SEPTEMBER 28, 2020 marked the 113th birth anniversary of India’s legendary martyr, Bhagat Singh. He may be distanced in time each year, but his relevance resonates closer to our challenges today.
This occasion, this year, comes at a time when many observations made by Bhagat Singh resonate a contemporary relevance and urgency. In a short span of life, 23 years, he continues to make us awestruck at the voluminous work that he produced on a wide range of issues – in fact, touching upon all aspects of human life. Clearly, he read a lot, combining his time with his revolutionary activity, followed carefully international developments, drew inspiration from writers and poets from all across the world and firmly upheld the cause of revolutionary emancipation under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Much has been written, much will be written subsequently about his life and work. He continues to remain an inspiration to generations of Indian youth. Amongst his rich contributions, there are certain aspects that need to be discussed in today’s contemporary situation.
Delhi Bomb Case
The hurling of harmless bombs in the Delhi central assembly, today’s Indian parliament, on April 8, 1929 drew the attention of the country and the world. Soon after, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army issued a leaflet saying: “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear’, with these immortal words uttered on a similar occasion by Valliant, a French anarchist martyr, do we strongly justify this action of ours”.
On charges that this bomb case was the expression of the `cult of violence’ that Bhagat Singh represented, he answered in a statement to the session’s court, Delhi, along with B K Dutt (read by lawyer, legendary freedom fighter, Asaf Ali): “We bore no personal grudge or malice against anyone of those who received slight injuries or against any other person in the assembly. On the contrary, we repeat that we hold human life sacred beyond words, and would sooner lay down our own lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone else. Unlike the mercenary soldiers of the imperialist armies who are disciplined to kill without compunction, we respect, and, in so far as it lies in our power, we attempt to save human life. And still we admit having deliberately thrown the bombs into the assembly chamber. Facts however, speak for themselves and our intention would be judged from the result of the action.”
Bhagat Singh and the HSRA were very clear that their objective was not only political freedom from British rule but this freedom should extend to the economic, social and other aspects of people’s lives to make it `complete independence’. In a different context, Bhagat Singh said: “Our freedom does not mean merely to escape the hold of the British; it means complete independence – when people will intermingle with each other freely and be rid of mental slavery as well.”
Everyday, when they went to attend the court proceeding, Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt would enter shouting Inquilab Zindabad. The British Magistrate asked them what is the meaning of this slogan, what he meant by the word `revolution’? In answer to that question, in the written statement, they said:
“ `Revolution’ does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By `Revolution’ we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change. Producers or labourers in spite of being the most necessary element of society are robbed by their exploiters of the fruits of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant, who grows corn for all, starves with his family, the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies, masons, smiths and carpenters, who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims. These terrible inequalities and forced disparity of chances are bound to lead to chaos. This state of affairs cannot last long, and it is obvious, that the present order of society in merry-making is on the brink of a volcano.
“The whole edifice of this civilization, if not saved in time, shall crumble. The radical change, therefore, is necessary and it is the duty of those who realise it to reorganise society on the socialistic basis. Unless this thing is done and the exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, sufferings and carnage with which humanity is threatened today cannot be prevented. All talk of ending war and ushering in an era of universal peace is undisguised hypocrisy.
“By `Revolution’, we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such breakdown, and in which the sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognized and a world federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and misery of imperial wars.
“This is our ideal, and with this ideology as our inspiration, we have given a fair and loud enough warning.
“If, however, it goes unheeded and the present system of Government continues to be an impediment in the way of the natural forces that are swelling up, a grim struggle will ensure involving the overthrow of all obstacles, and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat to pave the way for the consummation of the ideal of revolution. Revolution is an inalienable right of mankind. Freedom is an imperishable birth right of all. Labour is the real sustainers of society, the sovereignty of this ultimate destiny of the workers.”
Against the Institution, Not Individual
Currently, as India grapples with the unprecedented erosion of the Indian parliament by this BJP central government, Bhagat Singh’s warnings that how that institution, instead of representing the will of the people is turned against those very people by the ruling classes, reverberates loud and clear: “Solemn resolutions passed by the House have been contemptuously trampled underfoot….”. “Government measures and proposals, rejected as unacceptable by the elected members of the legislatures, have been restored by mere stroke of the pen”.
