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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 13, March 25, 2023

‘They Can Exploit Only Bhagat Singh’s Emotional Quotient, Not the Ideological Quotient’ - Interview with Jagmohan Singh | Naren Singh Rao

Saturday 25 March 2023


Professor Jagmohan Singh is one of the prominent conscience-keepers of our times. He is also Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s nephew. As a public intellectual, he has been studying Bhagat Singh’s life and work over the last several decades with deep intensity. His archival scholarship has opened a new intellectual horizon for understanding Bhagat Singh as a thinker and revolutionary. Currently, he is Director, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Creativity Centre, Ludhiana, Punjab. 

Naren Singh Rao spoke to him about Bhagat Singh’s ideological legacy and the current concerns regarding his appropriation by the Hindu Right. Excerpts from the interview:

Naren Singh Rao: Bhagat Singh’s political ideology is indeed an antithesis of the RSS-BJP’s Hindutva ideology. Despite this evident truth, why does the RSS-BJP try so hard to appropriate Bhagat Singh within its ideological fold?

Jagmohan Singh: Bhagat Singh has always been emotionally connected to the people of India in a very profound manner. And, precisely because of this, the mainstream political parties across the spectrum — including the RSS-BJP — have been trying hard to exploit Bhagat Singh’s deep emotional connection with the Indian people. However, here it needs to be underscored that they can be successful in doing this only to a limited extent since they can exploit only Bhagat Singh’s emotional quotient, not the ideological quotient.

Indeed, at an ideological level, Bhagat Singh squarely defeats all the mainstream political parties (which are functioning within the framework of bourgeois democracy). This becomes quite evident from the fact that no right-wing party ever endorses any of Bhagat Singh’s writings like ‘Why I am an Atheist’, ‘Letter to Young Political Workers’ and ‘Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha’.

In fact, he was categorical about the fact that one has to become a complete rationalist if she or he wants to become a revolutionary. Therefore, the attempts to appropriate him by the mainstream political parties are essentially about encashing his mass-based emotional appeal. This has nothing to do with his true self and his political vision of an independent India.

NSR: As a public intellectual and Bhagat Singh’s nephew, how do you look at his ideological legacy? 

JS: Bhagat Singh has repeatedly said a beautiful thing in all his writings: That he was a realist. And, precisely because of this, he unfailingly tried hard to be scientific and objective in his analysis. To this effect, he read extensively. During his intellectual journey, he tried to understand the nuances of anarchism, nihilism, and the historical progression of the Russian revolution. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion — which is reflected in his jail notebook — that the Russian experiment of revolution is of great importance as it is premised upon the materialist conception of history and politics. Bhagat Singh categorically maintained that for a concrete social change the creation of scientifically-informed dynamic social force and revolutionary passion is a must. If one has to make a strategy for future politics then one has to take inspiration from the life and the work of Lenin. And, I think, this answers it all. In view of this, it is safe to say that his thinking can only be in sync with those political parties alone which believe in realism and materialist conception of history and those who take inspiration from the life and work of Lenin.

NSR: Why is it that Bhagat Singh’s image, in the popular conception, has been reduced to a gun-toting, macho nationalist?

JS: Historically, popular revolutionary figures have always been used by all sorts of political forces. The run-of-the-mill political outfits always attempt to ensure that the ideological essence of a revolutionary is diminished. Their sole aim is to create a mere statue out of a martyr. After accomplishing this, they want to ensure that the memory of progressive revolutionaries should somehow serve their petty political purposes. The point is that such attempts will always be made by regressive forces. The real challenge before us, the progressive people, is: How do we educate the common people with the true ideas of progressive revolutionaries?

NSR: The Indian Left has not been able to adequately project Bhagat Singh as a progressive revolutionary at the pan-India level. Why?

