S.Irfan Habib is a historian of modern India and a public intellectual. He has worked as a historian of science, particularly in India. His interest in Bhagat Singh goes back to 1974 when he chanced upon an article on him by Prof. Bipan Chandra. Habib has delved deep into the life of Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary ideologue of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. His book, To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and his Comrades, focuses on the political philosophy of Bhagat Singh and his plan of action.
What is the reason for a biography of Bhagat Singh? He is a virtually forgotten figure these days, even for old timers. How important was he in his times to his contemporaries?
We need his biography because there are so many aspects to his personality as a thinker, which are not so well known. When you decide to write about him, you really don’t have to write about him or his life as an individual but about him as a thinker. He left behind an intellectual legacy that needs to be recorded. If you say he is almost forgotten that is not true. He is one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in the country and I have said this earlier and I have written also about it that after Gandhi I think, he is the only one who commands respect and adulation from North to South and East to West.
No other name evokes such enthusiasm and respect anywhere in the country, after Gandhi. What is forgotten is his intellectual legacy. We don’t care to read what he actually wrote. We only celebrate him as a martyr. His martyrdom is good but that’s incomplete. We need to go beyond that.
We only know Bhagat Singh as a freedom fighter, how was he as a person to his friends and acquaintances?
Bhagat Singh as a young person was, of course, a revolutionary, a thinker and a great freedom fighter; that’s how we remember him but he was also a normal young man who enjoyed life like any young man. He died at the age of 23 so he was not even in his mid-20s.
He had all the traits, good and bad, any young man is expected to have. For example, he had likes and dislikes. He was very fond of watching films and of Charlie Chaplin. There is an interesting instance. Bhagat Singh and his other friends wanted to watch Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most of the time they had no money. Whatever money they had they used for food. So going to a film was a luxury. Somebody like Chandra Shekhar Azad who was not very keen to watch or to read anything like this, generally dissuaded them from wasting money on such hobbies. Bhagat Singh took the risk of gathering some money and instead of using it for food he took some of his friends to watch Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
That was a risk because Chandra Shekhar Azad was a tough task master. This is what Bhagat Singh used to do. He loved rasgullas, that was his great weakness. Anybody who wanted to make him happy used to feed him rasgullas. Then he was a theatre person who organised plays in Lahore in his college. The plays used to be on national history, social themes, etc.
Is there any particular incident that made him a revolutionary or was the violence a part of his belief just as most believed Gandhi’s way would not work?
He did not come into the freedom struggle, did not become a revolutionary because of any particular incident. Of course, Jallianwala Bagh was a major factor because he was just 12-13 when it happened, which affected him strongly. He went there with his uncle and his father, picked up the soil of Jallianwala Bagh and kept that soil with him and vowed that he would take revenge one day for this massacre.
The point is, he was born in a family of freedom fighters so he inherited the sentiment against the British. His uncle Sardar Ajit Singh was a revolutionary of the Ghadar party. He organised a large number of farmers before he went into exile. Later he spent all his life outside India mobilising support against the British, travelling around the world. He came back to die on August 15, 1947, the day India got Independence. He died in Calcutta.
His father Sardar Kishan Singh was a Congress worker. Another uncle, Swaran Singh, was also behind bars for several years, fighting the British. He died of tuberculosis very early in life. So there was this background which he inherited. It was not just a sudden incident that prompted him to join the freedom struggle.
How would he react if he were around today and saw how this generation looks at him?
These are very hypothetical questions. History is not decided on them but I say that had he been around, he would have been a pensioner of the government like so many other freedom fighters and his colleagues Shiv Verma, Batukeshwar Dutt, Jaidev Kapoor. They lived till the 70s, 80s. They engaged themselves in many social political activities. They became party members. Most joined the Communist Party and some the Congress. So they became politically involved but nothing more than that.
Bhagat Singh is remembered today because he achieved martyrdom at a very young age. He was the one who actually wrote extensively. Many of them didn’t write much. If you remember somebody, it is not just as someone who was hanged by the British. That leads you nowhere but with Bhagat Singh that is not true. If we want to remember him today, which we should, it is because he has left behind a corpus of writing. That’s how we should remember him today. That’s what he wanted all of us to do.
But what, would you say as a historian, was the quality of his writing and what did he stress?
