Co-Written by Prabal Saran Agarwal, Harsh Vardhan Tripathy & Ankur Goswami

Bhagwati Charan Vohra

 “We find many ardent youth contending themselves with distributing grain among the poor and nursing the sick all their life. These men are noble and self-denying but they cannot understand that charity cannot solve the problem of hunger and disease in India and, for that matter, in any other country.”

In these horrible times of COVID-19 pandemic situation, when workers across India are on move, dying on route and facing a severe shortage of ration supplies and leftist groups are trying to supply them the same, the above assertion made around a century ago is very thought-provoking. It points out to the urgent need to struggle for a structural transformation of the society to eradicate poverty and epidemics rather than just engaging in welfare activities. The way Indian Left has failed to make the plight of crores of informal workers during the lockdown a national issue for agitation makes these lines more relevant than ever. These words are from the manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a leftist youth organization formed in 1926 and the document was drafted by its propaganda secretary, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, whose ninetieth death anniversary falls this year.

Bhagwati Charan, or Bhagwati bhai as he was fondly called by his comrades, was also a leader, organizer and theoretician of the well-known revolutionary organization of colonial India—Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) which aimed at overthrowing British rule and establishing a socialist India through an armed revolution. While its members like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and Chandrashekhar Azad have become popular heroes over time, other key revolutionaries of HSRA like Bhagwati, Shiv Verma, B.K. Sinha, Jaidev Kapoor have been forgotten by the masses and also neglected by the scholars. Moreover, their ideological standpoints are completely diluted in celebrating or ridiculing their violent actions against the British Government. Nevertheless, the political struggle of Bhagwati and others like him remains relevant even today in light of neo-colonial exploitation, gross inequalities, rampant poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, hunger and malnutrition in our society. Perhaps, the secular politics of Bhagat Singh, Bhagwati and their comrades is also a ray of hope in these dark times of majoritarian violence and communal hatred.

From riches to rags

Bhagwati was born on 15th November, 1903 in Lahore (undivided Punjab) to a very affluent family known for its loyalty to the British Government. He was married to Durga Devi at a very young age of 15, who also went on to become a firebrand revolutionary, popularly known as Durga Bhabhi.  Bhagwati was greatly agitated by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that killed and wounded hundreds of innocent Indians at the hands of British troops and he decided to join the anti-colonial struggle leaving behind his privileged family background. In 1921, he entered the National College and came in contact with Professor Jaichandra Vidyalankar who was organizing a clandestine revolutionary group Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in Punjab at that time and also befriended his students—Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Yashpal and others. These young patriots were deeply hurt by the withdrawal of Non-Cooperation movement by M.K. Gandhi and looked upon Russian Revolution and the Irish War of Independence as models for Indian freedom struggle. Bhagwati also got influenced by communist ideas at this time and subscribed to the journal published by pioneer Indian Marxist, M.N. Roy, known as The Vanguard of Indian Independence. Understanding the need for mobilizing poor peasantry and working class to bring about any real social transformation in India, Bhagwati and Bhagat Singh established an open youth organization, Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), in 1926 to organize youth for political work in villages and factories.

After the withdrawal of Non-Cooperation Movement, Congress had left the path of agitation and was dominated by constitutionalists who advocated contesting elections and sabotaging the colonial system from within. On the other hand, Gandhi continued to stress on non-violence as the basic pre-requisite before launching any mass movement. Majority of Congress leadership, coming from elite social background and dominant classes, focussed on the demand of ‘Dominion Status’ from the British which meant a share in power for them. 1920s also witnessed a series of bloody communal riots in various parts of India and rise of aggressive organizations based on religious identity. On the other hand, there was also the rise of working class movement and spread of socialist ideas in the intelligentsia. NBS took a clear cut stand against constitutionalism, communalism and Gandhi’s emphasis on non-violence and instead formulated a radical programme of socialist revolution for the country. It forbade its members from joining any communal organization and initiated bold events like inter-dining among various communities. Bhagwati and his comrades campaigned against Lala Lajpat Rai during the elections to Legislative Assembly in 1926 due to his Hindu communal politics. They also formed the Lahore Students’ Union in 1927.

