On Bhagat Singh
Gandhi, with his characteristic perversity – a perversity in consonance with the interests of the bourgeois-landlord classes of which he, and the Congress Party he led, were the chief representatives – condemned Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries variously as “deluded patriots”, “men past reason” and “enemies of the country”, whose “revolutionary sacrifice, nobility and love” were “not only a waste of effort, but being ignorant and misguided and misjudged … have done more harm to the country than any other activity”. These denunciations of the revolutionaries by Gandhi were at the time, and continue today to be, rejected with contempt by the masses on the Indian subcontinent, for the truth is just the opposite of that claimed by Gandhi. It is Gandhi and the Congress Party who have brought untold misery and misfortune to the vast masses of Indian people, whereas to Bhagat Singh and his comrades belongs the honour of pushing to the fore the wishes, desires and, above all, the interests of the downtrodden in the national liberation movement by emphasising the need to link this movement with the struggle of the masses to end all exploitation of one person by another and one nation by another. This is precisely why, 75 years after their martyrdom, Bhagat Singh and his comrades continue to inspire the Indian masses, especially the youth, with their heroism, combined with their ideal of a beautiful life under socialism, while Gandhi’s stock has sunk considerably notwithstanding the obeisance displayed towards him, understandably by the exploiting classes of India and other countries, but with shameful obscenity even by some sections of the Indian communist movement who describe him as the Mahatma (great soul) and father (Bapuji) of the nation.
Attempts at misappropriation
For eight decades, the Indian ruling classes, not to speak of the imperialist British bourgeoisie, have tried their best to turn Bhagat Singh into a nonentity, but failed totally in this miserable and dastardly attempt, thanks to the efforts of the working-class movement of India, which has kept alive his teachings, as well as the unceasing and limitless devotion of the Indian masses to this remarkable man who, during a very short life, did so much to advance the cause of the emancipation of the Indian people. In the face of the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh refusing to fade away, even the ruling classes of India have joined the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s birth. Places are being named after him, new institutes bearing his name are being planned and chairs in prestigious universities in his name have been established. There are two parallel celebrations taking place in India – one by the Indian proletariat, the peasantry and revolutionary intelligentsia, aimed at carrying forward the teachings and work of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, the other by the Indian ruling classes for the sole purpose of jumping on the bandwagon, appropriating Bhagat Singh’s name and exploits, denuding his teachings of their revolutionary content, turning him into a meaningless icon, while intensifying their exploitation and oppression of the Indian people.
In his remarkably illuminating work, State and Revolution, Lenin had occasion to remark on the phenomenon whereby the oppressing classes attempted to canonise the very revolutionaries whom they persecuted during their lifetimes, for the sole purpose of duping the masses with emasculated versions of their teachings. “What is now happening to Marx’s teaching has”, said Lenin, “in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the teachings of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes struggling for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their teachings with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to surround their names with a certain halo for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie. All the social-chauvinists are now ‘Marxists’ (don’t laugh!). And more and more frequently, German bourgeois scholars, but yesterday specialists in the annihilation of Marxism, are speaking of the ‘national-German’ Marx, who, they aver, educated the workers’ unions which are so splendidly organised for the purpose of conducting a predatory war!” (August-September 1917).
Something similar is being attempted in regard to Bhagat Singh’s teachings and exploits by the Indian ruling classes, who during his lifetime hounded him, greeted his teachings and actions with the most savage malice and inveterate hatred, who conducted a scurrilous campaign of lies and innuendo against him, who went to the extent of playing the role of accomplices in his (and his comrades’) judicial murder by British imperialism. These same despicable classes are now busy tripping over each other to claim Bhagat Singh as their own, in an attempt to convert him into a harmless icon, to surround his name with a certain aura for consoling the Indian masses and deceiving them, while simultaneously emptying his teaching of its revolutionary content, blunting the thrust of his anti-imperialist and proletarian internationalist ideology and vulgarising it. In this wholesale doctoring of Bhagat Singh by the Indian ruling classes, all is forgotten, put to one side, about Bhagat Singh the anti-imperialist, the Marxist, the materialist, the proletarian internationalist, the irreconcilable enemy of all forms of exploitation, superstition, religious fundamentalism and casteism. They are pushing to the forefront that which suits their class interests, going to the lengthy of producing a huge poster, plastered on prominent billboards all over India, bearing the picture of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, with a quotation from Gandhi on the importance of non-violent forms of struggle, as well as a quotation, torn completely out of its context, from Bhagat Singh, which makes him appear as a devotee of the Gandhian concept of non-violence! Nothing could be further from this profanity.
Revolutionary role of violence
While Bhagat Singh was no gun-toting trigger-happy maniac, as he was at pains to explain on more than one occasion, he at the same time treated with contempt Gandhi’s utopian, reactionary and one-sided insistence on non-violence. “Force, when aggressively used”, he wrote, “is violence and is therefore morally unjustified. But when it is used in furtherance of legitimate cause, it has its moral justification. Elimination of force at all costs is utopian and the new movement which has arisen in the country and of which we have given a warning, is inspired by the ideals which inspired Guru Gobind Singh and Shiraji, Kamal Pasha, Washington and Garibaldi, Lafayette and Lenin”.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades well understood the revolutionary role played by violence in humanity’s struggle for liberation from the vicelike grip of exploitation and oppression. They therefore willingly, nay enthusiastically, wielded this weapon in the struggle against British imperialism, correctly regarding its use as spiritually uplifting. To Gandhi, on the other hand, force was the absolute evil.
Engels, in his controversy with Dühring, derided the latter for his supercilious attitude to the question of force in these trenchant terms:
“To Herr Dühring force is the absolute evil … That force, however, plays also another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms – of this there is not a word in Herr Dühring. It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of the economic system of exploitation – unfortunately because all use of force, forsooth, demoralises the person who uses it. And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been given by every victorious revolution! And this is Germany, where a violent collision … would at least have the advantage of wiping out the servility which has permeated the national consciousness as a result of the humiliation of the Thirty Years’ War. And this parson’s mode of thought – lifeless, insipid and impotent –claims the right to impose itself on the most revolutionary party that history has known!” (Anti-Dühring, FLPH Moscow, 1954, p.255).
Gandhi did not want even to know about the revolutionary role of violence, for he was not in the business of revolutionary transformation of society. He did not admit even the possibility, not even grudgingly, that violence will perhaps be necessary to overthrow the system of exploitation, for he stood for no such overthrow. To him all violence demoralised the person using it. And this in India, where a violent confrontation with British imperialism at least would have had the advantage of wiping out, to use Gandhi’s own words, “…the timidity almost bordering on cowardice” which had permeated the national consciousness as a result of alien subjugation and the tyrannical conditions surrounding the British rule over India.
