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March 30, 2014

A different kind of freedom and secularism


March 30, 2014

The human condition
Koi dam ka mehman hoon ai ahle mehfil, Chiragh-e-seher hoon, bujha chahta hoon
“I am a guest only for a few moments, my companions/ I am the lamp that burns before dawn and longs to be extinguished”

This couplet by Iqbal ended the last letter Bhagat Singh wrote to his younger brother Kurtar Singh from the death cell. The letter was in Urdu, adorned with quite a few couplets. The dawn of freedom came 17 years after Bhagat embraced death but – as Bhagat had feared and as Faiz lamented – it was a ‘stained light, a night-bitten dawn, not the dawn we yearned for.’ Bitten by imperial manoeuvrings and stained with the blood of the hundreds of thousands that perished in communal carnage.
Those whose Pakistani sensibilities are hurt today at the thought of the ‘terrorist’ Bhagat being one of us are not much different from those who decried the ‘communist’ Faiz as not being one of us, for having composed such an un-Pakistani poem as Subhe-Azadi (Dawn of Freedom) on the eve of independence.
Bhagat would have been the greatest admirer of Faiz’s masterpiece. For he had composed a poem of his own with his struggle and the ultimate sacrifice – with the hope that the dawn millions were yearning for would mean true freedom – from the foreign yoke, from the ‘national’ parasites and oppressors, from class exploitation and religious bigotry.
From the platform of the Naujawan Bharat Sabah, a popular youth front for the HSRA founded by Bhagat Singh, he and his comrades had worked tirelessly for religious and social harmony among the oppressed and exploited of all religions and creeds. The Sabah was scathing in its attack on communalism in its manifesto:
“The mere cutting of the branch of [the] Pipal tree hurts the religious feelings of the Hindus. They get excited. God gets infuriated at the mere tearing of the paper Tazia of the Iconoclasts and they do not rest till they shed the blood of the unholy

Hindus. Man is more valuable than animals. But here in India we are breaking one another’s head in the name of holy animals. The morbidity of communalism has blurred our sight while the youth of the world are thinking in terms of internationalism.”
The morbidity of communalism was to lead to the bloodiest ever ‘independence’ in human history which united Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims all in a universal dance of murder, rape and plunder. Maulana Maudoodi called it the pangs of the birth of a beast. Condemn Maudoodi as we may – as Zeno did in his devastating polemics against him – it is difficult to see how Bhagat would not have seen a beast howling somewhere amid the blood and gore of Partition.
But his ideological and moral ethos would have been radically different. Maudoodi, who may be one of us to those to whom Bhagat is not, refused to fight imperialism or work for freedom either on the side of the Congress or the Muslim League, or other Muslim/Islamic organisations because he thought that such a conflict would “close the door of the English heart” towards the message of Islam! Bhagat would have found this reasoning only a bit more bizarre than he found the ‘anti-imperialist’ Gandhi’s pacifism and his ‘change of heart’ theory vis-à-vis imperialism.

* * * * *
The Naujawan Bharat Sabah aimed to organise labour and peasants and assist various movements that it thought could help establish an “independent republic of labourers and peasants.” Working towards these goals among the peasants, workers and youth, it also condemned imperialism in all its forms and called for the independence of other enslaved people. In the words of BN Sanyal, a Sabah leader: “It is also necessary that China and Kabul be with us. If any atrocities are perpetrated on them … we shall have to check it and ask the people of our country… not to fire at, kill them and enslave them. If those countries are in bondage, it is our first and foremost duty to free them.”
Irfan Habib, who has given a fascinating account of the Sabah’s work in Punjab and other areas, has concluded that – unlike the Congress which offered only swaraj to the masses and sidetracked the peasants and workers demands for emancipation – the Sabah had a definite aim and a clear ideology to offer which also included stopping the imperialist onslaught on other countries.

* * * * *
The ‘secularist’ and liberal lovers of Bhagat, particularly on our side of the border, tend to forget a few things about Bhagat and his comrades’ secularism as they go about building a romance around it. Their secularism was informed by an unflinching opposition to capitalism and imperialism and an unwavering commitment to the emancipation of their people from the economic and spiritual misery wrought on them by imperialists and their local puppets.
Theirs was an emancipatory secularism that never had to choose between imperial patrons and the dark, uncivilised, uncouth creatures engaged in a sometimes ‘savage’ and sometimes subdued struggle for survival. They were not frightened of their own people, nor did they hold them in contempt. Their radical intellect, their immense zeal was not for sale for the purpose of imperial war-mongering. They saw the people suffer, they suffered with them, and for them.
While they did that, they indulged in no justification of superstitions and bigotry harboured by the people and exploited by their oppressors. They fought that too, as they struggled for and with the people. The people who were Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, who could be from any sect or ethnicity; but who were, above all, the working classes. It is these people for whose freedom they lived and died. For our revolutionaries these classes had the inherent ability to transform the meaning of the whole independence struggle. So the revolutionaries fought with them, taught them their vision, and also learned from them how and why they felt the way they did and fought the way they did.
These revolutionaries were in their 20s – they were bound to make mistakes, but all their mistakes and insights, all their deeds and misdeeds, all their gains and failures were born out of the one vision that set them aflame, the vision of true freedom, which meant the end of capitalist exploitation and colonial/imperial subjugation in a free world. They died for a different kind of freedom; they lived a different kind of secularism.
Tailpiece: Kuldip Nayar in his book on Bhagat Singh has wrongly attributed the aforementioned couplet by Iqbal to Ghalib. More surprisingly, in her translation of Nayar’s work, Fehmida Riaz too failed to correct it.
To be continued
This is the third part of a series. The first two parts, ‘Bhagat Singh: for the deaf to hear’, appeared on March 23 and 24.
The writer is editor oped, The News. Email: [email protected]

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