Forward With The Revolutionary Legacy of Bhagat Singh

- Arindam Sen

“ A pparently, I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist... and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb-throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful. … The military department of the party … should back the political work of the party. It cannot and should not work independently.”

Thus wrote the budding revolutionary in February 1931, anticipating Mao's famous statement that political power grows out of the barrel of the gun but it is the party which controls the gun, not the other way round. Within weeks he would attain eternal glory as India 's Shaheed-e-Azam .

"Revolution is an inalienable right of mankind. Freedom is an imperishable birth right of all. Labour is the real sustainer of society.… At the altar of this revolution we have brought our youth as an incense, for no sacrifice is too great for so magnificent a cause. We are content, we await the advent of Revolution.” 1

As we enter Bhagat Singh's birth centenary beginning this 28th September, he will probably be romanticised and worshipped by a large spectrum of forces as a hero, even as a vande mataram enthusiast. Even the far right may not lag behind in paying lip service to his sacrifice and even attempting some sort of an appropriation of his legacy. For those who wish seriously to walk his way and complete the journey he left unfinished, the primary task would of course be gaining a thorough understanding of his signal contributions to the anti-imperialist struggle, and yes, the communist movement in India .

From Patriotic Terrorism to Revolutionary Mass Movements

How do we interpret the words “I never was [a terrorist], except perhaps ...” (Emphases added)?

Bhagat Singh's transition from terrorism to Marxism is well-known. Much less recognised is the fact that combination of armed actions and open mass political work was his central concern from the very beginning; only the balance between the two components shifted more decisively in favour of the latter in the later years. It was for open political work among students that he organised, together with friend Sukhdev, the Lahore Students Union. Then in 1926 he became the founding secretary of the Punjab Nawjawan Sabha. This was an open body for conducting political and organisational work not only among students and youth, but also among workers and peasants. On the other hand, heroic actions and self-sacrifices (“propaganda through deeds” as they would call it) were always regarded as a means to an end: that of revolutionary mass awakening. This approach was graphically expressed in the leaflet distributed immediately after the annihilation of P Saunders (see box) and in his last letter where he expressed the hope that his martyrdom will inspire thousands to join the liberation struggle and “it will then become impossible for imperialism to face the tide of revolution.” (See Liberation , March 2006 for full text).

As Bhagat Singh's grasp of Marxism grew deeper, he began to place much greater emphasis on long- drawn, planned political work among worker and peasant masses as the precondition for revolution. As he wrote in his February 2, 1931 message “To the Young Political Workers” (the source of our first quote, henceforth Message ), the revolutionary programme “requires at least twenty years for its fulfilment. Cast aside the youthful dreams of a revolution within ten years or Gandhi's utopian promises of Swaraj in one year. It requires neither emotion nor death, but the life of constant struggle, suffering and sacrifice…. Inch by inch you shall have to proceed. It needs courage, perseverance and very strong determination.” But it was not a matter of perseverance alone. Equally important was the development of a programmatic/strategic vision, a correct tactical approach, an understanding of the basics of the revolutionary party, and so on. Bhagat Singh did not find the time and opportunity to systematically articulate and develop his views on these matters, but his scattered comments do give us a clear idea of the direction of his ideological-political development.

Towards a General Programme of Indian Revolution

“Revolution” was an oft-used word in those turbulent times, but few had a clear conception about what it actually meant. In a court statement in the Assembly Bomb Case (mid-1929) Bhagat Singh offered a fairly coherent explanation:

“‘Revolution' does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By ‘Revolution' we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change. Producers or labourers in spite of being the most necessary element of society are robbed by their exploiters of the fruits of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant, who grows corn for all, starves with his family, the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children's bodies, masons, smiths and carpenters, who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims. These terrible inequalities and forced disparity of chances are bound to lead to chaos. …

Beware, Ye Bureaucracy 2


J.P. Saunders is dead; Lala Lajpat Rai is avenged

…Really it is horrible to imagine that so lowly and violent hand of an ordinary Police Official, J.P. Saunders could ever dare to touch in such an insulting way the body of one so old, so revered and so loved by 300 millions of people of Hindustan and thus cause his death. The youth and manhood of India were challenged by blows hurled down on the head of the India 's nationhood. And let the world know that India still lives; that the blood of youths has not been totally cooled down and that they can still risk their lives, if the honour of their nation is at stake. ...

Sorry for the death of a man. But in this man has died the representative of an institution which is so cruel, lowly and so base that it must be abolished. In this man has died an agent of the British authority in India —the most tyrannical of governments in the world. ...


“A radical change, therefore, is necessary and it is the duty of those who realize it to reorganise society on socialistic basis. Unless this is done and the exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, sufferings and carnage with which humanity is threatened today cannot be prevented….

By ‘Revolution', we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such breakdown, and in which the sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognized and a world federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and misery of imperial wars.”

