“Bhagat Singh”, writes Professor Chaman Lal, “was searching for the ultimate ideology of human liberation from all kinds of oppression and exploitation, he had almost become a committed Marxist through his contacts with Kirti group of Ghadrite revolutionaries of Punjab.”
Professor Chaman Lal discusses the revolutionary in the “Introduction” of his The Bhagat Singh Reader (HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, 2019; henceforth Reader): “The only difference he [Bhagat Singh] has with his comrades was about the programme of the revolutionary party; for Bhagat Singh and his comrades were convinced that to awaken the country from slumber, the youth need to perform daring acts of revolution and make sacrifices to advance the movement.”
By 1928, Bhagat Singh and his comrades including Sukhdev, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Shiv Verma and Jai Dev Kapoor were getting more convinced about the need of a socialist agenda for their revolutionary party. In a September 1928-meeting in Delhi, at the proposal of Bhagat Singh and seconded by Sukhdev, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Shiv Verma and Jai Dev Kapoor, their organization was rechristened Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Instead of engaging with conspiratorial work Bhagat Singh, prior to the formation of the HSRA, trained himself in mass organizational work through the Naujwan Bharat Sabha (NBS). The NBS was organized in the pattern of Young Italy, an organization of the youth inspired by Mazzini and Garibaldi. By that time, the Ghadarite revolutionaries returned from the Soviet Union and set up the Hindi and Urdu journal Kirti. During their stay in the Soviet Union, the revolutionaries were trained in Communist theory at the Eastern University of the Toilers in Moscow. Bhagat Singh was a member of the editorial staff of Kirti, and worked closely with the journal. Even before organizing the NBS in Lahore, Bhagat Singh was in touch with communists in Kanpur, a city overwhelmingly populated by the working class. Bhagat Singh was literally a part of the communist movement in India since the movement’s inception. However, Bhagat Singh didn’t formally become a member of the Communist Party, which was in its formation stage. He met Muzaffar Ahmad, one of the founders of the Communist movement in India, when Muzaffar Ahmad went to Lahore. Bhagat Singh had no reservation about formally joining the Communist Party. But he was trying to shape the HSRA. (Reader, “Introduction”)
Thus, Professor Chaman Lal establishes the fact regarding Bhagat Singh: A communist revolutionary, and not relying on individualistic, conspiratorial work. His claim is supported by the following fact Chaman Lal presents in the “Introduction”: Bhagat Singh’s jail writings show he was convinced that HSRA has to organize workers, peasants, students and other potential revolutionary sections of the society in mass organizations.
However, as Professor Lal writes, Bhagat Singh and his comrades felt the need for some spectacular revolutionary action along with noble sacrifice by the young men. They thought the actions were needed to awaken the masses in upsurge against the British.
Probably, here – spectacular revolutionary action by the youth – is a point of discussion/debate on Bhagat Singh’s and his comrades’ understanding of the social process leading to mass upsurge. Pro-people revolutionary theoreticians can answer the questions/explain the problem:
What leads to mass upsurge, what powers the dynamics of people rising in revolt, and what are the tasks to be carried on to unite and awaken the masses of people so that they rise in revolt? Is it spectacular revolutionary action by the youth? Answers to the questions are to be searched in the perspective of India during Bhagat Singh’s period – a colonized, backward society, an economy with feudal connections, formation of classes including the working classes, level of class struggle, class alignment, etc.
While the HSRA was trying to focus upon organizing workers, peasants, students and youth, cases including the Saunders murder case didn’t allow it to work openly. This was a limitation imposed by reality, which the HSRA could not overcome. On the other hand, the HSRA could not work under the cover of the Congress as both of the political parties had fundamental differences. To Bhagat Singh, the only option in this “binding situation was to awaken the countrymen by their revolutionary activities, but with minimum loss of life.” (ibid.)
This type of development, mentioned by Professor Chaman Lal, is important for analyzing the development of revolutionary organization and struggle in this subcontinent. It was a path with unimaginable hurdles. The width and height of the hurdles will be perceptible if the class issue, mentioned above, and the theoretical aspects are taken into consideration. Not only this subcontinent of Bhagat Singh’s time, many lands still today are facing similar problems – how to and from where to begin, how to organize the masses of workers, peasants and sections of society with aspiration for radical change, how to overcome hurdles set up by status quo.