For their part, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were not prepared to accept the conditions of national humiliation lying down. They were determined to wipe out the servility which had so long permeated the national consciousness. When Gandhi, in his article ‘The cult of the bomb’, attacked the HSRA for being a terrorist organisation, Bhagat Singh and his comrades hit back with their counter-article, ‘The philosophy of the bomb’, in which they stated that “terrorism” (which is used here to connote violent methods of struggle) was the product of the realisation by the youth of national bondage and “…a growing, intense, unquenchable thirst for freedom”; that terrorism “… is a phase, a necessary, an inevitable phase in the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution and the revolution is not complete without terrorism”; that terrorism “…instils fear in the hearts of the oppressors” while bringing hope to the oppressed masses, giving “courage and self-confidence to the wavering” and shattering “the spell of the superiority of the ruling class”, it “raises the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world” by providing the “most convincing proof of a nation’s hunger for freedom”.
The article goes on to say that the Congress, instead of declaring war on the British government, had “declared war against the revolutionaries”; that the masses of India were solidly on the side of the revolutionaries, and Gandhi’s claims to the contrary had a hollow ring to them; that Lord Irwin and such other oppressors could appear to be friends of India “only to the enemies of freedom”; and that the sacrifices of the revolutionaries had “…produced a tremendous change in the mentality of the people”. It argued convincingly that while the efforts of the revolutionaries advanced the country a long way on the road to independence, a fact granted even by those who did not see eye to eye with them in politics, “the mania for non-violence and Gandhi’s compromise mentality” had merely managed to disrupt the forces brought together consequent upon the call for Mass Action, with non-violence achieving one result – failure. It then added “Little wonder, then, that the country refuses to give it another trial.”
The article concludes with these ringing tones: “There is no crime that Britain has not committed. Deliberate misrule has reduced us to paupers, has bled us white. As a race and a people we stand dishonoured and outraged. Do people still expect us to forget and forgive? We shall have our revenge – a people’s righteous revenge on the tyrant. Let cowards fall back and cringe for compromise and peace. We ask not for mercy and give no quarter. Ours is a war to the end – to Victory or Death.
“Long live Revolution”.
From the foregoing it is perfectly clear that Bhagat Singh and his comrades well understood throughout the revolutionary role of violence in the struggle for national liberation, as well as in the struggle for socialism. Up to their dying day, as is clear from Bhagat Singh’s last political statement ‘To young political workers’, written less than two months before his execution, they never gave up this stance. They mounted the gallows with a cheerful and firm faith, not only in their ideological and political outlook, but also in the efficacy of their methods of struggle – of combining legal and illegal work, of supplementing mass work with the use of revolutionary violence as and when the circumstances so required. The attempts by the ruling classes of India, who are notorious for their brutality in suppressing even the most elementary struggles of the Indian working class and peasantry with extreme violence, to pretend to be the upholders and practitioners of non-violence, and their attempt to enlist the services of the greatest Indian martyr, Bhagat Singh, are bound to fail, for the teachings of Bhagat Singh, in addition to being safeguarded by the proletarian revolutionary movement, have permeated the Indian masses.
The opposite distortion from the left
If the Indian ruling classes are attempting to distort Bhagat Singh’s teachings by intimating that towards the end of his life he had given up belief in the necessity for revolutionary violence, seen the error of his ways, and come to accept Gandhi’s concept of non-violence, another distortion, in the opposite direction, has been under way for quite some time. According to the latter, Bhagat Singh and his comrades, notwithstanding all their talk about the necessity of rousing and mobilising the masses of the proletariat and the peasantry through mass work, were in reality only committed to acts of “individual terrorism” typified by the murder of Saunders and the throwing of the bomb in the Central Assembly. Of this distortion, a section of the communist movement in India, and a few liberal intellectuals, are guilty, although their criticism of the ‘terrorism’ of Bhagat Singh and his associates is always accompanied by an admiration of the courage, integrity and heroism displayed by him and his fellow revolutionaries. Even the late Comrade Shiv Verma, a close comrade-in-arms of Bhagat Singh and himself one of the accused in the second Lahore conspiracy case, who did more than anyone else to rescue Bhagat Singh’s writings from oblivion, was unable to resist the pressure to fall in line in this regard. In his long, and otherwise very valuable, introduction to the Select Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh (SWSBS), he writes that the Lahore and Kanpur groups of revolutionaries had started moving towards socialism in 1926-27; that the Delhi meeting of 8-9 September 1928, at which the decision to change the name of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) was taken, also accepted socialism as the ultimate goal of the organisation. All the same, continues cde. Verma: “…we stuck to our old individual style of actions. We talked of organising the workers, peasants, youth and middle class intelligentsia, yet, except for the formation of Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Punjab, no serious effort was made in that direction anywhere else. In this regard, our understanding of scientific socialism, i.e., Marxism, was faulty. We failed to understand that Marxism does not permit the separation of theory from practice and that there is no place for individual actions in it…
“We hoped to combine violent activities, which included murder of tyrannical government officials and sporadic insurrections, with the building up of mass organisations of workers, peasants, youth and students. But, in practice, our main emphasis remained on preparations for violent activities and armed actions. This, we thought, was necessary for rousing the people from their slumber and also for retaliation against mass repression resorted to by the government… The inherent contradiction in our approach had its own logic. Our decision to organise the workers and peasants remained a pious wish. The major part of our resources went in organising retaliatory actions”.
A number of points need to be made in response to the above remarks of Cde Verma. First, Cde Verma remarks almost casually that “…except for the formation of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Punjab, no serious effort was made in that direction anywhere”. The formation of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), the establishment of its branches, its activities in the field of propaganda and agitation, were truly remarkable for their time.
NBS’s mass work
Here are a few details of NBS’s very successful attempts at mass mobilisation. The NBS organised many-sided activities and campaigns to put into effect its secular, democratic, republican, socialist and internationalist outlook and programme. Fiercely internationalist, it exhorted the people to oppose imperialist onslaught on other countries. It regarded it as a matter of great shame that the Indian army was regularly used by British imperialism against the people of other countries, for instance, China and Afghanistan; calling upon the Indian soldiers not to go to other countries “which have no conflict with our country; to fire at and kill them and enslave the innocent people there”.
Rising above all narrow and petty religious and sectarian politics, NBS organised a vast number of lectures to discuss social, political and economic questions, going to the extent of discarding founders of various religions and praising Marx and Engels as the greatest men known to history; spurning religious slogans, it popularised instead two slogans: Inquilab Zindabad and Hindustan Zindabad.
