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Opinion

March 24, 2014

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Bhagat Singh: for the deaf to hear

Part - II
Though it keeps resounding 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. And when ‘peace’ is the buzzword on the liberal tongue.
He had this to say:
“Revolution does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife, nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By ‘revolution’ we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change. Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of the fruits of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant who grows corn for all starves with this family. The weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies. Masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims. These terrible inequalities and forced disparity of chances are bound to lead to chaos. This state of affairs cannot last long, and it is obvious that the present order of society in merry-making is on the brink of a volcano.
“The whole edifice of civilisation, if not saved in time, shall crumble. A radical change, therefore, is necessary and it

is the duty of those who realise it to reorganise society on the socialistic basis. Unless this thing is done and exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, sufferings and carnage with which humanity is threatened today cannot be prevented. Without this, all talk of ending war and ushering in an era of universal peace is undisguised hypocrisy.
“By ‘revolution’ we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such breakdowns. A world socialist federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and the misery of imperial wars.”
The production notes at the end of the film remind us that Bhagat and his comrades laid down their lives for a free, democratic and secular India. We are asked if Bhagat’s sacrifice has been betrayed. Ironically, the clue to this betrayal lies in one word conspicuously missing from the list given us of Bhagat’s ideals. He lived and died not just for a secular and democratic India but an India that would be socialist – and not in the Nehruian-Fabian sense. This is where the battle-lines were drawn for Bhagat.
How else can we explain Bhagat’s opposition to Congress and Gandhi? Weren’t they struggling for democracy? Was Congress not for secularism? And who can say that they did not want freedom? It is for this reason that Santoshi’s juxtaposition of Bhagat and Congress/Gandhi loses much of its political edge. All we see is the ‘cult of ahinsa’ and the ‘cult of violence’ opposed to each other in a rather superficial way. The social and political content of both remains inadequately explored and the references to it are very carefully worded.
Notwithstanding his ‘saintliness’, Gandhi was a representative of the Indian comprador bourgeoisie which was preparing itself to replace the colonial masters. For the interest of this class the process had to be peaceful and non-revolutionary, legal and constitutional, based on a strategy of compromise and concession. Gandhi’s ahinsa manifested this class’s fear of the struggle passing into the hand of the working classes and taking on a revolutionary character. Bhagat sought to counter and change the bourgeois character of the struggle. The revolutionary vision made all the difference between the Congress brand of democracy and secularism and the ideals of Bhagat who stood for a total overhaul of the Indian class structure, which meant the process of freedom had to be revolutionary with its reins in the hands of the people.
A fact that does not figure in the film is that Bhagat had himself realised where he went wrong in this struggle. In a letter smuggled out of jail, ‘To the Young Political Workers’, he wrote:
“Apparently, I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. Let me announce with all the strength at my command that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods. It is my considered opinion that bombs cannot serve our purpose. This is proved by the history of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Throwing bombs is not only useless, it is harmful as well. They are to be used on certain occasions only. Our chief aim should be to mobilise the toiling masses. The military wing should collect material for war for use on special occasions.”
Bhagat renounced terrorism but not revolutionary violence.
Zeno (Safdar Mir) once shed light on the significance the question held for the revolutionaries:
“To maintain national freedom a popular armed force is certainly needed. Usually this armed force is only born out of an armed struggle for liberation. Otherwise, what we see in the wake of freedom is the armed force of the nation state formed and organised by the old rulers, acting as the armed guards of the classes that represent the status quo. This force works to perpetuate colonialism/neo-colonialism nationally and internationally in collusion with its former masters, i.e. imperialists.”
Interestingly, Zeno himself was won over to Marxism in his youth by a member of Bhagat’s organisation.
We get to see a lot of Bhagat in action and almost nothing of Bhagat the man of ideas. He was one of the most well-read persons in the India of the 1920s on politics and history. His numerous letters, articles and speeches reveal a formidable intellect at work. His writings on the communal problem in India have proved prophetically correct. He did not lose the creative spark even in the condemned cell; his diary and the preface he wrote to Lala Ram Saran Das’s ‘Introduction to the Dreamland’ testify to this.
‘Why I am an atheist’, an essay he wrote in prison, has now become a historic document used by the Indian left in its struggle against Hindu fascism. It is a pity that the film sheds no light on this aspect of the personality of the man whose death has been lamented by renowned historian Bipan Chandra in these words: “It is one of the greatest tragedies of our people that this giant of a brain was brought to a stop so early by the colonial authorities.”
The movie reveals Bhagat’s atheism in a manner obviously calculated for effect. But this matter too remains un-contextualised. Some of Bhagat’s comrades are given scant attention in the film. We know that Kanwalnat Tewari and Mahabir Singh are around and we hear the judge pronounce the verdict on them, but we never get to know who among the accused is Mahabir or Tewari. Those who were transported for life did not end their struggle there. Mahabir died in another hunger strike for the rights of the prisoners in the Andaman Islands. All of them made immense sacrifices for the cause that had endeared them to Bhagat. A brief mention at the end of the film of what became of them would not have been out of place.
Even though ‘The Legend’ tones down the intensity of Bhagat’s vision, it does manage to portray the heroism and selflessness of the young martyrs who, in their fight to end exploitation of man by man, laid down their lives on March 23, 1931 at 7pm in the Lahore Central Jail, 83 years ago.
Part-I of this article appeared on Sunday, March 23.
The writer is editor oped, The News.
Email: [email protected]

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