Bhagat Singh and Ashfaqullah Khan’s words more relevant than ever

Both Bhagat Singh and Ashfaqullah Khan were friends and made the supreme sacrifice for the nation. It’s a pity therefore that not many are today aware what they stood for



Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Shamsul Islam

Bhagat Singh iss baar naa lenaa kayaa bharat-vaasee kee,

Desh-bhakti ke liye aaj bhee sazaa milegee phansi kee.

(Bhagat Singh don’t take birth as an Indian again,

Your patriotism will again lead you to the gallows).

[From Shankar Shailendra’s long Hindi poem penned in 1948]

March 23, 2017 marks the 86th year of martyrdom of three revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Their sacrifices, however, attract only passing mention and mainstream politics remains largely unaffected by their thoughts. In particular Indian democracy has missed two important aspects.

First, the colonial masters did not hang them merely because they were trouble-makers, but because the British rulers were scared of the ideas of justice, change and independence championed by them.

Secondly, these revolutionaries did not appear in isolation, nor were their sacrifices individual actions. Their supreme sacrifice were part of a chain of sacrifices by revolutionaries who discarded the tag of ‘terrorists’ to become protagonists of a revolution with mass participation. They had declared without any ambiguity that they were fighting for a new India where Socialism would prevail.

Ashfaqullah Khan, one of the Kakori Martyrs (martyred on December 19, 1927 at Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh) and a great friend of Bhagat Singh, was the first revolutionary who clearly talked about Socialist India. A few days before his hanging, in an open letter to the youth of the country, he lauded communist activists in these words:

“I have deep respect for you in my heart and I am totally in agreement with your objective while dying for the country. I wish that kind of free India where the poor would live happily and fully satisfied. I hope that day would come soon when at Chattar Manzil (haveli/abode of an Avadh landlord), Abdullah, loco-workshop fitter and Dhaniya, a Jatav farmer would sit on chairs across Mr. Khaliq-uz-Zaman, Jagat Narain Mulla and Raja Mehmoddabad [sic].”

“I have deep respect for you in my heart and I am totally in agreement with your objective while dying for the country. I wish that kind of free India where the poor would live happily and fully satisfied. I hope that day would come soon when at Chattar Manzil (haveli/abode of an Avadh landlord), Abdullah, loco-workshop fitter and Dhaniya, a Jatav farmer would sit on chairs across Mr. Khaliq-uz-Zaman, Jagat Narain Mulla and Raja Mehmoddabad [sic].”
Kakori martyr Ashfaqullah Khan

Bhagat Singh also while writing to ‘Young Political Workers’ (February 2, 1931) from jail emphasised: “You chant ‘Long Live Revolution.’ Let me assume that you really mean it. According to our definition of the term, as stated in our statement in the Assembly Bomb Case, revolution means the complete overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with the socialist order.”

Bhagat Singh, as is well known, had little patience with the Gandhi-led movement for Swaraj. This [Congress-led] is a struggle dependent upon middle-class shopkeepers and a few capitalists. Both these, and particularly the latter, can never dare to risk its property or possessions in any struggle. The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers. But our bourgeois leaders do not and cannot dare to tackle them. The sleeping lion once awakened from its slumber shall become irresistible even after the achievement of what our leaders aim at.”

“That is why I say they never meant a complete revolution. Through economic and administrative pressure, they hoped to get a few more reforms, a few more concessions for the Indian capitalists. That is why I say that this movement is doomed to die, may be after some sort of compromise or even without.”

Bhagat Singh rejected a free India where there would be a simple change of set of rulers; Brown rulers replacing the White rulers. What difference does it make to them whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas ? What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin!”

“You chant ‘Long Live Revolution.’ Let me assume that you really mean it. According to our definition of the term, as stated in our statement in the Assembly Bomb Case, revolution means the complete overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with the socialist order.”
Shaheed Bhagat Singh

Against casteism and untouchability

These revolutionaries lamented the fact that leaders who wanted political freedom from the British, were neck deep in practising untouchability and casteism. In June, 1928 Bhagat Singh wrote:

“No other country will have such degenerated life as we have in India. A big question is about the status of untouchables. 6 crore out of 30 crores of Indian population are described as untouchables, if one touches them, religion is polluted. If they go to temples, gods get angry and if they draw water from a well, latter gets polluted…Just imagine, a dog can sit in our laps, can roam around in kitchen but if one untouchable touches you then religion is destroyed.”

“Great social reformers like Madan Mohan Malviya, great fan of Untouchables and what not, if garlanded by a Valmiki, goes to take bath with his clothes to purify himself of the touch of an Untouchable!,” he went on to add.

Against communal politics

Bhagat Singh and his comrade Bhagwati Charan Vohra (martyred on May 28, 1930) warned that communal conflicts would completely destroy the nation. In a landmark document (‘Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha’ 1928), which they jointly wrote for the youth of India and was circulated widely in the country, they wrote, Religious superstition and communalism are great hindrance in our path of progress [freedom]. We must uproot these…Foreign rulers take full advantage of conservatism and reactionary policies of Hindus and narrow-mindedness of Muslims and all other communities. In order to accomplish this task [of freedom of the country] we need youth of all religions who are filled with revolutionary zeal.”

By freedom, they declared, they did not mean only liberation from the clutches of the British but “complete freedom when people will stand united and free from mental slavery.”

This was in sync with what Ashfaqullah Khan had also cautioned. Warning both Hindus and Muslims about communal bickering, he wrote, “Brothers! Your civil war, your internal bickering will not be useful for any of you. This is impossible that 7 crores Muslims can be converted to Hinduism [through Shuddhi] and likewise it is futile to believe that 22 crores Hindus can be turned into Muslims. However, [if you continue fighting with each other] it is easy and very easy to ensure that all of you together will continue to be in chains.”

Shamsul Islam is a former Professor of University of Delhi. He tweets at @shamsforjustice

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Published: 23 Mar 2017, 4:13 PM