More on Bhagat Singh and Our Times

-Arindam Sen

In Bhagat Singh -- The Lighthouse of the Revolutionary Mindset of Indian Youth Vinod Misra observes that, even more important than his immense popularity rivalling that of Gandhi, it was Bhagat Singh's transition from revolutionary terrorism to Marxism that “formed the main basis of the  tacit agreement between British rulers and the Congress leadership to send Bhagat Singh to the gallows.” This did not, of course, prevent Gandhi from praising the patriotism of BS and other 'terrorists'.
Such duplicity of the ruling classes continues to inform Indian state policy and the attitudes of both the Congress and the Sangh Parivar. A pamphlet titled “Movement for Freedom and Democratic Institutions” issued by the Lok Sabha secretariat in December 2005 described freedom fighters like BS as terrorists who allegedly believed in the philosophy of insurrection, assassination, destruction of public property and subversion to achieve their objective. Naturally there was a furore and one of the first to protest was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh!  Yet the heinous custom continued and the birth centenary of BS witnessed a redoubled effort to depict him and his comrades as terrorists and extremists. For example, the UPSC in its Civil Service Examination in Chandigarh (October 2007) asked, ''Evaluate the contribution of revolutionary terrorism represented by Bhagat Singh to the cause of India's struggle for independence.'' The NCERT, BSE (the Board of Secondary Education in Orissa) and other institutions played the same game in textbooks published by them. Eminent historians, intellectuals, students and others came forward to oppose this shrewd campaign and so did the Left parties.
Our party launched a nationwide propaganda campaign through leaflets, pamphlets and periodicals; rallies (such as the Anti-Imperialist March to Parliament against the Nuke deal on 28 September, the hundredth birth anniversary of BS) and mass meetings; seminars and conventions and so on; highlighting BS as the most precious treasure house of inspiration and ideas in the current struggle against imperialism. Combined with this principal focus, we also pointed out that BS emerged as the foremost revolutionary leader of the freedom movement precisely because he embraced Marxism, developed a basically correct programmatic vision of Indian revolution, identified its basic class forces and creatively combined different forms of struggle -- including armed action -- and organisation to rouse the masses. In a word, we underscored the identity between BS the Shaheed-e-Azam and BS the communist pathfinder.
This particular position of ours was vehemently opposed by the official Left. The LeftWord Books in its pamphlet Bhagat Singh, Liberation's Blazing Star (by PMS Grewal; March 2007) criticised us for allegedly pitting BS against the early communists and placed our position in the same bracket with the misrepresentation and misappropriation of BS by the Congress and the Hindutva forces. We did not run for an immediate rejoinder. Later, when Liberation (LB) published a feature commemorating the BS birth centenary in its October number, we joined the debate to expand the scope of the discussion which the magazine had been carrying on since October last year and to clear the doubts many might be having on their minds. Now this article came in for criticism by a reader of LB. The latter charged us with misquoting "persons like Ajoy Ghosh", wondered why we joined every issue of debate with the CPI(M), found our discussion on WPP "intriguing" and criticised us for overrating BS' concept of communist party (CP) and also for a politically incorrect reading of history.
Liberation always welcomes criticism and solutions; below we publish this letter in a slightly abridged form.