‘Propaganda By Deed’

Unfortunately, a schism developed between Lahore revolutionaries when Professor Vidyalankar charged Bhagwati of being a CID agent due to some personal conflict between the two. Bhagwati was deeply hurt but he continued to put on a brave face. Bhagat Singh and others grew suspicious of him. Meanwhile after a secret meeting of revolutionaries from four provinces of British India, they reorganized the underground organization HRA as HSRA, adding the word ‘socialist’ to the party to make their political programme clear to the masses. Bhagat advocated the strategy of ‘propaganda by deed’ and the HSRA revolutionaries got engaged in a serious of popular violent attacks on the British to attract youth to their revolutionary cause. Soon, they realized their blunder in isolating Bhagwati and when they escaped from Lahore after assassinating Asst. Superintendent of Police, Saunders, they took the help of his courageous partner, Durga. Bhagwati was absconding in Meerut Conspiracy Case at this time and was in Calcutta. When Bhagat and B.K. Dutt courted arrest after exploding two bombs in the Central Legislature against two anti-worker bills in April 1929, HSRA’s role in Saunders’ murder was also revealed and warrant was issued against Bhagwati too.

Bhagwati went underground and made a plan to get Bhagat and Dutt forcibly released from the jail. A dacoity was conducted in Ahmedgarh of Punjab to raise funds for the mission. It was at this time that the commander-in-chief of HSRA, Chandrashekhar Azad, made contact with Bhagwati and the two decided to blow up the special train carrying the Viceroy of India, Irwin to protest against the politics of compromise propagated by Congress. Bhagwati and Yashpal heroically carried out the attack on 23rd December, 1929 but missed their target by one coach. They published the manifesto of HSRA to make their objectives clear to the world. Gandhi vehemently criticized the attack on the Viceroy and wrote an article in Young India called ‘The Cult of Bomb’. Bhagwati wrote a very powerful reply, ‘The Philosophy of Bomb’, which was distributed in various parts of India. Meanwhile, Azad was trying to expand the party in Bombay province and sent two comrades there for the purpose but they were caught en route. Bhagwati went to meet them in jail in disguise and smuggled them a pistol. The duo valiantly attacked the government approvers during their trial with this pistol.

Bhagwati’s Martyrdom: Unheard, Unsung

Now, Bhagwati and Azad focussed on getting Bhagat and Dutt out of jail. For this purpose, Bhagwati went to the banks of river Ravi in Lahore to test a bomb along with his some of his associates on 28th May, 1930. Tragically, the bomb exploded in his hand and he succumbed to the injuries after suffering for hours. Eyewitness accounts tell that even in his last moments, the safety of his comrades was his top priority and he bravely told them that the movement should not stop at any cost. He was in extreme pain for hours before his death but he had no complaint. Hearing of his dear friend’s demise, Bhagat sent a message from jail that he did not want more sacrifices to save his own life. The fearless Durga took over her husband’s responsibilities in the party despite having a five year old child. When Bhagat was sentenced to death, she made a daring attack on the Lamington Road Police Station in Bombay in retaliation and had to abscond for two years before finally surrendering to the police. With Bhagwati’s death, Azad lost his right hand and soon get killed in a police encounter in Allahabad. Bhagat, Sukhdev and Rajguru were executed on 23rd March, 1931. HSRA’s actions caused huge publicity for the anti-imperialist cause and radicalized the struggle against the British. Most HSRA leaders were put behind bars where majority of them joined the Communist Party.

Revolutionary Programme of Bhagwati & His Comrades

Shiv Verma, a colleague of Bhagwati, wrote in his memoirs, “Bhagwati Charan was one of the tallest intellectuals and propagandist of HSRA”. According to him, Bhagwati authored many small booklets addressed to the general masses, especially youth. A booklet authored by him titled ‘Message of India’ was quite popular among the youth of Punjab. But unfortunately, Verma notes, his writings have not survived his tumultuous times. He’s known to have published a periodical too and edited others. But right now only three of his works are available namely, The Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, The Manifesto of HSRA, and The Philosophy of Bomb, a polemical essay against Gandhi. Even though these documents were co-authored, they are capable of presenting an intellectual portrait of Bhagwati as well as that of the revolutionary movement which he led.

As ideal propaganda material meant to be distributed widely and arouse the youth to join the revolutionary movement, the manifesto of NBS and HSRA drafted by Bhagwati are a brilliant combination of emotional appeal and revolutionary fervour with theoretical arguments. The withdrawal of Non-Cooperation movement was a great setback to the Indian National Movement as Gandhi said that India was not ready for freedom as its masses were prone to violence. Bhagwati assessed the situation of 1920s in following words, “Our country is passing through a chaos. There is mutual distrust and despair prevailing everywhere. The great leaders have lost faith in the cause and most of them no more enjoy the confidence of the masses”. This chaos according to him was a result of lack of any “programme and enthusiasm among the ‘champions’ of Indian independence”.

