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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2016

Meticulous Research to Understand India’s Revolutionary History

Sunday 20 March 2016, by Chaman Lal



A Revolutionary History of Interwar India—Violence, Image, Voice and Text by Kama Maclean; Hurst and Company, London; First edition: 2015; 342 pages; price not mentioned.

One would be rather surprised to know the increasing interest in the study of the Bhagat Singh phenomenon in the Western academia lately, perhaps more than Indian academia taking interest in the subject!

Not only the author of the present book, Dr Kama Maclean, who is an Australian and an Associate Professor in South Asian and World History at the UNSW, Sydney, the editor of South Asia, Chris Moffat, has also recently completed his Ph.D on Bhagat Singh in Cambridge University, UK; Professor Christopher Pinney, at the University College, London, in his book—Photos of Gods—too dealt with the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh through a study of photos, posters and pictures. Moreover some Indian scholars, such as Neeti Nair with her paper ‘Bhagat Singh as Satyagrahi’ and Simona Sawhney with ‘Bhagat Singh: A Politics of Death and Hope’, have worked on the same theme in Western academic institutions.

Dr Kama Maclean has been working on this project since 2007, when on a visit to Amritsar on a sabbatical leave from her University, she noticed pictures of Bhagat Singh in every bazaar of the town. In those days, the Aamir Khan starrer popular film, Rang de Basanti, was running in cinema houses and a young scholar wished to write her paper on the revolutionaries’ impact on the national movement. But she soon became frustrated as she could not find enough scholarship to continue with her paper! Well, that was a telling comment on the academic situation in Indian universities after sixty years of freedom. Despite the huge popularity of Bhagat Singh in the public mind, it did not motivate Indian historians to deal with the phenomenon at the academic level! However, some of the Indian academic personalities did pay attention to this neglected aspect of the Indian history of the freedom struggle. Most notably Bipan Chandra, with his introduction to ‘Why I am an Atheist’—the seminal essay of Bhagat Singh—and also some of his other writings, started the process of focusing upon Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries’ impact on the national movement. Sumit Sarkar, in his Modern India and later-day scholars from different fields, like A.G. Noorani with his The Trial Of Bhagat Singh, S. Irfan Habib with his To Make the Deaf Hear contributed towards studying Bhagat Singh’s role in the freedom struggle at the academic level. This was the development after the 1970s. Prior to that the comrades of Bhagat Singh like Shiv Verma, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Jaidev Kapoor, Sohan Singh Josh, Ajoy Ghosh, Jatindranath Sanyal, Yashpal, Rajaram Shastri and many others wrote their memoirs of Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries from 1950 onwards, but these did not get much attention from the academic institutions for research. Even the biographical writing on the entire Bhagat Singh family by Bhagat Singh’s niece, Veerender Sandhu, published as early as in 1967 from Benaras, did not attract prominence, partly because it was in Hindi. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library conducted a number of interviews of ex-revolutionaries in the 1970s, which are now considered the most valuable part of the source material on research related to the revolutionaries and the present researcher, Kama Maclean, has also made liberal use of this valuable material from the NMML in this book. In fact the author collected so much of source material from various places that perhaps no other researcher had done so before. She has documents from the National Archives of India, particularly the Home (Political) Department files’ proscribed literature collection. From Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), she has consulted or collected 34 interviews from the Oral History Transcripts, AICC Papers and some private papers. She collected rich source material from London, which perhaps no earlier researcher on Bhagat Singh had accessed in such detail. From the British Library, India Office records she has proscribed tracts collection, from other sections of the same library she has consulted important collections such as the Halifax Papers. She consulted 23 interviews from the Oral History Collection of the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University; from there she consulted private papers too. These interviews were not known much in academic circles before. The interviews were conducted during 1970-1991 and include some interviews not conducted by the NMML earlier. Most important among the Cambridge interviews is that of Bhikshu Chaman Lal, known earlier as Chaman Lal Azad, the correspondent of Hindustan Times at the time of the Delhi bomb case in 1929.

Dr Kama Maclean consulted the Bradley Papers from the People’s History Museum, Manchester as well. Apart from these archival material, the author accessed many newspapers of that time like Abhyudaya, Bhavishya, Chand, Tribune, Civil and Military Gazette etc. A number of old and contemporary publications also form part of the author’s bibliography for this project. She collected a number of posters, photographs for her book; out of these, she has reproduced as many as 53; These were collected from various institutions like the Supreme Court of India, National Archives, NMML, British Library and private sources; she even bought several items from Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant, Kanpur and other places.

