Whenever the country is passing through troubled times and there is a need to invoke a hero who will be accepted by divergent groups, the inevitable choice is the patriot Bhagat Singh (September 28, 1907 – March 23, 1931). The national struggle threw up many brave men and women but no one quite won the hearts nationwide as did this revolutionary from Punjab. His short but valiant life is an inspiration then, now and again. Idolatry is hazardous but this is one idol who has defied being turned into a cliche and his ideals have withstood his appropriation by all kinds of movements and ideologies.
Now, in the midst of protests about ‘growing intolerance’ and return of awards by writers, intellectuals and filmmakers, the need to remind the nation that there was someone called Bhagat Singh, his grandnephew Abhitej Singh Sandhu from Bengaluru issued a statement voicing his concern over the need for a tolerant India. No one knows Abhitej or his calling, but the fact that it is the martyr’s grandnephew saying it makes all the difference. One is reminded of a beautiful letter by Amar Kaur, older sister of Bhagat Singh, written during the dark days of Punjab when the Khalistan movement had gathered momentum in the 1980s. The letter was an appeal for togetherness in troubled times when people were afraid even to raise their voice. She had mentioned that the sacrifice of her brother and other patriots should not go in vain.
Looking back, one remembers the strength that letter gave to those who believed in a pluralistic society.
The martyr who went to the gallows at the age of 23 again came to the mind when filmmakers returned their awards and among them is the famed Anand Patwardhan, whose film ‘In Memory of Friends’ (1990) documented the decade and a half of violence and terror in Punjab through the image of Bhagat Singh. He was the focal point in the film as his image had been appropriated and manipulated by each political group to suit its own ideological agenda.
According to Patwardhan the subject of the film is both philosophically and politically complex (primarily due to different parties holding power at the state and Central level), for the demand for a separate state based on religion is both purely democratic and against democracy. This remarkable film along with interviews of the secularists, the separatists and the relatives of Bhagat Singh, had the recitation of the martyr’s jail writings by Naseeruddin Shah.
The effort was to indicate that he was not only a staunch socialist who had said that only class consciousness could be the way out of communal combats.
When Queen Elizabeth II was to visit Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar in October 1997, Ludhiana-based Jagmohan Singh had asked for an apology for the massacre. This demand had gained considerable impetus, coming as it did from the son of Amar Kaur and nephew of Bhagat Singh. In an interview to The Guardian, Jagmohan had offered an apology to the family of British police inspector Saunders adding that in pamphlets distributed by Bhagat Singh after Saunder’s murder, he had written that he was sorry to shed the blood of a fellow human being.
So let the spirit of the idol be remembered and also what he stood for in times when the fabric of the nation is fragile. Such is the memory of someone who is considered a ‘friend’ to all.