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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 41, New Delhi, September 28, 2019

A Tribute to Valiant Bhagat Singh

Saturday 28 September 2019, by Bharti Chhibber


The Bhagat Singh Reader byChaman Lal (ed);Noida: Harper Collins;2019; pp. 616; Rs 799.

On September 28, 2019 we are celebrating the 112th birth anniversary of gallant revolu-tionary Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh character-ised the true Indian spirit of honour and sacrifice. He had the valour not only to dream of India’s independence from foreign rule but also fearlessly fight for it. Bhagat Singh, alongwith his small group of revolutionaries, took on the British colonial empire head-on. He had the heroism to shake and fluster the British administration on his way to martyrdom creating an awakening among the masses and commanding reverence from millions of people, all at the young age of 23 years with only a few years in politics.

The book under review The Bhagat Singh Reader, edited by Chaman Lal and published by Harper Collins India, adds another dimension to the understanding of the revolutionary movement during the freedom struggle in India. As the editor highlights, ‘Before Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary movement was the study of the bravery, fearlessness and patriotism of the revolutionaries. With Bhagat Singh, it took an entirely different turn and became a study of the ideas of the revolutionaries.’

Chaman Lal analyses Bhagat Singh’s thoughts and active revolutionary life through his writings, especially through fiftynine letters written by Bhagat Singh to his family, friends, revolutionaries and jail authorities that are available in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and English. While presenting these letters in this volume, the editor also describes in detail about Bhagat Singh’s background as a staff member of many journals and papers and his writings published in Kirti, Pratap, Arjun and Maharathi. In this book, as the editor mentions, all available documents and writings of Bhagat Singh are presented together for the first time which makes it a comprehensive volume.

Divided into five sections, the book touches upon different facets of Bhagat Singh letters from school to college to revolutionary life. Lal explains the legend of Bhagat Singh in three phases. The first phase from December 17, 1928 to March 23, 1931. He chronicles the final years of his revolutionary life from the assassination of John Saunders, Deputy Superintendent of Lahore Police who was responsible for the lathi charge on Lala Lajpat Rai on the orders of Senior Superintendent of Police, James Scott, during the anti-Simon Commission protest which ultimately resulted in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. Later, he voluntarily got himself arrested after throwing bombs over the empty benches of the Central Assembly to spread the message of revolution against the British Rule. Bhagat Singh and his fellows boycotted the trial of the Saunders murder case and the way the tribunal handed the death sentence to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev was ‘nothing but murder’ committed by the British colonialists through a judicial drama. Scared of the huge gathering at the Lahore Central Jail, the British officials hanged them on March 23 itself at 7 pm.

Bhagat Singh in his short but heroic life received wide admiration and idolisation. As the editor reflects, ‘his popularity soared so high that historian, activist and member of Congress Party, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, acknowledged that Bhagat Singh’s popularity was equal to Mahatma Gandhi’s at one time’. Through his writings and actions, he became quite popular among the Indian people. He was seen as a ‘thinking revolutionary’ due to his published letters, statements and essays. This was the first phase of understanding his personality; however in the second phase a few years after his death, ‘he has been limited to the figure-head of a brave hero and martyr while knowingly and unwittingly forgetting his ideas’. Later many of Bhagat Singh’s publications came out in multiple Indian languages including Hindi. According to the editor, the third phase of understanding Bhagat Singh began in his birth centenary year 2007, when seminars and conferences were organised on his views and ideas. The present phase is about reflecting on Bhagat Singh’s ideas through his writings. As Bhagat Singh’s Court Statement after his arrest mentions, ‘We deliberately offered ourselves to bear the penalty for what we had done and to let the imperialists exploit us to know that by crushing individuals they cannot kill ideas.’

The editor mentions the agendas of Bhagat Singh while in jail, to expose British colonialism by using the Courts as a platform for spreading their ideas to a wider audience and to expose the brutality of the British in jail by resorting to hunger strikes drawing public attention. He was successful in both. He wrote in his Court Statement, ‘We humbly claim to be no more than serious students of the history and conditions of our country and her aspirations. We despise hypocrisy, our practical protest was against the institution which since its birth has eminently helped to display not only its worthlessness but its far- reaching power for mischief... we have been convinced that it exists only for overriding domination of an irresponsible and autocratic rule.’ Similarly, he also made it clear through his Court Statement that they ‘bore no personal grudge or malice against anyone’ and ‘we hold human life sacred beyond words and would sooner lay our lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone else’. The third agenda was his own ideological development. The editor points out, ‘It was amazing to see a man who was about to go the gallows immersing himself deep into the most serious study of world revolutionary history that too in such trying circumstances.’

In the book, Section I Letters and Telegrams deals with letters from his school days exploring Bhagat Singh as a child talking to his extended family members about studies, books, exams, his growing political consciousness and his interest in protest marches. Letters from college showed his commitment to freedom for Hindustan and his participation in debates on the freedom issues. Letters from prison highlight his desire for higher studies, police harassment, hunger strike, his demand for the status of ‘political prisoners’. These letters have been addressed to Jail Superintendent, to the Government of India in the Lahore conspiracy case referring to the farcical trial. Section II Posters/Notices and Leaflets is a small section discussing posters by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association after Saunders’ killing. Sector III Court Statements is another small section highlighting court statements made by Bhagat Singh and V.K. Dutt in the Central Assembly bomb case. Sector IV Essays, Articles and Sketches discusses Bhagat Singh’s writings in various journals on divergent aspects of universal brotherhood, youth, religious diversity, freedom struggle, untouchability, satyagraha, student politics, anarchism, and on leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai. Section V The Jail Notebook has an introduction by Bhupender Hooja. This section has various notings on issues like freedom, property, barbarism, origin of state, good governance, natural and civil rights, liberty, freedom, law, jurisprudence, justice, civil society, sovereignty, legislative, executive.

In addition, the volume also has some interesting photos of Bhagat Singh, his family members, house in Khatkar Kalan, cells of Delhi District Jail where Bhagat Singh was lodged and newspaper clippings. In the end books as useful appendices including ‘Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha’, ‘Manifesto of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’, ‘Life Events of Bhagat Singh’, ‘Lahore Conspiracy Case Judgement’.

For academics and researchers, this volume will pave the way for further research on the little explored area of the revolutionary aspect of the Indian freedom struggle. This volume will help in understanding and analysing Bhagat Singh’s ideas and his role in India’s liberation. It will be of use to scholars, both from India and abroad, studying India’s independence.

Recalling Bhagat Singh’s words of courage and strength before martyrdom:

“Unhe ye fiqr hai hardam naya Tarze zafa kya hai,

Hamen ye shauq hai dekhen sitam ki inteha kya hai.

Dahar se kyon khafa rahen, charkh ka kyon gila karen

Sara Jahan Adu sahi, aao muqabla karen.

Koi dam ka mehman hun ai ahle-mehfil,

Charage-sehar hoon bujha chahta hoon.

Hawa men rahegi mere khyal ki bijli,

ye mushte-khak hai fani, rahe na rahe.”

He frets about the form the next torture can take,

And we are impatient to test the limit of cruelty.

Why be displeased with depths, why reproach the skies,

Let the entire world be our enemy, come let us face it.

I am but a fleeting visitor, oh sweet company,

A lamp of the morning am I, ready to be put out.

The current of my thought will be carried on the breeze

This body is but mortal; here today gone tomorrow.”   (pp. 95-96)

The new generation will always remember and treasure Bhagat Singh’s supreme sacrifice for the nation and it is our duty to honour that commitment and spirit and continue to strengthen India as a vibrant and resilient democracy.

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