[A post written after once again watching the Bollywood hit Rang De Basanti]
It is 106 years since the day Bhagat Singh was born. He was 23 years, 6 months and 23 days old when he died in 1931. Bhagat Singh was a martyr.
The root of the word martyr lies in the Greek “martyros” which means a witness. Strangely, Bhagat Singh is a mute martyr today, a witness to his own hijacking. It is ironic that this committed and articulate revolutionary, described by one of his comrades as “our intellectual leader,” has today become a brand stripped of all ideology.
Incidents of fundamentalist forces using his photo in posters and the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh becoming the symbol of “India’s youth” through a couple of movies are both significant. This is because they present a certain image of Bhagat Singh that is alive in the popular imagination today. The volume of the Bhagat Singh brigade manages to hide the fact that the Bhagat Singh of the popular imagination is a one-dimensional Bhagat Singh, a poor clone of the intellectual he really was. The creation of a celebrity whose image can be consumed involves the careful removal of the portions of a person’s life that are inconvenient.. The creation of ‘Brand bhagat’ is a significant moment in this process. Rarely has a figure been so deliberately distorted as Bhagat Singh.
Let us thus examine how Bhagat Singh is being consumed. Bhagat Singh, in the popular imagination is a revolutionary, a man who took up a gun for a noble cause, a man who threw a harmless bomb to make the “deaf hear” and who voluntarily surrendered himself to the government to make a statement. He is the man who died at the gallows and returned to the bosom of “Mother India”. His only religion, path and passion was nationalism. He is the charismatic man wearing a hat and sporting a pencil moustache. We have here before us the Bhagat Singh, who can be a national hero, acceptable to all, with no rough edges or uncomfortable opinions.
Let us go a bit deeper. The Bhagat Singh who took revenge for the death of Lala Rajpat Rai is well known. However, do we know of the Bhagat Singh who severely criticized Lajpat Rai when the latter formed an alliance with the Hindu Mahasabha? Where is the Bhagat Singh about whom Bipin Chandra said
“Religion, said Bhagat Singh, was the private concern of a person, but it had to be fought as an enemy when it intruded into politics and took the form of communalism”.
As communal forces seek to make Bhagat Singh their own today, it is important to read his famous “Why I am an Atheist”, a text which provides an amazingly clear critique of the established religion and its influence on politics. Reading this, we slowly begin to understand why the popular image involves deletion of parts of his life.
Bhagat Singh is also today a corporate icon, a saleable product. This is horrendously ironic considering the fact that his last petition to the British made a very deliberate reference to a “handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian.” who were oppressing the masses. It is also very conveniently forgotten that it was Bhagat Singh’s initiative that led to the Hindustan Republican Association being renamed as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.
Another aspect almost unheard of is the fact that besides working with these organisations as a revolutionary, Bhagat Singh was also the founder secretary of the Naujavan Bharat Sabha (NBS), a militant youth organization which sought to give the revolution a popular base. The organization mobilized youth on a large scale and was one of the few organizations which tried to reach out to the working classes and the peasants. The declared aim of the organisation was among others
“To express sympathy with and to assist economic, industrial and social movements, which, being free from communal sentiments, were intended to take the movement nearer its ideal.”
Towards the end of his life, Bhagat Singh wrote a pamphlet titled “To Young Political Workers” where he criticised the attitude of the Congress towards the struggle and called for the emergence of ‘professional revolutionaries’, a term he borrowed from Lenin. This term best described him – a man who was always keen to be known as a revolutionary, a social activist, and not a terrorist. Violence, to him, was only a means. The military arm of the organisation was only to be subsidiary to the larger role of mobilising the masses towards the achievement of an egalitarian society. Interestingly today, we see that people associate Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary ideals mainly with violence.
The concern displayed here may seem, to many, to be unnecessary. But it is worth noting that the creation of ‘Brand bhagat’ is only a part of a larger scheme where historical figures are removed from their context and then introduced as heroes in the popular imagination. The process is most evident in our history books and popular culture as extremely controversial figures, who preached communal ideology, suddenly appeared as heroes. Savarkar would be a classic example.
In the case of Bhagat Singh the process has been reversed. Those aspects have been erased which make him a true hero of the masses and possibly one of the firmest opponents of communalism.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetfulness” said Milan Kundera; what we forget and what we remember is what defines us as a community.
Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary and a martyr but he was
also a man with a vision. The vision of Bhagat Singh is in danger of getting twisted as the revolutionary becomes a vehicle for the spread of communal ideologies on the one hand and corporate interests on the other. The task before us is to reclaim his vision and his life and situate it where it rightfully belongs. He remains a mute martyr till then. Unless and until he is ‘saved’:
“Stop shouting ‘Long Live Revolution’ The term revolution is too sacred, at least to us, to be so lightly used or misused.” (“To Young Political Workers” -1931)