Bhagat Singh’s Nationalism

It was very different from the version that prevails on his 85th death anniversary.


Bhagat Singh, who streaked like a meteor across the anti-colonial nationalist sky, was sent to the gallows on March 23, 1931 on charges of assassinating a British police officer and throwing a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi. At the time of his execution, Bhagat Singh was only 24 — a young man with a utopian vision of a free India, whose sense of nationalism was very different from that associated with Lala Lajpat Rai, Mahatma Gandhi and other stalwarts of the freedom movement.

Bhagat Singh, often referred to as the original “shaheed”, or martyr, has been differently interpreted and appropriated — and the image of a fearless young man with a neat mustache, wearing a hat at a jaunty tilt, is as ubiquitous as that of the dhoti-clad Mahatma and the more formally attired Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Indian collective memory.

It’s instructive that while many competing visions of nationalism coexisted during the freedom struggle, the patriotism of the principal interlocutors was never doubted and they were all committed sons of a shackled Mother India — a sacred geography compositely envisioned, which had to be liberated.

Ironically, on the 85th anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s execution, nationalism has become a bitterly contested issue and reduced to an invalid litmus test over the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Rank political opportunism, compounded by dangerous emotive posturing over alleged insults to the “nation”, has cascaded into legislative intimidation, wherein the aggrieved sentiment of one constituency has trumped constitutional fidelity.

Many aspects of Bhagat Singh’s life are relevant in the prevailing socio-political turbulence and these include his discomfiture over the rightwing Hindu orientation of leaders like Lajpat Rai, his rejection of communal identity and personal commitment to atheism, and, above all, the commitment to revolution and rationality.

A communicator par excellence, who valued the public platform and understood the power of the pamphlet, Bhagat Singh’s writing and the lucidity of his advocacy is quite extraordinary for its time and his relative youth. If one were to identify one speech where all his ideals and objectives coalesce, it’s the October 1929 presidential address at the student’s conference in Lahore where he asserted: “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.” Or “azadi”.

At a time when the word azadi has been bruised, battered and resurrected from zealous and occasionally militant patriotism, starting with the JNU controversy, the Bhagat Singh elucidation merits objective reflection. He continued, “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, that is, 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… but this ideal alone can appease the hunger in the soul.”

The nationalist fervour during Bhagat Singh’s time had a shared objective — freedom from colonial bondage and the ushering in of an equitable socio-economic order — that almost all his contemporaries subscribed to. The rejection of any form of communalism and religious intolerance that Bhagat Singh advocated has a special resonance in the current milieu where the Indian Muslim citizen is often deemed “guilty” unless a reluctant state machinery discharges its constitutional obligations.

The deplorable lynching atrocities at both Dadri and Latehar are illustrative of this dangerous vigilantism that now passes for nationalist pride.

A nationalism derived from a menacing majoritarian constituency, wherein the hapless citizen is terrified into mouthing a certain slogan, augurs ill for the world’s largest democracy. When Bhagat Singh’s clarion call “Inquilab Zindabad” replaced “Vande Mataram” in large parts of northern India, it was not imposed by rabid diktat but voluntarily accepted. This didn’t compromise patriotism then. Why should it now?

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
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