Most of his writings were about establishing an egalitarian society, fighting inequality, untouchability, global imperialism. He didn’t confine himself to India. He was equally bothered about other oppressed societies. For example, he spoke about subjugation in Africa, European imperialism all over the world. So, he wanted all oppressed societies to rise against these oppressors.
After the Bolshevik revolution, Bolshevism inspired him because it was seen as a great success in the fight against oppression. That was one example he and others in those times wanted to emulate. That was his inspiration. One may find these ideologies irrelevant today but in his time they were inspiring ideologies.
What sort of find connection would he have made with the present generation in this environment?
He stood for certain things which are relevant even now, his fight against untouchability and for egalitarian society, his fight against communalism. He was passionate on this issue of secularism. He wanted a society that lived in harmony and religion had no place in that. He declared himself an atheist but he knew that religion was central to most people. He wanted them to keep it to their personal lives. All these issues are relevant. If we want to remember him, remember him on these issues. Don’t see him as a martyr but as someone passionately engaged with these issues. We are still coping with them.
How influential were socialist thought and Lenin on early Indian revolutionaries?
Socialism did make an impact on the early 20th century revolutionaries. The Hindustan Republican Army, a predecessor of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, expressed socialist republican sentiments in its manifestos but they were not as articulate or committed as Bhagat Singh and his associates. Most of them actually evolved as socialist thinkers as they studied, because one should understand that they were living in a society which was colonised. British colonialism did not allow access to most of this literature. It reached them clandestinely. It was imported. It came from abroad and was quietly circulated among them.
So it was not easy to access. For example, we had a library in Lahore called Dwarkadas library and it had a librarian, Raja Ram Shastri, who was very helpful. He used to gather the literature they wanted quietly and supplied to them even in prison. There was a bookshop called Ramkrishna and Sons in Lahore which was again very useful for them. He used to gather all sorts of books for them.
They had access to the writings of Marx and Lenin. The earliest translations in English were accessible to them?
Yes. Look at his prison diary. The books he read in prison, the notes he took clearly brings out what books he was reading. For example, he was not only reading political writings, he read Engels, Marx, he read Rabindra Nath Tagore, he read Rumi. His reading list is very diverse.
Rumi in Persian or in English?
He read in English and Urdu. And Tagore he read in Hindi and English. He noted all sorts of things which he liked in his diary.
And that at the age of 23?
At the age of 20-21. At the age of 23 he died.
Just in 2-3 years.
When you look at his writings in prison, like ‘Why I am an Atheist?’ written in October 1930. He wrote a detailed pamphlet for young Indians in February 1931, his last before he was hanged. These two writings clearly show the impact of his reading. What he read actually was used by him while interpreting politics, society, his own belief in god because ‘Why I am an atheist’ is not just harangue. It’s a philosophical engagement with the idea of god.
It is not just a pamphlet that abuses god. He is engaging with this whole idea or philosophy of god, whether we really need him. These are issues which he philosophically engaged with after reading about them.
What was his view on the caste system within Punjab?
He was extremely critical of the caste system as a whole. He wrote a beautiful, strongly worded article in May 1928 in Kirti, a paper that came out from Amritsar. It was brought out by Sohan Singh Josh, a Kirti Kisan party leader, and Bhagat Singh was associated with this paper for some time.
Most of his political writings in 1927-28-29 are actually available in Kirti and that article was a serious castigation of untouchability. He was very critical of political leaders, one of whom was Madan Mohan Malviya. He said ‘we have great leaders like Madan Mohan Malviya who claim to be great upholders of equality; they go to meetings, embrace untouchables in public, go home and have a bath with their clothes on. If this sentiment continues we can’t fight untouchability.’ He had no trouble naming established senior leaders and he did that again and again.
How was his understanding of the British as imperialists?
He knew imperialism was a political belief, part of the exploitative ideology aimed at oppression of the poor, the marginalised, the weak. He looked at imperialism as an ideology to suppress, oppress and exploit the poor. The British were doing exactly the same. People who saw virtue in imperialism were mistaken.
How did Gandhi’s Congress line emerge as the dominant path? He overshadowed Bose and his INA, the trade union movement post-World War I and the various rebellions before them.
One needs to keep in mind that the Congress was a mainstream political party. For years it dominated the politics in the country. It had nationwide presence. It began with the support of the British in the beginning because it was established as a safety valve by them. Lord Dufferin gave a statement in the beginning itself, there were people who actually didn’t talk about freedom from the British.
