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A misleading tendency? Efforts to 'reconcile' Gandhiji’s goal with Bhagat Singh's

By Harsh Thakor* 

Bhagat Singh was one of the greatest ever revolutionaries to have treaded upon this earth. Unlike the Indian National Congress and Gandhiji, he chalked out a revolutionary anti-colonial programme. Initially he supported the path of individual terrorism and was influenced by the Irish revolutionaries but later after studying Karl Marx, VI Lenin and worldwide experiences he rejected those methods.
In all spheres be it on caste system, religion, capitalism or science Bhagat Singh’s writings had Marxian connotations. He believed that the Congress paved no genuine path for the liberation of peasants from the bondage of landlordism or of workers from capitalist slavery. And unlike the Communist Party, which believed in proletarian hegemony, Bhagat Singh thought peasants were the key to revolution in India.
Today there have been tendencies wishing to reconcile Gandhiji’s goal with that of Bhagat Singh or project their ideas as similar. Bhagat Singh has also been utilised as a symbol by RSS forces just like the Khalistani leaders did earlier. The Ambedkarites, however, recognise Bhagat Singh as a great revolutionary and wish to reconcile Dalit liberation ideology with Bhagat Singh’s writings.
Some Left-wing organisations, on the other hand, ever since 1970s, have suggested that Gandhiji betrayed Bhagat Singh. In ‘India and the Raj’ Suniti Kumar Ghosh describes how Gandhiji so much feared Bhagat Singh that he deliberately rejected commuting of the sentence. This view is also taken in the movie ‘The Legend of Shaheed Bhagat Singh' enacted by Ajay Devgan.
Written in Lahore Central jail about six weeks before he was martyred, in ‘Letter to Young Political Workers' (February 2, 1931), Bhagat Singh summarises how the revolutionary movement evolved from an embryonic stage in 1905 and the corresponding tactics in accordance to the situation in 1917. It suggests how his approach differed from that of the Congress and Gandhiji. To quote:
“We want a socialist revolution, the indispensable preliminary to which is the political revolution. That is what we want. The political revolution does not mean the transfer of state (or more crudely, the power) from the hands of the British to the Indian, but to those Indians who are at one with us as to the final goal, or to be more precise, the power to be transferred to the revolutionary party through popular support.
“After that, to proceed in right earnest is to organize the reconstruction of the whole society on the socialist basis. If you do not mean this revolution, then please have mercy. Stop shouting Long Live Revolution. The term revolution is too sacred, at least to us, to be so lightly used or misused. But if you say you are for the national revolution and the aims of your struggle is an Indian republic of the type of the United State of America, then I ask you to please let known on what forces you rely that will help you bring about that revolution.
“ national or the socialist, are the peasantry and the labour. Congress leaders do not dare to organize those forces. You have seen it in this movement. They know it better than anybody else that without these forces they are absolutely helpless. When they passed the resolution of complete independence — that really meant a revolution — they did not mean it. They had to do it under pressure of the younger element, and then they wanted to us it as a threat to achieve their hearts' desire — Dominion Status. You can easily judge it by studying the resolutions of the last three sessions of the Congress. I mean Madras, Calcutta and Lahore.”
In his draft revolutionary programme, Bhagat Singh wrote “I have said that the present movement... is bound to end in some sort of compromise or complete failure… I said that, because in my opinion, this time the real revolutionary forces have not been invited into the arena. This is a struggle dependent upon the middle class shopkeepers and a few capitalists.
“Both these, and particularly the latter, can never dare to risk its property or possessions in any struggle. The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers. But our bourgeois leaders do not and cannot dare to tackle them. The sleeping lion once awakened from its slumber shall become irresistible even after the achievement of what our leaders aim at.
“After his first experience with the Ahmedabad labourers in 1920 Mahatma Gandhi declared: ‘we must not tamper with the labourers. It is dangerous to make political use of the factory proletariat' (The Times, May 1921). Since then, they never dared to approach them. 
"There remains the peasantry. The Bardoli resolution of 1922 clearly depicts the horror the leaders felt when they saw the gigantic peasant class rising to shake off not only the domination of an alien nation but also the yoke of the landlords. It is clear that our leaders prefer surrender to the British than to the peasantry....”
He further said:
“The present situation demands of us a clear and responsible programme of revolution. Just before the revolution of October 1917, Lenin mentioned three necessary conditions of a successful revolution: Political and economic situation. The spirit of rebellion among the masses. 
"A revolutionary party fully trained to lead the masses at the decisive hour. In India the first condition has already been fulfilled while the other two are waiting for complete realisation. To work for their fulfilment is the first task of every fighter for freedom and the programme should be worked out with this end in view.
“An outline is given below: Abolition of feudalism. Waiver of farmers’ loans. Nationalisation of land by the revolutionary state, so that improved and collective farming can be introduced. Guaranteed houses for all. All levies on peasants to be stopped, only a unified land tax to be collected. Nationalisation of factories and setting up of new factories.Universal education. The working day to be shortened as needed.”