JS: This is fraught with many other problems since Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. At the time of his hanging, most of the leaders in the Left parties had limited exposure to his total thought process. Moreover, they were his seniors. How could they project him above them? On the other hand, the comrades who were close to him were in jail for a prolonged spell. The fact remains that the task of collecting his writings became the responsibility of Bhagat Singh’s family. Whereas, ideally speaking, this work should have been undertaken by the Left parties immediately after his martyrdom.

I vividly remember — it was the occasion of Bhagat Singh’s 50th death anniversary. Many of his fellow comrades (like Shiv Verma, Jaidev Kapoor, Gaya Prasad, Durga Bhabhi and others) came to our house. They all unanimously agreed with my mother (Bibi Amar Kaur, the youngest sister of Bhagat Singh) about the unpleasant fact that Bhagat Singh’s ideas were not able to reach the masses. They asked: What can be done about it?

They came up with an idea. They decided to write to the chief minister of Punjab. In a letter, they collectively requested him to install fewer statues of Bhagat Singh, and the money thereby saved should be spent on the salary of a professor. He should be tasked with collecting all the work of Bhagat Singh. Expectedly, we received a typical governmental reply: That the government will consider your request!

NSR: Of late, we have been witnessing that Bhagat Singh is being projected in a saffron turban. Whereas, the fact is that he never wore a saffron turban. What are your thoughts about it? 

JS: In my view, it should be a Basanti colour, instead of Bhagwa colour. People should remember that Basanti is a mixture of green and yellow. And, therefore, it is altogether different from Bhagwa which is a mixture of green and red.

Importantly, the Basanti colour has a huge historical and cultural significance. During the Kakori case, the season of spring happened to be setting in. Bhagat Singh’s comrades (such as Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and others) asked: How to celebrate the arrival of a spring season? They decided to wear Basanti handkerchiefs on their necks and sing a song in the Lucknow court, the place where the Kakori case was being legally fought.

There have been many contestations about Bhagat Singh’s real portraits. In fact, I was one of the first who published his four photographs together — which are now available in the public domain — in a calendar, so that all the contestations about his real self are settled once and for all. Interestingly, these four pictures reflect his evolution from a passionate follower of Kartar Singh Sarabha, to an abiding admirer of Lenin; also, as a political revolutionary and thinker.

NSR: Nowadays efforts are being made by the Hindu Right to project a narrative that suggests that Gandhi did not try to stop the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. How do you look at this issue?

JS: We need to view this in light of concrete historical facts. First, we need to recognize the fact that Gandhi as an individual was not all-powerful. By no means he could have compelled the British administration to pardon someone like Bhagat Singh who was posing the biggest ever challenge to the British administration. In fact, Bhagat Singh’s very existence meant that the survival of British colonialism in India was on shaky ground. Second, Gandhi himself was in jail during the entire period of Bhagat Singh’s trial. He was released from jail only on January 26, 1931, less than two months before Bhagat Singh’s hanging was scheduled.

NSR: Recently, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has come to power in Punjab. Now, it has begun to project Bhagat Singh and B.R. Ambedkar as its ideological fountainhead. Surely, it is a crude example of naked opportunism given the fact that by any stretch of imagination, AAP’s political ideology has no relation with the ideas of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar whatsoever. How do you understand this issue? 

JS: The political outfits like AAP resort to such opportunism because there is a massive support base for icons like Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. It is important to understand that Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh thought alike. Both addressed the question of untouchability and annihilation of caste in the same manner. They believed that the depressed classes must embolden themselves by feeling proud of their past generations’ bravery. In fact, the most profound tribute to Bhagat Singh was paid by Ambedkar in an article titled, ‘The Sacrifice of Three’, an editorial piece in his newspaper Janata.

Also, as it turns out, the projection of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh serves a practical purpose for Arvind Kejriwal. By introducing them as icons of the party, Kejriwal, in a way, has ensured that Bhagwant Mann, the chief minister of Punjab, will not be able to hog the limelight.

(Interviewer: Naren Singh Rao is a Delhi-based academician and media and legal consultant. Also, he is a social commentator and activist.) 

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