolution for and with the participation of the general masses.  Definitely these slogans are much more relevant today, especially in the wake of neo-imperialism baring its fangs the world over.

BD: Today, parties across the political spectrum — the Congress Party, the Akali Party, as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for instance — lay claim to the dead socialist revolutionary.  The Congress has all along used the public memory of the revolutionary martyrs, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev to gain political ground, yet the fact remains that it unequivocally disowned the political practice of these revolutionaries who are revered for upholding the dignity of the people of India.  Bhagat Singh really hit the nail on the head when he said — and in this, he has proved prophetic — in a communication to young political workers on 2 February 1931, at a time the Congress was contemplating a compromise with the British government: “[W]hat difference does it make to them [workers and peasants] whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas?  What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin!”  Gandhi’s politics was financed by big businessmen like Purshotamdas Thakordas, G D Birla and Walchand Hirachand; he was unequivocally opposed to Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary politics.  Didn’t he want the revolutionaries to publically renounce violence and only then would he try to “save their lives”?  What’s your take on all of this?

CL: You’re absolutely correct.  The last six decades or more of the degeneration of the Indian political system, and now, the rise of crony capitalists/corporates has proved Bhagat Singh’s 1931 words to be prophetic.  Not only Congress but most of the other parties have also used Bhagat Singh sans his ideas and revolutionary socialism.  All of these parties have tried to sanitize Bhagat Singh to fit into their ‘imagined Bhagat Singh’.  Unfortunately the real inheritors of this legacy and ideas — communist parties/groups — have failed to truly highlight these ideas and create emotional rapport with the Indian masses through his status in the Indian mass psyche, which evokes veneration for him.  Now when other parties succeeded in appropriating political space by projecting leaders like Dr. Ambedkar through whom they could emotionally arouse people’s aspirations for liberation from social oppression, communist parties/groups have woken up to reclaim their true legacy of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary ideology, as Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela by appropriating Bolivar, along with the socialist ideas of Fidel Castro.  In the present-day world, human liberation is an urgent need everywhere.  In that sense, Che Guevara from South America and Bhagat Singh from South Asia are two icons for youth the world over fighting for liberation from the neo-imperialist yoke of oppression.  Whether and how the now awakened communist parties/groups will succeed in appropriating Bhagat Singh’s legacy in the true sense, expand their political base, and link up with liberation movements the world over, only time will tell.

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.