So, accusations like “Bhagat Singh or some-he or some-she didn’t do this or failed to do that” are easy to make; but considering the subjective and objective conditions help identify the problem or the source of the failure; and that identification will show blaming Bhagat Singh for many failures is not correct.
The “riddle”/problem turns more complex if it’s checked in comparison to the bourgeoisie or some other section/class organizing, mesmerizing, mobilizing peasantry and workers to follow the pseudo liberators – how those, to put it in a simple and broad way, profit oriented interests or compradors pulled the peasantry and workers under their banner? Millions were spellbound by those fake liberators. On the contrary, millions of people followed the Mao-led communists in China in a great retreat, and then, to wars to victory while Chiang was running campaigns, one after another, with divisions of soldiers against the communists-led forces. Those were hurdles also. Therefore, the questions are: What happens how and where? What are the, to put it simply, factors, or elements that enable to overcome hurdles created by classes inimical to the people?
Professor Chaman Lal presents a number of spectacular facts in the “Introduction” section of the Reader:
(1) The NBS helped organize Bal Bharat Sabha (BBS), an organization of school students between the ages of 12 and 16.
(2) The NBS was inspired by the sacrifice of Kartar Singh Sarabha, executed at the age of 19 in Lahore in 1915.
(3) Kahan Chand, an 11-year old student and president of BBS at Amritsar, was sentenced to three months of imprisonment for his revolutionary activities.
(4) Yash, a 10-years old activist, was persecuted on three counts including assisting the Lahore city branch of the Congress party and the NBS.
(5) In those days, 1,192 juveniles, all under the age of 15, were convicted by the mighty British raaj “civilizing” this subcontinent; and all of these children were convicted for political activities. Of these convicted children, 739 were from Bengal and around 189 were from Punjab.
(6) Bal Students Union was also active in those days.
(7) The young activists were influenced by Bhagat Singh.
Professor Chaman Lal presents a lot of information related to Bhagat Singh. These include:
(1) Bhagat Singh joined Hindi Pratap, and for about six months, Bhagat Singh wrote for Pratap under the pen name of “Balwant”.
(2) Bhagat Singh worked for flood relief.
(3) He also worked as a headmaster in a national school at Shadipur near Aligarh.
Bhagat Singh, Chaman Lal writes, “wanted to remove the terrorist tag that was attached to their organization […] For this, they wanted to use platforms from where their voice could reach millions of people.” (ibid.) Therefore, it appears that Bhagat Singh chose mass line – to the masses, among the masses.
Bhagat Singh’s life was always in danger as the British raaj considered the revolutionary as one of its boldest enemies. Referring to Shaukat Usmani’s autobiography Chaman Lal writes: During Shaukat Usmani’s visit to Moscow, Stalin asked Usmani to send Bhagat Singh to Soviet Union. “Seeing Bhagat Singh growing into a full-fledged socialist revolutionary, Jawaharlal Nehru, too, wished to send Bhagat Singh to Moscow, and was even ready to fund his trip as he told Chandra Shekhar Azad. Bhagat Singh’s uncle, Ajit Singh, had also wished Bhagat Singh to come to him in South America. But Bhagat Singh and his comrades were destined to die for the country.” (ibid.) It – destined to die for the country – was their commitment, a commitment to organize a society free from exploitation, a society humane in character, a society liberated from all backwardness and retrogressive ideas.
The first section of the Reader is a collection of letters and telegrams from Bhagat Singh. The first letter, available to the Reader, was to his paternal grandfather, Arjun Singh, on July 22, 1918 from Lahore. Bhagat Singh was staying there with his father to continue studies. About three years later, on November 14, 1921, in another letter to the grandfather, Bhagat Singh writes about a railway workers’ strike: “The railway people are planning to go on a strike these days. One hopes that it would begin immediately after next week.” The student finds an issue – workers’ strike – to mention in the letter while there were other issues that could have pulled his attention and he could have mentioned those in the letter, but the revolutionary ignored those and focused on the working people.
