For nearly two decades, Chaman Lal, a professor of Hindi literature, has been gathering information and photographs relating to freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, who was executed by the British when he was just 23. “His identity and politics as [a] socialist was very appealing to me,” said Lal.
Now, the researcher’s expansive collection has been put together in Life & Legend of Bhagat Singh (A Pictorial Volume). Lal said that most biographies focus on Bhagat Singh’s bravery and patriotism, but in the writings he found there were different reflections of the young revolutionary’s ideological moorings and perception of India as a socialist country.
Contemporary India and its young people, Lal says, must recognise Singh as a symbol of resistance against oppression, imperialism, and capitalism, and fight for a more just and equitable world.
“The victory of the recent farmers’ movement in such trying circumstances is a testament to the power of a mass radical struggle that Singh was a supporter of,” Lal said. “In fact, the main force of the movement, which came from Punjab, was definitely inspired by Bhagat Singh’s perception of India.” Lal spoke to Scroll about Bhagat Singh, resistance, and injustice. Excerpts from the interview:
Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh is exhaustive in its detail about Bhagat Singh’s life and his revolutionary activities. How did it come about?
I started collecting documents and pictures related to Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries out of my passion for the towering figures of India’s freedom struggle as early as 2005, when I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University as a professor, but I continued even after retirement. My sources were various research institutions like the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the National Archives of India, the West Bengal state archives, and even the British library through some friends.
I was mostly writing articles on Bhagat Singh, but when I got the offer to write a pictorial volume, it struck me that I could use the documents and images I have amassed over the years.
The British Communist Party’s letter extending support to Bhagat Singh and the documents related to their campaign against Singh’s death sentence was shared by Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan, who is based in London. Incidentally, he was the first to put together around 28 essays written by Bhagat Singh in a book in Punjabi in 1974. But the book did not include the famous essay “Why I am an Atheist”, which was translated into Hindi and Punjabi much later.
“Why I am an Atheist” was first translated into Tamil in 1934 by comrade P Jivanandam at the behest of social activist and politician [formally known as EV Ramasamy] Periyar, who published it in Kudai Arasu, a Tamil weekly edited by him.
In your research, which part of Bhagat Singh’s life has been the most difficult to reconstruct
Actually, most biographies of Bhagat Singh focus on his bravery, fearlessness, radical nationalism and patriotism. But I was collecting his writings which reflect his ideological moorings and perception of free India as a socialist country. His identity and politics as a socialist was very appealing to me.
I consulted a lot of interviews of his comrades preserved in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which surprisingly were ignored by most Indian scholars. Interestingly, scholars from foreign universities have consulted these interviews more than Indian scholars. I will not say it was the difficult part, rather, it was interesting but largely unexplored.
The chapter on Singh’s childhood is filled with photographs of his family, his ancestral homes, the house he was born in and more. Has there been enough effort on part of the state and Union governments to conserve these places?
Bhagat Singh was born and also died in what is now Pakistan. Only his ancestral village, Khatkar Kalan, and his cremation site near the Ferozepur border are located on the Indian side. The cremation site near Ferozepur was the one where the British cremated Bhagat Singh, [Singh’s comrades and freedom fighters] [Shivram] Rajguru and Sukhdev [Thapar] in a hurried and undignified manner. The bodies were left half burnt.
The proper cremation of the three martyrs was done in Lahore on the banks of the Ravi river. After the bodies of the three martyrs were taken from the back gate of Lahore jail by the British police on the night of March 23, the people of Lahore followed them.
The half-burnt bodies were brought back to Lahore where they made three biers, and, with a massive procession of people, they cremated the martyrs on the banks of the Ravi where [freedom fighter from Punjab] Lala Lajpat Rai was also cremated in 1928. The Tribune, in its issue of March 26, carried a front-page story on the Lahore cremation of the martyrs.
The cremation site near Ferozepur was part of Pakistan until 1965, when it was exchanged with an equal part of land on a different border. India exchanged the area with Pakistan to build a memorial as a token of remembrance for the martyrs. The memorial at Hussainiwala, near Ferozepur, was built after 1965.
Bhagat Singh’s ancestral haveli was gifted by his family to the Punjab government, which has built an impressive museum on the site. Over time, all political parties and their leaders have paid homage on Bhagat Singh’s birth or martyrdom days – September 28 and March 23.
When did you first become intrigued by Bhagat Singh?
Like many other Indian adolescents, I developed a fascination for Bhagat Singh in my childhood owing to the gallant stories I had heard at home or in school. However, it was not part of my formal education.
Later on, when I was around 20 years old, I translated several sketches of revolutionaries written by Manmathnath Gupta into Punjabi. Gupta was also a freedom fighter and a revolutionary. Although I was a student of literature, my interest in Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries continued alongside my studies and research in literature.