For Bhagwati this chaos also presented an opportunity for the youth to organize behind a revolutionary movement and strive for a socialist revolution. In the manifesto of HSRA, he writes, “the future of India rests with the youths. They are the salt of the earth. Their promptness to suffer, their daring courage and their radiant sacrifice proves that India’s future in their hands is perfectly safe”.

In contrast to the chaos represented by the mainstream of the anti-colonial struggle, Bhagwati presented a concrete analysis of contemporary Indian political scene. In the manifesto of the NBS, he outlines a Marxist critique of colonialism.

He writes “foreign domination and economic exploitation have unmanned the vast majority of the people who constitute the workers and peasants of India.” Borrowing from the works of RC Dutt, William Digby and Dadabhai Naroji, he remarked that British Imperialism had brought decline to Indian commerce and industries. Further, he writes about the ‘comprador’ nature of the Indian Capitalists, “the position of the Indian proletariat is, today, extremely critical. It has a double danger to face. It has to bear to onslaught of foreign capital on one hand and Indian capital on the other. The latter is showing a progressive tendency to join forces with the former…Indian capital is preparing to betray the masses into the hands of foreign capitalism and receive as a price of this betrayal, a little share in the government of the country (emphasis mine).” According to Bhagwati, this siding of Indian Capital as a junior partner to Imperial Capital was manifested in the anti-colonial struggle in “leaning of certain politicians in favour of dominion status”. His analysis of comprador nature of Indian bourgeoisie under the yoke of colonialism, echoes that of Mao Tse Tung in general and also that of the Naxalbari movement of late sixties.   Bhagwati comes out with a solution to this crisis that is building up of a sovereign workers’ state through a socialist revolution.

Idea of a Socialist Revolution

Bhagwati explains his philosophy of revolution in a very lucid manner in HSRA manifesto produced in the next year,

“Upheavals have always been a terror to holders of power and privilege. Revolution is a phenomenon which nature loves and without which there can be no progress either in nature or in human affairs. Revolution is a phenomenon which nature loves and without which there can be no progress either in nature or in human affairs. Revolution is certainly not unthinking, brutal campaign of murder and incendiarism; it is not a few bombs thrown here and a few shots fired there; neither is it a movement to destroy all remnants of civilization and blow to pieces time honoured principles of justice and equity. Revolution is not a philosophy of despair or a creed of desperadoes. Revolution may be anti-God but is certainly not anti-Man. It is a vital, living force which is indicative of eternal conflict between the old and the new, between life and living death, between life and living death, between light and darkness. There is no concord, no symphony, no rhythm without revolution. ˜The music of the spheres of which poets have sung, would remain an unreality if a ceaseless revolution were to be eliminated from the space. Revolution is Law, Revolution is Order and Revolution is the Truth. The youths of our nation have realized this truth. They have learnt painfully the lesson that without revolution there is no possibility of enthroning order, law and love in place of chaos and legal vandalism and hatred which are reigning supreme today. Let no one, in this blessed land of ours, run with the idea that the youths are irresponsible. They know where they stand.”

He declared in the same manifesto,

“The future programme of preparing the country will begin with the motto: ‘Revolution by the masses and for the masses.’ In other words, Swaraj for the 90%; Swaraj not only attained by the masses but also for the masses. This is a very difficult task. Though our leaders [of the Congress] have offered many suggestions, none had the courage to put forward and carry out successfully and concrete scheme of awakening the masses. Without going into details, we can safely assert that to achieve our object, thousands of our most brilliant young men, like Russian youth, will have to pass their precious lives in villages and make the people understand what the Indian revolution would really mean. They must be made to realise that the revolution which is to come will mean more than a change of masters. It will, above all, mean the birth of new order of things, a new state. This is not the work of a day or a year. Decades of matchless self-sacrifice will prepare the masses for the accomplishment of that great work and only the revolutionary young men will be able to do that. A revolutionary does not necessarily mean a man of bombs and revolvers.”

He further points out,

“The revolution…will not only express itself in the form of an armed conflict between the foreign government and its supporters and the people, it will also usher in a new social order. The revolution will ring the death knell of capitalism and class distinctions and privileges. It will bring joy and prosperity to the starving millions who are seething today under the terrible yoke of both foreign and Indian exploitation. It will bring the nation into its own. It will give birth to a new state a new social order. Above all, it will establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and will for ever banish social parasites from the seat of political power.

WE TAKE this opportunity to appeal to our countrymen – to the youth, to the workers and peasants, to the revolutionary intelligentsia – to come forward and join us in carrying aloft the banner of freedom. Let us establish a new order of society in which political and economic exploitation will be an impossibility. In the name of those gallant men and women who willingly accepted death so that we, their descendants, may lead a happier life, who toiled ceaselessly and perished for the poor, the famished, and exploited millions of India, we call upon every patriot to take up the fight in all seriousness.”