Bhagat Singh’s following letters show his widening political awareness. In a letter to father, Bhagat Singh writes: “My life has been dedicated to the noblest cause of attaining freedom for Hindustan. That is why worldly desires and comfort hold no attraction to me.” In the letter, written in 1923, he reminds his father: “You would remember that when I was a kid, Bapuji [paternal grandfather] had announced at the time of my yagyopavit [Hindu thread ritual] ceremony that I would be dedicated to the service of my nation. Therefore, I am fulfilling the vow taken at that time.” The young man’s commitment and truthfulness to the commitment are voiced in the letter. The youth that thus began the journey continued until sacrificing self on the altar of people’s liberation.
A few letters from his revolutionary days tell a truth:
The young revolutionary was under surveillance by the colonial rulers. During the time, Bhagat Singh was just 19 years old. But, the empire identified its enemy – Bhagat Singh. The letters written to authorities at different levels including secretary of the Punjab government show the way the revolutionary was fighting for rights. Bhagat Singh wanted, as he wrote in one of his letters, “a direct, plain and detailed reply” from the secretary of the Punjab government whether the government issued any order for intercepting his letters; and if such order was issued, an explanation – “when and why?”
Bhagat Singh, in another letter to the same bureaucrat, asserted his right: “[…] I have a right to enquire such a question relating to myself.” The question was: “[…] what led the Punjab government to issue such orders” – intercept his letters. (Letters, November 17 and 26, 1926)
The letters show a number of aspects of the person, Bhagat Singh, and the struggle against the colonial raaj, which include (1) an unrelenting character [revolutionaries are unrelenting]; (2) using every millimeter of space available to wage a struggle [matured revolutionaries use every millimeter of space]; (3) a form of struggle; (4) level of surveillance [omnipresent, still today, in bourgeois democracies]; (5) the level the empire was taking down its crushing weight to silence the people in the colony – this subcontinent; and (6) contradiction between the colonizing imperialist power – the Great Britain – and the people of this subcontinent.
The letters Professor Chaman Lal presents in the Reader tell aspects of struggle Bhagat Singh had to carry on. These, therefore, are a record of struggle of the people of this land had to wage to attain independence. Thus, inversely, these expose, to some extent, the uncivilized imperialist character a bourgeois democracy attains whenever it knifes a colony to exploit and plunder.
The issues of surveillance, uncivilized practice and non-response are part of the bourgeois-imperialist culture, in this case, political culture, and practice. It’s a practice of imperialist-bourgeois rule. It’s not a 1984 or “big brother” case, as the bourgeois sages mention citing the Orwell-novels. These sages are shameless. They don’t look into their home, but denounce others in manners blazoned with lies.
Professor Chaman Lal’s Reader, in this way, helps not only understand Bhagat Singh, but also the revolutionary’s development, time, and the colonial rule. It helps form a perspective.
A part of the perspective has been told by Lala Lajpat Rai: “If a government muzzles its people, shuts out all open avenues of political propaganda, denies them the use of firearms and otherwise stands in the way of a free agitation for political changes, it is doubtful if it can reasonably complain of secret plots and secret propaganda as distinguished from open rebellion.” (Young India, an interpretation and a history of the nationalist movement from within, “Introduction”, first published in 1916)
Another part of the perspective has been told in another way: In India, “the compromising section of [the] bourgeoisie has already managed, in the main, to strike a deal with imperialism. Fearing revolution more than it fears imperialism, and concerned more about its moneybags than about the interests of its own country, this section of the bourgeoisie, the richest and most influential section, is going over entirely to the camp of the irreconcilable enemies of the revolution, it is forming a bloc with imperialism against the workers and peasants of its own country.” (Stalin, “The Political Tasks of the University of the Peoples of the East”, speech delivered at a meeting of students
of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, May 18, 1925, Works, vol. VII, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1954)
Bhagat Singh had to operate within this perspective, which a section of analysis ignores while evaluates the revolutionary. It’s a gross error. Professor Chaman Lal’s Reader helps cast off the error.
Note: This is the 2nd part of a series introducing The Bhagat Singh Reader by Professor Chaman Lal. The 1st part appeared in Countercurrents on September 28, 2019.
Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.