‘Bhagat Singh respected Gandhi for his impact on masses, but thought his ideas couldn’t bring a social change for equality’
Bhagat Singh, a freedom fighter who belonged to the revolutionary strand, was executed in 1931 at the age of 23. His mystique to this day remains almost unmatched and even some Pakistani organisations hail him as a hero. Historian Chaman Lal, who put together Singh’s lesser known intellectual output, unpacks his beliefs on the eve of his birth anniversary in a conversation with Manimugdha S Sharma.
Bhagat Singh was a Marxist revolutionary. How do we reconcile his nationalism with Marxist internationalism?
The process of Bhagat Singh developing as a Marxist revolutionary began with the setting up of Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the later rechristening of HRA (Hindustan Republican Army) as Hindustan Socialist Republican Army/ Association. The addition of the word ‘socialist’ to the existing organisation was a qualitative advancement in the revolutionaries’ thought process. Their revolutionary struggle began from the fight against British colonialism, from the formation of HRA in 1924, in which Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaquallah and Bhagat Singh were part. Due to continuous study of world revolutionary movements, especially Irish revolutionary and Bolshevik movements, Bhagat Singh’s ideas developed further. While he remained a staunch nationalist, there was a qualitative difference in that his nationalism contained the seeds of the socialist revolution of peasants and workers, which had no contradiction with international revolutionary movements. In fact, in a 1924 essay, Bhagat Singh took the Indian idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world as family) and visualised a world federation of the future.
This is the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi. What did Bhagat Singh think about the Gandhian movement?
Bhagat Singh and his comrades thought that the Gandhian movement will end up in compromise, without achieving much. They wrote clearly that there will be no stable disciple of the ‘Sant of Sabarmati’. They respected him for his impact on the masses and asked revolutionaries to learn from his connectivity to the masses. But they thought that Gandhi’s ideas were illusory that couldn’t bring a social change for equality, especially economic and social equality.
What do you think of the assertion that
Gandhi didn’t try to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades from the gallows?
Even if Gandhi had made it a point not to have the Gandhi-Irwin Pact without the commutation of their death sentences, the revolutionaries would not have accepted any compromise at their end. They had a clear perception that they had to sacrifice their lives to arouse the Indian masses for the freedom struggle. Yet one can say that Gandhi did make efforts but not with the passion of Nehru and Bose. Gandhi did not assert his moral position that he is against death sentence, whatever may be the crime. In the revolutionaries’ case, Gandhi should not have compromised on his principled position of opposition to capital punishment.
In a 1928 essay, Bhagat Singh called Subhas Chandra Bose a rebel and Jawaharlal Nehru a revolutionary. Why?
Though Subhas Chandra Bose was more attached emotionally to young revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh preferred Jawaharlal Nehru’s rational ideas about socialism. Subhas Bose was also socialist, but according to Bhagat Singh, he was more emotional and Nehru was more of a rationalist and realist. That is why he thought of Bose as a rebel and Nehru as a revolutionary. He had excellent relations with both of them, and at a personal level, more with Subhas Bose. But he wanted the youth to follow the rational thinking of Nehru.
You say in your book that none of the communal organisations had spoken in favour of the revolutionaries. Why?
It is a historical fact that none of the so-called religious organisations or religion-oriented political organisations spoke a word in favour of the revolutionaries, either in their lifetime or after their hanging. A whole lot of people, including Jinnah, spoke during Bhagat Singh and his comrades’ hunger strikes in jail and after their hanging. Savarkar did not utter a word at the hanging of the revolutionaries, whereas Periyar not only wrote the first editorial on this in his Tamil journal Kudai Arasu, he also arranged to get the Tamil translation of ‘Why I am an Atheist’ published in 1934. Only the national leaders of Congress or Communist parties expressed anger and anguish at their brutal treatment in jails during their hunger strikes or at their hanging.
What did Bhagat Singh think of social inequalities? Could he be seen as an anti-caste crusader?
Bhagat Singh very clearly stated his position in the essay, ‘ The Issue of Untouchability’, where he used very strong words against casteism and untouchability. From the Naujawan Bharat Sabha platform, Singh and his comrades organised common langar for all religions and communities. He asked for his last food before execution to be cooked by a Dalit prisoner named Bogha. Their goal was socialism to be built after pushing British colonialists out. He said there is no difference between Lord Irwin and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru if the masses are to be ruled under the same type of exploitative system.