“The  article quotes Com. Ajoy Ghosh in a selective manner to make a point: 'But when we learned that communists considered armed action by individuals to be harmful to the movement, we dropped the idea....' but conveniently omits the next sentence which throws light on their ideological position: 'While we did not look upon the communists as revolutionists, revolution for us meant primarily armed action, we felt one with them in many respects: in the hatred for imperialism, in their opposition to constitutionalism and insistence on direct action, in their striving for socialism.' .And then the author puts his own conclusions in the mouth of the two friends, 'the two friends seriously considered working in cooperation with/under the communist Party, but backed out when told that the communist party was absolutely opposed   to armed action under all circumstances.
• What is most intriguing is the surprisingly extensive discussion on WPP. …The article approvingly refers the documents of 6th Congress of CI condemning WPP experiment. While our Party in the History of Communist Movement in India (Volume I) depicts WPP experiment as a creative attempt for Indianisation of communist movement. It says  ' If there are so many evidences to support the allegation that Indian Communists lacked creativity and blindly followed" international directives", there are at least a few to prove the opposite. And one of them was the WPP. The Indian Communists were trying to develop this as a popular form for Communist mass work. If in the process they started losing the Communist perspective, as indeed they did, the duty of the CI was to criticise and persuade the CPI to rectify this deviation. But the way it instructed the CPI to stop the practice altogether, without so much of a comradely discussion, scuttled the very process of Indianisation of the Communist Movement. This was but the first instance of arbitrary interference on behalf of the Comintern - many more were to be experienced in the years to come.' On one hand it quotes Communist International which criticises CPI for neglecting the communist party for the sake of a broader front but on other hand article criticises in same breath the CPI for its ultra leftism due to which CPI declared ruthless war against Left national reformists led by Nehru and Bose without telling the reader that it was the ultra left line of 6th congress of Communist International which was primarily responsible for leftism in Communist Movement of world and which has objectively forced the Indian Communists not to carry innovative experiment of WPP.
•   The last article 'To Young Political Workers' written by BS on February 2, 1931 two months before his martyrdom does also show as Com. VM`s depicted Bhagat Singh as 'transition towards Marxism from Revolutionary Terrorism'. The article in LB quotes some other lines from 'To Young Political Workers' to refute Grewal and proves that BS was actually having a very realistic idea of how the communist party would develop stage by stage. But this stage theory of building the communist party is not there in 'To Young Political Workers'. See where the emphasis of BS is: 'As the situation develops, revolutionary intellectuals - who usually come from, and for a certain length of time will come from, the bourgeois and petty bourgeois backgrounds, but who have dissociated themselves from the habits and traditions of these classes, will mainly constitute the revolutionary party and then around them more and more political activists from among workers, peasants and small artisans will also join the party.  But mainly it would be a party of revolutionary intellectual women and men, whose main responsibilities would be to chalk out plans, to execute them, to undertake propaganda work……., to prepare masses for revolt and lead them fearlessly when needed.'  
•   At this juncture, when we should invoke BS to launch offensive against the RSS vision of Hindu Rashtra and Congress subservience to imperialism and even against the current opportunist politics of CPM led Left, how pertinent or necessary it is to pose him as reference point to carry intra-left debate on party line. Is it necessary to join in each and every issue of debate with CPM ? BS says '… The name of the party should be Communist Party.' Mere reference of making communist party does not necessarily mean that BS had arrived at the idea of an independent class party of the proletariat. To pose such a debate why BS could not feel joining Communist Party or why Communists failed to make BS to join Communist Party will be helping only reactionary forces to malign Communist Movement. In fact all this type of theorisation in the name of revisiting history is distracting the focus from the demands of the concrete current politics and damaging the cause of evolving correct tactical response suited to the present political juncture.
 Anyway, just to prove one's point, persons like Ajoy Ghosh should not be misquoted …at least factual misquote should be corrected.”

Without claiming that our presentation was perfectly flawless or beyond dispute, we would like to address the more important issues raised here in the barest possible outline, for a detailed reply would not serve any meaningful political purpose.
First, "factual misquote" is a factually misplaced charge. Not a word has been changed, dropped or added within quotation marks. Of course, we had to be selective, and anyone is free to have a different opinion about this. Incidentally, whereas AG commented (in the sentence referred by the reader which we did not quote in the October article) that “revolution for us meant primarily armed action" BS himself stated that "Revolution does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. … It is not the cult of bombs and pistols.... Bombs and pistols do not make revolution. That is not our understanding. The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting-stone of ideas. This is what we wanted to emphasise.” (for details see LB, October 2006)
Second, almost everything in the article on CP, WPP and CI has been taken, almost word for word, from volume I of Communist Movement in India (see pp 101 -- 02, 133 -- 35, 140 -- 43, 418 -- 22). The article among other things touched the very pertinent question as to why BS thought of building a communist party with a clear-cut programme even when he was in touch with the existing CP. It commented on the weaknesses of CPI/WPP in this very limited context, avoiding issues like CI-CPI relations or tensions and the responsibility of CI behind these weaknesses -- issues which are covered in our history volume but are not relevant to the theme of the article.

