(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)
“This is the story of a phenomenon.” So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.
Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out. Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.
It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere. Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm. He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything. The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.
And then came Bhagat Singh, a young lad who had grown up in the Lyallpur district of Punjab under the shadow of revolution. Several male members of the family, including his father and uncles, had been associated with the Ghadar Movement—or so it is told. A sure sign of the canonical status occupied by Bhagat Singh in the Indian imaginary is the thick lore that circulates around him. One story has it that the young Bhagat was all of three years old when his father and a fellow sojourner in revolutionary politics found him digging in the field outside the family home. When Bhagat was asked what he was planting, he replied: “I am sowing guns, so that we will be able to get rid of the British.”
Another story, accepted by most biographers and given a prominent place in Bollywood films such as Rajkumar Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh, places the young Bhagat, now eleven years old, at the site of Jallianwala Bagh the day after General Dyer and his troops mowed down thousands of Indians and left at least 379 dead. Bhagat collected, writes his biographer Hansraj Rabhar, “a thimbleful of soil which was coloured with the blood of martyrs” and applied some to his forehead while preserving the rest in a glass vial. Some say that he took a vow to avenge this atrocity.
We can let the positivist-minded historians worry about whether these stories are apocryphal or not. These stories have been critical in giving shape to a certain view of Bhagat Singh as a hero who was born and bred in the lap of revolution; but what has also determined the place of Bhagat Singh in the national imaginary is his densely rich albeit brief political career. The arc of his political life takes us from his initial reverence for Gandhi to disenchantment when the Mahatma, after the outbreak of violence at Chauri Chaura in early 1922, called off the non-cooperation movement. At Lahore’s National College, Bhagat Singh acquired another kind of political education, and soon thereafter he came to be associated closely with revolutionaries who had constituted themselves into the Hindustan Republican Association, later reborn, quite likely under the influence of Bhagat Singh, as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.
The death of the nationalist icon, the so-called “Lion of the Punjab” Lala Lajpat Rai, from wounds inflicted on him by the police at a demonstration in 1928 against the Simon Commission, which had been appointed to inquire into political conditions, enraged Bhagat Singh and his comrades. They hatched a plot to assassinate the Superintendent of Police, James Scott. In a case of mistaken identity, they shot and killed John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police.
The murder of Saunders, and there is no other word for it, raises, to say the least, difficult ethical questions that virtually no biographer has adequately addressed. Writing some years later in his autobiography, Nehru had this to say: “Bhagat Singh was not previously well known; he did not become popular because of an act of violence, an act of terrorism. Terrorists have flourished in India, off and on, for nearly thirty years, and at no time, except in the early days in Bengal, did any of them attain a fraction of that popularity which came to Bhagat Singh.”
Bhagat Singh had enlisted the help of Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrasekhar Azad. They fled the crime scene. To escape capture, Bhagat Singh cropped his hair and shaved his beard. He put on a fedora: and so came into being the iconography of a political rebel.
The following year, Bhagat Singh came up with the yet more dramatic idea of exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly, but doing so in a manner that would not take the life of anyone. It has been argued, quite rightly, that Bhagat Singh and his comrades desired that they should be taken captive. The idea was that the British would launch a prosecution, and that Bhagat Singh would find a stage to air publicly his grievances, and that of a nation, against British colonialism.
Bhagat Singh would have known that, with his action, he would be walking into the jaws of death. I would like to believe, however, that Bhagat Singh had had enough of killing. Saunders may have been the instrument of colonial rule, and by that logic was as guilty as Scott; nevertheless, the wrong man had been killed. There may have been a Gandhi in that Bhagat Singh who threw a bomb with the express intention of not killing anyone.
Bhagat Singh must have learned something about how publicity can act as the oxygen of a nationalist movement; he doubtless also understood, from his study of nationalism, how Gandhi, Tilak, and many others had mastered the courtroom and turned that quintessential British space against the British themselves. But there is something more profound at stake here: If violence is inescapably present to the practitioner of nonviolence at every turn, we should also think of the nonviolence within some forms of violence that signals the reverence for life.
Bhagat Singh got his wish: though the many twists and turns in the story are interesting enough, they need not detain us, and it suffices to say that he went on trial for both the Assembly bombing and, later, the Saunders murder case. Sukhdev, Rajguru, and Bhagat Singh were sentenced to death. I have said that Nehru thought he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi. He found the popularity of Bhagat Singh “amazing”.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades went to the gallows, and the country went into mourning.
With Bhagat Singh’s death, the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh found a new, extended, and more complicated lease of life. There are many troubling aspects to the appropriation of his legacy, none more so than the attempt by Hindu nationalists to claim him as their own. Bhagat Singh was an atheist; he was also a committed communist; and, for someone his age, well-read in the extreme. I suspect that he also understood well the difference between a nationalist and a patriot. We can be certain of one thing. He was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.
First published on September 28 at ABP News Network under the same title, here.
Also published in Hindi as: भगत सिंह की कहानी एक अद्भुत घटना है, online: https://www.abplive.com/blog/blog-the-phenomenon-of-bhagat-singh-1210440