These words are a chilling reminder to all of us today when we are in the midst of the struggle to uphold the centrality of the Indian constitution: the sovereignty of the people reflected in “We, the people…..” from being trampled upon in one of the principal organs of our State, the parliament.
Communalism vs Secularism
Soon after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, the British further sharpened their instrument of divide and rule. The people who were shot dead ruthlessly there were Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus who were jointly participating in the struggle for our freedom. Subsequently, communal riots broke out all across the country. In 1924, following such a ghastly riot in Kohat, Punjab, a national debate emerged on communal riots in the freedom movement. Universally, the freedom movement recognised the need to put an end to such strife and the then Congress leadership made an attempt to get the Hindu and Muslim leaders to sign a peace pacts, which Bhagat Singh supported.
“The condition of Bharatvarsha/India is indeed pitiable today. The devotees of one religion are sworn enemies of the devotees of another religion. Merely to belong to one religion is now considered enough reason to be the enemy of another religion. If we find this difficult to believe, let us look at the fresh outbreaks of violence in Lahore. …… Under these conditions the future of Hindustan seems very bleak. ….And one has no idea how long these religious riots will plague Hindustan.”
What is the antidote? Bhagat Singh was clear that the answer lay in the separation of religion from politics.
“In 1914-15 the martyrs separated religion from politics. They believed that religion was an individual’s personal matter and no one else should interfere in it. Nor should one let religion push itself into politics because it does not unite everyone or make them work together. That is the reason movements like the Ghadar Party were strong and had a single soul in which the Sikhs were in the forefront for going to the gallows, and even the Hindus and the Muslims didn’t lag behind.
“At present, some Indian leaders also want to separate religion from politics. This is also a beautiful remedy to eliminate quarrels and we support it.
“If religion is separated from politics, then we can all come together in politics, even if we belong to different religions”.
Bhagat Singh, however, emphasized the importance of class consciousness as the final answer to eliminate communalism. He wrote:
“Though one hears very heart rending accounts of such riots, yet one heard something positive about the Calcutta riots. The workers of the trade unions did not participate in the riots nor did they come to blows with each other; on the other hand, all the Hindus and Muslims behaved normally towards each other in the mills and even tried to stop the riots. This is because there was class-consciousness in them and they fully recognized what would benefit their class. This is the beautiful path of class-consciousness that can stop communal rioting.”
Analysing the anatomy of the communal disturbances, Bhagat Singh said: “As far as we have seen, communal leaders and newspapers are behind the riots”. He said, some newspaper people “played a special role in igniting communal riots”.
“The profession of journalism that at one point of time, was accorded a very high status has become very filthy now. These people print prominent, provocative headlines and rouse the passions of people against one another, which leads to rioting. Not just in one or two places, but in many places riots have taken place because the local papers have written very outrageous essays. Few writers have been able to maintain their sanity and keep calm on such days.
The real duty of the newspapers was to impart education, eradicate narrow-mindedness in people, put an end to communal feelings, encourage mutual understanding, and create a common Indian nationalism. But they have turned their main business to spread ignorance, preach narrowness, create prejudice, lead to rioting and destroy Indian common nationalism. This is the reason that tears of blood flow from our eyes at Bharat’s present state and the question that rises in our heart is, `What will become of Hindustan?’”
This resonates chillingly in contemporary times with the role being played by corporate media, save honourable exceptions.
He wrote emphatically on the importance of social justice and universal equality for all human beings.
“…we want everyone to be equal. There should be no division of class, nor of touchable and untouchable. But Sanatan Dharma is in favour of this discrimination. Even in the twentieth century, if a low-caste boy garlands people like the Pandit or the Maulvi, they have a bath with their clothes on and refuse to grant the `janeyu’, the sacred thread, to the untouchables. Either we pledge to say nothing against this religion and sit silently at home, or we must oppose it.”
When he wrote his essay `Why I am an Atheist’, it was both his rationalism, materialist understanding and the Marxist world outlook that influenced him. But, importantly, religion or the exploitation of people’s religious sentiments for narrow bigotry was seen by Bhagat Singh as an enemy of the people. How prescient it appears now in our current context; exploiting religious sentiments as a potent instrument to deny people their complete freedom.
While paying our homage to this great revolutionary once again, we do so with the conscious effort to carry forward some of the salient contributions he made for creating a better India and for the real complete freedom of our people.
Sitaram Yechury is General Secretary CPI(M).