How political parties across the spectrum appropriate different versions of Bhagat Singh

Bhagat Singh’s Martyrdom Day: As political parties attempt to cash in on a limited persona of Bhagat Singh every year, his intellectual side, rational approach, radical views and atheism have largely been forgotten

Bhagat Singh
March 23 marks Bhagat Singh’s Martyrdom Day

It is to state the obvious that March 23 (Bhagat Singh’s Martyrdom Day) is a day of jostling for the many political actors who all want to cash in on the Bhagat Singh legend. Speechifying is largely devoted to eulogy, the garlanding of portraits and statues, the singing of a few songs—such are the rituals that mark the occasion.

Cut. Repeat year after year. And this has been going on for a long time indeed.

When Bhagat Singh was alive, he and his comrades struck a different course from the kind of politics the Congress under Gandhi espoused and paid for it with their lives. While they remained an inspiration right up to independence, the Congress dominated the political discourse and from the early 1930s till 1947, the issues that Gandhi had with Dr. Ambedkar and the Congress’s many issues with the Muslim League ensured that Bhagat Singh did not find too much of a place in the discourse.

 A version of his legacy

With Independence came a tentative enshrining of Bhagat Singh in the pantheon of ‘freedom fighters’. The pride of place was reserved for the many political figures of the Congress, but Bhagat Singh was not forgotten, merely presented in a limited and abridged manner. That being the case, the many writings of Bhagat Singh, especially the important piece ‘Why I am an Atheist’, went largely unnoticed. That allowed a certain version of the Bhagat Singh legend to gain currency.

Also read: Chandigarh airport to be re-named after Bhagat Singh: Modi in Mann Ki Baat

Popular cinema and theatre almost always emphasize the sacrifice and deshbhakti aspects of Bhagat Singh’s personality. The plot that killed the police official John Saunders, the escape thereafter and the daring Delhi Assembly bomb blast sometime later all figure as climactic events in such representations.

Consider Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed (1965), the Bobby Deol and Ajay Devgn versions (2002) or even the slightly more radical Rang De Basanti (2006). These events are the pivot of all these films. The reading, the writing, the stunningly creative way in which he used the court case (after the Delhi Assembly bomb blast) to make his case against British rule and call for justice are mere footnotes. The cinematic demands excitement of the edge-of-the-seat kind. And that is what plays out, all too well.

This being the case, Bhagat Singh’s intellectual side has been completely eclipsed. His being struck down in the prime of his youth when serving the nation-in-the-making cannot but strike a chord and that is largely what has found emphasis.

This state of affairs is what has prevailed since independence.

In the Communist discourse

In Punjab, Bhagat Singh remains a heroic figure and since many in his immediate family are based there, the Punjabi view of the Bhagat Singh legend is perhaps more wholesome than the rest of the country. But there is a certain limitedness even there. For instance, the turban-clad Bhagat Singh persona is emphasized more than the Trilby hat-wearing one.

This representation in a state where Sikhism is the important religious belief has ensured that Bhagat Singh’s Sikh identity is the dominant one. Riding on this, during the dark days of terrorism, Khalistani organizations and ideologues laid claim to the Bhagat Singh legacy on the contestable claim that he had become an observing Sikh in his last days. The legacy of the self-confessed atheist was completely subverted.

Perhaps in response to that, communist organizations began to incorporate him into their discourse far more vehemently than earlier and today, leftists lay claim to Bhagat Singh given his socialist leanings. The organization that he and others founded was called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) after all, and his professed atheism was also in keeping with Marxist doctrine. But this is definitely a relatively recent phenomenon. In the immediate decades following 1947, Bhagat Singh did not quite form part of the Communist pantheon which revolved round Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

A persona, truncated

In recent years, organizations of a saffron hue have made him part of their discourse. They have dwelt on his family’s Arya Samaj links and the fact that two of his siblings fought elections on the Jan Sangh ticket many decades ago. As earlier, his atheism has been forgotten. Their motivation to try and make him part of their discourse is easily discernible. In his brief political career, Bhagat Singh chose to stay away from the Congress and subtly using his supposed anti-Congressism to derive political advantage is the reason. 

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which came into power in Punjab in 2022 decreed that Bhagat Singh’s portrait should adorn all government offices. Its chief minister, Bhagwant Singh Mann has sported a basanti turban for some years now. It is the latest unabashed attempt to cash in on the Bhagat Singh look popularized by kitschy portraits and popular cinema. Beyond the symbolic, the AAP has done little to engage with Bhagat Singh.

Also read: Govt offices to have only photos of Dr Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh: Kejriwal

With this latest move by the AAP, the circle is now complete. Almost every sort of political outfit has attempted to cash in on his legacy. That a new-age political outfit like the AAP, with its emphasis on ‘development’ and ‘delivery’, too only emphasizes a limited Bhagat Singh persona is telling.

A life that could have been

Why has Bhagat Singh remained truncated? Why has the fullness of his personality never received the airing that it deserves? The obvious answer is to blame the political sphere for that. But that is only half the story.

The uncomfortable truth is that we need to look within. Cast a cold eye at the breadth of Bhagat Singh’s reading and of his writings. Their expansiveness is striking. He held forth on a variety of matters and constantly sought to refine his views on them. And when one engages with his writings deeply, his questioning attitude, his rational approach and his radical views in many aspects are clearly visible.

Consider ‘Why I am an Atheist’, ‘Students and Politics’, ‘Communal Problem and its Solution’ and ‘The Problem of Untouchability’. Well-argued, thoughtful and demonstrating a political thinking that was beginning to mature, they are mere glimpses of a life that could have been.

Also, consider the facts of Bhagat Singh’s life. He was barely out of his teens when he independently made the decision to dedicate himself to the national cause. He disregarded his father’s advice to plead for mercy when on death row. Here was a person who knew his own mind. And unabashedly marched to his own tune.

The Bhagat Singh (limited edition) model

Would a conservative society that seeks more and more sheep to add to the conformist fold be comfortable with an individual like that? Decidedly not. That being the case, one cannot help but conclude that Bhagat Singh makes the Average John-Jani-Janardhan uncomfortable. An independent thinker cannot but be a thorn in the flesh. Societies prefer to retain the status quo but tactically employ the veneer of revolutionary thought to mask that.

Presto! It is in such circumstances that the Bhagat Singh (limited edition) model comes into play.  To have a figure like Bhagat Singh in the vicinity to speak of with pride, but to disregard his radical ideas is the model that is in eternal service because it is comfortable. It is also dishonest, but no one wants to admit it. The conspiracy of silence that we all participate in keeps the status quo in operation, year after year.

This March 23 when you scan news reports of Bhagat Singh’s Martyrdom Day being celebrated by sundry politicians, resist the temptation to dismiss them with a harrumph of cynicism. Take a deep breath instead and look within. More than the cynical cliché-spouting politician, it is we who are to blame. To paraphrase the pamphlet that the HSRA released after Saunders’ assassination, it is we, the deaf, who have to find the ability to hear!