Chandra Shekhar Azad né Tiwari grew up in an extremely poor household but one that observed Brahmanical strictures. While living in Bombay he wouldn’t eat food cooked by fellow labourers. He had initially decided to live off dry snacks until he could buy his own provisions and vessels for cooking.

His attempts to learn cooking, however, ended miserably. He was either unable to start the cooking fire or would add too much water to the dough. With no way out, he exculpated that he had already eaten the food cooked by an outcaste labourer and therefore eating in a hotel would not be any different. Nevertheless, he remained a strict vegetarian.

Some years later, Azad’s associate Bhagwandass Mahour was puzzled to find him eating eggs and asked him: “Panditji yaha kya?” (What is this Panditji?). Azad replied: “Ande mein koi harz nahi hai. Vaigyanikon ne ise fal jaisa bataya hai” (There is no problem with eating eggs. Scientists have likened it to a fruit).

Mahour knew that “egg is like a fruit” was Bhagat Singh’s argument. Mahour reparteed that if an egg was a fruit then a hen could be nothing less than a tree. Bhagat who was present at the time burst out laughing and commended Mahour on his wit. Azad, embarrassed at being caught in the act, interjected with annoyance: “Chal be, ek to anda khila raha hai, aur upar se baatein bana raha hai” (Get lost, one you are feeding me eggs, and other, you are talking smart).

Azad and Bhagat would often jest about marriage and death. While planning the assassination of John Saunders, the Lahore Police Superintendent, Azad and Bhagat Singh would do a morning reconnaissance of his office and would find several school and college girls hurrying past. Azad would slyly ask Bhagat, “Is there a fair lady who would marry our Ranjit?” and burst out laughing.

Ranjit was the party name for Bhagat, who would respond with a sparkle: “Mahashay ji it will be you who will get me married.” Marriage being an allegorical reference to covenant with death. Azad on his part claimed that he was married to his “Bamtul Bukhara”, as he affectionately called his Mauser pistol, adding that till the time he had Bamtul Bukhara no one would be able to arrest him alive.

Azad and Bhagat, the two founders of the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Party (1928) had made a pact with death to free India from the British rule. They shared a deep bond of friendship. It was Bhagat’s influence that had trounced some of Azad’s Brahmanical prohibitions which he had grown up with. And it was Azad on whom Bhagat depended for his experience with organising actions that saved the lives of their fellow revolutionaries on several occasions.

Contrasting figures

These anecdotes also bring into relief Azad’s and Bhagat’s contrasting personalities, referents to a way of being that escapes analysis when using the present-day political binary of left and right wing. Azad imagined himself as a patriot “warrior ascetic”, styled after Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s literary ascetic Satyananda in Ananadmath, and the “karmayogis” of Aurobindo Ghosh’s Bhawani Mandir. He saw himself as being in the long line of Indian revolutionary tradition going back to the Revolt of 1857 and shouted “Bharat Mata ki Jai” while being caned for participating in Gandhian Satyagrah in 1921.

Even after his association with Bhagat, Azad never became an atheist. He performed sandhya every evening, wore his sacred thread, and observed brahmacharya until his death. He was first a revolutionary and then a socialist. He did not care for intellectual minutiae, and neither did he “write” himself into “history” with essays, pamphlets or memoirs.

In contrast, Bhagat’s imagination was nurtured by Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Maxim Gorky’s Mother, Upton Sinclair’s Cry for Justice, AJ Sack’s Birth of Democracy in Russia, and life stories of the Russian revolutionaries like Vera Figner and Lenin, Irish heroes such as McSwinney and De Valera and Italian leaders, Garibaldi and Mazzini. Bhagat came from a radical milieu and his introduction to socialism had further radicalised him. He was the one to popularise “Inquilab Zindabad” as the revolutionary slogan when he bombed the Delhi Legislative Assembly in 1929.

When studying male revolutionaries, scholars and academics tends to focus on examining their “ideology”. That is, the search is for the intellectual, the extraordinary, and the exceptional – as opposed to the mundane and the everyday. This has led to the neglect of the study of the revolutionaries’ everyday lives unless one studies female revolutionaries.

This disregard for the revolutionaries’ quotidian lives is also a consequence of subtle but deeply gendered presumptions regarding their inner lives – lives that were led in familial spaces and therefore presumed to be feminine, and thereby believed to be politically inconsequential. In contrast were their sensational revolutionary actions – heroic and awe-inspiring, that is, masculinised, and therefore believed to be “events” worthy of scholarly attention.

However, as these anecdotes demonstrate, the revolutionaries were really “visible” in their banter, ruminations, and in everything else that appeared as having no bearing on their revolutionary self but, in effect, had everything to do with it.

The real unifier

An examination of the inner lives of the revolutionaries inadvertently also complicates the popular and historiographical understanding that the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association was a revolutionary party held together by socialist ideology. The insertion of the word “socialist” in their party’s title; Bhagat Singh’s writings, especially his essays “Why I am an Atheist” and “An Appeal to the Young Political Workers”, where he urged the young people to read Marx and Lenin, undertake mass propaganda, and elucidated the meaning of revolution as freedom from bondage of capitalism and imperial wars; and the later writings of Bhagat’s associates Shiv Verma, Ajoy Ghosh, Satyabhakt (all of whom later became members of Communist Party of India) lend credence to our understanding of HSRA as being a socialist outfit.

However, given how different Azad and Bhagat were in their orientation, it was really their friendship and their covenant with death for attaining swaraj (self-rule) that held them together. Their friendship and dream of liberating India from British rule sustained their underground life, made it easier to bear hunger, stay warm through cold winter nights and keep going in face of state repression. Thus, we need to go beyond neat essentialisms in which the lives of the revolutionaries come wrapped and turn to their inner lives to understand the revolutionary ontology, for Azad and Bhagat were friends-in-arms in more than one way.

Aparna Vaidik is Associate Professor of History, Ashoka University, and the author of Waiting for Swaraj: Inner Lives of Indian Revolutionaries.