Later in his February 1931 Message Bhagat Singh drew attention to the importance of a clear-cut revolutionary programme:

“... for any revolutionary party a definite programme is very essential. For, you must know that revolution means action. It means a change brought about deliberately by organized and systematic work, as opposed to sudden and unorganised or spontaneous change or breakdown.”

Further clarifying his ideas, he wrote:

“We want a socialist revolution, the indispensable preliminary to which is the political revolution. That is what we want. The political revolution does not mean the transfer of state (or more crudely, the power) from the hands of the British to the Indians, but to those Indians who are at one with us as to the final goal, or to be more precise, the power to be transferred to the revolutionary party through popular support. After that, to proceed in right earnest is to organise the reconstruction of the whole society on the socialist basis.”

By “the indispensable preliminary” of “political revolution”, Bhagat Singh obviously meant the revolutionary overthrow of the imperialist yoke, but he insisted that power must be handed over not to the Indian exploiting classes, but only to revolutionary representatives of the people who would forthwith begin the work of socialist reconstruction. This notion of an uninterrupted revolution finds a more poignant expression in his last ‘appeal' (see excerpt at the end of this article).

As for the motive forces of revolution, Bhagat Singh naturally relied on the revolutionary youth as the immediate reserve, but he was clear that “the real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in the factories.” (See Message )

On Questions of Tactics

Even in the very short span of his political life, Bhagat Singh showed considerable skill “in combining the different forms of struggle, in skilful transition from one form of struggle to another, in steadily enhancing the consciousness of the masses...” (Lenin, Collected Works , Volume 20, p210). From annihilation of hated enemies of the nation to hunger strike and other forms of jail struggle to utilisation and boycott of law courts for propagation of revolutionary ideas, he used different forms of struggle to great effect. Communists also used the courts for propagation of their politics ( c.f ., the Meerut Conspiracy Case, 1929-1933). But the whole plan of dropping harmless bombs at an empty space in the central assembly at a particular moment (when the notorious Public Safety Bill and Trade Disputes Bill were being passed) along with leaflets, and then courting arrest so as to use the trial court as a forum for propaganda — was this not really novel?

Combination of various legal and illegal forms of struggle and organisation did not of course mean unscrupulous acceptance of any and every form. Bhagat Singh and his comrades rightly condemned the farce called Indian parliament for “not only its worthlessness but its far-reaching power for mischief”:

“... it exists only to demonstrate to the world India 's humiliation and helplessness, and it symbolises the overriding domination of an irresponsible and autocratic rule. Time and again the national demand has been pressed by the people's representatives only to find the waste paper basket as its final destination.” (From Statement of Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in the Assembly Bomb Case ).

Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt agreed with the viceroy that the assembly bombs were an attack on the institution itself:

“When we were told by some of the police officers, who visited us in jail, that Lord Irwin … in his address to the joint session of the two houses described the event as an attack directed against no individual but against an institution itself, we readily recognised that the true significance of the incident had been correctly appreciated.” (Ibid)

They were equally forthright in criticising the Indian leaders who participated in this humiliating assembly:

“Alike, have we failed to comprehend the mentality of the public leaders who help the Government to squander public time and money on such a manifestly stage-managed exhibition of India 's helpless subjection.” (Ibid)

In this context, their appeal to the Indian parliamentarians was:

“Let the representatives of the people return to their constituencies and prepare the masses for the coming revolution...” (from the leaflet thrown into the assembly along with the bombs).

All this, however, referred to the particular case of India 's slave parliament of the 1920s; in his message to the youth he showed full appreciation of the Leninist tactics of utilisation or boycott of the parliament according to concrete conditions.

The same Message also contains his ideas on compromises. He speaks approvingly of “Tilak's policy”: “you are fighting to get sixteen annas from your enemy, you get only one anna. Pocket it and fight for the rest.”

He also refers to the Brest Litovsk Treaty and recommends Lenin's ‘Left-Wing' Communism for “his definitive views on the subject of compromise” and generally for learning about “tactics and strategy”. While criticising the Gandhian leadership for unprincipled compromises actually amounting to surrender to the enemy, he declares:

“For us, compromise never means surrender, but a step forward and some rest.”

The Revolutionary Party

What type of a party did Bhagat Singh want to build? “We require – to use the term so dear to Lenin – the “professional revolutionaries”. The whole-time workers who have no other ambitions or life-work except the revolution. The greater the number of such workers organised into a party, the greater the chances of your success.” But, he clarified, “it need not necessarily be an underground party, rather the contrary.” He wanted the party to start organising peasants, workers and the youth and to stress “mass propaganda” and “organise a big publishing campaign”. As far as possible these should be done openly, while the underground apparatus would be formed with the warranted comrades who should avoid going to jail.

