Sep 272010


Today is Bhagat Singh’s Birth Anniversary. Had he been alive, he would have been 103 years old.

What do we really know about him? And, this is more from legends than from facts:
a) He was a revolutionary who believed that violent means were acceptable to overthrow an unjust Government
b) He bombed the Delhi Assembly to protest against the Raj.
c) He was hanged by the British when he was about 24.
d) He composed Rang De Basanti Chola & Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna

Let’s look at each of these in turn
He was a revolutionary – Yes he was. The era that he was growing up (he was born in 1907) was an exciting and charged one. When he was 10 (1917), the Russian Empire made way for the Soviet Union – A communist state where everyone was equal (at least theoretically). When he was 12 (1919) the British Empire unleashed its might on Baisaki Day (April 13th 1919) at Jallianwallah Bagh against an unarmed gathering of worshipers – firing non stop and killing over a 1000 people. It was also the post first world war era – with the labour movement across the world (western world) rising up. It was a time when a young man from a progressive family – a family that discarded the stifling strictures & rituals of Hinduism, as it existed in those days, became Arya Samaji‘s that:

“….unequivocally condemns idolatry, animal sacrifices, ancestor worship, priestcraft, the caste system, the sati system for widows, inequality of women, untouchability and child marriages, on the grounds that all these lacked Vedic sanction. It aims to be a universal organisation based on the authority of the Vedas. “

It may not seem like a big deal today – but, at that time the very concept was revolutionary. Over and above that, Bhagat Singh’s family were involved in the Ghadar (revolutionary) movement. Bhagat Singh himself considered the leader of this movement, Kartar Singh Sarabha, to be his hero.

If i had to label him – I would call him a revolutionary inspired by Communism and its ideals; as compared to Subhash Chandra Bose – who was more impressed with the discipline of early Fascism. This is not to value judge either -they lived in a different time from ours – and their ideals were borne out of the circumstances of their time, not ours.

But the label itself is too narrow. If I truly had to describe him I would say Communist, Anti Communal, Anti Caste, Feminist (his empathy for the burden borne by women was phenomenal), Nationalist – possibly, in that order.

He bombed the Assembly to protest against the Raj– yes he did, and no he didn’t. The bomb was symbolic rather than aiming at casualties. No one died in the bombings. His aim was

“to create a loud noise, so that the deaf hear. “

The bombing was not to call for the Raj to disappear – though it may have been part of the overall plan – rather it was  to call for the repeal of some very draconian anti-labour legislation embodied in the Public Safety Bill and Trades Dispute Bill.  We tend to forget that the British Raj was an Imperial Power – that captured colonies for cheap raw materials, cheap labour and a captive market. The labour movement – which is all but dead now – was, by definition, anti Imperial. So was the Bomb.

He was hung by the British when he was 24 – yes he was.

He composed Rang De Basanti Chola & Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna – He popularised it. However, legend is vague on whether he composed it. It is vaguer on who could have composed it -Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna  is most often attributed to  Ram Prasad Bismil aka Bismil Azimabadi , there is no such attribution for Rang De Basanti.  But, the men of that era – were not really into silly things like IPR – they had far more important things like revolution to plan. And, lyrics and poetry were a good way of getting their message across

Other facts to know about Bhagat Singh

  • He was an atheist
  • He was opposed to the Hindu Mahasabha – the forerunner of today’s BJP.  He infact had issues with Lala Lajpat Rai for associating with the Hindu Mahasabha, in turn Lala Lajpat Rai labelled him a Russian Agent. Which is even more ironical because it was the death of Lala Lajpat Rai that brought things to a boil as far as revolutionary activity in Punjab was considered.

It is sad that when we remember Shaheed Bhagat Singh on his birth anniversary – if at all we do – we see him as a one dimensional figure – who bombed the assembly, who opposed non-violence (he didn’t – he just thought that it wont get the job done), and who died young. The Man was far more complex and far more interesting than that.

I wonder, what would have happened if he hadn’t been hung. Would he have led a United Communist Party in an Independent India ?

And finally, for those of you who are interested – an excerpt of his last speech from Kuldeep Nayar’s book “The Life & Trial of Bhagat Singh” – found on Google Books.

