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The Idea Of Bhagat Singh

12/05/2016 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Bhagat Singh, India. (Photo by: IndiaPictures/UIG via Getty Images)

The discipline of history is a precarious one for it makes and unmakes, defines and redefines, even twists and turns the collective conscience of the people while perceptions of the past, about personalities, events and ideas, begin to dictate the present--oblivious of the fact that perceptions are fluid and so is the past. As Napoleon Bonaparte once noted, "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." Our view of history, which defines our identity, cannot be set in stone and it changes as we begin to change our outlook, or as we are made to believe that we have the control over our changing perspectives. People are more often than not made to agree upon certain versions of the past, which is packaged and sold to them as eternal truth.

When Nelson Mandela, who took up arms and established MK... is globally celebrated as a mascot of peace, why is Bhagat Singh called a terrorist by some?

One victim of such reckless flirtations with history is our very own Shahid Bhagat Singh. Some have perceived Bhagat Singh as a terrorist, others as a revolutionary and yet others who have identified him as both. The reality, however, is much broader than this, and the pigeonholing of this great nationalist--a common impropriety in biographers of historical icons-- misses the point.

To begin with, considering Bhagat Singh as a terrorist is gross reductionism. When Nelson Mandela, who took up arms and established Umkhonto we Sizwe or MK (the armed wing of the African National Congress) in the wake of the racist Sharpeville massacre, is globally celebrated as a mascot of peace, why is Bhagat Singh called a terrorist by some? As a teenager from Punjab, Bhagat Singh was spurred to take action by the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre where about a 1000 men and women were killed by the British Imperialist forces. Compare this to the death toll of 69 people in the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa which gave revolutionary impetus to Nelson Mandela? This is gross injustice to the great nationalist that Shahid Bhagat Singh was.

[B]racketing him as purely a revolutionary would also be tantamount to failure in capturing his breadth of ideas in their entirety.

Surprisingly, it is those who have little understanding (and complete disregard for) of Marxism and who are steeped in one religion or the other, who have taken it upon themselves to come out as the champions of Shahid Bhagat Singh. In fact, he had lost faith in the idea of religion and had authored works such as "Why I am an Atheist", and "The Red Pamphlet" expounding his faith is the principles of Marxism. On 21 January, 1930, during the hearing of the Lahore Conspiracy Case, Shahid Bhagat Singh came into the court along with his comrades wearing red scarves and shouted slogans such as "Long Live Socialist Revolution", "Long Live Communist International", "Long Live People", "Lenin's Name Will Never Die" and "Down with Imperialism". "The proletariat will win" were the words of this revolutionary when he read out in open court a telegram he had sent on the date of Lenin's death anniversary. Here again, the symbolism of Bhagat Singh is a close parallel to Mandela's traditional tribal attire that he wore into the court during the Rivonia trials and delivered his three-hour address famously known as the speech titled "I am prepared to die".

However, bracketing him as purely a revolutionary would also be tantamount to failure in capturing his breadth of ideas in their entirety. In a letter "To young political workers" Bhagat Singh emphasized the inevitability of compromise in any freedom struggle, writing that it was "not such ignoble and deplorable a thing as we generally think." He further observed:

"Any nation that rises against the oppressors is bound to fail in the beginning, and to gain partial reforms during the medieval period of the struggle through compromises. And it is only at the last stage... That it can strike the final blow in which it might succeed to shatter the ruler's government. But even then, it might fail, which makes some sort of compromise inevitable. This can be best illustrated by the Russian example."

One may find the multiplicity in the personalities of these men of action fundamentally disturbing because our mind is always on the lookout to weave coherent stories.

These can clearly not be the words of a person who believes in a "Permanent Revolution", which was the Communist ideal in those days. In fact, these sound like words coming from a political realist who knows that a vast spectrum of political agitation strategies are relevant depending upon the needs of the time, for gaining freedom from tyranny.

After having observed the different aspects of the personality of Bhagat Singh, one may justifiably wonder about how to reconcile the inherent contradictions. How should one define his personality? The answer is simple. It is my observation that all icons--those leaders whose array of work amounts to a huge spectrum of activity--typically represent multiple facets of identities woven into a complete whole owing to their prolific and versatile abilities. More importantly, this reflects their ability to be firm yet flexible, to be changing and dynamic and to be magnanimous enough to accept minor shifts in their own worldviews as they evolve in their struggle for the people.

A classic example of such a phenomenon would be Mahatma Gandhi, whose abodes at different times ranged from huts in remote villages to Southall in London to the Birla Mansion in Delhi. Or look at his evolving ideas about the caste system in India. He initially considered it as necessary and even desirable for Indian society, but later came to vehemently oppose when he said "caste has to go" and proposed the twin formula of "inter-dining and inter-marriage" to dissolve the caste system. What is also to be noted here is that these shifts in positions are more slow and imperceptible than one may think. Gandhiji's views on caste evolved over a period of five decades, which a common reader is unable to appreciate when he or she reads books where the decades fly by with each turn of the page.

There were times when [my father K. Chandrashekar Rao] was a strict authoritarian and there were occasions when he would seek consensus of the people...

One may find the multiplicity in the personalities of these men of action fundamentally disturbing because our mind is always on the lookout to weave coherent stories. Yet, it needs to be understood that it is impossible to put singular labels on personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela and Shahid Bhagat Singh, for they have adopted over their careers different roles based on the demands of different situations. This is also in line with the situational leadership theory, as espoused by modern management gurus and behavioural scientists such as Hersey and Blanchard.

In my personal experience, I have observed this phenomenon at play in my father, Shri K. Chandrashekar Rao, Hon'ble Chief Minister of Telangana, who during the course of the Telangana state formation movement assumed different roles in different times. There were times when he was a strict authoritarian and there were occasions when he would seek consensus of the people and of the government at the Centre. In yet another avatar, he became the fierce protestor organizing Kisan Sabhas and cadres like those talked about by Bhagat Singh in his writings, while at another stage of the movement he was seen as adopting the path of Gandhian Satyagraha when he declared his fast unto death for winning statehood for Telangana.

The cue that should be taken from [Bhagat Singh's] life is to promote liberty and equality and not censorship and tyranny.

I believe we need to give Shahid Bhagat Singh his due place in history without allowing this icon to become victim to political interests. The idea should be to fathom the sheer magnanimity of the personality of Bhagat Singh and to appreciate the indelible mark that he has left on the face of this earth. Finally, we must be appreciative of the fact that Shahid Bhagat Singh was a thorough intellectual and not one who would stand for censorship of any kind. The cue that should be taken from his life is to promote liberty and equality and not censorship and tyranny. The thought of subverting the work of a responsible historian would have certainly not fitted well into the worldview of Bhagat Singh who in his last speech vehemently opposed the idea of "might is right" and who once famously quoted French anarchist Auguste Vaillant that "It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear."

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