Collecting so much source materials the task of organising makes rather difficult and putting these to judicious use for research. That was a challenge for researcher here.

Based on such rich source material, Dr Kama Maclean, as a well-trained researcher, has organised her book into three parts with three chapters each in every part. She has a detailed Introduction as well as an Epilogue in her book, apart from all the technical details like acknowledgements, glossary, acronyms, note on spellings, list of illustrations, notes, bibliography, index etc.

In her Introduction, she has explained the area and period of her research project. Mostly she has focused upon the 1928-31 period and on the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). She has defined the 1928-31 period as the ‘Inter-War Period’, starting from the Simon Commission’s visit to India in 1928 and taking it up to the Karachi Congress of March-end, 1931, held immediately after Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev’s execution. She has questioned the prevalent narrative of the independence struggle predomi-nately as the Gandhian ideology of non-violence and supplemented it with the impact of the revolutionaries on the national movement through the inter-war period struggle of the HSRA. To study the HSRA’s role she has deployed oral histories, ‘un-archived’ materials such as satire, hearsay, visual cultural artefacts like photos and posters to reconstruct this neglected history. Not only the material she has referred to, she has deployed as much archival material and authentic documents as well to fill the gaps of history. She has admitted in her Introduction that ‘The revolutionaries of the HSRA have long been marginalised in the academic historiography of nationalism, despite their extraordinary popularity in popular culture in colonial India. This was most evident in proscribed literature and posters, and in contemporary India, in films, posters, comics and bazar histories.’ (page 2) She has mentioned here the 2004 book of Christopher Pinney, Photos of Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India.

In a way she has carried forward the interesting multi-disciplinary research began by Pinney in this area with the combination of social sciences and aesthetics. Dr Maclean has used a poster provided by Dr Pinney as the title of the book, which has a garland of Chandrashekhar Azad’s photos on Bhagat Singh’s picture. She has described her work thus: ‘This book represents only the beginning of a larger, collective project of understanding revolutionary history, from a range of post-subaltern and postcolonial scholarly perspective. Dr Kama Maclean has concluded her Introduction by defining her research methodology as stemming from a ‘post-subaltern and postcolonial scholarly perspective’, which could generate a debate among professional historians. The historians, to whom she has shown considerable respect, are from the subaltern school; they include Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose comments on this book are displayed on the back cover. She has humbly acknowledged that she has neither been able to consult all the oral histories, nor all the police records, despite consulting the massive store of material which she came across. The researcher has stated in her Introduction that the ‘Indian Political Intelligence files—constituting 21,660 volumes and 224 boxes of data’ were opened for scholars in British Library’s India Office records from 1996 onwards. (page 8)

The book is divided into three parts. Part-I is called ‘The Revolutionaries of Hindustan Socialist Republican Army: Histories, Actions, Activities’. This part has three chapters: i. Of History and Legend: Revolutionary Actions in North India—1928-31; ii. That Hat: Infamy, Strategy and Social Communication; and iii. The Revolutionary Unknown: The Secret Life of Durga Devi Vohra. The author has used here the term ‘Army’ instead of the term earlier used ‘Association’, both from the acronym of HSRA. The term ‘Army’ was used by revolutionaries themselves as the military wing of their political group, known as ‘Association’ with same three letters used earlier—HSR. Balraj, a pseudonym for Chandrashekhar Azad, was the commander-in-chief of the ‘Army’! Posters thrown in the Delhi Assembly after the bombs exploded were under the signature of ‘Balraj’; so were the HSRA posters pasted on the Lahore walls after Saunders’ assassination earlier. This chapter delineates the short history of the Bengal revolutionary groups like Anushilan, Yugantar and also precursor of the HSRA, the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), formed in late 1923 by Sachindranath Sanyal, that included all the characters of the HSRA and also Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri, who were executed in late 1927 on account of the Kakori rail dacoity in 1925. This chapter contains A Short History of Bhagat Singh as well, based upon clandestine, proscribed and aggrieved histories. Kama Maclean not only narrates the history of Bhagat Singh, she takes it to his After Life history too. She discusses the movement in Pakistan to name a square after Bhagat Singh (that is, Bhagat Singh Chowk) in Lahore. She discusses seven films made on Bhagat Singh under the sub-title—In the Grip of Popular Culture. Very few people now know that the first film on Bhagat Singh, Shaheed-e-Azam, was made by a certain Jagdish Gautam in 1954 and it had created quite a furore among revolutionaries and in Bhagat Singh’s family. Bejoy Kumar Sinha has referred to this film in his memoirs and mentioned the fact that the issue was even raised in Parliament to get the film banned. It was not banned, but cuts were made, which satisfied neither the family nor the surviving revolutionaries at that time. The second film on Bhagat Singh is also largely unknown; made in 1963 with Shammi Kapur as the hero, its director was Kidar Bansal. It was third film, Shaheed (1965), starring Manoj Kumar that brought fame to the martyr as well as the hero of the film with its melodious musical appeal. The year 2002 saw the release of three films on Bhagat Singh, out of which The Legend of Bhagat Singh received maximum popularity and acceptability. The seventh and last film on him was the Aamir Khan starrer, Rang de Basanti (2006).