Worth Reading –

The Jail Notebook & other Writings by Bhagat Singh

Why I am an Atheist – by Bhagat Singh

The Trial of Bhagat Singh – in the Indian Law Journal

Bhagat Singh’s writings against communalism and untouchability – by Irfan Habib

Bhagat Singh and the Revolutionary Movement – by Niraja Rao

Bhagat Singh and the Ghadar Movement– Harish K Puri

Revisiting Bhagat Singh: Ideology and Politics – Datta Desai

Bhagat Singh – wiki entry

  17 Responses to “Bhagat Singh – A life”

  1. Hello,
    its very nicely composed and very true. Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Vir Savarkar are the most neglected freedom fighters of India. We remember birthdays of Neharu, Gandhiji (nothing bad in it) but we generally fail to remember these revolutionaries almost on all the occasions. Lets salute Bhagat Singh on his 103rd Birthday.

  2. Hi Prasad
    thank you:)

    like all other things Indian, remembering dates is all that is left. Far more important to remember who they were and what they stood for.
    Bhagat Singh would have been at the forefront of eradicating untouchability.
    At the forefront for rights for women – the state that he came from has the highest female foeticide in the country.
    He would have been at the forefront of worker’s rights
    He would have been at the forefront of land reform – had that happened Punjab may have remained united .

    He needs to be remembered for what he stood for – September 27th and March 23rd are only dates 🙁

  3. Bhagat Singh was a communist…a fad in those days…had he be given his time to retrospect, with all his ideals intact? I might feel he would regret..Anyhow….

    Dates..and that is all that we have got…

    Thanks for this beautiful piece…it was just like reading my unwritten thoughts…

    • he was also very, very, young…. it is the time to be a Communist 🙂
      But, he also believed passionately in social equality, upliftment of the poor, and women’s rights.
      a lot of it was delivered by the constitution – but, it’s implementation is another story!!
      i believe, and i might be wrong, that had he lived – Punjab may not have been partitioned – his personality may have ensured that. But, that is assuming he came into the mainstream political space and didn’t remain in the Revolutionary phase …

  4. thank you for putting it in the right perspective

  5. A nicely written post with a real essence of Rang De Basanti. History is undeniable so are the facts. Being an aggressive man Bhagat Singh could have brought freedom to this nation much earlier than it really came. I won’t criticize Gandhiji on his birthday but Bhagat Singh was much better fighter that Him.

    BTW Nice template.

  6. Harini,

    Thoughtful and well researched write up. Thanks for taking the effort. Information and rationale analysis of past history is necessary.

  7. From my lenses, it was perhaps unavoidable that our founding fathers to be “not” influenced by Communism.
    And though, I am against this “idea” of putting equality before freedom, yet I understand.

    Yet, I would dare to raise a moral and ethical question. We do cloak “terrorism” under the guise of “revolution”, but is it justified?

    I am no one to judge, but whats the difference between ULFA of Assam, who believe Assam is a colony of India, and thus resorted to killing innocent “Indians”, and our revolutionaries who used violence.
    You might say, Bhagat Singh never really did kill anyone. True, but then, his contemporaries did.
    I do respect Bhagat Singh(a bit uneasy because he was a Communist) and his courage, yet as the days pass, I increasingly believe democratic means (talks, swadeshi movement, boycott movement,picketing,processions,civil disobedience, incidentally all of them were first crystallised by Bal Gangadhar Tilak during 1904-07 and not Gandhi) are the civilized methods. (Take a look, at revolutions in Libya where civilian looting is taking place)

  8. desh ka asali hero bhagat singh………….. JAI HIND

  9. I am inspired by this article. It is reay nice to know about our freedom fighter Sir Bhagat Singh in this artice. Its true we our reminded of many other freedom fighters & have certain judgements about each one of them– based on what we are told & exposed to by media, elders,books & so on.
    for eg: we associate Mahatma Gandhi with non-vioence, Lal-Bal-Pal with Swadeshi movement & so on. Its nice to reopen history & know more about such personalities after closing our History books in school.

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