Gandhi as the marketplace of ideas (Part II): The Bhagat Singh Factor

Raj Kumar Santoshi’s film on Bhagat Singh was powerful, to say the least. It most appropriately showcased the hero and his missions. Among five films on Bhagat Singh released that year (2002), Santoshi’s movie topped. It was the only worthwhile cinematic experience one can have about the freedom fighter. And so far, the only film ever made on him that’s notable, anyway.

Bhagat Singh, for the uninitiated, was one of the radical faces of Indian freedom struggle. In a country dominated by centrist politics since post-British times, the sacred texts of Indian history never duly acknowledged the peasants’ movements in India to oust the feudal and foreign rules. Hence any film on Bhagat Singh was to be a welcoming scenario.

Yet it was not meant to be. At least it did not turn out so for me. Even as the movie addressed Bhagat Singh’s legacy, it induced what my adjacent movie-goers felt. Amidst several scenes in the film, members of the audience were exclaiming “shut up, bastard” when it came to any scene showing Gandhi. People watching the movie were almost up in arms against Gandhi who, according to them, was the reason behind Bhagat Singh’s death!

Gandhi was being called names. Which is not unlikely in a society which has grown egalitarian over the time to understand several nuances of Gandhi so as to study him dispassionately than merely hero-worship. At the same time, this sentiment has been played up both by the opportunistic Dalit movement and the fanatic Hindu organizations which have disgraced Gandhi in deeds and words for political ends. Hence, it was definitely another matter altogether to call him the enemy of the people, the killer of Bhagat Singh.

In a review which resounds few of my sentiments too, the author opines that Santoshi lacks some fairness. “He should have known that if a film were to be made on Gandhi, Bhagat Singh would have been regarded as a villain, not as a national hero,” the reviewer comments.

There lies my precise objection. Why does this instinct of posing one against the other in a hero-villain paradigm take shape? Why should Bhagat Singh, and not the then British rulers, be considered villain in a film about Gandhi? Whose interests do such theories serve? Any freedom struggle is not an individual prerogative: it necessarily ingrains within many different voices, different ideologies and ideologues. Speaking of the unique situation as India’s freedom struggle, it was neither aimed at overthrowing the empire, nor at securing civil rights, but at ensuring that the rulers needed to leave the colony alone. In this manner, it was unlike the evolutions in America, nor the revolution in Russia, nor the shift of power at South Africa. India’s freedom struggle was the kind where people of all walks of life participated (if not before the time Gandhi arrived, when it was limited to the armed forces, native rulers and some elites). And they participated not to make a compromise of legal adjustments, or royal massacres, but to secure back their own lands and throw the perpetrators out of the country. And they succeeded (for all those theorists who point out the exhaustion of the British following second world war, one needs only to look at the colonialism in the 1950’s and onwards in whole of Africa and parts of Asia to rationalize that there was no such haste for the British to leave India unless under compulsion!)

It’s important to remember that Bhagat Singh was not a wayward violent activist as he is often portrayed. Certainly he began as one. But soon he organized himself in relation to the people, in much a Gandhian way of providing leadership, for which he has always credited Gandhi. Although starting off as an anarchist, he later on embraced broad people-based struggle. He recognized the source of aura that Gandhi had in India and he understood that without mass scale organized efforts at uniting people, no revolution was going to be a reality.

Gandhi, obviously aware of the genuine efforts of the radicals was opposed only in spirit, since his stance of non-violence was in direct conflict. But for someone famously in support of gun over cowardice, Gandhi never cut off his relationship with members of the nationalist party who publicly supported the extremists, namely Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Bose, Motilal Nehru (who used to finance revolutionary Chandra Sekhar Azad), Maulana Shaukat Ali and Krishna Kant Malviya etc. Gandhi, the relentless worker among the poorest of the poor, was only too aware of the class conflicts that existed. For his brand of movement though, he needed mass mobilization, even if it meant that he extracted money from the domestic capitalists whom he treated as friends.

Hence, whereas the end was the same, the means were vehemently different. But this difference was not one that was meant to disrupt each other’s paths, let alone posing as challenges. The current intelligentsia assuming that Gandhi and Bhagat Singh and ilk were contradictory is misplaced. Contrary, they might have been at the best. In fact Bhagat Singh categorically refuted the claims that he was a terrorist or preacher of violence. “I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through these methods. One can easily judge it from the history of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. All our activities were directed towards an aim, i.e., identifying ourselves with the great movement as its military wing. If anybody has misunderstood me, let him amend his ideas. I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful. The military department of the party should always keep ready all the war-material it can command for any emergency. It should back the political work of the party. It cannot and should not work independently.” (ed. Shiv Verma, Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, New Delhi, 1986)

Even when he threw the bomb in the Assembly, it was not kill anyone, but to emphatically make the British realize that there was a voice they could no longer ignore. Bhagat Singh cried freedom at the Lahore Conspiracy case –January 21, 1930—in front of the magistrate in the court (lines which never appeared in any of the films ever made): “Long Live Socialist Revolution’, ‘Long Live the Communist International’, ‘Long live the people’, ‘Lenin’s name will never die’, and ‘Down with Imperialism.’ He subsequently went on to read the text of the following telegram in the court and asked the Magistrate to transmit it to the Third International:

‘On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin, we wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the International working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism’.

This historic event is never mentioned in the popular media for obvious reasons. And 2002 was testament to that sentiment. In a ridiculous attempt to recreate a myth of Bhagat Singh as a nationalistic leader who would be best suited to the emotions of the detached youths of today, the right-wingers have declared Bhagat Singh as their hero!

One, because of their hand in assassination of Gandhi, they badly needed a hero who would have categorically challenged Gandhi. And two, as though to kill two birds with one stone, the hero would then be declared a domestic one who gave up life for India, and not for some leftist ideology. Of course his death would not have come had Gandhi intervened—hence Gandhi was decidedly the cause behind Bhagat Singh’s death, the arguments of the reactionaries go.

Bhagat Singh, hence stripped of his international commitment to wipe out imperialism, has over time been depicted as a sad hero who could not be saved, and the blame has always been put on Gandhi for his inaction. The truth, however is quite the contrary. In a letter that he wrote to his father (which I will later publish on the blog soon), Bhagat Singh was so defiant that one will find it incredible. In a world full of heroes who pleaded for their cases, Bhagat Singh called his own father a traitor and one who stabbed him on his back, for having considered a defense lawyer for him while he was on trial! He said it will be a tragedy if he defended himself, since the cause was not for him to survive, it was for the revolution to win the order of the day and it was required that he died for the cause!

For those who fantasized that Bhagat Singh would have been salvaged had Gandhi pleaded to the British, they only stand to insult the revolutionary’s ideals. For those who are bent upon making Bhagat a national hero instead of an international agitator of social justice, they are only murdering the values for which he gave up his life, with a smile and lots of hope.

Alas, it’s a different world now. And what a shame the world is.

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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

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