Sometimes I even combined the two. In fact, my PhD thesis was on the novels of Yashpal, who was Bhagat Singh’s classmate and fellow revolutionary in Lahore. Yashpal refers to Bhagat Singh in great detail in his memoirs.
As a boy, Bhagat Singh wanted to become a farmer who “sows guns”. If you would elaborate a little about this incident.
Yes, it’s a beautiful story that captures the thoughts of a child growing up at a time of political turmoil and oppression. In 1909, when Bhagat Singh was just two years old, his uncle Ajit Singh was exiled to South America. Bhagat was very attached to his uncle. The Singh family were farmers and they had shifted from Jalandhar to the newly developed district of Lyallpur to farm their allotted fertile lands.
When Bhagat was four, he accompanied his father and his father’s friend Mehta Anand Kishore one day for a stroll in their farms. Incidentally, Mehta Anand Kishore was the accused number one in the First Lahore conspiracy case relating to the Ghadar Party, which ended with the execution of so many revolutionaries including Kartar Singh Sarabha who was Bhagat’s idol.
Anyway, while the adults were talking, little Bhagat was playing in the ground pretending to sow something. When Mehta Anand Kishore asked the child what he was sowing, he responded that he was sowing guns to have a fulsome crop, so that he could get his uncle back from the Britishers. That’s it, it was the innocent fantasy of a child who felt wronged that the British had taken his uncle away from him. There is no fascination for guns here, just a boy determined to get his uncle back.
Bhagat Singh came from a family with a long history of freedom fighters. Who were some of his idols growing up?
Yes, his family had a long and continuous tradition of freedom fighters, as mentioned above. He idolised his uncle Ajit Singh for example.
Before his death at the age of 23, Bhagat Singh had become an accomplished essayist. His “Why I am An Atheist” is still widely read. As a professor of literature, what would you say about Singh’s writing?
Bhagat Singh has been praised for his writing by a more important figure than a professor of literature like me. When the poet and senior leader of the Ghadar Party, Lala Ram Saran Das, was about to publish his poetry collection Dreamland, he requested Singh to write the introduction. Singh obliged with some reluctance, writing that he was no master of literature but was merely honouring the wish of a senior revolutionary.
Yet, that introduction remains a significant essay in Singh’s oeuvre, which makes some important political observations regarding literature. Singh was very objective in his approach and was a highly talented essayist and writer.
He advised fellow revolutionary Yashpal, who was involved in the 1929 Viceroy train bomb blast, to abandon such attempts and write stories instead, telling him he was more talented in that field. His advice proved true later as Yashpal grew to be a major fiction writer of Hindi.
Singh devised ingenious ways to convey his messages to a larger audience. How did these fit into his political vision for India’s freedom movement?
Yes, Singh understood the potential of mass mobilisation in a vast country like India. This insight is probably a result of his experience of earlier revolutionary activities, and the unsuccessful violent actions of their own groups.
Radical mass movements were an important way forward for Indian freedom, and Singh realised this. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to put it into practice, but his comrades who outlived him did so by joining communist and socialist parties.
How do you think today’s youth view Bhagat Singh?
While many young people today may only view Bhagat Singh as an iconic figure known for his bravery and fearless actions, there is a significant section of youth in India, South Asia, and other parts of the world who consider him an emblem of liberation from various forms of exploitation and oppression, similar to the way [Cuban revolutionary and Marxist thinker] Che Guevara is seen as a symbol of liberation.
For these individuals, Bhagat Singh was a champion of social justice and a symbol of resistance against imperialism, capitalism, and other oppressive structures. Despite Bhagat Singh’s ideas and legacy being lesser known among the youth today, his contributions to India’s struggle for independence and his ongoing influence as a symbol of liberation and resistance should be recognised and understood by young people who seek to fight for a more equitable and just world.
If you had to recommend three books on Bhagat Singh for further reading, what would they be
The first book to mention would be Jitendranath Sanyal’s Sardar Bhagat Singh. The British banned the biography soon after it was published in May 1931. Coming from a fellow jailed revolutionary, it is an authentic account and has quite a few historic references. The book was republished 15 years later in 1946, when the provisional Indian government was formed and the remaining jailed comrades of Bhagat Singh were released.
Other than that, it is actually very difficult to shortlist three. A number of authors, including Singh’s own niece Virender Sindhu, have written excellent books on the subject.
I can also mention A G Noorani, Bipin Chandra’s introduction to Why I am an Atheist, S Irfan Habib, Kama Maclean, Chris Moffat, and Neeti Nair who just published an important research paper on Singh’s hunger strikes.