Strategy and Tactics of the Indian Revolution

HSRA manifesto proclaimed, “This association stands for revolution in India in order to liberate her from foreign domination by means of organised armed rebellion. Open rebellion by a subject people must always in the nature of things be preceded by secret propaganda and secret propaganda and secret preparations.”

The manifesto describes how the use of counter-terrorism is necessary to fight against the state-sponsored terror of the British Government.

“We have been taken to task for our terroristic policy. Our answer is that terrorism is never the object of revolutionaries, nor do they believe that terrorism alone can bring independence. No doubt the revolutionaries think, and rightly, that it is only by resorting to terrorism alone that they can find a most effective means of retaliation. The British government exists, because the Britishers have been successful in terrorizing the whole of India. How are we to meet this official terrorism? Only counter-terrorism on the part of revolutionaries can checkmate effectively this bureaucratic bullying. A feeling of utter helplessness pervades society. How can we overcome this fatal despondency? It is only by infusing a real spirit of sacrifice that lost self-confidence can be restored. Terrorism has its international aspect also. England’s enemies, which are many, are drawn towards us by effective demonstration of our strength. That in itself is a great advantage.”

Bhagwati further justified use of terror against the oppressors in his leaflet, ‘The Philosophy of Bomb’ written shortly after the manifesto:

“It is a phase, a necessary, an inevitable phase of the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution and the revolution is not complete without terrorism. This thesis can be supported by an analysis of any and every revolution in history. Terrorism instils fear in the hearts of the oppressors, it brings hopes of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses, it gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering, it shatters the spell of the superiority of the ruling class and raises the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world, because it is the most convincing proof of a nation’s hunger for freedom. Here in India, as in other countries in the past, terrorism will develop into the revolution and the revolution into independence, social political and economic.”

Critique of Congress and Gandhian Politics

At this time, the mainstream nationalist leadership had taken up a very reformist position in the struggle against British Raj after the failure of Non-Cooperation movement and was very soft towards the Indian exploiting classes due to its own privileged background. Bhagwati attacked it for begging a share in political power from the British and also argued against Gandhi’s impractical politics of non-violence. He argued in the NBS manifesto,

“Along with the advent of the 20th century the British bureaucracy has adopted quite a new policy towards India. They are drawing our bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie into their fold by adopting the policy of concessions. …. In the very near future we will find that these classes and their great leaders having thrown their lot with the foreign rulers. Some round-table conference or any such body will end in a compromise between the two. They will no more be lions and cubs. Even without any conciliation the expected Great War of the entire people will surely thin the ranks of the so-called champions of India independence….These arm-chair politicians have their eyes set on the handful of bones that may be thrown to them, as they hope, by the mighty rulers.”

In 1929, he critiques Gandhi specifically in the Manifesto of HSRA:

“It has become a fashion these days to indulge in wild and meaningless talk of non-violence. Mahatma Gandhi is great and we mean no disrespect to him if we express our emphatic disapproval of the methods advocated by him for our country’s emancipation. We would be ungrateful to him if we do not salute him for the immense awakening that has been brought about be his non-cooperation movement in the country. But to us the Mahatma is an impossible visionary. Non-violence may be a noble ideal, but is a thing of the morrow. We can, situated as we are, never hope to win our freedom by mere nonviolence. The world is armed to the very teeth. And the world is too much with us. All talk of peace may be sincere, but such false ideology. What logic, we ask, is there in asking the country to traverse a non-violent path when the world atmosphere is surcharged with violence and exploitation of the weak? We declare with all the emphasis we can command that the youths of the nation cannot be lured by such midsummer night dreams. We believe in violence, not as an end itself but as a means to a noble end.”

Gandhi strongly rebuked the use of violence by revolutionaries in his article ‘The Cult of Bomb’ which he wrote when Bhagwati and Yashpal bombed the train carrying the Viceroy. Gandhi claimed that masses of India do not support violence, violent attacks on British lead to an increase in military expenditure and even if violence brings independence, it will lead to more violence as it will be seen as the only solution to every ill of the society.

Bhagwati replied point by point in ‘Philosophy of Bomb’,

“Though it is true that the average leader confines his tours to places where only the mail train can conveniently land him while Gandhi has extended his tour limit to where a motorcar can take him, the practice of staying only with the richest people in the places visited, of spending most of his time on being complimented by his devotees in private and public, and of granting Darshan now and then to the illiterate masses whom he claims to understand so well, disqualifies him from claiming to know the mind of the masses. No man can claim to know a people’s mind by seeing them from the public platform and giving them Darshan and Updesh. He can at the most claim to have told the masses what he thinks about things. Has Gandhi, during recent years, mixed in the social life of the masses? Has he sat with the peasant round the evening fire and tried to know what he thinks? Has he passed a single evening in the company of a factory labourer and shared with him his vows? We have, and therefore we claim to know what the masses think.”

