For the first time in the history of independent India, the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev could not be observed in any meaningful way because of the state and self-imposed restrictions on public gatherings introduced as a precaution against the coronavirus epidemic. It was on March 23, 1931 that the colonial administration executed Singh and his comrades in the Lahore conspiracy case.
The country, already facing multiple challenges, has to contend with a serious health crisis now. The situation demands strong political will and commitment for the people, the sort that Singh had. In jail, Singh and comrades had addressed a letter to the then British governor in which he said that “the court order is based on two assumptions: One, there exists a state of war between the British state and Indian state. and, that we are part of the war… The second assumption is really flattering for us”. The letter ended by saying that “the days of capitalist and imperialist exploitation are numbered”.
Singh was born on September 28, 1907. His father and two of his uncles had been released from jail the very same day — they were imprisoned for participating in a land agitation. Punjab saw numerous land struggles in the last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. All those born in those years inherited the legacy of resistance, just as Singh did.
From the mid-medieval period onwards in Indian history, Punjab had been in turmoil and reshaping its destiny. Historians named it as the Indo-Islamic period. Bhai Gurdas, poet, philosopher and disciple of Guru Nanak, described it the time when “the Ganges started flowing in the opposite direction”. It was a period of social transformation. Many poets and thinkers of this period – among them Guru Nanak, Kabir, Ravidas, Baba Farid, Meera Bai, Namdev, and Eknath — engaged with social realities in radically different ways. It was a period of social revolution — a time when a new kind of history was being written.
It was an age when Kabir pronounced the names of Ram and Allah in the same spirit and announced that he was their son; Baba Farid dared to unite Sufi spirituality and Hindu philosophy in one tune; and when Ravidas redefined the idea of oneness and equality in its real social context. These were philosophers who hailed from the bottom rungs of the society. They produced a new spirituality for the new world. Indeed, great efforts were made to ensure that “the Ganges flows in the opposite direction”. Everything became part of an age, nay tradition, that was popularly called by Kabir as Ulat Bansi, or Upward Down. Bhagat Singh inherited this tradition of fundamental change, not just to interpret the world, but also to change it. It is not difficult to derive the idea of socialism in the Indian context from this period of enlightenment.
From the founding of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in the 1920s to emerging as a seasoned communist revolutionary, the whole life of Bhagat Singh is one of great inspiration and enlightenment. He should be understood not only in the historical context of his times, but also through the perspective of the great cause for which he lived and laid down his life.
As Ajoy Ghosh, a co-prisoner of Singh who later became the general secretary of the Communist Party of India, said: “Like a meteor, Bhagat appeared in the political sky for a brief period. By the time he passed away, he had already become the cynosure of millions of eyes and the symbol of the spirit and aspirations of a new India: Dauntless in the face of death, determined to smash imperialist rule and raise on its ruins the edifice of a free People’s State in this great land of ours”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 24, 2020 under the title ‘Like a meteor’.
The writer is general secretary, CPI.
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