Congress continued to be part of a political sentiment, raising demands about what Indians want, so that imperialism continued peacefully, the government could run peacefully. This was the idea for several years.
Later on a group within the Congress said this ‘Pray & Please’ policy will not work. We need to be aggressive. So there were groups of activists within the Congress and the moderates from 1909 onward, Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal and many others—they came up with aggressive ideas.
During all this, groups outside Congress, too, were active but they were all regional groups in different parts of India. They didn’t have a presence like Congress had. That was its advantage from day one. It spread all over India. No other party could do that till 1947. That way Congress was a dominant political power but that doesn’t mean other groups didn’t have a role.
I often say that people like Bhagat Singh, revolutionary groups like HSRA or Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) established by Bhagat Singh in 1926 in Lahore, which was a public platform, had a huge presence in north India for 4-5 years.
The Civil Disobedience movement of Mahatma Gandhi in 1930-31 when it was being planned, the Congress was scared because this movement was not gathering support in north India. Most of the young had joined Naujawan Bharat Sabha. That is how much they were enthused by this new platform. If you look at the archival file you will see that most of the political meetings organised in this region were joint meetings of Congress and Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Punjab, Western UP and Rajasthan. This clearly indicates how popular they were.
Of course, they added to the strength of Mahatma Gandhi by joining the Congress meetings. Congress cannot say they didn’t have a role nor could NBS; they complemented each other. It was a joint struggle where each group had their role. This is only one example; you can find others all over India.
What made Civil Disobedience the way of protest against the British rather than armed rebellion?
First of all, armed rebellion is not an easy choice to make. If people have an easy alternative, and an alternative which convinces them that it will achieve something good then they join it. A leader like Mahatma Gandhi from 1915-16 onward engaged people and identified himself with their sentiments generally. The issue taken up by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930-31 Civil Disobedience—Salt Tax—was a very popular issue. Salt was costly though it was like air and water—essential things. Gandhi knew the salt tax would bring poor and rich together on one platform. And he used that very effectively.
Look at the 78 people he chose; most were from Sabarmati Ashram. They were not normal Congressmen. They were people trained by Gandhi to pursue non-violence, satyagraha. He knew that Chauri Chaura had set a bad example for the non-cooperation movement because there was violence. He was not really prepared for one more round like that.
So these 78 people, who later became 80, walked for 246 miles from Ahmedabad to Dandi. Why did he go on foot? Because he wanted people to connect with him. Going by train didn’t make sense. As a politician he knew the most effective way and time was on his side. There was no hurry.
He connected with people, mobilising them on the way. There was no woman among the 78. Again, people raised this question. Later, women like Sarojini Naidu joined and led this protest. The British used violence against protesters and they stood facing the lathis. Sarojini Naidu led that.
The movement was against the British. Most of the symbols of the Raj—from the neighbourhood police to the court-led class II civil servant and almost all the army garrisons were full of Indians. What was the attitude of nationalists towards the thousands of Indians who were not only in the employ of the Raj but were instruments of colonial power?
This is something normal because people become oppressors of their own. They become part of an institution and colonialism was an institution. It was a structure that co-opted people from the local population so there is nothing new in that. It happens all over the world.
If you go to medieval times, what was the Mughal army comprised of? They didn’t just have Muslim soldiers, there were Hindus too. How many Muslims came here? Hardly any, especially in the early times. If you go by the ideology propagated today that Muslim rule was oppressive, they just killed Hindus, who were those soldiers killing Hindus? They too were Hindus, all mercenaries. They were paid to carry out attacks, didn’t see themselves as Hindu or Muslim, they saw themselves as people associated with particular bodies.
You feel Indians who were employees of the British…
They were all mercenaries serving the existing government. Who killed people in Jallianwala Bagh? Indian soldiers. There is nothing unusual in that. People like Chander Singh Garhwali who refused to fire on protesters in Balochistan are rare. He refused to fire in the civil disobedience movement. He said, I can’t fire on these protesters. But these instances are few. Most actually followed orders.
How many people participated in the freedom movement after World War I till independence?
There is no record. Nobody has ever bothered to give the numbers. Of course, they are in the millions. How to identify? People at public meetings who came to listen to political leaders, they were all participants and there were meetings all over India. So it is very difficult to estimate.
