Friday, November 2, 2007

Bhagat Singh Birth Centenary

Celebrating Bhagat Singh


A tribute to Bhagat Singh on the occasion of his birth centenary


THE revolutionary nationalist phase of the freedom struggle, of which Bhagat Singh was an iconic figure, was a brief, powerful and violent episode in a movement otherwise considered to be peaceful. To many it was nothing but an aberration, as the Indian freedom struggle was universally acknowledged as a non-violent movement. Treated as an avoidable interlude, though heroic and idealistic, its influence on the course of the national liberation struggle is considered negligible, and sometimes even negative. The mainstream historiography, concerned more with the elaboration of the non-violent character of the struggle, has not given enough attention to other streams of the freedom struggle, of which revolutionary nationalism is an important facet.

The historians’ neglect does not reflect the contemporary popular interest in Bhagat Singh’s mission or appreciation of his role in the freedom struggle. In fact, Bhagat Singh was a very popular leader in the 1930s. Jawaharlal Nehru uses the word ‘amazing’ to describe the popularity of Bhagat Singh. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the official historian of the Indian National Congress, confirms that Bhagat Singh was as widely known all over India and as popular as Gandhiji. He was an idol of the youth and a household name, which aroused admiration and respect.

Yet, it is rather surprising that till very recently serious academic work has not addressed adequately the contribution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades to the national life. In fact, the revolutionary nationalist phase itself has not been an area of serious academic investigation. Moreover, the birth centenary of Bhagat Singh is not being observed as an event of national importance or accorded official patronage reserved for national heroes. The reason for this neglect is worth exploring. Is it because the questions he raised about imperialism and economic exploitation are uncomfortable for the present ruling elite?

Yet, Bhagat Singh has not been entirely forgotten either, thanks to individuals and organisations who recognise the value of radical ideas and interventions in society. Consequently, a couple of publications that appeared recently in English critically evaluate his contribution to the freedom struggle. There are also several new publications in regional languages.

The popular image of Bhagat Singh is of a terrorist who took to violence in contrast to the pacifist methods adopted by the mainstream liberation movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Those who believed in the practice of violence as a political weapon, like some sections of the Left and present-day terrorists, have sought to perpetuate this notion. But the description of a terrorist, in the meaning attributed to the term either in the early 20th century or in the post-9/11 era, does not sit well on Bhagat Singh.


A handcuffed Bhagat Singh being interrogated in Lahore after his first arrest, in 1927. The photograph was apparently taken secretly by the police and was discovered in secret police records after 1947

Bhagat Singh himself had drawn attention to this: “Let me announce with all the strength at my command that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps, in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain through those methods.” This oft-repeated self-appraisal points to the evolution of his political ideas and practice. Even if in his last political act he had used the bomb to make the deaf hear, he had long time back given up violence as a part of his political armoury. Such a transformation as a result of deep study and contemplation distinguished him from those who had earlier taken to the cult of the bomb.

The significance of Bhagat Singh in the anti-colonial struggle was not because of his choice of violence as a method of resistance, as many including Gandhiji underlined, or his idealistic heroism for which he is rightly and universally admired. His real contribution lay in trying to formulate a revolutionary philosophy and a course of action, taking into account the travails of colonial subjection, on the one hand and the character of internal exploitation, on the other. In this attempt he differed from both the Indian National Congress and the early nationalist revolutionaries.

Although the Indian national movement is known for its non-violent character, beginning with the Chapekar brothers in Maharashtra, violence, as a means to arouse the conscience of the people or as retribution for the excesses of the British, had become a mode of expression of anti-imperialist sentiments. The brave and patriotic young men and women, disgusted with the policy of mendicancy followed by the Indian National Congress, had chosen the path of armed encounter, eliminating those officials who were particularly unjust and oppressive. The initial attempts in this direction, though heroic and idealistic, did not go beyond individual acts of murder and as such did not develop as a viable and popular form of struggle. It attracted several adherents in different parts of the country, particularly in Bengal and Maharashtra. The movement left in its trail a large number of martyrs who were rightly admired for their heroism and sacrifice.