The NBS, and its headquarters in Lahore, became a pole of attraction for the patriotic youth. The colonial authorities found the NBS activities alarming enough to attempt to implicate Bhagat Singh in the July 1927 Dussehra Bomb Case, with which Bhagat Singh and his organisation had nothing to do. Failing in its attempt, the government was obliged to release Bhagat Singh, albeit after imposing on him surety of Rs60,000 – a very large sum of money at that time.
At the end of March 1928, the NBS organised a national week of public meetings. At one of these meeting (on 28 March), communist leader S A Dange and Philip Spratt from the Communist Party of Great Britain spoke on the meaning and significance of Indian independence. At Bhagat Singh’s initiative, close relations were established between the NBS, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party in Amritsar, with the NBS participating in a youth conference organised by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party on April 11-13, 1928. At this conference, the decision was taken to establish NBS branches in every possible locality in Punjab, with the emphasis being laid on work in the rural areas.
The NBS took up peasant demands and grievances, linking them up with the freedom struggle through inculcating in the peasantry an ardent love for liberation. It organised a workers’ and peasants’ conference in Lyallpur at the end of September 1928. Prominent speakers, including Spratt, Bradley, Dange (all communists), as well as Kedar Nath Sehgal (President of NBS) and Chhabil Das, Secretary of NBS’s Tract Society (explained below), spoke at this conference. The proceedings of the conference lauded the revolutionaries, denounced imperialism and all exploitation, emphasised the need for a social revolution and, to that end, the necessity for organising workers and peasants.
With the help of left-leaning Congressites, the NBS marked the “Friends of Russia week” in August 1928, extending friendship to the Soviet Union, expressing solidarity with the latter’s anti-imperialist stance, and declaring that no Indian would side with the British in any war between the latter and the USSR. Destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a labourers’ and peasants’ republic alone could furnish the conditions for a free and prosperous life, was the message that went forth from this week of celebrations.
The NBS, along with the Kirti Kisan Party, mobilised the peasantry to demand the total remission of land revenue in the conditions of a collapse in the price of wheat in 1931. It also made an attempt to capture several labour unions in Amritsar in August 1928 so as to be able to influence urban workers. It vigorously opposed the Trade Disputes Bill and other anti-working class measures undertaken by the government; it organised in the same month a meeting in Amritsar to deliberate on the question of “war between capital and labour”, at which prominent speakers denounced the above Bill and heaped eulogies on the October Revolution.
Realising the importance of educating the masses through cheap and short pamphlets, the NBS brought out eight Tracts in quick succession. Priced cheaply, these tracts, devoted to carrying among the masses the revolutionary aims of the NBS, impregnated with the ideology of secularism, nationalism and socialism, were produced and sold in thousands. It was explained in simple, easy to understand, terms that the British had conquered India with the sword, not for the benefit of Indians but for their selfish motives; that they could only be driven out by the sword. In these tracts were painted vividly the miserable conditions of the people of India. No god could be expected to descend from heaven to rescue the people from their miserable existence; instead they had to take their destiny in their own hands and emancipate themselves. The youth were exhorted to make a study of the doctrines of Communism and Bolshevism, of freedom and equality, democracy and self-determination, through which alone could political and economic freedom be attained. No wonder the colonial authorities found these publications extremely objectionable, strongly impregnated as they were with Bolshevik and Communist doctrines.
These tracts met with the greatest and most enthusiastic response on the part of the youth and students, leading to the establishment of youth leagues and student unions in very many towns and centres of learning across north India. In fact the Lahore Students Union became an auxiliary to NBS. Government reports of the day correctly stated that the Lahore Students Union was organised only as an appendage to the NBS or as a “recruiting ground for revolutionary work and from the very beginning the secret section of the Union kept working to achieve that object”.
Alarmed at the spread of the influence of the NBS among the students, the authorities took repressive measures to deal with the situation. Schools were threatened with the suspension of grants unless their heads agreed to weed out the revolutionary elements and suspend teachers found to be preaching subversive doctrines. These repressive measures merely evoked greater resistance among the student population, which, hand in hand with the NBS, resorted to open defiance of the authorities.
Boycott of the Simon Commission
The NBS, carried out spirited propaganda for the boycott of the Simon Commission. It was the moving spirit behind the organisation of the 30 October 1928 large demonstration against the Commission in Lahore. The Congress leadership had little option other than to support and join the demonstration at which Lala Lajpat Rai received severe injuries from which he died two weeks later. It was to avenge the murder of Lalaji that Bhagat Singh and his comrades gunned down Police Officer Saunders, an act for which they were to pay with their lives.
In October 1928, the NBS launched a newspaper, the Naujawan (The Youth), with the intention of “developing a spirit of patriotism” in the youth, assisting the cause of the “workers, peasants and the poor” and mak-ing available to the youth litera-ture calculated to “induce them to make sacri-fices for the lib-erty of the motherland”. The paper, by its exhortations to the youth to cast off cowardice and timidity, helped develop in the youth total hatred of, and contempt for, the colonial authorities.
From 22 to 24 February 1929, the NBS held its second provincial congress in Lahore, at which, in addition to the fierce denunciation of imperialism, the aims of complete independence and a workers’ and peasants’ revolution were advocated. At the conference, the Congress Party came in for harsh criticism for its advocacy of Dominion Status for India.
By the close of 1929, the NBS had managed to set up branches in several districts of western Uttar Pradesh, as well as in Karachi, while spreading its influence in places such as Bombay and Surat.
After the imprisonment of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, following the 18 April 1929 Assembly bomb incident, the NBS activities received further momentum. Their hunger strike only served to add further fuel to the fire. Huge meetings were held throughout the province, especially in Lahore and Amritsar, to express solidarity with the hunger strikers and to pressurise the authorities to accept their just demands. 30th of June was observed as Bhagat Singh Day by the NBS in all principal cities and towns with the enthusiastic participation of the masses. Once again, the meetings in Lahore and Amritsar, being the most significant cities of Punjab, were exceptionally well attended and generated enormous enthusiasm. At the Amritsar meeting the former slogan of “Bande Matram” (Hail Mother) gave way to the revolutionary slogans immortalised by Bhagat Singh – “Long live Revolution” and “Down with Imperialism”. These gatherings also called for an end to all compromises with imperialism, advocated the ideal of complete independence, and proclaimed the readiness of the youth to sacrifice everything for realising this ideal.
At its Delhi meeting of 3 February 1930, the committee of the NBS decided to mark 10 May as “Revolution Day”, with a detailed programme to be followed everywhere. Processions with red flags, and the participation of workers and peasants, were to be held; on reaching the destination the red flag was to be hoisted and saluted, followed by a public meeting. The Delhi meeting also took the decision to impart to its members physical training, including instruction in the use of firearms, swords and batons.
