India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and The Promise of Bhagat Singh

bhagat singh

Chris Moffat, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and The Promise of Bhagat Singh, 2019, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Pages 282   

Chris Moffat has been a British researcher doing research on Bhagat Singh since years and spent quite a lot of time in Delhi and Punjab on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. This book is result of his rigorously academic, scholarly and yet social change-oriented research.

‘Afterlives’ of the dead heroes or icons is the serious research project in western academics and Bhagat Singh is one of the favorite icons for studying afterlife of the martyrs. Earlier Dr. Kama Maclean, an Australian scholar did her research, though from a bit different angle and now Dr. Chris Moffat has come up with his research on afterlife of Bhagat Singh. For Chris the anti-colonial struggles in South Asia is the focus and how its continuation in postcolonial polity is the main question. In this context he traces the revenant presence of Bhagat Singh in Indian society today facing current problems. He demonstrates through empirical study and analysis the living Indian communities are still animated by a sense of obligation, duty and debt to the dead. Bhagat Singh himself in his simple political vocabulary has told in his last days to his comrades and friends that ‘a dead Bhagat Singh will be more dangerous to colonial regime than living Bhagat Singh!’ To large extent Bhagat Singh is proving to be truer in post-colonial desi rulers ruled Indian society than he proved for British regime before 1947.

Chris Moffat research is organized into book form in two parts. In first part of his work, he focuses upon the life time of Bhagat Singh and his active participation in national freedom struggle, chalking out his own path different than dominant Congress party path. While in second part, Chris moves on to the impact of Bhagat Singh’s iconic presence in post-colonial society up to the contemporary times. He has supplemented his scholarly research with substantial support from figures/photographs, which are 26 in total. The political spectrum is as wide as one can imagine-from pre-colonial times Congress party/Gandhi/Nehru/Subhas stream to RSS and in post-colonial time from Aam Aadmi Party(AAP to maximum no. of leftist organizations-parties to their mass organizations and rightwing organizations from ABVP to Khalistanis. Chris Moffat analyses Bhagat Singh phenomenon objectively and rationally.

Prior to writing his introduction to the book, Chris has reproduced a photograph of Ram Rehman, titled as Abbas Studio, clicked by great photographer in 2002, the picture shows two painters painting Bhagat Singh portrait on a screen with brush on eyebrows, the eyes of portrait are so evocative that one wonders about the fascination for Bhagat Singh hat wearing face for painters and photographers, which has been painted and clicked hundreds of times. Christopher Pinney has reproduced many such photographs of Bhagat Singh in his study of the icons through photographs. Chris starts with a popular joke about Bhagat Singh, which is as much quoted in context of another female literary icon Heer, that ‘Every Indian wants Bhagat Singh to be reborn, but in neighbor’s house’! Chris refers to failure of Mahatma Gandhi’s first non-cooperation movement in 1922, which led to the militant nationalism of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad as both were ardent followers of Gandhi and Azad even suffered many lashes on his back with shouting at every lash-Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai. While discussing the theme of afterlives of militant anti-colonial icons like James Connolly, Stephan Biko, the young historian finds that ‘official’ historians and state authorities labor to absorb these radical pasts into a consensus national pantheon’(Page 2). In this context he refers to ‘The fact that Bhagat Singh is frequently invoked across contradictory ideological projects in contemporary South Asia-from the Hindu Right to the Maoist left, Sikh separatists in Punjab to secular rationalists in Tamilnadu, the army in India to pacifists in Pakistan-lends this call to reconstruct the ‘real’ figure an additional sense of urgency, especially those eager to position themselves as ‘true’ inheritors of the revolutionary’s legacy(Page3).’ Here researcher quotes Mahatma Gandhi -‘there has never been within the living memory so much romance round any life as had surrounded that of Bhagat Singh.’ (same page)

Chris Moffat describes Bhagat Singh as ‘a problem in the history of Indian Nationalism’ and in last decade there has been surge in new academic studies on Bhagat Singh. (Page 8) He quotes the anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney, who says that Bhagat Singh’s huge popularity’ remains ‘one of the puzzles of twentieth century Indian history that academics don’t seem to have engaged with’. Perhaps due to lack of interest of Indian academics in Bhagat Singh led to the interest of academics in other countries to focus on the ‘fascination’ and ‘puzzle’ of Indian icon of Indian freedom struggle, which led Chris Moffat like young historian to research on Bhagat Singh. It is interesting to underline that western and Indian academics almost simultaneously took to study Bhagat Singh. Historians like S Irfan Habib, Simona Sawhney and US based Neeti Nair took interest in studying Bhagat Singh phenomenon as Kama Maclean, Chris Moffat, Christopher Pineey and Christophe Jeffrelot took interest abroad. But much earlier Soviet historians like Mitrokhin had focused on Bhagat Singh.

Chris Moffat in his effort to analyze Bhagat Singh phenomenon in life and afterlife has drawn perceptions of Ranciere , Alan Badiou and more theoreticians in in integrated form, while developing his own methodology for research.

