Chaman Lal was Professor (retired) and former Chairperson of the Centre of Indian Languages at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi (India). Post-retirement, he was on assignment at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, as Professor-Coordinator of the Centre for Comparative Literature for one year. Presently, he is Honorary Advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre at Delhi Archives, government of NCT, Delhi. He is the Chancellor’s nominated Fellow at the Senate of Panjab University, Chandigarh, for the term 2016-20 and has been elected Dean, Language Faculty, for year 2020. He has served as a Visiting Professor on the Hindi Chair at The University of the West Indies in the St. Augustine campus. He has 50 plus authored/edited/translated books to his credit in Hindi, Punjabi and English languages. Some of his books have been translated into Marathi, Bengali and Urdu languages as well. His main areas of interest are the translation of Indian literature and the history of revolutionary movements during the freedom struggle of India. He is known for his books on Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh and revolutionary Punjabi poet Avtar Singh Pash. He has many national and state awards in the field of literature in India, including the National Prize for Translation from the Sahitya Akademi of India.  His latest publication is The Bhagat Singh Reader and Bhagat Singh:Sampuran Lekhan in four volumes in Hindi.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death when he was very young. He was reading Lenin moments before he was hanged. What was his relationship with Marxism-Leninism? Also, Mao and the Chinese long march and revolution?

Bhagat Singh was probably reading a book about Lenin, delivered to him by his advocate Pran Nath Mehta in the morning meeting on March 23. On the evening of March 22, he had asked for this book whose review he had seen in some journal. He was well-versed in Marxism. In fact, by his own conviction, he had turned into a committed Marxist, though this debate will continue on whether he was a full-grown Marxist or a developing Marxist. Perhaps every Marxist is always a developing Marxist, because if he or she stops developing, taking into account the new social experiences and contemporary reality into account, then he or she will be committing errors in understanding reality. From his writings and the memoirs of his comrades, one can see that he was not much exposed to the Chinese revolutionary movement or Mao-Ze-Dong. However, he was quite well-versed with the works of Marx, Engles, Lenin and Trotsky, but not so much with Stalin’s life and work.

Bhagwan Das Mahaur, in his memoirs, has mentioned that Bhagat Singh gave him a copy of Capital, which he could not understand much! In his Jail Notebook, one can find quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and a few other Marxists. He was probably influenced more by Lenin as he favours whole-time revolutionaries dedicated to the cause of the revolution. His seminal essay of February 2, 1931, which is written under the title — ‘Letter to Young Political Workers’ — gives the clear picture of his understanding of Marxism-Leninism.

He was not inspired by Gandhi; he was inspired more by the protracted hunger strikes by Irish revolutionaries, one of whom had lost his life after a long hunger strike. The Irish revolutionary’s sister had sent a condolence message at the martyrdom of Jatin Das, when he died after his 63 days long hunger strike in Lahore jail on September 13, 1929.

Lenin was much concerned about the Bolshevik party organisation, so was Bhagat Singh, who wished to build a party on Leninist principles as is clear from this essay. This was written just one-and-a-half-month before his execution, of course, without getting a chance to practice it in his lifetime.

Bhagat Singh, along with his comrades, sat on a long fast demanding better prison conditions and fundamental rights. This was a non-violent action, almost like a form of Gandhian satyagraha. Besides, he wrote against violence. Please share your views on Bhagat Singh’s conception of violence and non-violence.

It is true that with his three hunger strikes in jail, lasting almost five months –150 days in total — he practiced the Gandhian form of struggle in jail. However, he was not inspired by Gandhi in his hunger strikes; he was inspired more by the protracted and hard hunger strikes by committed Irish revolutionaries, one of whom had lost his life after undertaking a long hunger strike. The martyred Irish revolutionary’s sister had sent a condolence message at the martyrdom of Jatin Das, when he passed away after his 63 days long hunger strike in Lahore jail on September 13, 1929.