 The second chapter of this part of the book brings out an interesting story regarding Bhagat Singh’s hat which, according to the researcher, contributed to his popularity through posters made on its basis. She highlights the fact that revolutionaries, particularly Bhagat Singh, were conscious about the power of the media to popularise their ideas and made maximum use of it through meticulous preplanning. The author underlines that most of the revolutionaries had their photographs from studios for records and for use by the media after their arrest or death. These photographs became rich material for artists later to turn them into attractive and impressive posters. The photograph with the hat was taken by the photographer Ramnath in his Kashmere Gate studio in Delhi probably on April 4, just a few days before both Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw bombs in the Delhi Assembly. B.K. Dutt was also photographed at the same time in the same studio by the same photographer. Ironically the same Ramnath was engaged by the Delhi Police as well to photograph the Assembly bomb site. The author has surmised that the Delhi Police had got Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt photographed after their arrest on April 8 by the same photographer Ramnath, but those photographs are still to surface. The photographs taken on April 4 were published on April 12 for the first time in the Urdu daily of Lahore, Bande Mataram, followed by Hindustan Times in Delhi on April 18, before becoming viral to use the term much in vogue today, and this contributed immensely to Bhagat Singh’s popularity throughout India. The photograph of Bhagat Singh wearing the hat made him an iconic figure in times to come. The second chapter of the book on the hat photograph is a continuation of Christopher Pinney’s earlier work based on the photographic studies of the revolutionaries. The third chapter in this part of the book carries a fascinating story of Durga Devi Vohra, popularly known among revolutionaries as Durga Bhabhi, the wife and widow of Bhagwaticharan Vohra, who died during a bomb experiment on May 28, 1930 on the banks of the Ravi in Lahore.

In the second part of the book, which has been given the curious title of Porous Politics: The Congress and the Revolutionaries—1928-31, the author has focused upon the interactions of the Congress party with the revolutionaries as part of the national movement. The close relations of the two Nehrus—Motilal and Jawaharlal—and Subhas Bose with the revolutionaries have been discussed in detail and many suppressed facts revealed. Kama Maclean has continued with the presentation and interpretation of the posters she had collected as part of her research interest in this part of the book. Motilal Nehru’s rather unknown speech—‘Balraj or Gandhi’—in the context of the Delhi bomb case has been discussed. Motilal Nehru was softer than Jawaharlal towards the revolutionaries and liberally donated funds to them many a time.

The third part of the book—The Aftermath: Gandhism and Challenge of Revolutionary Violence—focuses on the Karachi Congress of 1931, held immediately after the execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru and shows how deftly Gandhi dealt with the young people’s anger and was able to avoid any split in the Congress.

In the Epilogue the story is taken till 1945-46 drawing attention to the revolutionaries’ refusal to compromise with the Congress governments and their preference against seeking release by tendering apologies.

The book is rather lengthy (342 pages) in short font size, sometimes even difficult for readers with poor vision to read. The large number of ‘endnotes’ disturb the reading as one has to consult those frequently at the end of the book; it could have become easy reading if those had been used as ‘footnotes’ on each page. (The number of notes is very high—a total of 1379 notes!)

While the researcher has been careful in general, still some errors have crept in, like referring to the ‘Chand-fansi issue’ of 1926, whereas it was published in November 1928; the error has been repeated several times. But on the whole Kama Maclean has worked hard to conduct research on an unusual subject and she did a lot of fieldwork to collect data for her research. She merits rich compliments for her well-produced research work that has resulted in this publication.

The reviewer is a retired Professor from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. His recent publication is Understanding Bhagat Singh.

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