To describe the life time of Bhagat Singh, Chris begins with first chapter-Lahore and the possibility of Politics, referring to popular anecdotes like happenings in Bhagat Singh’s life, such as ‘sowing the guns’ to reap the fulsome crop of guns to drive British away. Bhagat Singh’s visit to Jallianwala Bagh massacre site very next day at the age of 12 years is also quoted from Hansraj Rehbar. Chris perhaps due to his lesser knowledge of Hindi has not referred to Bhagat Singh’s most authentic biography by her niece Veerender Sindhu. In this chapter the socio-cultural-politico culture of Lahore is described in detail from various sources. Old Mochi Gate of Lahore has been described as Hyde Park of London by Pran Neville in his book-Lahore: A sentimental journey quoted by Chris. Charles Bradlaugh, a British atheist MP’s impact on Lahore was reflected in 1900 founding stone laid by Surendernath Banerjee of Punjab Congress headquarter named as Bradlaugh hall. The founding stone still survives in Lahore, after 72 years of formation of Pakistan. Bhagat Singh’s childhood, student days and early political orientation through National college, part of Bradlaugh hall has been described in this chapter and reference is also made to ‘Tilak school of Politics’ prevalent in National college set up by Lala Lajpat Rai. A rare photograph has been reproduced by Chris, of a book from Dwarka Das library again set up by Lala Lajpat Rai from his own collection of books, has been reproduced, showing the marked stamp of Tilak School of Politics. The story goes up to setting up of Naujwan Bharat Sabha in 1924/26 and banned from city college campus by 1927 in first chapter and moves further in ‘What is to be done’- a Lenin book title, but also pre-Lenin Chernysvsky novel title, in second chapter. It narrates the story of HSRA formation along with continuation of Naujwan Bharat Sabha, leading to the insertion of concept of ‘Socialism’ in revolutionary program by developing HRA to HSRA-Hindustan Socialist Republican Association on 8th and 9th September at Ferozeshah Kotla grounds of Delhi. This chapter also refers to Jawaharlal Nehru’s address to 3rd conference of Naujwan Bharat Sabha on 10th August 1929 at Amritsar. The story goes up to assassination of Saunders and bomb throwing in Central assembly and moves to ‘Infinite Inqilab’ in third chapter.

Inqilab Zindabad describes the details of trial of revolutionaries and their use of it for propaganda purposes, leading to massive mass upsurge in favor of revolutionaries, signature campaigns, demonstrations and solidarity meetings, while revolutionaries observed hunger strikes and faced brutal police attacks on them even inside the courts. The final act of refusal to cow down and kissing hangman’s noose with slogans of Inqilab Zindabad, turned these revolutionaries from ‘persons’ to ‘symbols’, who could not die with physical death and thus leading to their afterlives, delineated in part-ii if the book.

In next three chapters and prior to that in Prologue Chris quotes Madan Gopal Singh, whose celebrated Panjabi author father Harbhajan Singh lived close to Lahore jail, where three revolutionaries were executed, describes how whole village was up listening to shouts of Inqilab Zindabad from inside the jail and shouted back the slogan. In next chapter-Bhagat Singh’s corpse, the burning of bodies of revolutionaries away from Lahore jail in Hussainiwala is described and how the few pieces of bones were collected and brought back to Lahore to perform last rites at Ravi river bank. Fragments of revolutionaries were later brought in silver casket to Karachi congress and later exhibited at Esplanade Maidan in Bombay. Then the narration shifts to formation of various organizations and publications of Bhagat Singh’s writings in collections, beginning with Amarjit Chandan in Punjabi, Veerender Sindhu, a niece of Bhagat Singh in Hindi and Shiv Verma in English. Historian Bipan Chandra’s introduction to Why I am an Atheist, is underlined as first academia effort to focus on Bhagat Singh’s thinking personality. In further chapter-Living with the Dead focus shifts to artistic and cultural creation of Bhagat Singh image through picture, paintings, films, plays and writings. Then issue of political appropriation by rightwing groups such as Tajinder Bagga’s Bhagat Singh Kranti sena, patronized by RSS, who physically attacked eminent civil rights activist Prashant Bhushan, is brought into discussion. The fact that distorted pictorial images of Bhagat Singh holding gun with twitching moustaches, yellow turban, all emphasize on rightwing distortion of Bhagat Singh’s personality. But counter efforts to focus on Bhagat Singh’s progressive ideas by left and Dalit groups are also brought to notice of readers. A very interesting image of Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar merged into each other by Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Student Organization (BASO) is produced from their Facebook page. Khalistanis added Bhagat Singh portrait to Bhindrawale image posters.

In another chapter Life and Life and Death in Monuments-the last chapter before conclusion studies different statues and museum representations of Bhagat Singh and this chapter include Bhagat Singh being celebrated in Pakistan as well through plays and songs.

Author Chris Moffat concludes his study of Bhagat Singh as an open-ended task. In Chris’s words-‘This martyr’s extraordinary and multifarious afterlives provide an important opportunity to think about how the spectral might be written profitably  into the study of politics in South Asia and across the postcolonial world more generally.’(Page 248)

While Chris Moffat’s rigorous study of Bhagat Singh should find favor with academia, the common reader will not be much comfortable with the highly academic phraseology used by the researcher, whose interest is visible in progressive and objective presentation of Bhagat Singh’s enigmatic personality. Hope author will bring out a popular edition of his study, which will not be as expensive as this edition is, though Indian edition of the book is almost ten times cheaper than UK edition! The quality of production of book is excellent.

Chaman Lal, Dean Faculty of Languages at Panjab University Chandigarh at present, is a retired Professor from JNU, New Delhi, editor of The Bhagat Singh Reader and Honorary Advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre set up by Delhi Govt. [email protected]



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