Thereby hangs a tale
Seventy-five years ago, on this day, the British clandestinely advanced the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, fearing public outrage. In an unprecedented manner, these legendary heroes of the Indian freedom movement were hanged until death at dusk on March 23, 1931, instead of the morning of March 24. The British tried to surreptitiously dispose the bodies at Hussainwallah on the banks of the Sutlej.
In the few years of his active political life, being just over 23 years of age when the British executed him, Bhagat Singh, along with his associates, had radicalised the freedom struggle. The Delhi bomb case (“to make the deaf hear”) and the murder of British officer, Saunders, to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai due to the severe lathi-charge in the anti-Simon Commission protests, brought on to the agenda of the freedom struggle a militancy hitherto unknown.
There are various elements of Bhagat Singh’s life that have contributed to his legend — heroism, sacrifice, political clarity and the ability to catch the imagination of the people. Bollywood has now converted this legend into an icon. During the first few years of this century, at least five films were made on this revolutionary. The latest was the very creative effort, Rang de Basanti. The title of the film comes from the immortal song that Bhagat Singh and his associates supposedly sang as they were marching to the gallows.
Though the film has come under severe criticism for its alleged projection of nihilism, the essential thrust has been missed. In actual life, many individuals may associate passionately with a political project due to various reasons and under varied circumstances. The moot question, however, is, when it comes to the crunch, whether these individuals stand up to their political convictions or not. This is the acid test. The protagonists in this film (including one who vacillates) embrace sure death out of conviction and are not pushed into that position by circumstances. The choice to opt out was always there. But they choose not to do so.
This is exactly what Bhagat Singh and his associates did. They marched to death with a smile. When the hangman offers him time to pray before death, he says, “I have neither fear of death nor belief in God.” In terms of political belief, while firmly abjuring “the cult of the bomb and the pistol”, as Bhagat Singh himself notes, they chose to throw the bomb at the Delhi assembly and murder Saunders with a pistol under the firm belief that these actions would galvanise the youth to seek freedom.
A brief recollection of the historical circumstances of that period is important to understand this and the consequent abiding relevance of Bhagat Singh to contemporary India. All these revolutionaries enthusiastically participated in the non-cooperation movement launched by the Congress under Gandhiji’s leadership in August 1920. However, when Gandhiji withdrew this movement in February 1922, following the attack on the police station in Chauri Chaura, calling it a “Himalayan blunder”, the disappointment and the consequent frustration was rampant among the youth. Some historians believe that this withdrawal forced the unspent energy of the masses into fratricidal channels. The spurt in the number of communal riots is often cited as evidence.
It is precisely in this period that alternatives to the Congress were being sought. The fledgling Communist Party, formed in 1920, brought together the various Communist groups across the country at a convention in 1925 at Kanpur. The same year, the RSS was founded in Nagpur. It was in the course of these tumultuous years that three distinct visions on what ought to be the character of independent India emerged.
The Congress, in response to these developments, defined its vision of independent India as being a secular, democratic republic. The Communists articulated their vision as one that would consolidate the secular democratic republic by transforming the political independence gained by the country into the true economic independence of all its people, i.e. socialism.
The third vision, in complete contradistinction to the above two, sought to define the character of independent India on the basis of the religious denomination of its people. This had a twin expression. The RSS advocating its fascistic vision of a rabidly intolerant ‘Hindu rashtra’ and the Muslim League seeking the partition of the country to establish an Islamic republic.
The ideological battle among these three visions, in fact, continues till date. Present-day political developments can be properly understood only within these parameters.
In this battle, Bhagat Singh was closest to the Communist vision and, in fact, independently moved towards Communist ideological foundations. Bhagat Singh was not a lone hero but part of a remarkable group of revolutionaries. It was at Bhagat Singh’s intervention, at a secret meeting that took place in Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi on September 8, 1928, that the Hindustan Republican Association was rechristened as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Socialism was now accepted both as a goal and the ideological foundation of its activities. Though Chandrashekhar Azad could not attend the meeting, being underground following the famous Kakori incident in August 1925 and the hanging of his associates, Ram Prasad Bismal, Ashfaqullah, Rajendra Lahiri and Roshan Singh, in November 1927, he had given his prior approval to the decisions taken at this meeting.
While many today seek to appropriate the legacy of Bhagat Singh and his associates, if proper justice of their contribution to the evolution of modern Independent India is to be done, then it must be based on his own writings. For a youth barely in his 20s, Bhagat Singh, in his times, was fairly well-read. His diaries, released by the National Archives on the 50th anniversary of his martyrdom, revealed the vast range of contemporary writers that he’d read.
Though Bollywood has now made his reading of Lenin famous, his diaries have extensive quotations from various writers, including the famous lines of the poet Shelley:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many — they are few.”
Everyday, during their trial, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutta used to enter the courts shouting the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. When the court questioned them on the meaning of this slogan, they submitted a written statement that says: “I, Bhagat Singh, was asked in the lower court as to what we meant by the word ‘Revolution’. In answer to that question, I would say that Revolution does not necessarily involve a sanguinary strife, nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. By revolution we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change.
“This is our ideal and with this ideology for our inspiration we have given a fair and loud enough warning.
“Revolution is the inalienable right of mankind. Freedom is the imprescriptible birthright of all. The labourer is the real sustainer of society. The sovereignty of the people is the ultimate destiny of the workers.”
The recollection of this legacy is of contemporary relevance in today’s continuing battle between the three visions that we spoke of above.
The writer is Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) politburo