“Bombs and pistols do not make revolution. The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting-stone of ideas.” 3

Against Communalism, for Atheism

“Any man who stands for progress has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith. Item by item he has to reason out every nook and corner of the prevailing faith”, declared Bhagat Singh in Why I am an Atheist . Going against the dominant trend of Hindu religiosity in the nationalist movement, he firmly asserted that in the struggle for self emancipation, humanity had to fight against “the narrow conception of religion” and against belief in God. On this militant materialism was based his active anti-communalism, regarding which Bipan Chandra writes:

“Being fully and consciously secular, he understood, more clearly than many of his contemporaries, the danger that communalism posed to the nation and the national movement. He often told his audience that communalism was as big an enemy as colonialism.

In April 1928, at the conference of youth where the Naujwan Bharat Sabha was reorganised, Bhagat Singh and his comrades openly opposed the suggestion that youth belonging to religious-communal organisations should be permitted to become members of the Sabha. Religion was one's private concern, and communalism was an enemy to be fought, argued Bhagat Singh. …

Bhagat Singh revered Lajpat Rai as a leader. But he would not spare even Lajpat Rai, when, during the last years of his life, Lajpat Rai turned to communal politics. He then launched a political-ideological campaign against him. Because Lajpat Rai was a respected leader, he would not publicly use harsh words of criticism against him. And so he printed as a pamphlet Robert Browning's famous poem, ‘The Lost Leader', in which Browning criticises Wordsworth for turning against liberty. ... There was not one word of criticism of Lajpat Rai. Only, on the front cover, he printed Lajpat Rai's photograph!” (From India's Struggle for Independence , Penguin books, first edition, p 257)

Sarfaroshi ki tamanna

Speaking at the graveside of his dearest comrade in arms, Engels drew attention to the latter's many great accomplishments, and added, “Marx was before all else a revolutionist. ... Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity...” The same applies to our Shaheed-e-Azam. The urge of self-sacrifice for the cause of total human emancipation – without which even Marxism ceases to be revolutionary – this death-defying spirit of revolution permeates and holds together all the other contributions of Bhagat Singh to the theory and practice of Indian revolution. He daringly challenged imperialism with his pistol and his pen, on the streets and in courtrooms and jails, and as the following excerpt shows, even from his death-cell at the last hour of his life. His composite legacy has been and will always be cherished, protected and carried into collective practice by the revolutionary communists of India.

On the Slogan of Long Live Revolution 4

…The phrase never means that the sanguinary strife should ever continue, or that nothing should ever be stationary even for a short while. … when we shout “Long Live Jatin Das”, we cannot and do not mean thereby that Das should physically be alive. What we mean... is that the noble ideal of his life, the indomitable spirit which enabled that great martyr to bear such untold suffering and to make the extreme sacrifice for that ideal, should live for ever. By raising this cry we wish that we may show the same unfailing courage in pursuance of our ideal. It is that spirit that we allude to. …

The sense in which the word Revolution is used in that phrase, is the spirit, the longing for a change for the better. ... The spirit of Revolution should always permeate the soul of humanity, so that the reactionary forces may not accumulate the strength to check its eternal onward march. Old order should change, always and ever, yielding place to new, so that one ‘good' order may not corrupt the world. It is in this sense that we raise the shout “Long Live Revolution.”

Petition to the Punjab Governor

“…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.

Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian. … All these things make no difference. … The war shall continue.

It may assume different shapes at different times. It may become now open, now hidden, now purely agitational, now fierce life and death struggle. The choice of the course, whether bloody or comparatively peaceful, which it should adopt rests with you. Choose whichever you like. But that war shall be incessantly waged without taking into consideration the petty (illegible) and the meaningless ethical ideologies. It shall be waged ever with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established and the present social order is completely replaced by a new social order, based on social prosperity and thus every sort of exploitation is put an end to and the humanity is ushered into the era of genuine and permanent peace. In the very near future the final battle shall be fought and final settlement arrived at.

The days of capitalist and imperialist exploitation are numbered. The war neither began with us nor is it going to end with our lives. It is the inevitable consequence of the historic events and the existing environments. Our humble sacrifices shall be only a link in the chain that has very accurately been beautified by the unparalleled sacrifice of Mr. Das and most tragic but noblest sacrifice of Comrade Bhagawati Charan and the glorious death of our dear warrior Azad.

…according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners. And we demand that we be treated as such, i.e., we demand that we be shot dead instead of being hanged. It rests with you to prove that you really meant what your court has said.

We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.




1 From statement of Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in the Assembly Bomb Case

2 From a handwritten leaflet explaining the reasons for the annihilation of J P Saunders.

A copy in Bhagat Singh's handwriting was produced as an exhibit in the Lahore Conspiracy Case.

3 From statement before the Lahore High Court bench

4 A rejoinder to Ramanand Chatterjee's editorial note in the December 1929 issue of Modern Review, where the slogan was misinterpreted and ridiculed.