Thoughts and vision of legendary revolutionary Bhagat Singh

By KS Subramanian. Dated: 1/9/2019 11:50:33 AM

S. Irfan Habib (ed): 'Inquilab': Bhagat Singh on Religion and Revolution (Yoda Press, Sage, Select), 2018, pp. 192, Rs. 295

Professor Syed Irfan Habib must be congratulated for placing before the reading public and the younger generation this invaluable collection of writings by Shaheed Bhagat Singh including the rare Prison Notebook. Brilliant Bhagat Singh, revolutionary thinker and activist (1907-1931) was in prison under the British Raj, was tried by 'deliberate abuse of the judicial process to secure a death sentence' (AG Noorani, The Trial of Bhagat Singh, 1996). Jinnah is reported to have supported Bhagat Singh in the Central Assembly.
Bhagat Singh was not just a revolutionary who indulged in terrorist activities in the early stages of his career. He opposed such activities and declared that 'revolution is not a culture of bomb and pistol. Our meaning of revolution is to change the present conditions, which are based on manifest injustice'.
Committed to 'Inquilab' ('revolution'), Bhagat Singh advanced in the 1920s a social programme which attacked the caste system, communal violence and untouchability, live issues in India today. He was for the creation of a secular, socialist society in India and the world.
Though Bhagat Singh's writings are available in Hindi, the English version is hard to find. The present volume seeks to fill the gap. It includes manifestoes, statements, pamphlets and other writings of Bhagat Singh including especially, excerpts from his Prison Diary reflecting a mature thinker engaged in intense intellectual enquiry. Two sources of information were available in Lahore to help him pursue his intellectual interests: the Dwarakadas Library and the bookshop Ramakrishna and Sons.
The less than 200-page volume containing Bhagat Singh's writings, is divided into five parts: Part I on 'Diverse Social and Political Issues: Some Incisive Comments'; Part II 'Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Evaluation of National Leaders,'; Part III on 'Revolutionary Ideas'; Part IV on 'Some Reflections on the International Revolutionary Movement'; and Part V on 'Insightful Excerpts from the Prison Notebook'.
The general introduction examines several aspects of Bhagat Singh's revolutionary thought and action. He was not just a celebrated Indian freedom fighter and martyr but a prolific writer, insightful thinker and a sensitive nationalist who has left behind a rich intellectual legacy. He renounced terrorism but not violence (see the essay on violence in Part III). He adopted a revolutionary vision to transform India into a secular, socialist and egalitarian society. He declared from his prison cell: 'I am not a terrorist and I never was, except in the beginning of my revolutionary career. I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through this method'.
Bhagat Singh in his short life began writing early. Coming from a family of freedom fighters and barely out of teens, he had a vision of freedom from British Raj but also one of achieving a classless society. In 1924, at the age of 17, he wrote a path-breaking essay on universal brotherhood (Part I). He set up the Naujawan Bharat Sabha ('The Young Indian Association'), as a public platform for an otherwise secret group of revolutionaries. This was time when the Hindu right-wing group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS), the core group guiding the presently ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), too was set up. In the manifesto for the group, Bhagat Singh said religious superstition and bigotry were a great hindrance. The other articles in Part I examine religion and freedom struggle (1928); communal riots and their solution (1928); the problem of untouchability (1928) and students and politics (1928).
Part II begins with the manifesto of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (1928) and goes on to examine the political views of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose 1928) and Lajpat Rai (1928). He was appreciative of Jawaharlal Nehru and his politics.
Part III begins with an important article on 'Why I am an Atheist?' (1930), also written from prison, rebutting blind faith and advocating reason. Unlike in the past, revolutionaries in his time did not need religious inspiration; they had before them an advanced revolutionary ideology based on reason. Religion had become the tool of exploiters who kept the masses in constant fear of God in their own interests.
The eight articles, letters and statements in this Part III were all written the author was in prison; they indicate his growing maturity as a political thinker. The articles on revolution and violence are very important. He wasn't bothered about his approaching death penalty.
Part IV contains an important article in three parts on anarchism and another on the Russian nihilist movement. These provided an international perspective to Bhagat Singh's understanding of revolutionary struggles. However, with the help of friends he moved away from anarchism and nihilism. The essays here signify the author's struggle to understand the meaning of revolutionary struggles and ideological developments beyond India. His brief interest in Bakunin preceded his maturation as a socialist thinker before he was hanged on March 23, 1931. He read widely in the areas of literature, science, politics, economics and history.
The Prison Notebook in Part V is a vital source for understanding Bhagat Singh's intellectual and literary preferences. The Notebook endorses his view that bomb and pistol cannot secure revolutionary change in a society based on 'manifest injustice'.
Bhagat Singh was in prison from April 8 1929 to March 23 1931. The Prison Notebook unravels his philosophical development. Unlike other autobiographical prison notebooks this document records his reading habits and the literature he devoured before his execution. It establishes that he accepted Marxism as his political ideology after a process of serious engagement with diverse ideas.
In 1968, Bhagat Singh's Prison Notebook was brought to light by an Indian historian. The Notebook reveals that Bhagat Singh read on materialism, capitalism and socialism. The Diary was discovered with Bhagat Singh's brother Kulbir Singh. The Russian scholar Mitrokhin consulted it in 1977 while writing on Lenin and India.
Interestingly, the author himself first saw the Diary in 1978-79 with a scholar he had met in Moscow. Sifting through it, he was excited about Bhagat Singh as one who had managed to get hold of material in prose and poetry and was making serious marginal comments on many of the documents. The Diary was serialized in 1993 for wider circulation. It was edited and annotated in 1994 and published in 2007. Most of the writing was in English interspersed with some couplets of Urdu poetry. It carries the signature of Bhagat Singh and his comrade BK Dutt.
Although this volume is about Bhagat Singh's writings, it would have been interesting if the author, in his general introduction, had mentioned his role in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.
*(The writer is a former civil servant and scholar)

 

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