Ramprasad Bismil: A revolutionary who fought against Communalism and Colonialism till the end
For Bismil, revolution meant an overall transformation of Indian society. It meant change in the political, economic, social structures of society and even human consciousness
We are living in an age where appearance is given preference over content; where Image is used as a both signifier and signified. The saffron mark on the forehead of Ram Prasad Bismil is equated with his entire life, his politics and his ideology. But, if we scratch the surface and dig deep, we come across different reality, a different understanding of Ram Prasad Bismil as against what is propagated by the Hindutva movement. Against the Hindutva appropriation of Ram Prasad Bismil, the secular argument often invokes Ramprasad Bismil in conjunction with Ashfaqullah Khan to assert the secular spirit of Bismil and broader revolutionary movement; but this again is just a focus on the image, rather than the content of both these personalities.
Let's move beyond this Image and underline the content of his politics and ideology.
Ramprasad Bismil was born on 11th July, 1897 in a very poor family in Shahjahanpur district of modern Uttar Pradesh. He was home schooled by his father and was later sent to a Maulvi to learn Urdu. Appalled by social conservatism in his society, Bismil joined the Arya Samaj at very early age and was soon drawn into the anti-colonial struggle through his teacher Somdev. In 1916, after attending the Lucknow session of Indian National Congress, Bismil came in touch with underground revolutionary organization Matravedi. Working with the Matravedi, Bismil wrote his first book America Ko Swadheenta Kaise Mili, which advocated political freedom for Indian nation and prescribed armed struggle as the method to achieve it. In the year 1918, Bismil was declared absconder in the Mainpuri conspiracy case. During this time he also published a pamphlet ‘Deshvasiyon Ke Naam Sandesh‘, which called upon people of all communities to come together and fight for freedom.
After the general amnesty granted to all political prisoners in 1920, Bismil came out of hiding and started to work again. He published another of his book ‘Bolsheviko ki Karoot’, a book describing the events of Russian Revolution. Soon he joined the Hindustan Republican Association and later planned and executed the famous Kakori Train Robbery in 1925, for which he was hanged on 19th December 1927. While in Jail Bismil wrote his autobiography and a series of articles and pamphlets reflection upon the revolutionary movement and its future.
It is true that Ramprasad Bismil was a member of Arya Samaj a Hindu revivalist movement, but his world outlook and politics was overtly secular. In the early 1920’s, there were broadly three political formations in the then United Provinces (present day Uttar Pradesh), namely the Hindu Communalists, the secular Swaraj Party and the revolutionary movement under the banner of the Hindustan Republican Association. In the 1925 municipal elections the Hindu communalists had emerged victorious which then led to increase in communal tension in the region. Ramprasad Bismil contested in this election on behalf of the Swaraj Party against the Hindu communalists from Shahjahanpur. Later he also toured the Rohilkhand region -when the region was hit by communal riots- along with his friend and comrade Ashfaqullah Khan campaigning for communal harmony and peace.
Bismil began his politics with communal understanding- not explicit but implicit- which was part of the world and society he inhabited. But, as his revolutionary and political career progressed Bismil moved to a clear anti-communal and secular politics. In his last letter addressed to his fellow Indians, Bismil went to the extent of advocating capital punishment for those who engaged in Communal politics. What is more striking about Bismil is that he did not hide his communal consciousness in his autobiography; rather he discussed it as full length, accepted his mistake and rectified it.
Another very important component of Bismil’s revolutionary ideology was his progressive position on Gender and Caste. Bismil’s position on both these issues were inspired by a combination of Arya Samaj teachings, his own family experiences-particularly from the role of his grandmother and mother- and a reflection upon socio-cultural practices inspired from his readings about the revolutionary role played by Women in other countries; primarily Russia.
In his autobiography, Bismil criticizes the practices of female infanticide, killing of widows for mere suspicion of “immoral behaviour”, forced veil wearing and also how the Upper caste engaged in reactionary caste violence, when they attacked women from lower caste for wearing ornaments. He identified the source of caste violence in “fake caste pride” of Zamindars (Landlords). In his last letter, Bismil asked a very pertinent question: “what right has a country to be free were almost six million ‘human beings’ are considered untouchable”?. Bismil proposed that special measures should be taken to educate the “untouchables” and they should be granted equal socio-economic and political rights. He also criticized the tradition which considers “women as worthless” and advocated for special attention towards their education.
The thoughts of Bismil on Gender question, were mostly influenced by the Russian Naraodnik leader Catherine Breshkovsky. Bismil greatly admired her and translated her biography, The Little Grandmother of Russian revolution and hugely quoted from the book upon the methods and tactics that should be employed for building mass movement and revolutionary party.
Bismil is largely understood as a revolutionary who sacrificed his life for the freedom of the motherland. But what did Freedom meant for Bismil? At one place in his autobiography, Bismil writes that “the word revolution in itself is frightful”, but why? According to Bismil, ‘governments are supported by rich and landlords and revolution will mean that they will be deprived of their powerful positions’. That is why not only the British Government but also the native rich and landlords were opposed to revolution. For Bismil, education was an important tool for readying the masses for freedom, because only through education, the pre-conditions for revolution and freedom, that is, raising the consciousness of masses, could be achieved.
For Bismil, revolution meant an overall transformation of Indian society. It meant change in the political, economic, social structures of society and even human consciousness.
Apart from appropriating Bismil, contemporary Hindutva proponents also invoke him for defending V.D Savarkar, the ideologue of Hindutva movement. Bismil is invoked for justifying the mercy petitions written by Savarkar to the British Government; they say that even Ramprasad Bismil wrote mercy petitions to the British Government, so why only point our Savarkar?
Well, it is true that Ramprasad Bismil wrote mercy petition to British Government during and after the Kakori trials. Ashfaqullah Khan was against writing mercy petitions but gave in to the demands of his dear comrade. But, while comparing Savarkar and Bismil and other revolutionaries who wrote mercy petitions, one very important point should be kept in mind, that is, what did they do after their mercy petition was accepted or they were released. Ramprasad Bismil was an absconder in the Mainpuri conspiracy case. After the British Emperor granted general amenity for all political prisoners at the end of First World War, the case against Bismil was withdrawn. But what did he do after that? Did he like Savarkar withdrew from anti-colonial politics? No, he participated with more enthusiasm and more radically. Also, when Bismil was arrested in for his role in Kakori Train Robbery, he had three chances to escape from prison, all arising out of laxity on part lower rungs of colonial police. But Bismil, as he writes in his autobiography, decided against escaping because he thought that if he ran away, the poor old constables will be targeted by the Colonial administration.
It was an overload of ‘morality’, which can be expected from a revolutionary that prevented Bismil from escaping from the clutches of the British Government. Also, Bismil till the very end of his life continued to speak and write vocally against the British. Same goes with the case of revolutionaries like Sachindranath Sanyal, who also was lodged in Andaman Jails for his role in the Banaras Conspiracy Case. Sanyal also wrote petitions to the British, but after he was released from the Cellular Jail following the general amnesty, unlike Savarkar, he did not withdrew from anti-colonial politics but went on to establish the most radical anti-colonial revolutionary movements of his times.
Therefore, any comparison between the petitions of revolutionaries and Savarkar is wrong. Also, writing petitions should not be considered as an abomination in itself, it always have been a part of arsenal of revolutionaries to ‘live another day’ to fight against the oppressors all across the world. What is more important is, what they did after they were released from Prison. Bismil and Sanyal continued to fight against their oppressors or while Savarkar compromised with the struggle.
Views expressed in the article are the authors' own