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Why 85 yrs after his hanging, Bhagat Singh remains relevant

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were executed on March 23, 1931, exactly 85 years ago, after a trial that now faces an extraordinary challenge in Lahore High Court.

Written by Seema Chishti |
Updated: March 24, 2016 10:30:12 am
Bhagat singh, bhagat singh anniversary, bhagat singh nationalism, bharat mata ki jai slogan, india bharat mata, Bhagat singh trial, india news Bhagat Singh’s ideology was of Socialist Liberation, based on the Soviet Union.

What is the significance of the process of Bhagat Singh’s re-trial that has been set in motion at the High Court in Lahore?

Surely this re-trial or review of the [1930] judicial order is relevant, and it interests me a lot. There are two aspects: the sham trial itself, exposed by A G Noorani in his book The Trial of Bhagat Singh — if this is judicially upturned by this review, colonialism’s so-called ‘fair justice system’ gets exposed. It has happened in the case of the Mau Mau movement of Kenya, when a British court recently damned British colonial atrocities. Secondly, for Pakistan’s democratic and civil movement it has great relevance — by owning Bhagat Singh as their own ‘son of the land’ and beloved freedom fighter, they help make Pakistani society more inclusive and liberal and honour the joint freedom struggle of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It strengthens the emotional and cultural bonds among the peoples of three nations.

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were tried for sedition or raj-droh, so much in the news today. Is this the same as being ‘anti-national’?

They were charged for sedition, murder and other things. The colonial state was oppressive to the core — in more than perhaps 100 countries in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Not only Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi too faced sedition charges. Ironically, while we lionise our Constitution, we continue with the Indian Penal Code and other colonial laws framed roughly between 1860 and 1880. Is it not a contradiction in itself to continue with colonial laws in free countries?

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Turning raj-droh into desh-droh or anti-national is the product of the same colonial mindset, which wants ‘state power’ to be exercised as ‘national power’. State is an administrative term; nation a political term. A political term may have multiple interpretations, but generally ‘state’ does not have multiple interpretations. An independent nation state has to be different from a colonial state, but the present state establishment is behaving more like a colonial state than an independent nation state. The present situation proves the truth of Bhagat Singh’s observation that if the system does not change, then rule by colonial ‘white’ or Indian ‘native’ makes no difference.

The Right has made an attempt to claim Bhagat Singh — as also Ambedkar. Why did they think it was necessary to do so?

A historical personality is tried to be appropriated by those who don’t have a hero of their own. Since the Right had no role in the freedom struggle or in the making of the nation, they try to appropriate the heroes with whom the people have an emotional bond. However when you rule against the ideas of appropriated heroes, you get exposed.

Among Bhagat Singh’s contemporaries was ‘Masterda’ Surya Sen [who led the Chittagong Armoury Raid] and other revolutionaries. How did their actions fit into the ‘non-violent’ template?

Young people have always challenged big empires or oppressive states, whether they succeed or not. Generally youth resurgence is non-violent, but militant, as has been happening in recent months in India, and has happened in the Latin American countries, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests in the US, Tunisia, Egypt or France in 1968. Revolutionaries like Surya Sen, Bhagat Singh, Azad, [Ram Prasad] Bismil, etc. sacrificed their lives to awaken the country, which led to mass upsurges, mostly non-violent.

How did Gandhi, Nehru see the legacy of the revolutionaries?

Nehru and Subhas were admirers of Bhagat Singh. Gandhi admired their bravery but not politics. Nehru wished to help send them to the Soviet Union, particularly Bhagat Singh, as he was an admirer of socialism, as was Subhas then. Nehru’s wife Kamla was present at Azad’s cremation on February 27, 1931 at Allahabad. Nehru, Subhas, Periyar and Ambedkar valued the legacy of Bhagat Singh and the revolutionaries. Periyar wrote an editorial on Bhagat Singh, and got his seminal essay, Why I am an Atheist, published in Tamil in 1934. Ambedkar wrote an editorial, Three Victims, in his journal Janata.

Broadly, how would you characterise Bhagat Singh’s ideology?

Bhagat Singh’s ideology was of Socialist Liberation, modelled on that of the Soviet Union. His February 2, 1931 Letter to Young Political Workers charts out a clear programme of liberation based on Marxism. He favoured a World Federation as well, which could be compared to the Indian idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbukum.

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