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March 23, 2014

Bhagat Singh: for the deaf to hear


March 23, 2014

Part - I
More than eight decades after he proudly walked to the gallows in the Lahore Central Jail on March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh caused a fierce controversy when a move was made by certain civil society organisations and some ‘liberal’ segments – as they were called by their opponents – to have Lahore’s Shadman Chowk named after the revolutionary.
As these activists reminded us of his secularism and his struggle for freedom, and of how Jinnah had defended him in the Legislative Council, threats were made by the religious Right against the renaming of the chowk. Their more articulate ideologues in the media wrote scathing articles not only against the move but against the person and struggle of Bhagat Singh. To them he was an ‘Indian’ terrorist who even worked for Hindu revivalism, he was not one of us, and Jinnah never defended him, but actually condemned his struggle.
When ideals are defeated and movements die, it is as easy for political and social opportunism to appropriate a legacy as it is for political and social bigotry to distort it. Bhagat Singh and his ideals – were they a political threat today – would stand reviled by both those who ran a campaign to have his memorial established and those who ran a hate campaign against the idea.
The latest wave of Bhagat’s appropriation in the mainstream can be traced to the flurry of movies made on him in 2002 in the political backdrop of the Congress-BJP divide in India with both the parties claiming him as one of their own. Before that, the Sikh revivalists and separatists had done him the same honour. This series of articles on Bhagat Singh and his comrades aims to throw light on Bhagat Singh, his struggle and ideals with the conviction that he still has much to offer that both the Right and whatever goes by the term ‘Left’ can ponder on. The first two parts of the series that follows are a reproduction of parts of a critique written in 2002 of the most successful of the

biopics made on Bhagat, which led to an upsurge in political and social interest in Bhagat Singh.

Bhagat Singh was once compared to a comet that blazed across our political sky and disappeared all too soon. Of the cinematic explorations of the trail that comet left, only Raj Kumar Santoshi’s ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ has some ‘relative’ merit.
Santoshi recreates major episodes from Bhagat’s revolutionary career. Bhagat was sent to the gallows at the age of 23, along with two other comrades. The movie starts with a description of how the young revolutionaries’ bodies were smuggled out of the Lahore Central Jail on the night of March 23, 1931 and then hacked, burnt and thrown into a river.
Soon the movie sweeps into the childhood days of Bhagat when he sees the colonial authorities inflicting brutalities on his people. The Jalianwala Bagh sequence, the reconstruction of the massacre in the mind of little Bhagat standing in anguish on the spot where it happened, is intelligently conceived and executed.
Little Bhagat throws himself with great passion into Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement. His dream of freedom is shattered when Gandhi suddenly withdraws the movement. Bhagat grows up to mend the dream in his own way. He joins the Hindustan Republican Association headed by Chandrashekhar Azad and inspires his comrades to change the name of their organisation to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. He vehemently opposes the Congress and warns that if freedom is won the Congress way, exploitation will reign supreme in the so-called free India and there will come a time when India will degenerate into a land of communal chaos.
An anti-Simon Commission demonstration is attacked by the police and Lala Lajpat Rai, a politician of considerable stature, dies as a result of the merciless beating he receives. The whole country is stunned. The HSRA avenges the national insult by killing superintendent Saunders. It strikes again as the government moves to take suppressive measures against the working class – such as the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill – and arrests labour leaders.
Bhagat and B K Dutt throw bombs in the assembly hall when the bills are being passed. The bombs are so designed as not to kill and so thrown as not to hurt anybody. Bhagat and Dutt readily give themselves up to police. The idea is to register a protest “loud enough for the deaf to hear” and use the ensuing court case to end the HSRA’s isolation from the mainstream – by getting the party’s message across through the statements made during the trial and published by the press.
Things take a dark turn when many HSRA activists are arrested; several of them turn approvers and identify Bhagat, Sukhdev and Rajguru as Saunders’ killers. Thus begins the famous Lahore Conspiracy Case in which Bhagat and his men combine ridicule with defiance to expose the injustices of their oppressors. Then comes the soul-stirring episode of the historic hunger strike launched by Bhagat and his comrades against the treatment meted out to native prisoners by the colonial authorities.
It is here that the film manages to capture in full the sheer beauty and nobility of the character and commitment of Bhagat and his comrades that immortalised them and reduced their tormentors to moral and mental pigmies. The sixty-three day hunger strike claims one of their comrades. India is swept by a popular wave of sympathy and admiration for these young men. Alarmed that Bhagat’s popularity has come to rival that of Gandhi who is ‘their kind of enemy’, the British government turns the trial into a mockery in order to eliminate Bhagat one way or the other. The movie ends with Bhagat, Rajguru and Sukhdev mounting the gallows with grace and gallantry and the rest of their comrades being transported for life.
‘The Legend’ juxtaposes the Gandhian and Congress approach to politics and freedom with that of Bhagat. When a youth lambastes Gandhi in public for not saving Bhagat and his comrades, saying history will never absolve him, the sudden close-up of Gandhi’s face puts a question mark on him that gets bigger and bigger as the movie progresses. But the script does not fully explore Gandhi’s shameful role during the entire drama. Bhagat’s biographers and Congress historians have thrown ample light on what really transpired between Gandhi and Viceroy Lord Irwin.
Gandhi was the only man in India who could have saved the lives of these young men by using his influence and making the commutation of the death sentences passed on Bhagat and his men a condition of the pact he signed with Lord Irwin and which the viceroy was so eager to secure. Instead he played the situation to his own advantage, at one point even urging the viceroy to hang Bhagat, if he had to be hanged, before the Karachi Congress met. Publicly he claimed that he had pleaded with the viceroy as best as he could. All that while he also kept lecturing people on ‘ahinsa’ to make them see the “error” of Bhagat’s ways.
Santoshi does not go the whole hog in his depiction of Gandhi’s role. But one does appreciate the boldness of the steps he takes away from the ‘Bapu’ and closer to Bhagat, casting a subtle shadow of doubt on the former.
What cannot be passed over so lightly, however, is that the movie underplays Bhagat’s ideology. Bhagat was a Marxist; revolutionary socialism was the inspiration that moved him and any biopic on him should be honest in its portrayal of that. Though it resounds with ‘Inqilab Zindabad’, the film does little to explain the slogan that Bhagat had raised with unprecedented vigour. The most politically important scene in the movie, when Bhagat is asked in the court what he means by revolution, is wasted on empty and emotional nationalist rhetoric that Bhagat himself would have despised.
The answer Bhagat in fact gave makes it obvious that he had a lot more to show for himself than what Santoshi allows us to see. What Bhagat said is strikingly relevant in the post-9/11 world. Had Santoshi let Bhagat speak for himself, this part of the movie would have served as a powerful comment on our times, no less turbulent than those when Bhagat lived.

To be continued
Part-II appears on Monday, March 24.
The writer is editor oped, The News.
Email: [email protected]

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