|Interview with Jagmohan Singh, Bhagat Singh’s nephew and former Professor at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana.|
Jagmohan Singh: “There was wide support for the revolutionaries within the Congress.”
Bhagat Singh, who created a stir through his revolutionary ideas and courageous actions, stands alone in the galaxy of martyrs for his maturity as a thinker who had an alternative framework of governance for independent India. Foremost among those committed to the dissemination of his ideas is Jagmohan Singh, Bhagat Singh’s nephew who was a Professor at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana. Son of Bhagat Singh’s sister Bibi Amar Kaur, he has digitised most of the essential writings of Bhagat Singh and family photographs and posted them on the website shahidbhagatsingh.org. Here, he is in conversation with S. Irfan Habib, historian of science at the National Institute of Science, Technology & Development Studies (NISTADS), New Delhi. Irfan Habib’s latest book is To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades.
Yes, you are right. Bhagat Singh belonged to a family of freedom fighters. The family’s commitment to the freedom struggle can be traced back to 1857. Bhagat Singh’s great grandfather Sardar Fateh Singh participated in the Anglo-Punjab wars in the 1840s, which led to the confiscation of his landed property. During the 1857 upsurge, the British Governor Lord John Lawrence wanted to enlist the support of the landed class and thus declared to give the confiscated property back in lieu of their support. Sardar Fateh Singh responded by saying, ‘Guru Gobind Singh has taught me to stand up for the people fighting for their rights and freedom. The help of the oppressor is tantamount to the betrayal of His teachings.’ Thus, he stood by the principle and did not succumb to the greed of acquiring back some of the lost property.
The same spirit was upheld by Bhagat Singh’s grandfather, Sardar Arjun Singh, to be followed by his three sons Kishan Singh, Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh. His father Kishan Singh was involved with the freedom struggle at different levels all his life. Ajit Singh, his uncle, was a peasant leader known for the “Pagri Sambhal Jatta”. He was later involved in the Ghadar movement and exiled from India for 40 years. He returned to India on August 15, 1947, the day freedom came, and died the same morning. Another uncle, Swaran Singh, died in 1910 following torture in a British jail.
FAMILY OF FREEDOM fighters. (From left) Bhagat Singh's father Kishan Singh; grandfather Sardar Arjun Singh; and uncle Ajit Singh who was involved with the Ghadar movement and exiled from India for 40 years
Yes, I agree that the family was very eclectic and was open to diverse influences. It truly believed in a composite India and also practised it in the family. The truthful teachings of the Sikh Gurus were definitely followed. His grandfather was among the first ones to adopt Arya Samaj for its social reform and fight against untouchability. Harnam Kaur, wife of his uncle Ajit Singh, came from Sufi Bule Shah’s town Kasur and thus brought the rich heritage of Sufism into the family. Thus, Bhagat Singh was born and brought up in a family that stood for rational and humanitarian values.
This decade was crucial for both Bhagat Singh and his comrades and Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress. Actually Bhagat Singh, like most of his other associates, began as enthusiastic young volunteers of the Non-Cooperation Movement and was disheartened due to its abrupt end after Chauri Chaura. This frustration helped them to reorganise their party and work for the freedom of India through their own programme. Most of their revolutionary actions in the 1920s like the Saunders murder, the Assembly bomb explosion and the Viceroy train explosion generated widespread nationalist fervour, which helped the Congress party to mobilise the masses for its Civil Disobedience Movement in 1929-30. In any case, there was wide support for the revolutionaries within the Congress, which was reflected several times during the voting at AICC sessions.
By this distinction I want to emphasise Bhagat Singh’s rich legacy in terms of ideas and an alternative framework of governance, which he espoused in his writings and statements. Here I will get back to his own autobiographical note in his famous essay ‘Why I Am an Atheist’, where he writes: “Up to that period (1925) I was a romantic revolutionary. Up till then we were to follow. Now came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. Due to the inevitable reaction for some time the very existence of the party [Hindustan Republican Association] seemed impossible. Enthusiastic comrades – nay, leaders – began to jeer at us. For some time I was afraid that some day I also might not be convinced of the futility of our programme. That was a turning point in my revolutionary career; “Study” was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of my mind. Study to enable yourself to face the arguments advanced by opposition. Study to arm yourself with arguments in favour of your cult. I began to study. 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. No more mysticism, no more blind faith. Realism became our cult. Use of force justifiable when restored to as a matter of terrible necessity: non-violence as policy indispensable for all mass movements. So much about methods. The most important thing was the clear conception of ideal for which we were to fight. As there were no important activities in the field of action, 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.”
This is how his development was charted from a romantic to a revolutionary thinker. Just for the appreciation of readers, he established a library of 175 books at Agra, where the Assembly bomb plan was finalised. As a revolutionary thinker, he encouraged the reading habit among his comrades and also debates on topical social and political issues.
Surely, Bhagat Singh is an icon among the youth. But for the awareness of his ideas, I will concede that we only played on the emotional side of the younger generation and have never exposed them to his scientific process of development and scientific ideas. It is only now that his writings and his jail notebook have come into focus, which will help them to understand Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary thinker.
It is our duty to liberate Bhagat Singh from current misinterpretations. Mere emotional reference to Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice by most of the political parties helps them to misuse his legacy for selfish political ends. Bhagat Singh cannot be frozen merely in a cheap emotional and nationalistic frame. How could a communalist propagating hatred against one another feel comfortable with his thoughts. Rather he should feel ashamed of himself in Bhagat Singh’s company.
The modest ancestral house of Bhagat Singh (in the foreground) at Katkar Kalan village in Nwashahr district, is dwarfed by an impressive modern construction
How does Bhagat Singh inspire us in the era of globalisation and neoliberal politics?
Bhagat Singh’s views are very relevant today in the context of globalisation. He stood for the end of exploitation of man by man and nation by nation. His slogan of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ was always followed by ‘Down with Imperialism’. For him revolution was the complete reorganisation of society so that everyone gets an opportunity to grow and contribute to the national progress. We got rid of colonial imperialism but today, under globalisation, we have the imperialism of corporations, most of the time led by the U.S. Bhagat Singh provides the most clear ideas to fight against this 21st century monster.