The NBS took a leading role in the Civil Disobedience movement initiated by Gandhi, holding large meetings in towns and villages. Without the help of the NBS the Congress Party, whose popularity was in decline, would not have been in a position to propagate its message. While assisting the Congress, the NBS made sure that its own thoroughly anti-imperialist message, as well as its condemnation of Congress tactics of compromise with imperialism, got through to the masses. The government took several harsh steps to put an end to the rising popularity of the NBS, but to no avail. The latter marked 20 March 1930 as “Meerut Day”, organising processions and collections of funds for the defence of those tried in the Meerut Communist Conspiracy case. Unable to curb its activities, and regarding it as constituting a danger to public peace and law and order, the government declared the NBS as an unlawful organisation on 23 June 1930, raided its offices and arrested its leading cadres throughout the Punjab and Sindh.
After the pronouncement of death sentences on Bhagat Singh and his comrades on 7 October 1930 by the Special Tribunal, Bhagat Singh became an object of veneration on the part of tens of millions throughout India. While the Civil Disobedience movement was gaining strength, Gandhi characteristically called a halt to it, agreeing to a dialogue with the viceroy. On the other hand, the NBS declared illegal in June 1930, revived itself through the garb of the Bhagat Singh Appeal Committees, whose aim it was to secure mass signatures for a memorandum calling for the reprieve of the death sentences. Bhagat Singh Day was observed throughout Punjab on 17 February 1931, when students absented themselves en mass from colleges. A procession was staged during the day, while in the evening a 15,000-strong meeting, addressed by leading revolutionaries, was held. Such was the strength of this campaign that even moderate Congress leaders felt compelled to join the campaign for the commutation of the death sentences as a precondition for negotiations with the government. It goes without saying that Gandhi ignored all these pleas and went ahead with his talks, resulting in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. With Gandhi on board, the government hanged our wonderful revolutionaries on 23 March 1931. On his arrival on 25 March 1931 to attend the Karachi session of the Congress, Gandhi was greeted with great hostility, with the supporters of the NBS waving black flags and shouting “Down with Gandhi”. To coincide with the Congress session, the NBS also held its conference in Karachi, which was presided over by Subhash Chandra Bose at the invitation of the NBS. The delegates at this conference were exhorted to work for the realisation of “a socialist government for the masses”.
During its short but eventful existence, lasting five years, the NBS managed to enthuse the masses with Bhagat Singh’s slogans. These slogans “Long Live Revolution” (Inquilab Zindabad) and “Down with Imperialism” reverberated from one corner of India to the other. In the light of the above brief survey of the life and activities of the NBS, it is clear that HSRA, and its mass organisation, the NBS, succeeded beyond expectation in mobilising the masses in the struggle for liberation and imbuing them with the powerful ideas of revolution and socialism. In the light of this survey, it is not possible to agree with Comrade Verma’s statement that “… the decision to organise the workers and peasants remained a pious wish”.
(The information in this section on the mass activities of the NBS is drawn from S Ifran Habib’s recently published book To Make the Deaf Hear.)
Just as the HSRA, through its mass organisation, the NBS, was beginning to develop the organisational structures for carrying its message to the masses, the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, combined with the brutal suppression of the movement by British imperialism, cut short these developments – preventing the revolutionaries from implementing further still their programme of mobilising the masses in the usual way. However, they did realise this aim on an incomparably larger scale, in a spectacularly novel and revolutionary way – something acknowledged even by those critics on the left who have sworn to shun for all time all use of violence.
Second, apart from the NBS, other mass organisations such as the Lahore Students’ Union, Bal [Children’s] Students’ Union and Bal Bharat Sabha, were formed. In the words of Professor Camanlal of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU):
“It is interesting to know that the NBS had helped form the Bal Bharat Sabha, an organisation of school students between the age of 12 and 16. No historian as yet seems to have paid attention to this interesting aspect of the freedom struggle. The president of Bal Bharat Sabha in Amritsar, Kahan Chand, aged just 11 years, was subjected to three months of rigorous imprisonment. And Yash, then only 10 years of age, who was to later become the renowned editor of the Urdu daily, ‘Milap’, was secretary of Bal Bharat Sabha. He was prosecuted on three counts, including assisting the Lahore city Congress and the NBS. In those days, 1,192 juveniles under the age of 15 years were convicted for their political activities. Apart from the Bal Bharat Sabha, the Bal Students’ Union was also active in those days. At the time, Bhagat Singh not merely drew Punjabi youth to join these organisations, even the Lahore city Congress was affected by his magnetic personality. Lala Lajpat Rai’s grandson, Baldev Raj, was secretary of the Bal Students’ Union and Dyanat Rai its president. Such was the spread of patriotic fervour generated by Bhagat Singh and his comrades in those days” (‘Revolutionary Legacy of Bhagat Singh’, Economic and Political Weekly, 15 September 2007).
Third, it is not true that the revolutionaries failed to understand the connection between theory and practice, or that there is no place for individual actions in Marxism. No less a person than Lenin, in his articles ‘Guerrilla warfare’ and ‘Forms of working class movement’ rightly stresses the need for a combination of all conceivable forms of struggle and on a quick change from one form to another as per the needs of the situation – something never to be grasped by those Marxists who have vowed never to use violent methods of struggle and who equate all use of violence with terrorism. Far from separating theory and practice, the actions of the revolutionaries endowed their thinking, as we shall see, with an unimaginable power.
In connection with this controversy, we are compelled also to argue with Cde PMS Grewal, member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist) (CPIM), who in his recent book on Bhagat Singh says:
“Contradictory as it may appear, the fact is that Bhagat Singh is remembered as an inspirational symbol among the common masses precisely for acts which qualify as individual terrorism. When the people at large admire Bhagat Singh they recall the shooting of Saunders, the throwing of the bombs in the Central Assembly and his martyrdom as a result of these acts” (P M S Grewal, Bhagat Singh – Liberation’s Blazing Star). Unable to offer a satisfactory explanation for this apparent contradiction, he gets into further difficulties with the absurdly contradictory assertion: “This path could not have freed India from colonial slavery but its role in inspiring large sections of the masses, especially the youth, to join the liberation struggle cannot be denied”. Thus, on the one hand, the acts of individual terrorism that Bhagat Singh and his comrades were allegedly guilty of could not have led to India’s freedom from colonial slavery, in that case Gandhi must have been right in condemning Bhagat Singh and his comrades, who in his view had retarded by their violent acts India’s freedom struggle; but on the other hand, the role played by these acts in inspiring large sections of the masses to join the liberation struggle is undeniable – in that case these actions propelled the liberation struggle forward. Cde Grewal’s argument is a circular one: on the one hand it cannot be denied, on the other hand it must be admitted. In the end he is forced to admit that the “…specificity of circumstances in which these acts of Bhagat Singh and his comrades were carried out … provided the objective grounds for imbuing them [these acts] with a heroic and inspirational hue.” In other words, the acts of Bhagat Singh and his comrades were correct, justified by the existing circumstances, and were truly heroic and genuinely inspirational. That being the case, what was to be gained by characterising these acts as instances of “individual terrorism”? After all this, Cde Grewal adds for good measure the sentence, as if to safeguard himself against accusations of endorsing terrorism: “Any generalisation that acts of individual terrorism can be inspirational in all circumstances is, therefore, ill founded” (Grewal pp 61-62). We do not know who this Aunt Sally is aimed at, for no one in the communist movement is trying to draw any generalisation from the acts of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries so as to endow all acts of violence with a heroic and inspirational role.
