Sangh Parivar’s duplicity on Shaheed Bhagat Singh

On one hand BJP-RSS have been trying to appropriate Bhagat Singh and on the other the BJP government in Haryana has been trying to name Chandigarh’s international airport after RSS leader Mangal Sein

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
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Dr Chaman Lal

Shaheed Bhagat Singh had truly become a national icon by 1931. A fascinating character who was hanged at the young age of just 23 on March 23 that year, he had captured the national imagination after he and other revolutionaries killed ASP John Saunders.

There was no part of India and no newspaper in any language that did not carry reports on his trial. Between 1929 and 1931 he hogged the headlines and all national leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Dr Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru often issued statements on the case and commented on the course of the trial.

But not a single RSS leader is known to have uttered a single word against his hanging. Both Golwalkar and Savarkar were conspicuous by their complete silence. Both were self-styled revolutionaries but they did not oppose the hanging of Bhagat Singh. So much so that researchers have stumbled on statements issued by Periyar to condemn the death sentence but not a single statement was found by any person related to the RSS.

It is nothing short of an irony that the same RSS is today trying to appropriate Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s legacy.

Bhagat Singh remained in prison for two years and wrote extensive letters to both newspapers and to his Comrades. When he and his comrades hurled the bomb in the Assembly, the headline in The Times of India was ‘Reds Storm The Assembly’. And of course the slogan made popular by him was ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long live the revolution).

There is, therefore, no doubt that he was a communist in his thoughts and his socialistic thoughts are reflected in his writing, which were carried by all prominent newspapers of the time including Modern Review, Tribune, Anandabazar Patrika, Hindustan Times and others. Even the pamphlets he hurled in the Assembly were in red.

It is remarkable that newspapers from different corners of India, The Leader published from Allahabad, Pratap published from Kanpur, Free Press Journal published from Bombay (now Mumbai), The Hindu from Madras (now Chennai) besides the newspapers published from Lahore, Delhi and Calcutta (now Kolkata) were all one in acknowledging his powerful messages. The extensive coverage he received made him the most popular leader of his time.

“There is urgent need to rediscover Bhagat Singh’s idea of the nation and nationalism. He wrote against communal riots. He also wrote against atrocities on Dalits. His nationalism was not narrow but the result of well-thought out arguments. His broader nationalism is what can take on the narrow, parochial discourse on nationalism made popular by the Sangh Parivar.”
Dr Chaman Lal

Mahatma Gandhi grudgingly had to admit that Bhagat Singh was very courageous! Nehru said Bhagat Singh’s views were very progressive. But despite the grudging acknowledgment of his deed, his ideas and thoughts were never given much importance or prominence by Congress leaders. Even after Independence his writings were largely ignored.

It is worth recalling that Bhagat Singh’s seminal work, “Why I am an Atheist”, was first translated by Periyar into Tamil in 1934, long before it was published in Hindi.

During the Naxalbari movement in the seventies, the Left laid claim to the legacy of Bhagat Singh but neither the media nor the academia paid much attention to it.

It was during this time that eminent historian Bipan Chandra wrote an introduction and re-published Bhagat Singh’s essay ‘Why I am an atheist’ as a book. That generated fresh interest in Bhagat Singh. The revolutionary’s niece Virender Sandhu also came out with a book while my own book in Hindi titled “Bhagat Singh aur Unke Sathiyon ke Dastawez’” was published in 1986 by Rajkamal.

While scores of editions of this book have come out, there was little in English besides the one brought out by Bipan Chandra.

This was also the time when the BJP and the RSS began attempts to appropriate Bhagat Singh. During the agitation for a separate Khalistan, these elements claimed that Bhagat Singh had raised slogans of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. While Bhagat Singh may well have raised the slogan, what is incontrovertible is the last slogan he had raised before he was hanged. It was ‘Inquilab Zindabad and Down with Imperialism”.

RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya brought out a special issue on Bhagat Singh in 2007. The 100-page special issue strove to prove that Bhagat Singh was not a communist and that he did not write the book, “Why I am an Atheist’.

Communist parties woke up rather late to Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary credentials. Some half-hearted measures were taken by Left Front Governments to publish Bhagat Singh’s letters and the ‘Dastawez’ was also eventually translated into Marathi.

The RSS and the BJP have been forced to concede that Bhagat Singh was indeed a communist and an atheist. But now their emphasis is on depicting him as a ‘nationalist’ though there is a sea of difference between their narrow nationalism and Bhagat Singh’s nationalism.

Bhagat Singh was not in favour of Independence that would replace the English masters with Brown Sahibs. He imagined a nation in which the workers, farmers and the common man are liberated and empowered. He spoke of an international brotherhood and federation.

BJP’s double standards are evident. It was agreed, for example, that the Chandigarh International Airport would be named after Shaheed Bhagat Singh. But ever since a BJP Government took over in Haryana, its attempt has been to name the airport after a late RSS leader Mangal Sein!

There is urgent need to rediscover Bhagat Singh’s idea of the nation and nationalism. He wrote against communal riots. He also wrote against atrocities on Dalits. His nationalism was not narrow but the result of well-thought out arguments. His broader nationalism is what can take on the narrow, parochial discourse on nationalism made popular by the Sangh Parivar.

Dr Chaman Lal* retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University and is an eminent academic, author and translator. He is an authority on Bhagat Singh


*As told to Vishwa Deepak

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Published: 22 Mar 2017, 5:31 PM