Why I Think We Need To Revisit Bhagat Singh And Netaji To Truly Appreciate ‘Nationalism’

Posted on February 20, 2016 in Society

By Anurag Bhaskar:

bhagat_subhasAs the certificates of ‘nationalism’ are being distributed these days, it is for us to refer to ideas and beliefs of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose, the two great revolutionaries hailed equally by all Indians. We must remember and follow the ideas of these revolutionaries. It is time for us to decide what we actually mean by nationalism and freedom?

Bhagat Singh used to read a lot. He used to study to enable himself to confront the arguments put forward by the opposition, to arm himself with reasons in favour of his cult of revolution and to study methods to change the system in India. Bhagat Singh had joined issue with the freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai more than once. He disagreed with his chauvinistic Hindu stance. Lajpat Rai, in turn, had denounced him as a ‘Russian agent’ and regarded the revolutionaries as ‘irresponsible young men’.

Kuldip Nayar, the author of the book The Life And Trial of Bhagat Singh, writes about the great revolutionary: “A revolutionary believes in the complete overthrow of any established government or political system that does not give economic equality to the people. In his scheme of things, citizens should be empowered against economic powerlessness and given individual dignity.”

The independence of India was the ultimate aim for Bhagat Singh. But the struggle for the independence of India, for Bhagat Singh, was basically a struggle for social and economic betterment. He felt that real progress would come only when opportunities are given to every individual to develop himself/herself and also to work for the whole community.

He had once written to his mother, Vidyavati Kaur:

“Ma, I have no doubt that my country will be one day free. But I am afraid that the brown sahibs are going to sit in the chairs the white sahibs will vacate.” He was convinced that no change was possible without the destruction of the antiquated system and revolution alone could do so.

In the quest for independence through revolution, Singh was attracted towards Anarchism. He studied the writings of Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. From May to September 1928, Kirti, a pro-independence paper, published several articles by Bhagat Singh on Anarchism. He had declared, “…The people are scared of the word anarchism” and that “[t]he word anarchism has been abused so much that even in India revolutionaries have been called anarchist to make them unpopular.” He equated the traditional Indian idea of “universal brotherhood” to the anarchist principle of “no rulers.” He wrote, “I think in India the idea of universal brotherhood, the Sanskrit sentence vasudev kutumbakam etc., have the same meaning…The first man to explicitly propagate the theory of Anarchism was Proudhon and that is why he is called the founder of Anarchism. After him a Russian, Bakunin worked hard to spread the doctrine. He was followed by Prince Kropotkin etc.”

The reason for Singh’s belief in Anarchism can be explained through his assertion that, “[t]he ultimate goal of Anarchism is complete independence, according to which no one will be obsessed with God or religion, nor will anybody be crazy for money or other worldly desires. There will be no chains on the body or control by the state. This means that they want to eliminate: the Church, God and Religion; the state; Private property.” (See Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation (2012), pg. 149)

During a conversation with his colleagues, Bhagat Singh had said, “…We must make it clear that revolution does not mean an upheaval. Revolution necessarily implies the programme of systematic reconstruction of society in a new and better adapted basis, often necessitating complete destruction of the existing state of affairs. It was one of the illusions of each generation that the social institutions in which it lived were natural and permanent. Yet for countless years social institutions had been superseded by others adapted to temporary needs.” (See Kuldip Nayar, Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh, p.51)

On June 6, 1929, Bhagat Singh released the following statement:

“By the term Revolution we mean dismissing the prevalent social system which is established on evident impropriety. Though the producers and workers are the most important component of society they are…deprived of the products of their labour and even of their fundamental rights. The farmer who produces corn for everybody has to starve with his family; the weaver who makes garments for all does not get enough clothing for himself. So until and unless this exploitation is prevented, the entire civilization would crumble down. The cry of the day is absolute transformation and those who realise it bear the responsibility to reorganise society on the basis of socialism…By Revolution, we understand the establishment of such a social system…dictatorship of the proletariat and Communist internationalism which would save humanity from Capitalism and Imperial Wars.”

When asked during his trial in Assembly Bomb Case in the lower court what he meant by word ‘Revolution’, he replied:

“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 their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant who grows corn for all, starves with his family; the weavers 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 affair cannot last long, and it is obvious that the present order of society in merry-making is on the brink of a volcano.”

He also wrote a letter to the magazine Modern Review that sought to ridicule the slogan “Long Live Revolution!” The letter was later published in The Tribune on December 24, 1929. “[O]ne should not interpret the word “Revolution” in its literal sense. Various meanings and significance are attributed to this word, according to the interests of those who use or misuse it. For the established agencies of exploitations it conjures up a feeling of blood-stained horror. To the revolutionaries, it is a sacred phrase. We tried to clear in our statement before the Sessions Judge, Delhi, in our trial in the Assembly Bomb Case, what we mean by the word “Revolution”.