Not only Suniti Ghosh, DP Das also describes how Gandhiji did not strived to the utmost to get the sentences on Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru commuted. Das writes:
“Alan Campbell-Johnson, in his book ‘Lord Halifax' referred to an understanding between Gandhi and Irwin that Bhagat Singh would not get any reprieve.In his record of his meeting with Gandhi on February 1931, Irwin noted that at the end of it Gandhi casually mentioned the case of Bhagat Singh. Irwin wrote: Gandhi did not plead for commutation. But he did ask for postponement in present circumstances.”
The correctness of Irwin’s version is borne out by Gandhiji’s own report on this meeting. Das states there was a third titbit which both Gandhiji and Irwin greatly enjoyed. It was about Bhagat Singh. Das quotes Gandhiji:
“I told him: 'This has no connection with our discussion, and it may even be inappropriate on my part to mention it. But if you want to make the present atmosphere, more favourable, you should suspend Bhagat Singh’s execution.’ In reply the viceroy stated ‘Commutation of sentence is a different thing, but suspension is worth considering’.”
Further, Das says, on March 23, barely a few hours before the executions were to take place, Gandhi appealed to Irwin for commutation of sentences. Gandhi told the viceroy, “Since you seem to value my influence such as it in favour of peace, do not please unnecessarily make my position difficult as it is, almost too difficult for future work.” Das comments, “Through this belated appeal, Gandhi wished to prop up the myth that he did his level best to commute the sentences.”
Bernard De Mello’s essay in ‘Monthly Review’, “India’s Revolutionary Spiritual Urge-Bhagat Singh and the Naxalites” describes how Bhagat Singh made an ethical indictment of untouchability. In 1928 Bhagat Singh wrote: “We can worship beasts but cannot make a human being sit next to us.” De Mello says Bhagat Singh “treated and respected…[a] manual scavenger [working] in [the] jail just like his mother.”
Jaspal Jassi, editor, “Surkh Leeh”, believes Bhagat Singh was morally a Marxist-Leninist. He elaborates in an article he wrote in 2017 in Punjabi how Bhagat Singh evolved from a very embryonic stage to grasp Marxism and reject path of individual terrorism. It also summarises how in practice the Congress was in striking contrast to the virtues or ideal of Bhagat Singh. The article projects Bhagat Singh’s profound grasp of nature of revolution in colonies and imperialism on a global scale.
Bhagat Singh’s writings should be resurrected in context of liberation from the Hindutva fascism of the Bhartiya Janata Party. His essay ’Why I am an Atheist’ would be a perfect thorn in the flesh for those who want to extinguish scientific thinking and replace it with mythological ideas.
It is time Marxists and other progressive forces seriously study the experiences of Bhagat Singh. His important lessons could be imbibed on how to form genuine democratic people’s organisations. His teachings could be applied in context of globalisation, mechanisation and digital age, with the world facing the worst ever capitalist crisis.
---
*Freelance journalist

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