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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 31 New Delhi July 23, 2016

Our Forgotten Heroes

Tuesday 26 July 2016

by Debatra Kumar Dey

Bhagat Singh earned immortality in our national annals primarily because he realised that he did not know enough and never got tired of studying more himself plus learning more from others, with whom he and his party differed but without whom he realised the common cause could not be realised. That added confidence to his courage and he became the nation’s martyr-hero.

P.C. Joshi (1969) 1

History leaves ample space for posterity to find alternative and new ways of interpretation. As such, 1907 is not a distinguished year in the context of the freedom struggle when India was yet to be exposed to Left politics. But in that year two personalities, namely, Bhagat Singh and Puran Chand Joshi (henceforth PCJ), were born in undivided India in Lyallpur Banga, now in Pakistan, and Almora of United Province respectively. Though their destinies were different in many respects, yet their relevance in the current perspective cannot be ruled out.

Being born and brought up in a family connected with the freedom struggle, Bhagat Singh put himself apart from others who participated in the long struggle against the Raj in many ways. While Amartya Sen had to gather support for his ‘disbelief’ from Wrik Veda in his boyhood days,2 Bhagat Singh had written “Why I am an Atheist” at least two decades ago, before his martyrdom (1931). In 1928, at the age of twentyone, Bhagat Singh was imprisoned due to sedition charges in the Punjab province along with his two colleagues. Not far away, PCJ was also imprisoned along with his twentyseven colleagues for the Meerut Conspiracy Case in United Province in 1929. One of the fellow prisoners of PCJ had assessed Nehru as ‘a timid reformist’ as well as a person ‘who promises all the blessings of socialism without a revolutionary struggle’ in spite of Nehru being a member of the Defence Committee formed by the Congress to extend help to the prisoners.3 At the international level, at the same time (1928) M.N. Roy’s colonial thesis was accepted at the Sixth Cnogress of the Communist International followed by withdrawal of the Communists from the freedom struggle in India. However, the Congress under the Presidentship of Motilal Nehru was clearly divided on the issue of ‘dominion status’ on the one hand or ‘complete independence’ on the other. Gandhiji was in favour of the first one. It would not be irrelevant here to mention that in 1908, Tagore in a letter to Abala Bose put his position in words like ‘Patriotism cannot be our final shelter; my refuge is humanity’. (Sen 2006) In 1917, Tagore expressed his critical view on ‘nationalism’ calling it a ‘great menace’.4 In his novel Ghare Baire, Nikhil, who is keen on social reforms, including women’s emancipation, but not that interested in nationalism, has the view: ‘I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.” (Sen, ibid.) After the death of Tagore, however, Gandhiji described him as ‘an ardent nationalist’. Against this backdrop, the slogans ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and ‘Down with Imperialism’ uttered by Bhagat Singh suggests that “He was no ordinary revolutionary who simply had a passion to die or kill for the cause of freedom. His vision was to establish a classless society and his short life was dedicated to the pursuit of this ideal.”5 In his own words, “Let me announce with all the strength at my command that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps, in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods.” According to Jinnah, “Such an individual can neither be an ordinary human being nor an accused of a crucial murder.”

 After eightyfive years of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, similar slogans are being echoed in the campus of JNU and the same sedition charges have been brought back. In his presidential address at a Students’ Conference in October 1929 at Lahore, Bhagat Singh asserted: “If we are to bring about a revolution of ideas we have first to hold up before us an ideal which will galvanise our whole life. That ideal is freedom.” Or “azadi”. He continued: “But freedom is a word which has varied connotations and, even in our country, the conception of freedom has undergone a process of evolution. By freedom, I mean all-round freedom, that is, freedom for the individual as well as for society; freedom for the rich as well as for the poor; freedom for men as well as for women; freedom for all individuals and for all classes. This freedom implies not only emancipation from political bondage but also equal distribution of wealth, abolition of caste barriers and social iniquities and destruction of communalism and religious intolerance. This is an ideal which may appear utopian... but this ideal alone can appease the hunger in the soul.”6

