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A sin of militarism? Top scholar 'sets aside' revolutionary heritage of Bhagat Singh

By Shamsul Islam* 

The following quote is from the first paragraph of Lenin’s “The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution” (1917) underlining a cardinal truth: how rulers and their henchmen/women repress those ideologies and individuals who strive to emancipate masses from the exploitative rules. This chameleon like lot uses every trick in their criminal armoury.
“What is now happening to Marx's theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie.”
What is happening to great martyr Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary heritage in India is a living proof of the truthfulness of Lenin’s understanding of the phenomenon. Since India is supposed to be ‘Vishwa Guru’ (spiritual teacher of the world) we have added new sinister dimensions to it! The British rulers hounded him (and his comrades) which culminated in his hanging on March 23, 1931 with Rajguru and Sukhdev. After Independence these were/are his supposedly ‘fans’ who converted him into harmless icon robbing the substance of his revolutionary heritage or presented him as a hero of Jats or Sikh. It could be witnessed in more than half a dozen Hindi movies on his life. Even Hindutva gang which shamelessly colluded with the British rulers and denigrated the whole tradition of martyrdom has the audacity to display his photos in public.
The newest foul, in fact, criminal addition goes beyond imagination of all those who have read Bhagat Singh and are familiar with his commitments in his short eventful life. This time Bhagat Singh is being offered as a package in the form of a decorated book; a coffee table book to the Indian armed forces as an icon for militarization of the Indian State not by someone inimical to Bhagat Singh, a Communist revolutionary but by someone who is stated to be ‘a chronicler of Bhagat Singh’s life’; Professor Chaman Lal whom I always regarded as a person who genuinely believed in the ideals of great revolutionary!
He is a retired Professor from JNU, honorary advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi, Dean, Faculty of Languages, Panjab [sic] University Chandigarh and former President JNU Teachers Association. According to his own description (‘Spreading Bhagat Singh’s ideas’, "The Tribune", December 3, 2022) he seems to be the most prolific author after Bhagat Singh of latter’s writings:
“I received author/editor's complimentary copies of 11th reprint of the book from National Book Trust, New Delhi, few days before I got a copy of another book, Jail Notebook, and other writings from another publisher leftword [sic], mentioning it as 12th reprint… Marathi translation of Bhagat Singh's complete writings from my edited book in Hindi of same title by Datta Desai was released by late Supreme Court Justice, PB Sawant, during Bhagat Singh birth centenary.
“Another coincident is that Publication Division, Government of India, had released an edited volume in Hindi of complete writings of Bhagat Singh, in 2007 in the presence of two of his nephews and late Kuldip Nayar. This was updated into a four volume edition, brought out in the beginning of celebrations of 75th anniversary of independence. I was invited to write a biography-Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh: A Pictorial Volume! I was more in collecting and researching on Bhagat Singh's writings and was in a dilemma how to plan it since there were already a number of biographies in print! It suddenly struck my mind that since decades, I have been collecting documents, writings, images, etc., in order to focus on the authenticity of Bhagat Singh's life and writings, I accepted the invite and this book has just come out. The Bhagat Singh Reader is being published by Harper Collins shortly, as I found more documents since its first publication in 2019. In 2019, I had included 130 writings of Bhagat Singh along with Jail Notebook and three more writings are being added to an upcoming edition.”
The Professor holds the copyright of all the above mentioned books. He missed mentioning few Hindi editions of Bhagat Singh’s writings copyrighted to him. This inventory of Professor Chaman Lal’s writings of/on Bhagat Singh is quite impressive. After its perusal it is natural to assume that the Professor genuinely believes in the ideals of Bhagat Singh whose writings were based on deep academic research. Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader who did not let die his thirst for knowledge despite high-handed censorship and unspeakable hardships of the jail life. In fact, he and his comrades resorted to hunger strike for 116 days at Mianwali Jail (now in Pakistan) demanding supply of books and status of political prisoners in 1929 in the course of which Jatindra Nath Das was martyred. Bhagat Singh was in Jail for 716 days out of which 167 days as death prisoner. In this period he read 143 foreign published English books and 159 Indian published books (English 54, Hindi 63, Punjabi 7, Urdu 28, Bengali 17 and Marathi 3.
The Professor also shared the following information with 2 exclamations that
“I was invited to write a biography 'Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh: A Pictorial Volume!' I was more in collecting and researching on Bhagat Singh's writings and was in a dilemma how to plan it since there were already a number of biographies in print! It suddenly struck my mind that since decades, I have been collecting documents, writings, images, etc, in order to focus on the authenticity of Bhagat Singh's life and writings, I accepted the invite and this book has just come out.”
Who invited him to accomplish this task and when it was released has not been made clear by him. However, a perusal of the official site of the Publication Division of Government of India unravels the reality. It was planned in January 2022, an e-tender floated on August 4, 2022 and printing work awarded on August 17. It must have been out in last November. It is priced INR 895 with Chaman Lal mentioned as author on the cover (only hard bound edition available presently).
There is no record of release of this book but the author does inform where it was first discussed. According to him:
“It was a bit perplexing for me when I got a call from Sports University, Patiala, Vice Chancellor, Lieutenant General JS Cheema (Retd), inviting me to be part of a discussion panel in a session on Bhagat Singh in Military Literary [Literature] Festival, as I could not see any connection, since the festival concentrates more on defence related books and matters, national and international. Among other panellists, he named Mahavir Chakra [it should be Veer Chakra] awardee, Maj Gen Sheonan Singh (Retd), who is a nephew of Bhagat Singh… Among all close relations of Bhagat Singh, he is one of most well read about Bhagat Singh and his ideas, as Ranbir Singh, his father and younger brother of Bhagat Singh, had penned a biography of the great martyr in Urdu!”
