Essay: Bhagat Singh and the idea of revolution
In time for Bhagat Singh’s 112th birth anniversary on 28th Sept, Chaman Lal, editor of The Bhagat Singh Reader, writes exclusively for HT on the range of the writing of the young revolutionary who was executed at age 23 by the colonial British governmentUpdated: Sep 27, 2019 23:58 IST
My interest in Bhagat Singh and other Indian revolutionaries began even before I was 20 years old. It was first aroused by Manmathnath Gupt, a convicted revolutionary in the Kakori case, who later turned into a historian of the Indian revolutionary movement during the freedom struggle and wrote Bharat Ke Krantikari (Revolutionaries of India). I translated it from the original Hindi into Punjabi in the early 1970s. From that point, my interest in revolutionary movements and the lives of revolutionaries grew even though I was a student of Hindi literature and worked mainly on literature and translation. In 1985-86, Bhagat Singh aur Unke Sathiyon ke Dastavez, which I co-edited and which was published by Rajkamal Prakashan, was an instant hit. It continues to do well today. Around this time, I narrowed my interest in India’s revolutionaries and began focussing on Bhagat Singh’s documents. Singh was the most organised in his thinking about the revolution and the means to achieve it. He went beyond earlier revolutionaries in giving an ideological direction to the movement. After a profound study of revolutionary movements across the world, he concluded that the goal of the Indian revolution should be a socialist revolution which aimed at ending not just colonial rule but class rule as well.
Before Bhagat Singh, the movement was all about the bravery, fearlessness, and patriotism of revolutionaries. With him, it took an entirely different turn, becoming a study not just of the brave actions of revolutionaries but also of their ideas.
To study ideas, scholars need documents and physical records of thoughts and actions. Bhagat Singh was the first Indian revolutionary who, like other Socialist revolutionaries across the world, wrote down and recorded his thoughts. He was just 16 when he wrote the first essay available to readers, apart from the few letters earlier written to family members. The essay The Problem of Language and Script in Punjab was published 10 years later in the journal Hindi Sandesh in 1933. He wrote it for a competition and won the first prize of Rs 50 (equivalent to about Rs 5,000 today). None of Bhagat Singh’s essays that have been discovered so far are in his own handwriting. Most are in print form and almost all are attributed to fictitious names. It is difficult to find any printed essay remotely associated with his real name. An essay in the Delhi-based Hindi journal Maharathi is credited to BS Sindhu. One can identify this as Bhagat Singh Sandhu, as his family’s clan title was Sandhu. But he twisted the name to Sindhu, perhaps due to his strong patriotism, being a resident of ‘Sindh’, the ancient identity of India as ‘the civilisation of Sindhu Valley’. Interestingly, when his niece, Virender took to writing the family biography and edited his documents, she chose the same title Sindhu and not Sandhu, as is prevalent. The only documents found in Bhagat Singh’s own handwriting are either letters or The Jail Notebook. Though not all the letters were well preserved, quite a few, including the oldest ones, which he wrote to family members at the age of 14 in 1921, have been saved.
A note about the authenticity of these documents: whatever is available in Bhagat Singh’s own handwriting – letters and The Jail Notebook – are indisputable. What has been available to us in a printed form needs some explanation. Few know that many of Bhagat Singh’s documents were published during his lifetime; only the names he used were fictitious due to the fear of state oppression. His letters from jail were published in his real name. Between 1923 and 1928, the period before his arrest, Bhagat Singh worked on the staff of many journals and papers like the Punjabi and Urdu Kirti, the Hindi daily Pratap, and the Delhi-based Hindi journal Arjun. His writings in Hindi were published in Arjun, Maharathi and Matwala. His essays in Punjabi and Urdu Kirti were published under the name ‘Virodhi’; in Pratap he used the pen name ‘Balwant’. He wrote nearly 37 of the 48 sketches on the lives of the revolutionaries published in the Phansi Ank (Execution Issue) issue of the Allahabad-based Hindi monthly Chand in November 1928.
It is not only in recent times that Bhagat Singh has been described as a socialist or Marxist revolutionary. Contemporary newspapers also described him as one. There is an interesting true story relating to Why I am an Atheist, first published in the September 27, 1931 issue of The People weekly edited by Lala Feroze Chand from Lahore. The essay was later banned by the colonial government. As early as 1934, EV Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, asked P Jeevanandam to translate this essay into Tamil. It was published in the Periyar-edited journal Kudai Arsu, with Periyar’s own tribute to Bhagat Singh. After the Partition, files of issues of The People could not reach India for many years. Someone then retranslated the essay from Tamil to English. This continues to be in circulation on many websites and many further translations were done from this version! Websites like Marxist-Leninist.org continue with the re-translated version. In Pakistan, some translations in Punjabi were done from the re-translated version. The original version of The People is now preserved at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi and was reproduced in a scanned format in my book Understanding Bhagat Singh (2013).
As followers of Bhagat Singh will know, his The Jail Notebook is not a personal diary or an account of his days in prison. It comprises notes taken from books that he read during his incarceration. Had time permitted perhaps he would have written a book.
During my teaching stint at JNU, when I met the late prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral on a social occasion, he complimented me: “Aapne Bhagat Singh ko fir zinda kar dia.’(You made Bhagat Singh live again.” I had earlier presented him a set of Bhagat Singh’s collected writings in Hindi. Embarrassed, I had replied that Bhagat Singh remains alive due to his sacrifice and writings. Incidentally, IK Gujral, Bhagat Singh, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz were contemporaries at college in Lahore.
In those days, both the Lahore and the Delhi editions of Hindustan Times carried many stories on Bhagat Singh. In fact, the most popular hat-wearing photograph of Bhagat Singh, clicked by a Kashmere Gate photographer around April 3, 1929, a few days before Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Assembly (Parliament of today) on April 8, 1929, appeared in the April 18 issue of the paper. A copy is preserved in the National Archives, New Delhi. The Bhagat Singh Reader also carries a Hindustan Times clipping featuring the court statement of Bhagat Singh and Dutt as the banner headline.
Chaman Lal is a retired Professor from JNU and Honorary Advisor of Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, Delhi Archives, New Delhi.