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Row Over Bipan Chandra’s Book: Get the ‘Historical’ Facts Straight

‘Revolutionary terrorist’ has been used by historians for long and Bhagat Singh is no exception: Rizwan Qaiser

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(Photo: Lijumol Joseph/<b>The Quint</b>)

The controversy regarding the use of the historical expression, ‘revolutionary terrorism’ looks politically manufactured, especially in relation to the book written by the late Bipan Chandra along with other colleagues from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The book has been in existence since 1988, which means, for the last twenty-eight years people in academia, politics and media didn’t notice the use of expression.

Bipan Chandra along with other historians such as Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee have been targeted and it has been alleged that they only highlighted the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru and have deliberately ignored freedom fighters such as Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Such charges and allegations certainly look motivated.

However, it was astonishing to observe that Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee came out with public statements that Bipan Chandra had considered replacing the term ‘Revolutionary Terrorism’ with other expressions such as ‘revolutionary nationalism’ or ‘revolutionary socialism’. It is worth recalling that Bipan Chandra had issued a public statement in this regard some years ago and one felt there was room for disagreement with him then as there is room for disagreement with the Mukherjees now. Three questions arise in quick succession that need to be answered.

Playing with Fire

First, can freedom fighters such as Shaheed Bhagat Singh be appropriated only by relatives and distant descendants who can make a case of being hurt, and ask for the book to be banned, accuse historians of committing a crime and file cases against them. It begs a simple question, where were you my dear descendant of Shaheed Bhagat Singh all these years? Were you so ignorant about the existence of the book that you woke up only when elections in Punjab are round the corner? 

Moreover, what defies logic is that the political establishment overreacted and began responding to the ‘hurt call’. What kind of game is this that our political class is playing? Making a serious discipline such as history a handmaiden is fraught with consequences in the long-run.

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School children paying tribute to Shaheed Bhagat Singh. (Photo: PTI)
School children paying tribute to Shaheed Bhagat Singh. (Photo: PTI)
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Usage of Expression ‘Revolutionary Terrorism’

Second, are Bipan Chandra and the Mukherjees the only historians who have used the expression such as ‘revolutionary terrorism’, that seems to have earned the wrath of the political establishment? Or are there other historians who too, have quite consciously used similar terms to define certain historical phenomenon to liberate the country from the colonial rule. For instance, an eminent historian Sumit Sarkar, in his much celebrated work Modern India, published in 1983 too, uses the expression ‘revolutionary terrorism’ (p144) especially in the context of activities by Bengali revolutionaries.

Discussing political developments in Punjab in the 1920s, Sumit Sarkar has argued that the British were worried, “due to its link with the army, proximity to a frontier province where the ‘Khudai  Khidmatgars’ remained a serious problem, and the existence of a radical fringe operating on the borderline of terrorism and Marxism: Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Kirti Kisan group.” (p 303)

More recently, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay in his famous text book, From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India, too has used the same expression, ‘revolutionary terrorism’ to describe armed resistance against the British rule in India. He argues, “In Bengal revolutionary terrorism developed in the same way since the 1860s and 70s when physical culture movement became a craze or akharas or gymnasiums were set up everywhere to develop what Swami Vivekananda had described as strong muscles and nerves of steel.” (p 260)

Many more examples can be cited to prove the point that Bipan Chandra and the Mukherjees are no exception in using the term as it was widely accepted to describe the phenomenon of attempts to violently overthrow the British. Then, why single out a few, and target them as if they have committed some crime.

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The members of All India Anti Terrorist Front celebrate the birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, on 27 September  2015. (Photo: IANS)
The members of All India Anti Terrorist Front celebrate the birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, on 27 September 2015. (Photo: IANS)
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Why Take Offence to the Word ‘Terrorist’

Third, what was the self perception of so many of these nationalists who, for the sake of convenience are described as revolutionary terrorist. Eminent historian Irfan Habib in his interview to an English national daily has argued that Hindustan Republican Socialist Association (HRSA) to which Bhagat Singh belonged to, had itself in its resolution of 1929 used the word terrorist. In fact HRSA manifesto distributed during the Lahore session of the Congress said, “we are being criticised for our terrorist policies but, we are resorting to terror in response to British terror.”

Historians have been conscious of the fact that the word terror associated with brave-hearts of freedom movement was no dishonor to their supreme sacrifice in liberating the motherland from the British.  They took pride in their endeavour as they never targeted the innocents. Any comparison between their terror and the kind we are witnessing today would amount to sacrilege to memories of brave souls for whom the country and its freedom came first.

(The writer is a Professor at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Milia Islamia. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also read:
DU Reference Book Calls Bhagat Singh as Revolutionary Terrorist
Naming Chandigarh New Airport: Bhagat Singh vs Mangal Sein
‘Mahatma Gandhi Tried His Best to Save Bhagat Singh’s Life’

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