The mass mobilisation strategies of Gandhiji embodied in the non-violent Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920-21 had led to either the incorporation of the revolutionaries in it or their marginalisation. In fact, several revolutionaries, including Bhagat Singh, had participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement. The withdrawal of the movement as a result of the violence at Chauri Chaura, however, disillusioned most of them, who consequently sought an alternative path, leading to what is generally described as the second phase of the revolutionary movement.

Ideological turn

The importance of the second phase of the revolutionary movement was in its ideological content. In shaping its character Bhagat Singh played the most crucial role, even if he discounted the role of individuals in history. What enabled him to do so was his intellectual engagement with Marxism, which transformed him from a “romantic idealist revolutionary” to a materialist and atheist. As testified by his comrades, he was a voracious reader who had “deeply studied the history of the Russian revolutionary movement”. The story goes that he asked the warden who had come to take him to the gallows to wait until he finished what he was reading.

“Study,” he said, “was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of my mind. My previous faith and convictions underwent a remarkable modification. The romance of violent methods alone which was so prominent amongst our predecessors was replaced by serious ideas… I got ample opportunity to study various ideals of world revolution. I studied Bakunin, the anarchist leader, something of Marx, the father of communism and much of Lenin, Trotsky and others, the men who had successfully carried out a revolution in their country.”

His reading list was much larger, including among others, Tom Paine, Upton Sinclaire, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Spinoza, James Mill, Karl Kautsky, Nikolay Bukharin, and Thomas Aquinas. With such an intellectual make up, his ideas evolved over a period of time culminating in his conviction in materialism, socialism and atheism.


The front page of The Tribune of March 25, 1931, printed from Lahore

Bhagat Singh’s ideological world and political perspectives were shaped by his deep study of radical literature, which enabled him to develop an egalitarian view of society. From this literature he imbibed the ideas of democracy, socialism and rationalism, which eventually became the guiding principles of his political and social philosophy. He envisioned a system in which there was “no exploitation of man by man and nation by nation”. He realised that a qualitative change in the existing social relations was necessary for ushering in such a condition.

Although an admirer of Gandhi for the manner in which he managed to mobilise the masses, he did not believe that Gandhian philosophy and programme would lead to a fundamental transformation of society. Gandhian politics, he observed, would only result in the replacement of one set of exploiters by another. The alternative was found in socialism, which he incorporated in the ideology and programme of the movements with which he was associated. What distinguished him from the earlier revolutionaries was this ideological factor.


The intellectual and political evolution of Bhagat Singh as a socialist is not easy to trace, as his biographical accounts do not record the dynamics of this transition. Bhagat Singh has mentioned about his introduction to liberal ideas while studying in National College in Lahore, which at that time was a centre of nationalist activities. His acquaintance with radical left ideas occurred only when he moved to Lucknow. Since his work on socialism written while in jail was lost, what is available about his passage to socialism is not very exhaustive.

However, the three organisations with which Bhagat Singh was associated and whose activities he decisively influenced indicate the evolution of his ideas. They were the Hindustan Republican Association, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. The objective of the Hindustan Republican Association, formed in 1924, was to establish a federated republic by an organised and armed revolution. It advocated the abolition of all systems that make any kind of exploitation of man by man possible. It was also committed to the organisation of labour and kisans as this was necessary for the successful struggle against feudalism and capitalism.

The Hindustan Republican Association did not pronounce socialism as one of its objectives. It became so only when the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association was formed in 1928. This change was primarily because of the influence of Bhagat Singh, who had by then come under the influence of Marxism. Hence the change in the name to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, which was committed to not only political independence but also economic freedom. The manifesto stated:

Foreign domination and economic exploitation have unmanned the vast majority of the people who constitute the workers and peasants of India. The position of the Indian proletariat, is today, extremely critical. It has double danger to face. It has to bear the onslaught of foreign capitalism on the one hand and the treacherous attack of Indian capital on the other. The latter is showing a progressive tendency to join forces with the former… Indian capital is preparing to betray the masses into the hands of foreign capital and receive as a price of this betrayal, a little share in the government of the country. The hope of the proletariat is, therefore, now centred on socialism, which alone can lead to the establishment of complete independence and the removal of all-social distinctions and privileges.