The truth is that through their actions, Bhagat Singh and his comrades managed to convert their slogans, ideas and political theory – Inquilab Zindabad, socialism and independence for the masses in opposition to the Gandhian concept of non-violence and compromise with imperialism and the bourgeois-landlord class – into a material force that gripped the masses. The effect of their actions on the Indian people was truly electrifying. Their declaration, consequent upon avenging the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, in which they stated “let the world know that India still lives; that the blood of the youth has not been totally cooled down and that they can still risk their lives, if the honour of the nation is at stake …” roused the entire country as never before. The response of the masses of people throughout the country to their heroic actions was unprecedented precisely because of their exceptional political meaning.
As regards the bombs in the Central Assembly, by no stretch of the imagination could the epithet ‘terrorist’ be applied to them, for they were neither intended to, nor did they, cause any harm. They were merely a dramatic protest against the anti-communist and anti-proletarian policies and actions of British imperialism. What is more, these actions were planned and carried out under the authority and supervision of their party, the HSRA. All the objectives that the revolutionaries set out to achieve through these actions were fully realised. They turned their trial into a trial of British imperialism, using the court for an exposure of the crimes and brutality of British imperialism, as well as for the propagation of the ideals of communism and proletarian internationalism. It was their love for, and dedication to, the working-class movement, their devotion to the cause of India’s freedom, which motivated them to undertake these actions. The people of India – the working class, the peasantry, the youth and the revolutionary intelligentsia – well understood the meaning of these actions; precisely for this reason they greeted these actions with overwhelming enthusiasm. It was this response of the masses which in turn endowed Bhagat Singh and his comrades with the halo they so richly deserved – and continue to deserve.
Even Nehru was moved by Bhagat Singh’s actions, and his conduct in the court, to such an extent as to pen the following effusive lines in praise of him:
“He [Bhagat Singh] 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.”
In fact, Cde Grewal, in the introduction to his book, himself pays full tribute to Bhagat Singh and his comrades’ “uncompromising hatred for the colonial oppressor in word and deed”, which “provided courage and inspiration to millions of their contemporaries to plunge into the national liberation struggle. Their staunch anti-imperialism continues to inspire all those who seek to rid the world of the curse of imperialist exploitation, domination and war. It is hardly surprising that anti-imperialist struggles in the country till date continue to invoke the memory and heroic deeds of these revolutionaries, especially Bhagat Singh, as powerful symbols for rousing the masses” (p.16).
This is absolutely correct, but it stands in glaring contradiction to the statement he made on pp. 61-2 of his book quoted above, according to which Bhagat Singh is remembered as “an inspirational symbol — precisely for acts which qualify as individual terrorism” – a path which, he asserts, “could not have freed India from colonial slavery…” That being so, why should it be “hardly surprising that anti-imperialist struggles … continue to invoke the memory and heroic deeds of these revolutionaries, especially Bhagat Singh, as powerful symbols for rousing the masses”? Surely it would be much better, in that case, to inform all those engaged in present-day struggles against imperialism and all exploitation not to follow the path of Bhagat Singh, for it can never lead to freedom from slavery, including wage slavery. From his irreconcilably contradictory statements on the significance of Bhagat Singh and his actions, we can only surmise that, while he is fully in agreement with the actions of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Cde Grewal is nevertheless obliged in the name of some spurious Marxism, and to please sections in his party, to characterise these actions as acts of “individual terrorism”, which could never have led, and can never lead, to freedom from all forms of slavery.
If Bhagat Singh was not a terrorist, nor was he a frustrated person. To counter those who assert that Bhagat Singh’s actions were the product of frustration on his part, Cde Shiv Verma correctly stated that “…Bhagat Singh never took any major political step without taking the HRSA Central Committee into confidence”, adding that the “…theory of failure and frustration robs the Assembly action of the entire political content and reduces it to a simple act of frustration (pp. 35-36, SWSBS).
In his foreword to the first edition of the writings of Bhagat Singh, the late communist veteran, BT Ranadive, who paid a most glowing tribute to Bhagat Singh and his comrades (cited below) too could not resist making the barbed comment that, notwithstanding Bhagat Singh’s “transition from individual action to mass revolutionary movement, from individual revolution to class revolution and class struggle”, and successfully linking all this with the “immediate needs of the national revolutionary struggle against the British”, there always remained in his mind “the conflict between the immediate demands of a revolutionary ideology and the keen personal desire for immediate militant action and self-immolation.” (p.9). He then goes on to refer to an editorial, dated 13 November 1930, in Workers’ Weekly, the weekly organ of the Communist Party which, he says, explained “individual terrorism as a psychology of revenge and not revolution … a sad waste of so many revolutionary lives” (p.9). But the same article then referred to Lenin’s “justification of individual terrorism under certain conditions” – conditions which would appear to have been satisfied in the case of actions undertaken by Bhagat Singh and his comrades from the HSRA. Continuing, Cde Ranadive says: “It will be seen that the Communist Party always appreciated the revolutionary anti-imperialist and patriotic urge behind the sacrifices of these revolutionaries, while differing from their estimation of the political situation and reliance on individual action.” All this leaves the lingering insinuation that Bhagat Singh at heart was, and remained, a bit of a terrorist. And this is in glaring contrast with the following correct observation made by Comrade Ranadive a mere 4 pages earlier in the same foreword: “Bhagat Singh’s entry into open public life announced that here was a young revolutionary intent on thinking in terms of the masses, intent on revolution and on learning from the most advanced science of revolution,” i.e., Marxism. For us the conclusive proof that Bhagat Singh was not a terrorist is his emphatic statement contained in his letter to young political workers in which he disabuses everyone (not “formally and openly renounces individual terrorism”, as Cde Ranadive will have us believe, for one cannot renounce that which one has not been guilty of believing in and practising) of the notion that he had acted like a terrorist: “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”. Since Bhagat Singh embarked on his revolutionary career in his mid-teens, it is clear from his statement that at the time of Saunders’ murder and the Assembly bomb incident he was no longer a terrorist. In view of this, to insist on fixing the badge of terrorism firmly to Bhagat Singh’s lapel, while lauding him to the skies, amounts to a total disregard for facts and an exercise in mutually contradictory and self-annihilatory assertions.