Bhagat Singh held the view that the government always has a notion that people are in the habit of raising issues and it is the sedition law which balances the act. He justified his actions because “it needs an explosion to make the deaf hear”—the one-liner first used by a revolutionary in the French Parliament to focus attention on the poverty of the people.7 He visualised India among ‘millions upon millions of human beings in slums and huts’ and critiqued ‘nationalism, anarchism, non-violence, terrorism, religion, theism and communalism relentlessly’.8 Bhagat Singh had a clear view on casteism. To quote,

It is often said that untouchables do not keep themselves clean. The reason for this is simple — they are poor. Solve their poverty. The poor from the high caste too do not live any cleaner. ... Councils and Assemblies need to push for freedom of untouchables to use schools-colleges, wells and roads. But in a legislative where a lot of fuss is created over issues like religion and bill against child-marriage, how can they muster courage to enrol untouchables among themselves? That’s why we believe that untouchables must have their own elected representatives. They must demand greater rights for themselves.”9

One can easily understand what nationalism means for this hero. He even criticised Lala Lajpat Rai for joining hands with the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha. The present scenario echoes the voice of Bhagat Singh as if he has re-entered the national discourse once more.

The movement in JNU is unique in the sense that the questions of class (vukhmari se azadi) and caste (manubad se azadi) are intertwined while Rohith Vamula and Kanhaiya Kumar seem to appear as the two sides of the same coin. This indicates that ‘there is a unity among students, between the Left and Ambedkarite students’,10 something which rarely happens in the normal course of student politics. Referring to “Students’ Unity”, PCJ in 1938 advised the Left students to make effort for building bridges between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ students for cementing their unity.11

It is time to recall PCJ also against this backdrop because “It is an irony of history that P.C. Joshi, the architect of united front politics in pre-independence India, is a much-maligned, almost forgotten, figure in today’s Left circles, although it is precisely his idea of forging unity with the secular, nationalist forces under the slogan ‘Left-democratic unity’ that is the key issue which now engages the Left.”12 It is worth mentioning here that PCJ was the first Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) at the age of twentyeight in 1935 and continued up to 1948 before his removal from the post followed by his expulsion from the Party which passed through many turbulence under British rule but was able to spread its wings through its 90,000 members during his tenure. Bipan Chandra (2007) in his assessment on PCJ put the following feelings:

“Joshi did not accept the notion that in colonial countries nationalism was a bourgeois concept and that this concept clashed with internationalism. Instead he put forth the notion of multiple loyalities to the Party, people and India. He did not see any clash among these three loyalities either. Consequently, Joshi was quite proud of all that was progressive and forward looking in India’s national culture and civilisation as also in India’s great historical achievements which he saw as the achievements of the Indian people.” Sudipta Kaviraj (2014) described him as “an unusual nationalist who could simultaneously feel the great attraction of communist internationalism, an unusual communist who recognised the power of nationalist aspirations, and an unusual Indian who felt an intense patriotism for the material and social life of his beloved mountains.” Under his leadership, the policy of United Front was implemented with vigour. In 1939 he wrote in the National Front that ‘the greatest class struggle today is our national struggle’. (Mukherjee, 2014)

Moreover, PCJ warned the Indian people that the communal forces posed the most important threat to Indian democracy and development. (Chandra, 2007a) He was removed from the National Council of the CPI owing to his criticism against the alliance of the CPI with the Jan Sangh in the coalition Ministries after the 1967 elections. Before that in the Fourth Congress of the CPI in his alternative proposal he called “for the united mass organisations to intervene to mould the Second Five Year Plan in their own and in the country’s true interests. It stressed the need for building a United National Democratic Front as a powerful mass movement to fuse together the masses both within the Congress and outside through struggles against the remnants of imperialism and feudalism and against the reactionary policies of the Right wing.”13 Kaviraj (ibid.) holds the view that “If Indian Communists followed a strategy of the united front, it is likely they would have achieved much better results in democratic politics as well. They would not have, by their bitter mutual struggle, made a gift of the major oppositional position to the forces of Hindu communalism.” However, under present conditions, he continues, “they are the major critics of neo-liberal policies, and oppose deepening inequalities accompanying capitalist growth after liberalisation. Historically, in effect, most groups with a communist persuasion have gravitated to a politics of commonsense and a pursuit of popular causes—like Joshi.”