The Professor is reported to have told the top brass of the Indian army, the 4th most powerful army in the world, on the last day of the Military Literature Festival at Chandigarh [“The Times of India”, Chandigarh, December 5], that “Bhagat Singh was a socialist revolutionary…by calling only patriot and fearless, attempts are made to reduce his stature… Governments are not interested beyond his stories and photographs”.
There can be no objection to the Indian Army deliberating on Bhagat Singh or releasing books on his valour. But it is highly ‘perplexing’ (resorting to the term used by the Professor himself while accepting the invitation for the Military Festival) that he was allowed to say what he told about Bhagat Singh to the military personnel. It could happen only if Indian Military was changing its character from Indian State’s armed organ to people’s army. The reality is that it is committed to serve loyally the interests of the pro-rich Indian ruling elite which believes that slogan Inquilab Zindabad preaches violence and refuses to accord the status of martyr to Bhagat Singh and others who laid down their lives during the freedom struggle. It is also to be noted that writings of Bhagat Singh are part of the archives or museums and not part of academic syllabuses at any level.
It is sad that while joining the Military Literature Festival, the Professor as a chronicler of Bhagat Singh brazenly overlooked that Bhagat Singh while in jail read an amazing book by a German revolutionary academician Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919) titled “Militarism & Anti-Militarism” (1907). Karl was assassinated along with Rosa Luxemburg on January 15, 1919 by a killing squad of the German reactionary ruling classes. This book is a great work of academic research combined with his experiences in the revolutionary movements not only in Germany but in whole of Europe. This peerless work on militarism traces roots of militarism under capitalism and fore-warned the coming of the World War I. According to Karl militarism is not only a project for saving the Fatherland from foreign enemies but also controls colonies and crush the ‘internal enemy’; the rising tide of working class, peasantry and youth movements against the repressive rule.
In a chapter titled ‘Sins of Militarism’ Karl discusses how under militarism soldiers are ill-treated, people have to bear the cost of financing it, “it is rule of the sword and rifle against strikes”, army is used as “a tool against the proletariat in the political struggle” and is “danger to peace” and “proletarian revolution”. The book ends with a list of tactics to be used fighting militarism.
We should not be foolish enough to believe that Indian military establishment is developing love for a socialist revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, who combined two mottos together: Down with Imperialism and Long Live Revolution. The Professor was allowed to introduce Bhagat Singh in a military-literary conclave held in Punjab as year-long (2020-21) historic farmers struggle used Bhagat Singh (his visuals as well as writings) as the most prominent tools of resistance against all kinds of repressive acts of the Modi regime. Bhagat Singh needs to be converted into a harmless icon, blunting his revolutionary edge and adopt him as a hero who laid down his life for the country without going into the question; country for whom!
I will be the last person to believe that Professor Chaman Lal had any illusion that he would bring about change of heart of the participants or those who invited him to this Military Literature Festival. His pictorial book coinciding with this festival will bring him more laurels, more royalty; may even get him a mention in Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific author (or compiler) on Bhagat Singh.
It brings me to a serious ethical issue concerning writings, contemporary photos and records of Bhagat Singh, his comrades and the family. The Professor has been chronicling/remodeling writings of Bhagat Singh and his contemporary material in book forms assigning to himself as copyright owner. Furthermore, nobody knows under what authority the copyright of Bhagat Singh’s writings published by Government of India publication houses and edited by the Professor have been appropriated by the former. Forget about revolutionary morality even bourgeois morality demands that if descendants of Bhagat Singh have not claimed ownership of his writings (a great gesture) these belong to all those who love and follow him. The Professor should have retained copyright of his introductions to the books, if any. I remember a Hindi edition of Bhagat Singh’s writings titled as ‘Bhagat Singh aur unke Sathiyon ke Dastavez’ [Documents of Bhagat Singh and his comrades] jointly edited by Bhagat Singh’s nephew (sister’s son) Dr. Jagmohan Singh and Professor Chama Lal copyright of which was assigned to a committee formed to collect revolutionary’s unearthed documents.
I will end by reminding Professor Chaman Lal, a dear friend, that his obsession with selling Bhagat Singh has landed him into the category of the lot referred to by Lenin above. Shockingly, the title of his latest book on Bhagat Singh which coincided with the military festival at Chandigarh describes Bhagat Singh a legend. As a renowned linguist, he is expected to know the meaning of the term. According to almost all English dictionaries it means a story from the past that is believed by many people but cannot be proved to be true. In Hindi too it is defined as “pracheen kathaa jiskaa satey yaa asatey hona prasangkik naheen hae” (an ancient story whose being true or untrue is not relevant). The ruling classes need a Bhagat Singh who happened sometime in the past, to be worshipped as a saint having no relevance in the present times; a harmless icons devoid of revolutionary side of his theory as stated by Lenin. Only this kind of Bhagat Singh is acceptable to the rulers and Professor Chaman Lal is facilitating it.
I received above mentioned “The Tribune” piece penned by Professor Chaman Lal on December 19 and immediately wrote a protest note to him which read “Unbelievable that you were involved in this!” Since there was no response I decided to pen this piece.
*Formerly with Delhi University, click here for some of Prof Shamsul Islam's writings and video interviews/debates



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