Mainstream, VOL LIV No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2016
Ambedkar on Bhagat Singh
Sunday 20 March 2016, by
Legendary freedom fighter and martyr Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary was observed on September 28, 2007. On the occasion of the eightyfifth anniversary of his martyrdom, we are reproducing, with due acknowledgement, the following article (published earlier in Countercurrents.org) in homage to the outstanding revolutionary hero’s abiding memory. He was executed along with Sukhdev and Rajguru in Lahore on March 23, 1931. He was and remains to this day a source of inspiration for our youth. In this context we also offer our sincere tributes to Babasaheb Ambedkar just before his 125th birth anniversary next month.
The vested interests, while lauding Babasaheb Ambedkar, have systematically reduced him to be his near-ideological antithesis. The ruling classes and their state, of course, have played a vanguard role but even his so-called followers have not in any way been behind. This year the ruling establishment is going gaga over the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary, when as though revealingly, the year has dawned with the monumental injustice to the five Dalit Ph.D scholars of the Hyderabad Central University that led to one of them, Rohith Vemula, committing suicide. When Ambedkar stressed on higher education, unlike most reformers of his times, he had the likes of Rohith in mind, laced with critical faculties to steer the movement of oppressed people to their liberation. Harassment of Dalit students pushing them to commit suicide in higher educational institutions is not new but the manner in which this suicide took place should wake up Dalits to the deceit practised by the current regime.
It saw the continued abuse of the Constitution and trampling of all ideas Ambedkar stood for in the recent imbroglio in JNU. The very establishments that decimated his ideal of democratic republic and killed the spirit of liberty, equality, fraternity are posing as his biggest devotees. Under such mounting propaganda, right from the late 1960s, which shows that it is not the parties but the class they belong to that has been acting in concert, the radical aspects of Babasaheb Ambedkar have been systematically overshadowed. For instance, just after getting disillusioned with the aftermath of the Mahad struggle he had tried class politics over the entire decade until he was forced by the circumstances to revert back to caste politics. This politics, symbolised by the Independent Labour Party, which was described by him as a workers’ party, and its reflection in Janata, his newspaper, appears to have been completely forgotten. The 1930s was an eventful decade and it is interesting to see how he saw or related with many of these events. The non-Marathi readers are totally lost to these writings because their translations are yet not available in English and therefore in other languages. This creates the impression that Babasaheb Ambedkar just hammered on the betterment of Dalits and supplemented the ‘divide-and-rule’ policy of the British imperialists. At least that is what is reflected by the current genre of Dalit leaders through their apathy towards issues other than Dalit.
One of the most shattering events of this decade was the trial and eventual hanging of Bhagat Singh along with his two comrades, Rajguru and Sukhdev. It exposed the British imperialists in their true colours along with their love for the rule of law as well as the phoney concern of our nationalist leadership for the freedom of the people. Bhagat Singh and Dr Ambedkar, as they would seem perfect opposite of each other, are the two heroes who had truly understood what ailed this country. When I said this while speaking at the launch of the centenary celebrations of Bhagat Singh in Maharashtra in 2007, people were perplexed by such a weird statement. But that is quite true. The relevance of these two people is growing as they get distanced from us. How did they see each other? There is no evidence of either of them saying anything about the other. However, we do know that Bhagat Singh had grappled with the Dalit question. He had written an article, titled Achoot Samasya (Problem of Untouchability), at the age of 16, but it still has a freshness and reflects an amazing maturity of thought to be relevant for the emancipatory struggle of Dalits. Ambedkar did not write on the revolutionary movement of Bhagat Singh but had written an editorial note, titled “Three Victims”, when they were hanged. Though it does not speak about their struggle, much less politics, it explains how their execution was influenced by political expediency back home.
I provide herewith its translation as it may be of interest to many a student of Ambedkar besides its historical value.
