Book: A Revolutionary History of Interwar India
Author: Kama Maclean
Publisher: Penguin Books
Price: Rs 599
What is the relationship of revolutionary organisations like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) formed by Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, to the mainstream national movement? Kama Maclean’s deeply engrossing and textured history of revolutionary movements of interwar India opens up this question in a profoundly interesting way. Maclean begins by noting a paradox: popular historiography of the nationalist movement is unimaginable without Azad and Bhagat Singh, who are always central to the pantheon of freedom fighters; official or academic history tends to see nationalism largely through the centrality of the Congress. Maclean uses this paradox to powerfully explore the dialectic of violence and non-violence in the nationalist movement.
This book is a valuable contribution at several levels. It uses visual archives to open up historical questions. Maclean splendidly recounts how a visual pantheon of revolutionary India, including the now mesmerisingly iconic photograph of Bhagat Singh in a hat, was created. These visual archives, in an ironic twist, capture the subtle relationship between HSRA and the Congress much better than the academic histories that treat them separately do. It is a wonderful contribution to the study of HSRA itself, its ideology and networks, its internal fissures, its regional variations and its tactics. It uses a relatively unused gold mine of oral history recordings available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and Cambridge to give genuine voice to a neglected episode. One of the sheer delights of the book is the ways in which so many HSRA characters come to life. Many readers might remember, perhaps, from Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed, the woman and child who travelled with Bhagat Singh and helped him evade the police. The police were looking for a single man, but travelling with a family allowed Bhagat Singh to avoid arrest. Have you wondered who that woman was? One of the most important feats of this book is a deft chapter that rescues that remarkable woman, Durga Devi Vohra, a clandestine operative and revolutionary in her own right, from obscurity.
But its political claims are equally striking. One of the great merits of the book is to study HSRA in relation to the Congress. This relationship allows her to explore new insights into how Congress itself evolves. First, there is no question that, contrary to Congress histories, the HSRA, and its leaders were becoming genuinely popular; they were not fringe elements operating at the margins of politics or popular imagination. She makes the striking claim that it is precisely their presence and popularity that, in some ways, forced the hand of the nationalist movement; in part, the civil disobedience movement may have been launched to pre-empt this challenge by more radical groups from the outside.
But did the presence of this revolutionary alternative help Congress? Did the British take Gandhi more seriously and anoint him their chief interlocutor because of the presence of these violent revolutionary movements? Better deal with Gandhi than more radical groups? More disconcertingly, was the potential threat of a radically revolutionary group filling the vacuum required to energise non-violent politics and elicit a response from the British state? Maclean’s evidence suggests a yes. Perhaps, more Congress leaders recognised this than would publicly admit. Jinnah defended HSRA in the Legislative Assembly. Many of them continued to have deep relationships with the HSRA.
One figure who emerges as strikingly important in this relationship is Motilal Nehru, a figure who also needs rescuing from the shadows of his descendents. Indeed, what is striking is how much networks of political activity transcended ideological and organisational differences.
The book dwells on the vexed question of the extent to which Gandhi could have saved Bhagat Singh and his associates. In one episode, the anger of HSRA against Gandhi is palpable. They greet him with a garland of black cloth flowers. Gandhi responds by “praising their wisdom in offering him black flowers. Instead of expressing displeasure he showers love on them.” As Jaideva Gupta, Bhagat Singh’s childhood friend wrote, “Gandhi by his reasoning , sweet voice, calm and quiet manner would convince the public that what could be done was done.”
Maclean is persuasive in arguing that Congress and HSRA were more on a spectrum. Bhagat Singh himself was extremely self-conscious about the limits of violence: it could have limited use in its initial stages, to lift people out of their torpor. But as he put it, “terrorism is a confession that the revolutionary mentality has not penetrated down into the masses.” Even the radicals had a serious moral compass rooted in non-violence.
The writer is president, Centre For Policy Research, New Delhi, and contributing editor, The Indian Express