The Revolutionary vs the Calendar Icon: Rediscovering Bhagat Singh

“When you deny a person their basic rights, how can you demand political rights,” Bhagat Singh asks in a 1928 essay.

6 min read

(This story was originally published on 28 September 2016. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the martyrdom day of Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.)

In 2006, a movie titled Rang de Basanti was released in India. The film followed the travails of a bunch of otherwise wayward university students who end up killing a corrupt minister – mobilised by the story of a handful of Indian revolutionaries (Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla Khan) they were playing on screen for a movie. The highly impassioned dose of infantile radicalism drove us to frenzy. For many Bhagat Singh and gang suddenly became ‘cool’ – cool enough to wear on t-shirts and wrist bands.

History books have consistently painted Bhagat Singh as a patriot, an ‘extremist’ revolutionary of India’s struggle (or war if one goes by Bhagat Singh) for independence who was hanged by the British government. Popular culture made him a martyr, albeit with an uncharacteristic unidimensionality.


From the Notebooks of a Revolutionary

“When you deny a person their basic rights, how can you demand political rights,” Bhagat Singh asks in a 1928 essay.
One of the rare surviving images of Bhagat Singh. (Photo Courtesy:

The accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, of which Bhagat Singh was one, appeared in court on 21 January 1930. They went wearing red scarves. As soon as the magistrate assumed his seat, slogans of "Long Live Socialist Revolution" filled the courtroom. Bhagat Singh then read out a telegram and asked the magistrate to send it to the Third International. It was written keeping Lenin’s death anniversary in mind.

ON LENIN DAY WE SEND HEARTY GREETINGS TO ALL who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism.

That Bhagat Singh was a Marxist is not a little-known fact. Throughout his notebooks from jail we find him taking notes widely from Lenin to Dostoevsky. He also firmly held that the struggle for independence was actually a war and hence demanded execution by a firing squad and not hanging. In his last petition written to the Governor of Punjab, Singh writes:

With due respect we beg to bring to your kind notice the following: That we were sentenced to death on 7th October 1930 by a British Court, L.C.C Tribunal, constituted under the Sp. Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance, promulgated by the H.E. The Viceroy, the Head of the British Government of India, and that the main charge against us was that of having waged war against H.M. King George, the King of England. The above-mentioned finding of the Court pre-supposed two things: Firstly, that there exists a state of war between the British Nation and the Indian Nation and, secondly, that we had actually participated in that war and were therefore war prisoners. [...] As to the question of our fates, please allow us to say that when you have decided to put us to death, you will certainly do it. [...] We wanted to point out that according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead instead of to be hanged. It rests with you to prove that you really meant what your court has said.

Being Marxist the Non-Brahmin Way

“When you deny a person their basic rights, how can you demand political rights,” Bhagat Singh asks in a 1928 essay.
Statues of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev at the India-Pakistan Border, near Hussainiwala. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Bhagat Singh clearly understood that a socialist revolution in this country almost necessitates to be preceded by a cultural one. In June 1928, he published an article Achooth Samasya with Kirti with the nom de guerre Vidrohi. In this sharp, almost acerbic article, Bhagat Singh notes that it is but natural for people to transition into other religions which come across as more accommodating, if one is interned in their own.

वे कहते हैं कि जब तुम एक इन्सान को पीने के लिए पानी देने से भी इनकार करते हो, जब तुम उन्हें स्कूल में भी पढ़ने नहीं देते तो तुम्हें क्या अधिकार है कि अपने लिए अधिक अधिकारों की माँग करो? जब तुम एक इन्सान को समान अधिकार देने से भी इनकार करते हो तो तुम अधिक राजनीतिक अधिकार माँगने के अधिकारी कैसे बन गए? बात बिल्कुल खरी है। लेकिन यह क्योंकि एक मुस्लिम ने कही है इसलिए हिन्दू कहेंगे कि देखो, वह उन अछूतों को मुसलमान बना कर अपने में शामिल करना चाहते हैं। जब तुम उन्हें इस तरह पशुओं से भी गया-बीता समझोगे तो वह जरूर ही दूसरे धर्मों में शामिल हो जाएंगे, जिनमें उन्हें अधिक अधिकार मिलेंगे, जहाँ उनसे इन्सानों-जैसा व्यवहार किया जाएगा। फिर यह कहना कि देखो जी, ईसाई और मुसलमान हिन्दू कौम को नुकसान पहुँचा रहे हैं, व्यर्थ होगा।

“[…] when you can't even give another human being water to drink, when you can't allow them to study with you in school, why do you think you are entitled to ask for more rights? When you deny another person their basic rights, then how are you in a position to demand for greater political rights? The argument makes complete sense.

The fact is that when you treat them (dalits) worse than animals, they will obviously accept other religions where they are promised more rights, where they are treated as humans. And quite frankly, for this choice of theirs you cannot blame the Christians and Muslims.”

It is also of some interest when he hints at the need for a somewhat separate and self competitive representation of ‘depressed classes’. You may read how Gandhi differed heavily with Ambedkar on getting separate electorates for dalits, so much so that he began a fast unto death.

Also Read: Fast Unto Vote: Gandhi, Ambedkar & Separate Electorates for Dalits

He takes about representation in schools, colleges, public institutions which haven’t been made accessible.

हम तो समझते हैं कि उनका स्वयं को अलग संगठनबद्ध करना तथा मुस्लिमों के बराबर गिनती में होने के कारण उनके बराबर अधिकारों की माँग करना बहुत आशाजनक संकेत हैं। या तो साम्प्रदायिक भेद को झंझट ही खत्म करो, नहीं तो उनके अलग अधिकार उन्हें दे दो। कौंसिलों और असेम्बलियों का कर्तव्य है कि वे स्कूल-कालेज, कुएँ तथा सड़क के उपयोग की पूरी स्वतन्त्रता उन्हें दिलाएं। जबानी तौर पर ही नहीं, वरन साथ ले जाकर उन्हें कुओं पर चढ़ाएं। उनके बच्चों को स्कूलों में प्रवेश दिलाएं। लेकिन जिस लेजिस्लेटिव में बालविवाह के विरुद्ध पेश किए बिल तथा मजहब के बहाने हाय-तौबा मचाई जाती है, वहाँ वे अछूतों को अपने साथ शामिल करने का साहस कैसे कर सकते हैं? इसलिए हम मानते हैं कि उनके अपने जन-प्रतिनिधि हों। वे अपने लिए अधिक अधिकार माँगें। 

“We believe that the depressed classes organising themselves and asking for equal rights, just as Muslims is a very promising sign. We should either be done with the communal divide or just give them the rights that they deserve.

The duty of the councils and assemblies is to ensure that discrimination ends. To ensure that the discriminated have the freedom to access school-colleges and wells that others use. These shouldn't just be assurances, instead they should be taken to these wells, and their children to the schools. But the legislature which uses issues such as child marriage and unrest over religious matters to its advantage, will it even dare to take the "untouchables" with them? Which is why we believe they should have their own representatives. They should ask for their rights themselves.”

For Bhagat Singh, the idea was very clear – people who aren’t for progressive changes were not one’s friends. They always try to appropriate dalits into their own fold. If you conduct a quick search on Google, finding Bhagat Singh’s work isn’t difficult. Why not read something by him? A little more productive than buying a t-shirt, right?

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