We stated therein that Revolution did not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. It was not a cult of bomb and pistol. They may sometimes be mere means for its achievement. No doubt they play a prominent part in some movements, but they do not – for that reason – become one and the same thing. A rebellion is not a revolution. It may ultimately lead to that end.

The sense in which the word Revolution is used in that phrase, is the spirit, the longing for a change for the better. The people generally get accustomed to the established order of things and begin to tremble at the very idea of a change. It is this lethargic spirit that needs be replaced by the revolutionary spirit. Otherwise, degeneration gains the upper hand and the whole humanity is led astray by reactionary forces. Such a state of affairs leads to stagnation and paralysis in human progress. The spirit of Revolution should always permeate the soul of humanity so that the reactionary forces may not accumulate (strength) to check its eternal onward march. Old order should change, always and ever, yielding place to new, so that one “good” order may not corrupt the world. It is in this sense that we raise the shout: “Long Live Revolution!””

In 1930, while he was in Lahore Central Hail, he talked about rationality by writing an essay titled ‘Why I am an Atheist‘. To quote him,

“You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking…

It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is [a] chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.”

On February 2, 1931, Bhagat Singh wrote a document targeting the young political workers. The document titled ‘To Young Political Workers’ was later published by Government of India. To quote Singh,

“You cry “Long Live Revolution”. Let me assume that you really mean it. According to our definition of the term, as stated in our statement in the Assembly Bomb Case, revolution means the complete overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with the socialist order. For that purpose, our immediate aim is the achievement of power. As a matter of fact, the state, the government machinery is just a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to further and safeguard its interest. We want to snatch and handle it to utilise it for the consummation of our ideal, i.e., social reconstruction on new, i.e., Marxist, basis. For this purpose, we are fighting to handle the government machinery. All along we have to educate the masses and to create a favourable atmosphere for our social programme. In the struggles, we can best train and educate them…

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. Whether national or the socialist, are the peasantry and the labour.”

Like Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose was also very clear about his ideas and beliefs. While delivering the Presidential Address to the Student’s Conference held at Lahore on 19 October 1929, he clearly said, “If we are to bring about a revolution of ideas we have first to hold up before us an ideal which will galvanise our whole life. That ideal is freedom. But freedom is a word which has varied connotations and, even in our country, the conception of freedom has undergone a process of evolution. By freedom, I mean all round freedom, i.e., freedom for the individual as well as for society; freedom for the rich as well as for the poor; freedom for men as well as for women; freedom for all individuals and for all classes. This freedom implies not only emancipation from political bondage but also equal distribution of wealth, abolition of caste barriers and social iniquities and destruction of communalism and religious intolerance. This is an ideal which may appear Utopian to hard-headed men and women, but this ideal alone can appease the hunger in the soul.”

The diary Bhagat Singh left behind in jail has a number of extracts from classical writings of various philosophers. He copied in his diary from India Old and New by Sir Chirol Valentine, “How many of the Western-educated Indians who have thrown themselves into political agitation against the tyranny of the British bureaucracy have ever raised a finger to free their own fellow-countrymen from the tyranny of those social evils? How many of them are entirely free from it themselves, or, if free, have the courage to act up to their opinions?”

He had also copied a verse by James Russel Lowell and captioned it ‘Freedom’.

“…[T]rue Freedom is to share
All the chains our brothers wear,
And, with heart and hand, to be
Earnest to make others free!
They are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think:
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three”

Therefore, for Bhagat Singh, freedom meant a ‘revolution’ which, in spirit, is the longing for a change for the better. It is, therefore, necessary for every person to stand for progress, to criticise every tenet of old beliefs and to speak for the fallen and the weak. One must analyse and understand all the details. Like Bhagat Singh, Reason should be the “guiding principle of his life.”

When Bhagat Singh’s Lawyer, Pran Nath Mehta, asked him if he had any message for the nation, Singh replied, “Just the two messages – ‘Down With Imperialism!’ and ‘Long Live Revolution!'” When asked if there was anything else he desired to share, he said, “Yes, I want to be born again in the same country so that I can serve it again.”

However, if Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose were present today, they would have been criticised for their radical ideas, like is being done now. It would not have been surprising if they were declared as ‘anti-national’ by today’s pseudo-nationalists for raising their voice against the establishment for the cause of the toiling masses. It is for the Indian masses to decide whether they just want to pay lip-service to Bhagat Singh and Netaji, or follow their ideas and actions.