(Janata, April 13, 1931)
Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru have been eventually hanged. They were charged for the murders of an English police officer, named Saunders, and a Sikh police sepoy, named Chaman Singh. Also there were three or four additional charges such as an attempt of murdering one police inspector at Banaras, throwing a bomb in the Assembly, conducting robbery at a house in Maulimiya village and looting its valuables. Bhagat Singh had already admitted to the charge of throwing bomb in the Assembly. For this crime, he and Batukeshwar Dutt were already sentenced with life imprisonment. One of the comrades of Bhagat Singh, by the name of Jaigopal, had confessed that the murder of Saunders was executed by the revolutionaries including Bhagat Singh and others. The government had filed a case against Bhagat Singh and his comrades based on this confession. None of the three accused participated in this case, however. A special tribunal was appointed comprising three High Court judges that heard the case and unanimously awarded them death penalty.
Bhagat Singh’s father had made a mercy petition to the Emperor and the Viceroy requesting them not to execute the punishment and convert it, if required, into life imprisonment at Andamans. Many people, including prominent leaders, also tried to plead with the government in the matter. The issue of Bhagat Singh’s death penalty might have arisen in the negotiations that took place between Gandhi and Lord Irwin. Although Lord Irwin had not given any definitive assurance about saving Bhagat Singh’s life, Gandhi’s speech during the intervening period created a hope that Irwin would try his best within his powers to save the lives of these three youth. But all these hopes, predictions and appeals proved futile. They were killed by hanging in the Central Prison, Lahore on March 23, 1931 at 7 pm. None of them had made any appeal for saving them. But as it is already published, Bhagat Singh had expressed a desire for being killed with bullet shots instead of hanging by the neck. But even this last will of his was not granted and they implemented the judgment of the tribunal verbatim. The judgement was to hang by the neck till dead. If they were killed with bullet shots, the execution would not have conformed to the judgement verbatim. The order of the justice goddess was obeyed in toto and the three were killed with the method she prescribed.
For whom the Sacrifice?
If the government thinks that people would be impressed by its display of devotion to and strict obedience of the justice goddess and therefore they would approve of this killing, it would be its utter naiveté. None believes that this sacrifice was made with the only intention of maintaining the clean reputation of the British justice system sans blemish. Even the govern-ment will not be able to convince itself with such an understanding. Then how will it convince others with this veil of the justice goddess? The entire world, as well as the government, does know that it is not for the devotion to the justice goddess but the fear of the Conservative Party and public opinion back home in England that this sacrifice was executed. They thought, the unconditional release of political prisoners like Gandhi and signing pacts with Gandhi’s party have damaged the prestige of the Empire. Some orthodox leaders of the Conservative Party have launched a campaign that the prevailing Cabinet of the Labour Party and the Viceroy, who danced to its tune, were responsible for it. In such a situation if Lord Irwin had showed mercy to political revolutio-naries who have been convicted for assassinating an English officer, it would be like giving a burning torch into the hands of the Opposition leaders. Already the condition of the Labour Party is not stable. In such a situation if these Conservative leaders got an alibi that the Labour Government grants clemency to the convicts, who had murdered an Englishman, it would be so easy to provoke public opinion against it. In order to avert this imminent crisis and to thwart the fire in the minds of the Conservative leaders from flaring further, these hangings were executed.
As such this was not to satisfy the justice goddess but to please public opinion in England. If it had been the issue of personal liking or disliking of Lord Irwin, he would have within his own powers annulled the death penalty and awarded life imprisonment in its stead. The Cabinet of the Labour Party in England would have supported Lord Irwin in this decision. It would have been necessary to maintain congeniality of public opinion in the context of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. While leaving the country, Lord Irwin would surely have liked to earn this goodwill. But he would have been crushed between the ire of his Conservative kin in England and the Indian bureaucracy imbued with the same casteist attitude. Therefore, not minding the public opinion here the Government of Lord Irwin hanged Bhagat Singh and his comrades to death and that too just two to four days before the Karachi conference of the Congress. Both the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, and its timing were sufficient to puncture the Gandhi-Irwin Pact and to trash the efforts to bring it about. If Lord Irwin wanted to fail this Pact, he would not have found a better act than this one. Looking from this perspective, as Gandhiji also felt, one could say that the government committed a great blunder.
In sum, merely not to incur the anger of the Conservatives in England, they sacrificed Bhagat Singh and his comrades ignoring public opinion and not minding what would happen to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The government must remember, howsoever it tries to cover it up or polish it, it will never be able to hide this fact.
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer and civil rights activist with the CPDR, Mumbai. He is currently a Professor of Business Management at the IIT, Kharagpur.