Returning to my hometown in Bengal after a three-year hiatus, I noticed that the famous Bhagat Singh Chowk now had a life-size idol of the revolutionary icon. A yellow turban had replaced the hat on her small bust. Most disturbing was the Khanda Sahib, a Sikh religious symbol, in the background. Even his name was engraved with the prefix “Sardar”. Very clearly, it was a conscious attempt to whitewash Bhagat singh like an atheist and socialist revolutionary who wanted to put an end to the exploitation of man by man.
There is no better occasion to remember the true Bhagat Singh than on his 114th birthday. Bhagat Singh was born from a Jatt-Sikh peasant family in the village of Banga in the district of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan Punjab). He went to DAV School, Lahore, and at age fifteen joined the National College in Lahore.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre had a significant impact on young Bhagat Singh. The tragedy revealed the sinister side of British imperialism. The murder confirmed that the moderate methods of Congress, which included prayers, petitions and pleas, had failed. A wave of disillusion ran through the Punjab, which contributed the most men to the British war effort during WWI. This has led to the rapid radicalization of youth in the state. Bhagat Singh visited the Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919 and brought back a handful of blood soaked sand.
The non-cooperation movement launched by the Congress party has absorbed much of the energy of the indian youth, but not for long. After Gandhi unceremoniously suspended the movement in 1922, the youth had no choice but to take the radical path. Bhagat Singh, who became interested in the railway strike at the age of fourteen and welcomed Protestant workers from Akali to his village after Mahant Narain Das, together with the British authorities, killed at least 140 Sikhs, was drawn to such tendencies.
Bhagat Singh reached Kanpur in 1923 and wrote a letter to his father, who was trying to restrain his revolutionary energies by marrying him, saying “his life [was] dedicated to the nation and so [he] couldn’t think of getting married â. In Kanpur, he met members of the Republican Hindustan Association (HRA) such as BK Sinha, Shiv Verma, Jai Dev Kapoor and Ajoy Ghosh.
Bhagat Singh came to socialism and Marxism in search of an ideology for two reasons. Previous revolutionary trends in Bengal and Punjab had a strong religious element. He naturally closed the method and movement to Muslims, Sikhs and secular revolutionaries. Second, the Bolshevik revolution posed the greatest challenge to capitalist imperialism. Its leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were the first international politicians to call for the self-determination of the colonies. At the Ninth All-Russian Conference of the Communist Party in 1920, he stressed that ârevolutions in Asian countries would display an even greater distinction than Russian revolutionâ. In October 1917, Trotsky proposed India’s right to self-determination with Ireland and Egypt.
Additionally, Bhagat Singh embellished himself at the Dwarkadas Library, where he voraciously read Marxist literature. The direct result was the name change of the HRA at the request of Bhagat Singh. At an HRA meeting at Firoz Shah Kotla in Delhi on September 8-9, 1928, he proposed adding “socialist” to the organization’s name. Other revolutionaries like Sukhdev, BK Sinha, Shiv Verma and Jai Dev Kapoor supported him, and the HRA became the Republican Socialist Association of Hindustan (HSRA).
“This name change was not ornamental,” says famous Bhagat Singh historian Professor Chaman Lal. He argues that unlike Indira Gandhi, who added âsocialistâ to the preamble to the Constitution, for Bhagat Singh and his comrades, âit was a well-thought-out qualitative shift in perception of the purpose of the Indian revolutionâ. He notes that before the HRA became the HSRA, Bhagat Singh trained in mass organizing work through the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, modeled on Young Italy and inspired by Mazzini and Garibaldi. During this period, the Ghadarite ex-revolutionaries disillusioned with anarchism and trained in the practice of communism at the Oriental Workers’ University in Moscow returned and created the Kirti newspaper.. Bhagat Singh and worked in Kirti’s editorial staff.
He met Muzaffar Ahmad, a founding member of the communist movement in India when the latter visited Lahore after his release from prison in 1924 Kanpur conspiracy case. His revolutionary colleague Batukeshwar Dutt, who later joined Bhagat Singh in throw a bomb in the Central Assembly, had worked in the Workers ‘and Peasants’ Party, the Communist Front after the non-cooperation movement. The HSRA’s revolutionary program had the greatest affinity with the Communists.
Young people staged massive protests when PC Joshi, who at 28 became the first and youngest general secretary of the Communist Party of India, was arrested at Allahabad University. Ghosh writes in his essay Bhagat Singh and his comrades: âWe felt sympathetic to the Communists and at one point even envisioned some kind of working alliance with them to organize the masses and lead the mass movement. We from the Hindustan Republican Socialist Association (HSRA) had planned to work as its armed section. But when we learned that the Communists considered the armed action of individuals to be harmful to the movement, we gave up on the idea.
After the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, and the death of Chandrashekhar Azad, most of the young revolutionaries joined the communist movement. Since the Indian national movement took on a mass character from the mid-thirties to independence, a political party with a constructive program was best.
qualitative substitute for self-sacrifice.
Bhagat Singh was hanged when he was only 23 years old. Yet his thoughts had matured to an unprecedented degree. Far from seeking ideological help in the scriptures, he was an implacable critic of religion and its finery. In a short essay titled Religion and our struggle for freedom in 1928 he made strong suggestions for unity among the Indian people. He wrote: âWe are aware that chanting higher order ayats and mantras can be used to derive different interpretations, but the question is why shouldn’t we get rid of this whole problem? In 1930, he wrote the iconoclastic essay, Why am I an atheist theoretically developing his critique of religion. Unfortunately, no Indian government since independence has considered including it in the education curriculum. A simple reading of the essay can confirm to readers its potential to cultivate scientific temperament among Indian youth. This would expose the cunning of those who want the world to see a turbanned Bhagat Singh.
He also made a penetrating critique of the caste system and of the timid Hindu reformers to alleviate this social evil. He wrote: âEven in the twentieth century, if a low caste boy wreaths people like the Pandits or the Maulvi, they take a bath fully clothed. He opposed his family’s more egalitarian Arya Samaji belief system when he wrote, âSwami Dayanand abolished untouchability but he could not go beyond the four varnas. Discrimination still persisted â.
In a brochure, The question of untouchability, he reiterated Naujawan Bharat Sabha’s strategy of not using the term untouchables. He argued, âWe should ask forgiveness from those who have been called untouchables and regard them as equal human beings like us without receiving amrit, reciting kalma or being purified, and counting them among us.â
India needs more than ever today to remember this prodigious revolutionary. In 2019, when MPs were sworn in, Lok Sabha shouted with slogans from Jai Shri Ram, Jai Maa Kali and Allah-hu-Akbar. We must remember that the Naujawan Bharat Sabha banned all religious slogans and strictly adopted the revolutionary and secular slogans Inquilab Zindabad and Jai Hind for its members. Bhagat Singh was an intellectual giant whose revolutionary legacy that India and all of South Asia must nurture.
The author is a research fellow in the Department of World History at the University of Cambridge. Opinions are personal.