The transformation of the Hindustan Republican Association to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association coincided with a shift in Bhagat Singh’s own political understanding in which socialism formed the central concern. What constituted socialism was not well defined then, except in its bare essentials. He conceived of socialism as the abolition of capitalism and class domination.

It is unfortunate that his book entitled The Ideal of Socialism, which was smuggled out of the jail along with three other manuscripts, has not survived, as it would have given a much fuller account of his ideas on socialism. However, the political programme of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha founded in 1926 was firmly anchored in a socialist and secular agenda. The aim of the Sabha was to establish an independent republic of labourers and peasants. The ways of empowering these two classes figure prominently in almost all writings of Bhagat Singh.


The intellectual ability and analytical capacity of Bhagat Singh are best expressed in his tract on atheism, entitled ‘Why I Am An Atheist’, which he wrote during the last days in jail. It mainly addresses issues relating to the existence of God and the origin of man. In both cases he adopts a rational view. In the case of the origin of man, he invoked Darwin’s theory of evolution. About God, he rejected mechanical interpretations and sought to explain belief in God on ideological grounds. He wrote: “Unlike certain of the radicals I would not attribute the origin of God to the ingenuity of exploiters who wanted to keep the people under their subjection by preaching the existence of a Supreme Being and then claiming an authority and sanction from him for their privileged positions.”

He believed that God was “brought into imaginary existence to encourage man to face boldly all the trying circumstances”. He thus recognised the role of religion in the life of the masses. Reminiscent of the role Marx ascribed to religion, Bhagat Singh wrote: “God was to serve as a father, mother, sister and brother, friend and helper… so that when in great distress having been betrayed and deserted by all friends, he may find consolation in the idea that an ever true friend was still there to help him, to support him and that He was Almighty and could do anything. The idea of God is helpful to man in distress.” At the same time, he rejected the existence of a benevolent God, as otherwise there would not have been any injustice in the world.

Bhagat Singh was quite conscious of the role religion could play in public life. He was opposed to communal politics from which he tried to distance the organisations he was associated with. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha, for instance, did not entertain those belonging to religious-communal organisations as its members. The rules of the Sabha, drafted by Bhagat Singh, emphasised its opposition to communalism as well as its resolve to create the spirit of general tolerance among the public.

In other words, Bhagat Singh was a champion of secularism, which he appears to have held as central to his political practice, as any nexus between religion and politics was likely to endanger the pluralistic ethos of Indian society. Emancipation from the bondage of religion and superstition was, in his reckoning, crucial for revolutionary practice and, therefore, he tried to instil rational thinking in the minds of all his comrades. Given these ideas of Bhagat Singh, it is paradoxical that the Hindu communal forces are trying to appropriate him as their ideologue.


Bhagat Singh is popularly remembered for his two daring acts – avenging the death of Lala Lajpath Rai by killing the British police official, J.P Saunders, and throwing a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly. The second was an attempt to stir the nation to act more boldly against imperialism, which, however, silenced the brilliant mind of this committed revolutionary.

The trial and hanging of Bhagat Singh, along with his comrades Sukhdev and Rajguru, on March 23, 1931, had shocked the nation. Within the Congress, however, there were differences of opinion. They ranged from a total disapproval of the methods of the revolutionaries, as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, to an appreciation of their patriotism and commitment to freedom by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.

Nehru was all praise for the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and expected that it would “grow in strength to take a leading part in forming a national India”. Recognising the popularity of Bhagat Singh, Nehru stated: “He was a clean fighter who faced his enemy in the open field. He was a young boy full of burning zeal for the country. 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.” Subhas Chandra Bose recognised Bhagat Singh as a symbol of awakening among the youth.