How many people were killed in freedom movement, how one can gather a reliable estimate?
I don’t think we can have a number; reliable or not is a different thing. Thousands of people were killed in different ways. A large number were hanged. You can compile a list if you want. Those records should be in a file but I don’t think anybody has bothered to put it together. Numbers are not so important. People upheld the cause.
What does the phrase nationalist historian mean? Both early Marxist historians and today’s right wing ones claim to be nationalist.
It depends how you look at the idea of nationalism because history writing or your profile as historian comes later. First of all, you need to define what nationalism means. You may define nationalism in very narrow terms, or in a composite way where you put forward an inclusive idea of India. So when you write you write with this inclusive idea, whatever history, whatever past, you would have that sentiment in mind.
If you are selective, nationalism is confined to one community, religion, culture, etc., again you will look at the past from that perspective. Your present, past and future will be defined according to this idea of India. Historians are also humans. They are not really very different. They also think in similar ways. Those who think beyond the narrow confines of their community, caste, religion etc., they have a perspective. They may be Marxist, they may be liberal progressives. So history was written from these different perspectives from the 1930s-40s onward.
How did you chance upon Bhagat Singh? What inspired you to write on Bhagat Singh?
It came up in the 1970s. I had finished my post-graduation in 1974 and I was looking for an interesting subject to carry my historical research forward. I came upon an article in Teen Murti Library written by Bipan Chandra, called a ‘History of Revolutionary Terrorists in 1920s’. After reading that I found the article talked about Bhagat Singh as a great thinker with lot of ideas, not in detail because it was a small article and he also had not done any research that way.
Whatever little he could gather he put together in that article and that was the first time I read something in detail about Bhagat Singh. That prompted me to take it forward, not as a PhD. subject in the beginning. Finally, I decided, okay, let me pursue it formally as a PhD programme and then I wrote a proposal and took it up. Since then, Bhagat Singh has been part of my life. He is always there, his ideas, particularly.
How did you pursue your research? How did you gather so much material?
I was lucky. In the late 70s and early 80s there were lots of contemporaries of Bhagat Singh, the family, who were still around. I could meet Shiv Verma, Manmathnath Gupta, his brother Kultar Singh who lived in Saharanpur. I could meet Jaidev Kapur, Prithvi Singh Azad, all of them contemporaries of Bhagat Singh who were around. So some sort of meaningful oral history was possible. Today that is not possible.
I spent three to four years in Teen Murti Library working with Comrade Ram Chandra every day. He headed Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Bhagat Singh’s organisation, in Lahore. He lived in Darya Ganj and was writing his own book on Naujawan Bharat Sabha. He was an old man but I used to talk to him. These were people who were part of my history project. There was huge material available in Teen Murti.
Then I got hold of the prison diary, the typescript. It was not available in Teen Murti, in the archives, anywhere. There was one professor Devendra Kaushik in JNU who went to Russia and there he met one Mitrokhin who came to India and met Kulbir Singh, brother of Bhagat Singh, who lived in Faridabad and requested him for a copy which he gave. It is a mystery why Kulbir Singh did not make it public till Mitrokhin shared it with other people. Later that diary came to Teen Murti, and to the archives, but I used the typescript which I got hold of.
The facts around him you got through other sources.
Yes, so many other books written by his contemporaries— Jatindranath Sanyal, Sachin Sanyal, Yogesh Chandra Chatterjee and many more. Bandi Jeevan was one popular book and there were many other small books written in Hindi, English, etc. Vaisampayana was a journalist, a Hindi writer. Yashpal was a novelist who wrote three volumes—Sinhavalokam and many other such books. There was Sukhdev Raj who was close to Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. He wrote a beautiful book which I got, Jab Jyoti Jagi. It was in Hindi. I still have it. It gives lots of information about the whole group and all the people, the personal lives, likes and dislikes.
Why are the Left, the Congress and the Right (RSS) trying to appropriate Bhagat Singh?
The Left claims him because they believe Bhagat Singh was a fellow traveller, if not a member of the Communist Party. The others want to use his iconic status to push forward their present politics. Most of them, particularly the right wing groups, extol him as a nationalist and a martyr. But they seldom touch upon the revolutionary, intellectual legacy he left. Obviously they find it not only incomprehensible but inconvenient as well.