He claims that sacrifices by revolutionaries have produced a tremendous change in the mentality of the people,

“We affirm that the masses of India are solidly with us because we know it from personal experience. The day is not far off when they will flock in their thousands to work the will of the Revolution.”

He argued that revolutionaries did not believe in mindless violence, increase in military expenditure was not only due to their movement as even a non-violent mass movement would lead to an increase in the military expenses.

He also probed in the same writing, “Satyagraha is insistence upon truth. Why press, for the acceptance of truth, by soul-force alone? Why not add physical force also to it? While the revolutionaries stand for winning independence by all forces, physical as well as moral, at their command, the advocates of soul-force would like to ban the use of physical force. The question really, therefore, is not whether you will have violence, but whether you will have soul-force plus physical force or soul-force alone.”

At the end of this remarkable polemical essay, Bhagwati wrote that revolutionaries “…are hopefully looking forward to the day, when the mania of non-violence would have passed away from the Congress, and it would march arm in arm with the revolutionaries to their common goal of Complete Independence. This year [1929] it has accepted the ideal [Poorna Swaraj] which the revolutionaries have preached and lived up to more than a quarter of a century. Let us hope the next year will see it endorse their methods also.”

Critique of Communalism

The third decade of twentieth century in India was replete with communal violence. There were innumerable riots in different parts of India which were a result of growing communal polarization among the people. Recognizing the threat posed by communal politics towards its twin goals of overthrowing Imperialism and ushering Socialist Revolution, the NBS in its manifesto made a scathing critique of growing communalism over “trivial” issues.  The manifesto castigates the youth for uncritically falling into the communal trap. Interestingly, its attack on communal organizations for killing in the name of animals resonates with our times where mob-lynching is orchestrated in the name of protecting cow. It says,

“…a branch of peepal tree is cut and religious feelings of the Hindus are injured. A corner of a paper idol, tazia, of the idol-breaker Mohammedans is broken, and ‘Allah’ gets enraged, who cannot be satisfied with anything less than the blood of the infidel Hindus. Man ought to be attached more importance that the animals and, yet, here in India, they break each other’s heads in the name of ‘sacred animals’.”

The manifesto criticized the communal politics and hatred prevalent among both Hindu and Muslim communities. According to the Sabha, Communalism reflected the narrow mindedness of communities which was exploited by the foreign enemy. They also criticized the home grown leaders from both the communities who inflamed communal passions and accused them of “creating a false issue and screening the real one”. But the critique of communalism was not just limited to the role it played in politics, the Sabha extended its critique to denounce the negative role played by it in general progress of society. The manifesto reads…“religious superstitions and bigotry are a great hindrance in our progress. They have proved an obstacle in our way and we must do away with them. ‘The thing that cannot bear free thought must perish’.” The task of creating a society in which free thought and rationality prevailed fell upon the youth. The manifesto says that “young men with revolutionary zeal from all communities are required for the task”.

The manifesto appealed to the youth that “they must organise themselves free from any influence and refuse to be exploited any more by the hypocrites and insincere people who have nothing in common with them and who always desert the cause at the critical juncture. In all seriousness and sincerity, let them make the triple motto of “service, suffering, sacrifice” their sole guide. Let them remember that the making of a nation requires self-sacrifice of thousands of obscure men and women who care more for the idea of their country than for their own comfort and interest, than their own lives and the lives of those who they love.” Bhagwati and his comrades argued that only class-based politics can put an end to communalism and the working class should be mobilized against communal riots.

The ideas of Bhagwati and his comardes are like light-houses not only for the emancipation of Indian people but for the entire humanity. Not only their struggle against communalism is more relevant than ever, their arguments against over-emphasis on constitutionalism and reformism are also important lessons for the Indian Left and anyone in favour of social transformation. Ultimately, it is their vision for a classless, egalitarian and exploitation-free India which is a solution for the ills of our society and continuing their fight for the same would surely create a better place to live in for our future generations.

Prabal is a research scholar in Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He’s working on the anticolonial revolutionary movement and the communist movement in India.

Harsh and Ankur are research scholars based in Centre for Study of Social Systems, JNU.

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  1. Anu Panchal says:

    Nice article

  2. S. K. Agarwal says: