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Book review: Why Bhagat Singh’s inheritance is a difficult subject to engage with

A new book, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance, profiles the freedom fighter’s surprisingly mature intellectual legacy.

Written by S Irfan Habib | Published: March 29, 2020 8:30:30 am
bhagat singh, books on bhagat singh, bhagat singh, bhagat singh, indian express, indian express news Bhagat Singh’s inheritance is a difficult subject to engage with, and Moffat does a good job.

During the past few years, many books have dealt with the inheritance of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Quite a few, including this one, have departed from the usual format of merely glorifying Singh as a nationalist and martyr. They have acknowledged the revolutionary inheritance, locating Bhagat Singh as a young thinker with a profound social, political and economic vision. The corpus includes two books by the reviewer himself, and a powerful one by Kama Maclean.
However, Chris Moffat departs further, innovatively trying to “open Bhagat Singh out into his afterlives, providing a language with which to comprehend his widespread popular appeal and continuing potential as interlocutor and instigator in modern Indian politics.” Another significant departure is his attempt to locate Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the context of the national education project launched by Lala Lajpat Rai in the early 1920s. The book is about Bhagat Singh, but Lajpat Rai is a major interlocutor.

Rai wrote and spoke prolifically about the centrality of education, calling it “the vital question for us. It is the most important of all our problems. In a way it is the fundamental problem.” He established the National College to provide national education and create a space for social science as an emancipatory discipline. Lajpat Rai was in America in 1907-1920, and visited and spoke at educational institutions. He was impressed by the Rand School of Social Science, founded by American socialists in 1906 to promote their cause. Soon after his return from America, he established the Tilak School of Politics in 1920, which was merged with the National College in 1921. Bhagat Singh was involved with the Tilak School from 1921 to 1924, though, says Moffat, there is little documentary evidence.

Moffat vividly profiles Lahore as a vibrant cultural and educational hub of Punjab. It had some wonderful colleges and a university, which had turned it into a remarkably young city. This network of educational institutions helped young people to reinvent their identities away from the burden of the past, which was possible in a new urban space away from the familial gaze. Bhagat Singh moved into this city in 1916 from Banga in Lyallpur and the city became his karmbhumi for the rest of his short life. The 1916 Gazetteer noted that 75 printing presses were operating in Lahore district, 17 of them for more than 20 years. Moffat points out that the “network of writing and publishing activity, from Caxton Printing Works to the Islamia Steam Press, constituted a lively public sphere of readers and consumers.”

Another Lahore landmark was Bradlaugh Hall, funded by the Indian National Congress. Opened in 1900, it became the epicentre of political and cultural activities. Moffatt gives a vivid account of the Hall and its significance in the life of Bhagat Singh. National College, where Bhagat Singh studied, used Bradlaugh Hall for lectures and Gandhi delivered its first convocation address here on November 9, 1921. It was a moving moment for me, when I saw this dilapidated structure during one of my trips to the city.

Bhagat Singh’s inheritance is a difficult subject to engage with, and Moffat does a good job. He is valorised by all for his martyrdom, and rightly so, but in our enthusiasm, most of us forget or consciously ignore his contributions as an intellectual and thinker. He not only sacrificed his life like so many others, but he also had an idea of independent India. Recently, it has become routine to appropriate Bhagat Singh as a nationalist icon, while not much is said about his nationalist vision.
He is claimed by the right as an iconic nationalist and martyr and his legacy is conveniently utilised to promote a xenophobic nationalist vision. Moffat refers to the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, which uses his name but is actually far away from his political vision. Different shades of the Left also evoke Bhagat Singh with passion, including the Naxals, who justify their armed struggle in his name, and many student leaders emulate him as an ideal for today’s alienated youth. Even Sikh and

Hindu nationalists attempt to place him within their genealogy, signifying the contested futures he represents.
Moffat’s conclusion about this “ideologically promiscuous appeal” of Singh is due to the corpus itself, and its fragmented and contradictory content. I tend to disagree with him here. We are not dealing with a mature intellectual but someone who just had seven or eight years of active political life, which ended at 23. Most of it, as Moffat also points out, was spent under tremendous stress. However, all records associated with him, including pamphlets, manifestos, court statements and his own journalistic writings, establish clearly that he espoused a non-sectarian and egalitarian independent India. It is convenient to lap him up as a nationalist martyr, which is often done by diverse groups, setting aside the corpus and adding to the promiscuity.

Moffat also talks about Bhagat Singh’s acceptability in Pakistan. He is probably the only hero of the freedom struggle who can be celebrated by both countries, because he stood for an inclusive and pluralist world. He never espoused divisive ideas in his short life. And it is possible to make sense of his politics because he left behind a substantial written corpus to engage with. It is rare to find a young man in his early twenties who could conceive an idea of universal brotherhood and write a detailed article about it. Maybe he was the only one among our freedom struggle heroes who had this vision.
India’s Revolutionary Inheritance is a refreshing account of Bhagat Singh’s life and afterlife. It is also an important work to comprehend the cultural and intellectual history of Lahore.

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