Let it be emphasised in passing that Bhagat Singh had deep respect for the communists. This respect, and the ardent desire of the HSRA revolutionaries to give concrete support to the communists is self-evident from the fact that it was the brutal attack by British imperialism on the communists with the aim of decapitating the working class, through the wholesale arrest of leading communists and hauling them up before a kangaroo court in Meerut to face conspiracy charges, and simultaneously to institutionalise such attacks through the Pubic Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill, which had prompted the HSRA to plan the throwing of bombs in the Assembly and to carry out that plan.
This being the case, why did not the HSRA revolutionaries simply disband their organisation and join the Communist Party, with whose ideological outlook they harboured no real differences? Ajoy Ghosh, who was a close friend and comrade-in-arms of Bhagat Singh, and who was later to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party, provides a clue to the answer to the above question. In his Memoirs, he says: “In April 1929, streamer headlines announced the arrest of communist and trade union leaders all over the country… Bhagat Singh and some others among us had already met a number of communist leaders. We felt sympathetic towards them and at one time even contemplated some sort of working alliance with them – the communists to organise the masses and conduct the mass movement, we of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association to act as its armed section. But when we learned that the communists considered armed action by individuals to be harmful to the movement, we dropped the idea”.
Ghosh goes on to say that the nationwide arrests of communists, resulting in the Meerut conspiracy trial, “…were felt by us to be a matter of vital concern for the revolutionary movement”, for they constituted “an imperialist attack against a cause which was our own, against a movement which had our love and sympathy. We resolved to protest not merely against the arrests but against the whole imperialist policy of fostering the growth of constitutionalist illusions on the one hand and unleashing terror against the people on the other. A few days later bombs exploded on the official benches in the Central Assembly.”
Ghosh adds that Bhagat Singh was “the first among us to be drawn towards socialist ideas … more and more as a result of his studies, of discussions which we held frequently and under the impact of events outside, he began to stress the need for armed action only in coordination with and as an integral part of the mass movement, subordinated to its needs and requirements” (Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Ajoy Ghosh).
Ghosh’s memoirs clearly reveal that the two of them – Ghosh and Bhagat Singh – gave serious thought and consideration to cooperation with, and work under, the Communist Party, but decided to desist on being told that the latter was totally opposed to the weapon of armed action under all conditions. This is corroborated by Sohan Singh Josh, whom Bhagat Singh told during the first all-India conference of workers’ and peasants’ parties at Calcutta in December 1928: “We entirely agree with the programme and activities of your party, but there are times when the blow of the enemy has to be immediately counteracted by armed action to inspire confidence among the masses” (cited in SWSBS, p.39).
Thus it is clear that the unwillingness of Bhagat Singh and his comrades to join the ranks of the Communist Party cannot be attributed to their immaturity in matters of theory, nor to their inability to rid themselves of the attractions of anarchism or individual terrorism. Bhagat Singh and his comrades insisted, and correctly in our view, on the proper role of revolutionary violence in the struggle for national liberation and socialism. They were not prepared to turn their back on the weapon of revolutionary terror. It is a pity, for had the Communist Party been prepared to meet Bhagat Singh and his comrades half way on this question, both sides, and with them the cause of the liberation of the downtrodden masses of India, would have gained immeasurably. But that was not to be. So, Bhagat Singh and his comrades of the HSRA went ahead with the revolutionary work through a judicious combination of legal and illegal, violent and peaceful, methods of struggle. In doing this they made a signal contribution to the cause of the emancipation of the Indian people. Theirs is the contribution from which the present-day working-class movement can learn much. This is the essence, the real meaning, of the teachings of Bhagat Singh. These teachings are a continuing source of inspiration, and a clarion call, to the proletariat and the peasant masses of India to rise against the conditions of oppression, exploitation, degradation, destitution and semi-starvation, and usher in a new society – a socialist society – and fulfil the dreams of Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
Bhagat Singh’s teachings
In safeguarding the legacy of Bhagat Singh and his teachings, in addition to combating the attempts of the exploiting classes at misappropriating him and turning him into a harmless icon, as well as correcting the misrepresentations, no matter how well intended, of the actions of Bhagat Singh and his comrades by a section of the left in India, it is of decisive importance to take his teachings to the masses, for they are as relevant, if not more, today as they were in his days. These teachings may be summarised in the following words of Shiv Verma:
“Bhagat Singh endowed the revolutionary movement with three slogans: (1) Long Live Revolution, (2) Long Live the Proletariat, and (3) Down With Imperialism. He very nicely summed up his entire programme through these slogans.
“The first slogan represented the outlook – the revolutionary movement will not stop at the achievement of freedom; it will continue till the system which permits the exploitation of man by man, and of one nation by another, is abolished and a basic change in the socio-economic structure of society is brought about.
“The second slogan declared that the future belongs to the toiling millions and that the proletariat is the driving force of the revolution, a slogan that is sought to be dropped today by the betrayers of socialism… some of our old revolutionaries who profess socialism have also fallen prey to this trend and emphasise the first and third slogans, by passing the second.
“The third slogan indicated the immediate task at hand. A slave nation cannot establish a classless society, abolish exploitation and bring about equality among men. For such a nation, the first and foremost task is to break the chains of imperialist domination that bind it. In other words, revolution in a slave country has to be anti-imperialist and anti-colonial” (Preface to the Collected Works of Bhagat Singh, p.15).
It is clear from the above, Bhagat Singh was no advocate of narrow nationalism. His vision, his philosophy, his political outlook, was that of a thorough internationalist who desired, and worked for, the liberation of the entirety of humanity, not the people of India alone, from the clutches of imperialist domination and the system of exploitation.
It is crucially important that the teachings of Bhagat Singh are painstakingly and systematically spread among the masses, for, in the words of Cde Verma, the “…general public do not know what Bhagat Singh really was. They only know that he was a brave man who avenged Lalaji’s murder by killing Saunders and threw a bomb in the Central Assembly. That Bhagat Singh was an intellectual of high calibre is not known to many. This makes it easy for interested persons to distort the ideological side of the revolutionary movement in general and that of Bhagat Singh in particular, and present the movement in their own biased ways. To counter every such distortion, therefore, becomes imperative.” That is why, added Cde Verma, “I strived to put all available writings of Bhagat Singh at one place and leave to the reader to form his own opinion about the great martyr” (Ibid. p.16).
