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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Azaadi for All

An exhaustive documentation of the intellectual legacy of Bhagat Singh

Written by S Irfan Habib | May 18, 2019 2:40:57 am
Azaadi for All The Bhagat Singh Reader

The Bhagat Singh Reader
Chaman Lal (ed)
672 pages
Rs 799

Chaman Lal has spent many years documenting the history of revolutionary struggle, particularly the profile of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. He is one of the few who see Bhagat Singh as an ideologue, and not just a nationalist martyr. It is now more or less established that Bhagat Singh was a prolific writer, an insightful thinker and a sensitive young nationalist who left behind a rich intellectual legacy. In recent years, we have seen a good collection of his writings in Hindi, but a more exhaustive collection in English was awaited — a collection not only of his writings but also his letters to family and friends. Though many of the writings included here are available in other collections as well, quite a few letters and documents are accessible for the first time.

The Bhagat Singh Reader displays the extensive and diverse writings of Bhagat Singh within a short active life of just seven years. He wrote in four languages — Urdu, Hindi, English and Punjabi — but was most proficient in Urdu and English. Chaman Lal also says that Bhagat Singh understood Bengali very well, and could recite Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore fluently in Bengali. He wrote more than 130 documents, including letters, pamphlets, articles, manifestos and court statements, which run into nearly 400 pages. No mean achievement for someone who spent most of his active life under police surveillance and the last two years in prison.

This volume reaffirms the fact that Bhagat Singh not only sacrificed his life, like many did before him and after him, but he also had a vision of independent India. During the past few years, it has almost become routine to appropriate Bhagat Singh as a nationalist icon, while not much is talked about his nationalist vision. This collection will reaffirm the fact that Bhagat Singh was one of those rare intellectuals who visualised an India where 98 per cent would rule instead of an elite 2 per cent. His azaadi was not limited to the expulsion of the British. Rather, he desired azaadi from poverty, untouchability, communal strife and other forms of discrimination and exploitation.

Bhagat Singh wrote with passion against untouchability, the caste system and communalism, the very issues which continue to rattle and shame us. All those who valorise him today for his nationalism and martyrdom need to grapple with his intellectual legacy. Like a few other researchers in India and elsewhere, Chaman Lal has diligently explored and documented his work to establish him as a revolutionary thinker, with a pluralist and egalitarian ethos.

In a hard-hitting article against untouchability and caste, Bhagat Singh held that ritualism had divided us into touchables and untouchables, and that narrow and divisive religions can’t unite the people. After the end of British colonialism, our complete freedom would imply living together happily, without caste and religious barriers. He needs to be invoked even today, to bring about the changes that he strove for in his short life. Expressing his anguish in an article, he held some of the political leaders and the press responsible for inciting communalism. Bhagat Singh believed that “there were a few sincere leaders, but their voice is easily swept away by the rising wave of communalism. In terms of political leadership, India had gone totally bankrupt”. Written in 1928, this sounds so contemporary.

Bhagat Singh matured as a thinker through extensive reading and writing during his two years in jail. His ‘Jail Notebook’, included in The Bhagat Singh Reader, reveals the trajectory of his political evolution. It shows his wide reading — Marx, Engels, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Upton Sinclair, VI Lenin, William Wordsworth, Tennyson, Rabindranath Tagore, Bukharin and Trotsky, among others. Chaman Lal also narrates the story behind the public appearance of the ‘Jail Notebook’ in the 1980s, when Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the National Archives acquired copies. I was, perhaps, the first researcher to get hold of it as a typescript in 1977-78, and I used it for my research on Bhagat Singh’s intellectual development.

One of Bhagat Singh’s most profound articles, ‘Why I am an Atheist’, was also written in jail. A strong rebuttal of blind faith and a zealous defence of reason, it should not be seen merely as a harangue against God. Besides the ‘Jail Notebook’, ‘Letter to Young Political Workers’ and ‘Introduction to Dreamland’ are prison writings establishing his political and intellectual maturity.

Lal has included all the manifestos and court statements of Bhagat Singh, which shed light on his conception of revolution. His inquilab was not merely a political revolution. He wanted a social revolution to end age-old discriminatory practices. Inquilab zindabad was not merely an emotional battle cry but a lofty ideal which was explained by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, thus: “The Revolution will ring the death knell of capitalism and class distinction and privileges… It will give birth to a new state — a new social order.”

Bhagat Singh was even more definitive in his statement in court on June 6, 1929: “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.”

I believe The Bhagat Singh Reader will make the going difficult for those who want to valorise him as a raw nationalist. It is an exhaustive collection of most of his writings in a short and eventful life, a very useful aid to future researchers on the subject, and a wonderful guide to a composite and pluralist India.

S Irfan Habib is a Delhi-based historian

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