In reassessing PCJ, Sumanta Banerjee (2014) has articulated that “Today, looking back ...., we feel that the political structure of a loose federation that PCJ envisaged for a post-independent India perhaps held the promise of a better coexistence of pluralities in the Indian subcontinent, which is today driven by violent religious conflicts, and regional, ethnic and linguistic fratricide”. He concluded that despite his failures, “P.C. Joshi will be remembered as an Indian political leader who conceptualised the movement against imperialism and for social revolution as a political-cultural movement-intertwining attempts at changing both the political consciousness of the masses and their socio-cultural ethos”.

Though in their lifetime they did not meet each other but Bhagat Singh and P.C. Joshi both became fellow travellers in the current context of our national life. Their contributions for the cause of the toiling masses have to be recognised and respected. 


Ali, Tariq (1975):The New Left Review, September-October.

Banerjee, Sumanta (2014): ‘Reassessing Puran Chand Joshi’ in People’s ‘Warrior’: Words and Worldsof P.C. Joshi, edited by Gargi Chakravartty, Tulika Books, New Delhi.

Bipan Chandra (2007): ‘P.C. Joshi: A Political Journey’, Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1, December 25.

Bipan Chandra (2007a) in the Foreword to the bookP.C. Joshi: A Biography by Gargi Chakravartty, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2007.

Deshpande, Anirudh (2016): ‘Recalling Bhagat Singh’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 13, March 26.

Habib, I. (2007): ‘Remembering a Radical’, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp: 124-131.

Kaviraj, Sudipta (2014): ‘Remembering P.C. Joshi’ in People’s ‘Warrior’: Words and Worldsof P.C. Joshi Edited by Gargi Chakravartty, Tulika Books, New Delhi.

Lal, Chaman (2007): ‘Revolutionary Lagacy of Bhagat Singh’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, Issue No. 37, September 15.

Mukherjee, Mridula (2014): ‘P.C. Joshi and Foundation of the Indian Peasant Movement’ in People’s ‘Warrior’: Words and Worldsof P.C. Joshi Edited by Gargi Chakravartty, Tulika Books, New Delhi.

Mukherjee, Rudrangshu (2014): Nehru and Bose: Two Parallel Lives, Penguin Books Limited.

Patnaik, Prabhat (2016): The Telegraph, April 28, Calcutta.

Sen, Amartya (2006): Argumentative Indian, Penguin Books, pp: 108.

Sen, Amartya (2015): The Country of First Boys, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.


1. Mainstream, April 5, 1969.

2. The Country of First Boys.

3. Nehru and Bose: Two Parallel Lives.

4. http://tagoreweb.in/Render/ShowContent.aspx?ct=Essays&bi= 72EE92F5-BE50-40D7-8E6E-0F7410664DA3&ti= 72EE92F5-BE50-4A47-2E6E-0F7410664DA3 accessed on 2.5.16.

5. Habib, 2007.

6. http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/bhagat-singh-anniversary-sedition-nationalism/#sthash.dlmnPw2A.dpuf; Published: March 23, 2016.

7. Lal. (2007).

8. Deshpande (2016).

9. http://thewire.in/2016/03/21/bhagat-singhs-nationalism-was-very-different-from-that-of-the-bjp-25465, 21.3.2016.

10. Patnaik (2016).

11. National Front, March 13, 1938.

12. Mainstream, Vol. LIII, No 23, May 30, 2015.

13. Ali (1975).

The author is an Assistant Professor in Economics, Srikrishna College, Bagula, Nadia (West Bengal).