In putting together, and bringing to the reader, these writings, Cde Verma rendered an undying service to the revolutionary movement. Thanks to his labours, many more people today know what a towering intellect, and giant of a man, and political thinker – in addition to being possessed of dauntless courage – Bhagat Singh was. Cde Verma’s efforts in spreading and popularising the significance of Bhagat Singh’s teachings must be carried on and intensified, for hundreds of millions of the Indian masses need to grasp their essence.
At a time when Anglo-American imperialism, with the blood of over two million innocent Iraqis and several tens of thousands Afghans on its hands, is continuing its predatory war against these two peoples, while busily preparing for still more wars of aggression and spoilage; when a third of humanity, with a per capita income of less than $2 a day, ekes out a miserable existence under conditions of extreme poverty and oppression; when even in the centres of imperialism an increasing number of people are experiencing unemployment, poverty and a plethora of harsh laws to keep them in their place, the following words of Bhagat Singh have special resonance and topical relevance:
“We believe all such governments and particularly this British government thrust upon the helpless but unwilling Indian nation, to be no better than an organised gang of robbers and a pack of exploiters equipped with all the means of carnage and devastation. In the name of ‘law and order’, they crush all those who dare to expose or oppose them.
“We believe that imperialism is nothing but a vast conspiracy organised with predatory motives. Imperialism is the last stage of development of insidious exploitation of man by man and of nation by nation. The imperialists, with a view to further their practical designs, not only commit judicial murders through their law courts but also organise general massacres, devastation and other horrible crimes like war. They feel no hesitation in shooting down innocent and unarmed people who refused to yield to their depredatory demands or to acquiesce in their ruinous and abominable designs. Under the garb of custodians of ‘law and order’ they break peace, create disorder, kill people and commit all conceivable crimes.
“We believe that freedom is an undeniable birth right of all people, that every man has the inalienable right of enjoying the fruits of his labour, and that every nation is indisputably the master of its resources. If any government deprives them of these primary rights, it is the right of the people – nay, it is their duty – to destroy that government. Since the British government is a negation of these principles for which we stand, it is our firm conviction that every effort made, every method adopted to bring about a revolution and to destroy this government is morally justified. We stand for a change, a radical change in the existing order of affairs in social, political and economic spheres, and the complete replacement of the existing order by a new one rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible and thus guaranteeing full liberty to all the people in all spheres. We feel that unless the whole social order is changed and a socialistic society is established, the whole world is in danger of a disastrous catastrophe.
“As regards the methods, peaceful or otherwise, to be adopted for the consummation of the revolutionary ideal, let us declare that the choice rests with those who hold power. Revolutionaries, by virtue of their altruistic principles, are lovers of peace – a genuine and permanent peace based on justice and equality, not the illusory peace resulting from cowardice and maintained at the point of bayonets. If the revolutionaries take to bombs and pistols, it is only as a matter of terrible necessity, as a last recourse.
“We believe that ‘Law and order is for man and not man for Law and Order’…The sanctity of law can be maintained only so long as it is the expression of the will of the people; when it becomes a mere instrument in the hands of an oppressing class, it loses its sanctity and significance, for the fundamental preliminary condition for administration of justice is the elimination of every interest. As soon as the law ceases to correspond to the popular social needs, it becomes the means for perpetration of injustice and tyranny. The maintaining of such a law is nothing but hypocritical assertion of a special interest against the common interest” (From the statement of the ‘undefended accused’ read on 5 May 1930 in the Special Tribunal constituted by the British government in course of the second Lahore Conspiracy case. Drafted by Bhagat Singh, it was signed by J N Sanyal, Mahabir Singh, B K Dutt, Dr Gaya Prasad and Kundan Lal).
While in jail, Bhagat Singh drafted four other manuscripts, which were smuggled out of jail and handed over for safe custody to someone who destroyed them, fearing a police raid. It is remarkable indeed that during the brief period of his incarceration – 8 April 1929 to 23 March 1931, when he was involved in a major hunger strike and court proceedings – he should have been able to write so much valuable material. Notwithstanding the tragic loss of these manuscripts, the essentials of Bhagat Singh’s teachings are fully revealed by his writings which have survived, allowing us to make an evaluation of this remarkable man, who wrote on politics, religion, art, literature, culture, language, love, beauty, suicide and a number of other subjects. From his Jail Notebook, it is clear that he was planning to write a volume on ‘The Science of the State’, tracing the historical evolution of the state from its origin down to the socialist state. The Notebook itself is a major document and gives an idea of Bhagat Singh’s deep interest in a wide variety of subjects and includes notes on the books read by him in jail.
Bhagat Singh dead more dangerous
In view of this, it is not surprising that British imperialism was determined to hang Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, especially Bhagat Singh. Such a dangerous foe of imperialism and exploitation could not be allowed to escape the executioner. In the words of Professor Chaman Lal:
“The institution of British colonialism of course knew the finale, as it was bent upon killing the young men, particularly Bhagat Singh, in whose personality it was observing the traits of a growing Indian Lenin. The British could afford to deal with the Congress Party, to which it could safely transfer its political power, while protecting its economic interests. It could not afford to have Bhagat Singh alive, for he would have pledged to take part in the complete overthrow of the system of imperialist and capitalist exploitation” (op. cit.).
British imperialism killed Bhagat Singh but it was unable, as Bhagat Singh had foretold, to kill the spirit and teachings of Bhagat Singh. From his prison cell and the courtroom, he managed to unnerve and rattle British imperialism and the Gandhian wing of the Congress Party alike. His popularity soared to new heights, eclipsing that of Gandhi – a no mean achievement for a youth of just over 20, with a mere 6 or 7 years of active revolutionary career behind him. Far from being afraid to die, he cheerfully looked forward to his execution, being certain that death would merely serve to strengthen the cause he had lived for, and the cause for which he was prepared to die.
After the pronouncement of the death sentence, Jaidev Kapoor asked him “if he regretted dying so young”. Bhagat Singh responded by first laughing at the question, followed by this serious reply:
“Stepping upon the path of revolution, I had thought that if I could spread the slogan of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ throughout the country, by giving away my life, I would feel that I have received the full value of my life. Today sitting behind the bars of the execution barracks, I hear the sound of the slogan from crores of people. I believe that this slogan of mine would attack imperialism as the driving force of the freedom struggle till the end… What more value can be of such a small life?”
Even before the death sentence had been pronounced, Bhagat Singh well knew the outcome of the proceedings. He never tried to save his skin. He fearlessly marched to his death, being only concerned with using the courtroom and the prisoners’ dock for putting British imperialism on trial for its crimes and propagating his message of national liberation, socialism, proletarian internationalism, and the necessity of a relentless struggle against imperialism and the system of exploitation of one human being by another and one nation by another.
