Bhagat Singh and the politics of nationalism

03 April 2016
Members of Democratic Youth Federation of India and Students Federation of India hold a photograph of Bhagat Singh as they participate in a torch rally to pay tribute to Indian freedom fighters in Hyderabad.
Photo/Mahesh Kumar A

Bhagat Singh is one of the only national heroes, perhaps after Gandhi, who is venerated across India. This could be attributed to his appeal as a martyr, which cuts across political ideologies. If only the same was true for his intellectual legacy as well. Many simply lap him up as a martyr, but few celebrate his political and social vision. This is not to undermine the sacrifice of Singh—or, for that matter, any martyr—but it is important to add that there was more to him than just shaheedi (martyrdom).

Singh left behind a corpus of political writings, underlining his vision for an independent India. He envisioned an India where the 98 percent would rule instead of elite 2 percent. His azaadi—freedom—was not limited to the expelling of the British; instead he desired azaadi from poverty, azaadi from untouchability, azaadi from communal strife, and azaadi from every form of discrimination and exploitation. Just twenty days before his hanging on 3 March 1931 Singh sent out an explicit message to the youth, saying:

“…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on

exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little

whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in

alliance, or even purely Indians.”

Singh was committed to inquilab (revolution), but not merely a political revolution. He wanted a social revolution to break age-old discriminatory practices such as untouchability, communalism and gender discrimination. However, most eulogies have ignored his social programme, projecting him merely as a passionate anti-colonialist and nationalist, which is not only inaccurate, but incomplete. That Singh went to the gallows is not something exclusive to him alone. Two others were hanged with him, and many more were hanged before him as for their part in the freedom struggle as well. None, however, left behind a legacy like Singh’s. His huge collection of writing on issues such as caste, communalism, language and politics, are relevant even today.

Singh was a prolific writer, who regularly wrote columns for different newspapers and magazines. In the context of the seething university campuses today, it behooves us to recall how Singh confronted both caste and communalism in his literary work. In his first piece in the June 1928 issue of the newspaper Kirti, Singh begins by stating that “our country is unique where six crore citizens are called untouchables and their mere touch defiles the upper castes. Gods get enraged if they enter the temples. It is shameful that such things are being practiced in the twentieth century.” He also lashed out against the hypocrisy of such a practice. “We claim to be a spiritual country but hesitate to accept equality of all human beings while materialist Europe is talking of revolution since centuries,” he wrote, and went on to place this in the context of British rule. “We are chagrined about discrimination against Indians in foreign lands, and whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India.” Singh then asked if Indians really had any right to complain about colonialism.

In his second article, published in May 1928, Singh, profoundly stirred by the communal upsurge of the 1920s, expressed his anguish, holding political leaders and the press responsible for inciting communalism. He believed that “there were a few sincere leaders, but their voice is easily swept away by the rising wave of communalism. In terms of political leadership, India had gone totally bankrupt.”

Singh believed that journalism used to be a noble profession that had fallen from grace. He wrote that “the real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of the people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness, and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism.” What he felt was happening instead, was that these same newspapers were responsible for regurgitating “ignorance, preaching and propagating sectarianism and chauvinism, leading to the destruction of our composite culture and shared heritage.”

The current debate across the nation is about nationalism and the need for slogans to prove one’s patriotism. Most of our slogans today had their origin during the freedom struggle. There was no one slogan which was raised all over India. “Bharat Mata ki Jai” was never seen as an ultimate test for nationalism. Even Singh has been dragged into this mess, with Bharatiya Janata Party leader Shahnawaz Husain claiming Singh raised “Bharat Mata ki Jai” while going up the gallows. The right seem unaware that Naujawan Bharat Sabha was a public platform of the revolutionaries founded by Singh, and had a categorical position on the slogans to be used. It rejected the Congress’s slogans of “Allaho Akbar,” “Sat Sri Akal” and “Vande Mataram,” which were used to project unity in diversity. Singh, however, saw them as divisive, as they made Indians conscious of their religious identities. Instead, they raised two slogans: “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Hindustan Zindabad,” hailing the revolution and the country.

Singh’s intellectual legacy needs to be remembered in these acrimonious times, both in India and Pakistan. He fought most of his battles, intellectual as well as otherwise, in Lahore, till he was hanged on the outskirts of the city. Singh’s revolutionary bequest is our collective memory, and should not be divided by political borders.

S Irfan Habib is the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.

Keywords: independence movement nationalism Bhagat Singh