But Gandhji’s attitude was entirely different. Committed to non-violence, he could not approve of the methods of the revolutionaries. Holding that the revolutionaries have retarded the progress of the country, he considered them as “deluded patriots”, “men past reason” and “enemies of the country”. He believed that a “revolutionary’s sacrifice, nobility and love are not only waste of effort, but being ignorant and misguided and misjudged, do, and have done, more harm to the country than any other activity”.

But even within the Congress there were many who thought otherwise. Many prominent Congress leaders, such as Motilal Nehru, Purushotamdas Tandon, Shiv Prasad Gupta and Shaukat Ali, helped the revolutionaries politically and financially. The division within the Congress was clearly manifested in the Lahore session, in which Mahtma Gandhi moved a resolution deploring the attempt to blow up the Viceregal Special (train) at Delhi. The resolution did not have a smooth passage in the session. When put to vote, it was passed only with a narrow majority of 81, with 904 voting in favour and 823 against.


In Patiala, Children march with portraits of Bhagat Singh to mark the birth anniversary.

Despite the well-known opinion of Gandhiji about the revolutionaries, when Bhagat Singh and his comrades were sentenced to death there was general expectation that Gandhi would save their lives by interceding with the Viceroy. Failure to do so has been a matter of great disappointment and disapproval. The feeling among a considerable section of the youth, as mentioned by Subhas Chandra Bose, was that “Mahatma had betrayed the cause of Bhagat Singh and his comrades”. But Gandhiji said that he would have gladly surrendered his own life to the Viceroy to save Bhagat Singh and his friends. He also claimed that he had pleaded with the Viceroy with all the persuasion at his command to save their lives.

The memoirs of Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy, tell a different story. He reveals that Gandhi asked him:

“Would your Excellency see any objection to my saying that I tried for the young man’s life? I said I saw none, if he would also add that from my point of view he did not know what other course I could have taken. He thought for a moment, then finally agreed and on that basis went to Karachi… and I was told that he was roughly received. But when he had opportunity he spoke in the sense agreed between us.”

Whether a more decisive intervention by Gandhiji at a time when the government was eager to effect a pact with the Congress would have possibly forced the Viceroy to commute the death sentence is a moot question. Whether Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary philosophy had anything to do with Gandhiji’s reluctance to assert himself more forcefully would remain one of the unsolved riddles of history. After all, Gandhiji had dissociated himself with the move to raise a memorial to Bhagat Singh. And if Bhagat Singh had been spared would it have made a difference to the revolutionary movement is another imponderable of history.

Bhagat Singh died in 1931 when he was only 23 years. During this brief period, he grew out of the religious influences of an Arya Samaj family, overcame the illusions of bourgeois nationalism and embraced a revolutionary movement informed by Marxism. Revolution, he said, “is the spirit, the longing for a change for the better. The people generally get accustomed to the established order of things and begin to tremble at the very idea of change. It is this lethargical spirit that needs to be replaced by the revolutionary spirit.” In other words, he realised the importance of creating a transformation of social and political consciousness, for which the dissemination of radical ideas was a necessary precondition. Reminiscent of the Gramcian notion of intellectually equipping the masses for revolution, he told the young political workers about the importance of “educating and enlightening the workers”.

Bhagat Singh himself underwent a revolutionary transformation in ideas through the reading of Marxism and other radical literature. As a result, at the end of his brief but tumultuous life, he had traversed an exciting intellectual terrain, which made him a socialist and an atheist. The transformation that Bhagat Singh underwent, which was primarily due to his exposure to Marxism, was not widely known during his life time. There is a criticism, however, that his understanding and application of Marxism was not complete or adequately scientific. The criticism is based mainly on the assumption that Bhagat Singh preferred youth and not class as the category for political mobilisation. But class was central to his political analysis.

About two months before his martyrdom, he wrote that the “real revolutionary armies are in the villages and factories, the peasantry and labourers”. Further, his view of politics was based on class struggle: “…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”

Bhagat Singh was one of the early Marxists of India who tried to chart out a revolutionary path for the country. His contribution to nurture a democratic, socialist and secular tradition has considerable contemporary relevance. •

K.N. Panikkar, a former professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former Vice-Chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, is currently the chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.


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