By the time Bhagat Singh was executed on the 23rd of March, 1931, his popularity had fulfilled the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’s dream of mass mobilisation. However, the irony is that while Bhagat Singh considered himself a minor and temporary component of a larger revolution, his name and image have become synonymous with revolutionary freedom struggle in India.

As a result, there has been a rich and valuable collection of scholarship in recent times that has looked at Bhagat Singh’s oeuvre from literary and historical positions. However, Yadukrishnan PT in his book, The Noblest Fallen: Making and Unmaking of Bhagat Singh’s Political Thought, identifies two different interpretations of Bhagat Singh’s intellectual and political trajectories.

The first involves finding a genesis to Bhagat Singh’s later political thoughts – one such case being him witnessing the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The second interpretation involves acknowledging the changes in Bhagat Singh’s thoughts over time, with Marxism being the logical end to this evolution. While the former is easily problematised in the introduction, Yadukrishnan’s project in this book is to challenge the teleological approach to the interpretation of Bhagat Singh’s political trajectory. In order to achieve this, he divides this book into three themes: the relationship of revolution with atheism, with death, and with political violence.

Mapping the contradictions

Yadukrishnan not only addresses these thematic aspects, but also highlights the methodological concerns that underlie his disagreements with other contemporary scholars of Bhagat Singh. Referring to Chris Moffat’s understanding of contradictions in Bhagat Singh’s corpus, of which many are lost, Yadukrishnan writes:

“Coming to the more basic, and grave concern that he expresses with the methodology, ie, pertaining to the fragmented and contradictory nature of the available written texts, it has been attempted in this study to not read instances of contradictions as being necessarily detrimental to understanding the politics of Bhagat Singh. On the contrary, these ‘productive contradictions’ have been used to demarcate certain shifts in the writings of Singh, throughout the years…”

What is interesting in Yadukrishnan’s approach is that the contradictions that may exist in Bhagat Singh’s writings are used to highlight the numerous traditions that he adopts his worldview from. The result of this is that Singh cannot be labelled a Marxist revolutionary in a simplistic manner. For example, Singh’s understanding of death went through significant changes from his early spiritual revolutionary phase to his later socialist phase.

The spiritual revolutionaries perceived death at the hands of the enemy as a political act and believed that sacrifice is an end in itself. Yadukrishnan shows that death at the hands of the enemy for Bhagat Singh was not sufficient as a political tool. Death and sacrifice need to be a means towards moving forward with revolutionary aims and mass mobilisation. In Bhagat Singh’s own words, “we want to get maximum value for our lives”.

Redefining revolution

What is equally fascinating in this book is that Bhagat Singh’s political thought in prison is not presented as a mature logical conclusion to his trajectory. Yadukrishnan presents two important arguments for this. First, he argues that Singh’s vision of revolution is a “perpetual refashioning of old order”, implying a continuous evolution of thought. In a similar vein, Yadukrishnan focuses on a letter Bhagat Singh wrote a day before his execution.

Singh here contemplates on his desire to live and questions whether he could have achieved more for the revolution by being outside of prison. The most important aspect of this letter is Bhagat Singh’s capacity for change and perhaps an acknowledgment of regret without deviating from his revolutionary goals. In effect, Yadukrishnan interprets Bhagat Singh as a person capable of continuous change without any teleological ends.

There is one aspect of this book which I wish Yadukrishnan had expanded on. While he sensitively charts Singh’s transition from the romantic revolutionary of novels like Anandmath to a socialist position, Yadukrishnan does not examine sufficiently Singh’s influences from other philosophical schools. For example, what are the important philosophical ideas from Emma Goldman’s anarchism and Tolstoy’s theology? What traditions do they separately belong to? How does Singh synthesise these two in his political rhetoric, grounded in local socio-political concerns?

While Yadukrishnan thoughtfully shows why Bhagat Singh’s political trajectory should not be interpreted as teleological, perhaps examining these questions might have provided more insight on how Bhagat Singh is redefining revolution. These concerns of mine, however, were made possible because of a considerate and insightful book that tries to humanise Bhagat Singh at a time when complex historical figures are being appropriated and glorified for political gains. Perhaps Yadukrishnan sums this up aptly when he writes:

“One can only speculate what Singh must have felt during the highly romanticised walk to the gallows. But the fact that he wrote relentlessly about it from prison, and that he was not afraid to admit any change in his outlook of the world in his time there, helps immensely.”

The Noblest Fallen: Making and Unmaking of Bhagat Singh’s Political Thought, Yadukrishnan PT, Manipal Universal Press.