Third, the article did not say BS had a perfectly developed idea regarding CP. That was just not possible at that stage; we merely pointed to what is valuable and relevant today. BS' awareness of the class dimension is evident in many of his writings; one may also refer to Panikkar’s opinion on this question (see box).

A tribute to Bhagat Singh on the occasion of his birth centenary.

“There is a criticism, however, that his understanding and application of Marxism was not complete or adequately scientific. The criticism is based mainly on the assumption that Bhagat Singh preferred youth and not class as the category for political mobilisation. But class was central to his political analysis.
About two months before his martyrdom, he wrote that the “real revolutionary armies are in the villages and factories, the peasantry and labourers”. Further, his view of politics was based on class struggle: “…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”
Bhagat Singh was one of the early Marxists of India who tried to chart out a revolutionary path for the country. His contribution to nurture a democratic, socialist and secular tradition has considerable contemporary relevance.”

(K. N. Panikkar, Frontline, Vol. 24 - Issue 21, Oct.20-Nov. 02, 2007)

Finally, the article should be read not in isolation from our overall propaganda, the main thrust of which has been pointed out earlier, but as part of it. It is none of our intention to open a debating society on BS. But debates cannot be wished away (even CPI and CPI(M), despite their near-complete political unity, continue to debate over such elementary facts as the foundation date of undivided CPI). And it is not in our tradition to conceal historical weaknesses or mistakes lest reactionaries should utilise that; rather we have always drawn valuable lessons from such discussions to break new grounds in theory and practice.
Now to round off the discussion, a brief recapitulation of our basic position may be in order.
Unable to erase BS from the minds of our countrymen and from the history of freedom movement, the ruling classes distort and misappropriate his legacy in all possible ways. For this purpose they try and over up the political identity of BS -- his revolutionary class line in the national movement, his insistence on power to be transferred not to 'Indians' in general (which would actually mean the bhure angrez replacing the gore angrez) but to workers and peasants and so on -- in a hazy hallow of "great martyr". The revisionist evaluation has a different point of departure but reproduces the ambivalence in another form by indulging in pedantic nitpicking on the exact extent of BS' ideological transformation and declaring, a la Ajoy Ghosh, "it would be an exaggeration to say that he became a Marxist". By contrast we hold that his transition to Marxism was not a halfway house, there was no vacillation, no question of his turning back to the old ideological mould and in this sense that transition or transformation was essentially completed. This definitive appreciation of BS as a communist pioneer (we did not say a party founder) tears apart the semi-opaque veils and constitutes the revolutionary communist response to the reactionary-revisionist convergence on the evaluation of this epoch-making personality.
That this assessment would earn the ire of the opportunist Left was only to be expected. Accepting BS on the emotional plane and as a historical figure poses no problem to them. But accepting him politically and in the current context is a different proposition altogether. He remains one of the greatest symbols of uncompromising struggle not only against imperialism but also against its collaborators, the Indian ruling classes; to stress his contemporary political relevance is to deal a body blow to the entire edifice of the class-collaborationist, capitulationist, treacherous tactical line of Indian social democrats. Naturally they cannot tolerate the left ranks to be imbued with the revolutionary political heritage of BS.

Trained by liberal and revisionist historiography to see BS simply as a revolutionary patriot, some of our comrades and friends prefer to uphold this image to build bridges with broad democratic and patriotic sections (the urge is perfectly all right; in fact this was the party's main concern in, say, the 28th  September programme) and feel that highlighting his communist credentials might jeopardise that prospect (where we beg to differ). We differ because, in the first place, such apprehensions are not based on real life experience. In our meetings, seminars and other programmes during the centenary celebrations, we have found progressive, democratic and patriotic forces from different age groups, communities and social backgrounds not only welcoming our approach but coming even closer to us than before. Secondly, projecting BS as a communist pioneer is necessary not only, or mainly, to do justice to his assessment but more importantly in the interest of the communist movement itself. On one hand this position helps counter bourgeois attempts to minimise the role of communists in the freedom movement; on the other it can serve to force the Indian left into serious self-introspection, to stimulate ideological struggle within the left movement. The present discussion is a welcome proof of that.