In his introduction, Shiv Verma mentions an incident which took place on the last Sunday of July 1930, when Bhagat Singh came from Lahore Central Jail to meet his fellow accused in the Borstal Jail on the pretext of discussing their line of defence. Suddenly the conversation turned to the judgment they were then keenly awaiting. The accused jokingly pronounced judgments on each other, excepting Rajguru and Bhagat Singh, knowing that the two were certain to be hanged. Let Cde Shiv Verma take up the story:
“‘And what about Rajguru and myself? Are you going to acquit us?’ asked Bhagat Singh with a smile. No one replied.
“‘Afraid to recognise the reality? he asked in a whispering tone. Silence.
“He laughed over our silence and said: ‘To be hanged by the neck till we are dead. This is the reality, comrades. I know it. You also know it. Then, why shut eyes to it?’
“Bhagat Singh was … in form. He was speaking in a low pitch. That was his style… Shouting was not his habit. This was perhaps his strength also.
“He continued: ‘This is the highest award for patriots and I am proud that I am going to get it… They may kill me, but they cannot kill my ideas. They may crush my body, but they will not be able to crush my spirits. My ideas will haunt the British like a curse till they are forced to run away from here’.
“Speaking with full passion, he continued: ‘Bhagat Singh dead will be more dangerous to the British enslavers than Bhagat Singh alive. After I am hanged the fragrance of my revolutionary ideas will permeate the atmosphere of this beautiful land of ours. It will intoxicate the youth and make them ready for freedom and revolution, and that would bring the doom of British imperialists nearer. This is my firm conviction. I am anxiously waiting for the day when I will receive the highest award for my services to the country, my love for my people’“ (op. cit., pp. 44-45).
Cde Verma adds that within a year Bhagat Singh’s prophecy was realised, with his name becoming a “symbol of death-defying courage, sacrifice, patriotism and determination; his dreams of establishing a socialist society caught the imagination of the educated youth and his slogan of Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution) became the battle cry of the entire nation. People rose like one man in 1930-32. Imprisonments, floggings and lathi charges (baton charges) could not shake their morale. The same spirit, on a higher level, was witnessed during the Quit India days. With Bhagat Singh’s name on their lips and his slogans on their banners, the teenagers and young urchins faced bullets as if they were made of butter. The whole nation had gone mad. And then came the period of 1945-46 when the world witnessed an entirely new India coming up. Workers, peasants, students, youth, the navy, army, air force, even the police – all were out to hit hard. Passive resistance yielded place to active retaliation. The spirit of sacrifice and suffering, which were displayed by only a few till 1930, became a mass phenomenon. A spirit of revolt had gripped the nation.
“Bhagat Singh was correct. The spirit never dies” (Ibid. p. 45).
Cde Ranadive was by no means exaggerating when, in his foreword to the SWSBS, he wrote, inter alia, the following words by way of a glowing tribute to Bhagat Singh:
“The name of Bhagat Singh and his comrades has secured a permanent place in the minds of the Indian people. No other revolutionary of those days struck such a deep feeling of sympathy, solidarity and oneness among the people. Bhagat Singh and his comrades became part of people’s consciousness, the symbol of their aspirations and prestige, the symbol of the fight to put an end to enslavement. During the critical days of Bhagat Singh’s trial in Lahore in 1929 people from all walks of life – from upper circles of society to the working class and peasants, from the politically active to the politically dormant – all followed the heroic behaviour of these revolutionaries before the British court and warmly applauded their resistance, seeing in it the assertion of the country’s prestige.
“No other revolutionary struck such a deep rapport with the awakening people, no other became so endeared to the common people and youth as Bhagat Singh did. He symbolised his struggle in the slogan he raised after he threw a bomb in the Legislative Assembly of Delhi: ‘Long Live Revolution’, a slogan totally unfamiliar at that time to the Indian people. No doubt, the Communist leadership had already started raising it a little earlier, but it had not yet reached the people.
“This restless revolutionary was not content with slogans. He embodied the indomitable courage, the death-defying spirit, the capacity to sacrifice everything and unflinching courage in the face of torture, without which all talk of revolution just remains an empty talk.
“No revolution, no revolutionary ideology, can succeed without individual heroism and suffering; without outstanding individuals rousing the people by their courage and sacrifices, by their readiness to face the gallows and the executioner’s axe. No revolutionary ideology can succeed without intense hatred for the enemy to be overthrown, without an all-sided war on the enemy, his institutions and instruments. Bhagat Singh combined the hatred for the British rule with immense personal heroism, and became the symbol of the struggling nation, the embodiment of its hatred for the foreign rule” (pp.1-2).
Surveying the life and exploits of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries, we cannot help being reminded of the remarkably perceptive observation of Alexander Herzen concerning the generation of revolutionaries from among the nobility and landowners of the first half of the 19th century in Russia, “The nobility”, he says, gave Russia innumerable “drunken officers, bullies, gamblers, heroes of fairs, roisterers, floggers, pimps”, as well as complacent sentimental landowners, idle dreamers and chatterboxes. “But,” wrote Herzen, “among them developed the men of December 14, a phalanx of heroes reared, like Romulus and Remus, on the milk of a wild beast… They were veritable titans, hammered out of pure steel from head to foot, comrades-in-arms who deliberately went out to certain death in order to awaken the young generation to a new life and to purify the children born in an environment of tyranny and servility” (From Herzen’s Ends and Beginnings, quoted in V I Lenin, In Memory of Herzen, Collected Works Vol. 18).
While keeping in mind all that distinguished early 19th century Czarist Russia and early 20th century colonial India, as well as the differences in class origins of the Decembrists in Russia, on the one hand, and Bhagat Singh and his comrades on the other, we are entitled to say that in the first three decades of the 20th century, India too produced its fair share of indolent landlords, calculating shopkeepers, pimps, idle dreamers and chatterboxes. But we are proud to say that among them there developed the revolutionaries of the HSRA, Bhagat Singh and his comrades, a phalanx of heroes and veritable titans, forged out of pure steel, comrades-in-arms who cheerfully went out to certain death and who, in doing so, managed to awaken the young generation to a new life and succeeded in purifying the children born in an environment of tyranny, timidity and servility. This message was potent then and it is potent now. Let is be spread far and wide in the service of the noblest cause – that of the liberation of mankind.
Bhagat Singh Zindabad!
The previous parts of this article are available in hard copy or on our website: www.lalkar.org
Part 1: Bhagat Singh’s early life (LALKAR May/Jun 07)
Part 2: Bhagat Singh and his comrades’ political actions during the Second Lahore Conspiracy Case (LALKAR Jul/Aug 07)
Part 3: Gandhi’s role in the execution of Bhagat Singh (LALKAR Sep/Oct 07)