Understanding Bhagat Singh: Kerala scholar's book traces revolutionist's changing ideas

Yadu discusses how anarchism was once used against those like Bhagat Singh who went against the establishment, much like how anti-national is used today.
Understanding Bhagat Singh: Kerala scholar's book traces revolutionist's changing ideas
Understanding Bhagat Singh: Kerala scholar's book traces revolutionist's changing ideas
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Narrating the story of Bhagat Singh almost always becomes a romanticised account of his life – how as a little boy he stood in a long line of people somewhere in Amritsar and watched the detachment of the British army and how that turned him into a revolutionary. Or else how he, as a boy of 12, went to the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and wept, while collecting the soil in a bottle, one which he always carried with him.

Yadukrishnan PT, a PhD scholar at the Manipal University who hails from Malappuram, didn’t want to do that. He had a very specific idea when he decided to do his Master's dissertation at the same university, on the ‘evolving revolutionary rhetoric of Bhagat Singh’, and he has now developed this thesis into a book: The Noblest Fallen: Making and Unmaking of Bhagat Singh’s Political Thought.

In his introduction to the book, Yadu writes how authors "feel the need to assign Bhagat Singh an origin story like that of a fictional hero, thereby assigning the revolutionary figure an almost superhuman nature". His is not going to be that kind of a book, he stresses. Instead he writes about the changing thoughts that Bhagat Singh had in his ideological framework, in the short life he lived. And this analysis has been done by studying the essays Bhagat Singh wrote through the times, in prison and outside of it.

“In the second semester of my Master’s programme, we had a fascinating course titled ‘Political and Spiritual Rhetoric’ taken by Dr Gayathri Prabhu, which looked into the paradigmatic concerns of 20th century India through a variety of genres— novel, autobiography, public discourse etc. One of the readings for the class was Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist. I had not previously read anything that Bhagat Singh had written, and this essay really spoke to me. I was always interested in atheism and the literature surrounding it, but this essay was completely different,” Yadu writes in an email interview.

3 stages of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary thoughts

He has in his book made detailed references to this essay along with others that Singh wrote between 1923 and 1931, analysing every stage (of revolutionary thought) that he went through. Yadu writes of three such stages in these eight years (before Singh was executed as a 23-year-old), on the basis of his writings: one, as a spiritual revolutionary that Singh terms ‘Romantic Revolutionary idealism’, two, a certain anarchist extremism fueled by the concept of ‘propaganda by deed’ and the third, a more progressive socialistic conceptualisation of revolution. Singh’s and an associate’s murder of a British policeman, and his involvement in the explosion of two bombs at the Central Legislative Assembly before showering leaflets on the legislators – the two acts that made Singh famous before his arrest, both appear to take place in the second stage. He wanted the idea of revolution to spread among the people, through such actions. But later, he appears to change his rhetoric, as Yadu notes.

“Part of the reason I find Bhagat Singh fascinating is the way he felt it necessary to write about the changes that his own conceptualisation of politics underwent over the years; the fact that he found it important to talk about ideological progression and departure during his final months in prison. It is admirable that he was not afraid to admit when he felt he was wrong about something. Singh’s evolution as a political worker and a revolutionary in his short lifespan is genuinely inspiring,” Yadu writes in the interview, an observation he has carefully avoided making in the book, like a true researcher – sticking to facts and avoiding opinion. The book too reads quite academic, no attempts made to make it a narrative nonfiction, or as we said before, a romanticised biography. And there is a lot of scope to do that – especially about Singh’s desire for death. But that too should be looked at as an ‘idea in motion’, Yadu writes in his book. Singh had been continually evolving.

Yadukrishnan PT

Singh and Savarkar

When he writes about the first phase of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary rhetoric, Yadu, at one point, makes a comparison to RSS ideologue Veer Savarkar. Bhagat Singh’s first ever published essay The Problem of Punjabi Language and Script (1923) "projects a xenophobia resembling that of Veer Savarkar", Yadu notes. 

Drawing parallels between one of India’s greatest revolutionaries to the Hindutva ideologue may sound strange. However, Yadu explains: “One of the things that I wanted to do in this book was to look into the very early years of Bhagat Singh’s political career, where he was propounding a certain problematic political rhetoric that he had inherited from the spiritual revolutionary tradition, which he moves out of, in the years following 1926. In this early phase, Singh writes an essay where in a segment he claims that ‘Muslims lack Indianness’ and that the language Urdu is alien to India because of the Persian origin of the script. It is merely this instance of xenophobic rhetoric that Singh uses in the essay that I have claimed to be similar to that of Savarkar. This essay was written in 1923 when Singh was just 16 years old and in the next 2-3 years Singh completely moves out of this political standpoint towards a more egalitarian socialist conceptualisation of revolution.”

Singh talks about this transformation in two of his later essays written in prison - Why I am an Atheist and Introduction to Dreamland. The various references to the beauty of Urdu poetry in Bhagat Singh’s jail notebook, along with multifarious Urdu couplets in it bear testimony to this transformation, Yadu says. “Not to mention the fact that Singh had asked for a Persian primer in prison to study the script whereby the final letters he sent to his brothers Kultar and Kulbir were written in Urdu.”

Later in the book, Yadu makes yet another comparison between Singh and Savarkar, but this time pointing out the differences in their communication to the British. While in prison, Singh had written to the British, asking that he and his comrades be executed by the firing squad like prisoners of war, while Savarkar had written countless petitions to the government, pleading to be released from the Andaman Cellular Jail. Savarkar’s pleas were polite ones (‘will your honour be pleased to?’) while Singh’s petition had an overarching tone of defiance, Yadu notes in his book.

Anarchist then, Anti-national now

Singh’s observations could be placed in the present and still be relevant. Yadu writes in the book: "Singh can be seen mentioning how the government has assigned the word ‘anarchism’ such notoriety that it is used to defame anyone who goes against the established order". A line that sounds all too familiar at a time the word "anti-national" is used against many who find problems with the establishment.  Yadu, on asked about this, says, “It is truly appalling that the sedition law used in this country at present is the same law that was used by the British against Indians before independence. May it be ‘anarchist’ or ‘anti-national’, the primary aim of these tags is to suppress dissent in every form.”

He adds: “Bhagat Singh in 1928 had published a three-part essay on anarchism, where he discussed how the ruling power had used the tag of anarchism to discredit the revolutionaries. A big part of anarchist philosophy is the belief that the burden of proof is always on the authorities to prove its legitimacy, may it be the religious institutions or the ruling government. What is happening now in the country is that the burden of proof is on the citizens to prove their legitimacy as citizens of the country, a notion that is antithetical to the very spirit of democracy.”

Yadu also says that it is important to note that the right-wing government responsible for this has also been trying to appropriate the legacy of Bhagat Singh - someone who was one of the most vocal critics of religious nationalism and capitalism in his time. “Every single political action that Bhagat Singh performed in his life, including his decision to die at the hands of the colonial government, was intended to urge the younger generation of the country to break out of their apathy and engage in transformative politics. Apathy is still our biggest impediment to the progression of democratic values in this country.”

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