Professor Chaman Lal
Professor Chaman Lal

Bhagat Singh was very clear about the struggles in jail — to fight for the rights of revolutionaries who should be treated as political prisoners in jail. This was part of his political struggle. So were his statements, songs and slogans in court, treating courts as a platform to spread his political programme and message with the help of the media highlighting those statements, which rattled the British colonial empire. Ironically, Bhagat Singh and his comrades did not fully succeed in securing the ‘political prisoner’ status in jail despite their long hunger strikes; indeed, this has not been achieved even in post-colonial India.

 Sudha Bhardwaj, lawyer, professor and activist, and other prisoners are examples in India which proves that the old judicial and prison system has continued with the colonial legacy of penal codes. Despite all the hypocritical rhetoric surrounding the Constitution, nothing has been changed in the colonial penal laws in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The same sedition laws, laws which hurt sentiments in the name of religion etc, the establishment’s silence on open hate politics and communal polarisation, continues with the same impunity, rather, with more arrogance and impunity.

Bhagat Singh wrote against terrorist violence, not violence as such. Bhagat Singh’s position on violence was typically Marxist. The wish of the working-class is to secure its rights through their mass organisations and peaceful mass actions like strikes/marches. It is the ruling classes who suppress the workers peaceful strikes and other actions like fasts/marches/demonstrations by the violence of the armed forces/police or other armed forces. Bhagat Singh had emphasised on building mass organisations of workers, peasants and had also written about the peaceful nature of mass actions, but he had not ruled out resistance to the ruling classes who use violent attacks on the masses, even if they have to be resisted militantly.  

What was his relationship with Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom movement? What is your opinion about Gandhi’s silence when Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged.

Bhagat Singh and all the young revolutionaries of the time had joined Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in 1921 and even suffered lashes, like Chandrashekhar Azad. However, as Gandhi withdrew the massive movement after the Chauri Chaura incident, they grew disillusioned and thought of alternative paths to freedom. They thought that only the revolutionary path can liberate India. Hence, they joined the Hindustan Republican Army (HRA) organised by Shachindernath Sanyal in late 1923 or early 1924. Later, they kept participating in the Gandhian movement, while continuing their own radical movement as well. They participated in the anti-Simon Commission processions in 1928 under the leadership of Lala Lajpat Rai in Lahore.

However, their differences with Gandhi and Congress became more pronounced, though they kept close to Left-oriented sections of the Congress like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. 

Durga Bhabhi’s husband Bhagwati Charan Vohra died while testing a bomb at the banks of river Ravi in Lahore. The bomb was meant to be used for getting Bhagat Singh released from jail. Durga Bhabhi could not even shed a tear due to the relentless stress of underground life.

Gandhi was not exactly silent on the execution of the three revolutionaries. There was tremendous pressure on Gandhi from within the Congress party led by Nehru and Bose; even Motilal Nehru and Madan Mohan Malviya raised their voice for the commutation of the sentence. Gandhi did speak to Viceroy Irwin, but, somewhat, reluctantly. He was against the violence, but was appreciative of their bravery. To my mind, Gandhi had missed taking his own principled position at that time. He was against death penalty. He may be having his strong reservations against the politics of the revolutionaries, but he should have spoken against their death sentence, especially for political reasons. 

What was Bhagat Singh’s vision of the world? How did he look at the world during his time?

 Bhagat Singh’s vision of the world (or, worldview) had got crystalised by that time, when they renamed their revolutionary organisation from HRA to HSRA, consciously adding the ‘socialist’ word. Bhagat Singh’s jail notebook throws ample light on the development of his thought process. He had turned into an ideologically strong Marxist during his time in jail; even before going to jail, there are instances of his giving the copy of Marx’s Capital to his comrades for reading, though in their memoirs they have mentioned that they could not understand the book. Bhagwan Das Mahaur has referred to this in his memoirs.

Bhagat Singh met Udham Singh at the Gujranwala jail. Udham Singh, much older, was deeply impressed. Can you highlight his relationship with Bhagat Singh?

I am not sure whether it was in Gujranwala or in Lahore, but they did spend some time together in jail. Udham Singh, who called himself Mohammad Singh Azad in London jail, was highly impressed by Bhagat Singh’s personality even when he had not met him. Perhaps, he brought arms for Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary group, for which he was convicted for five years in jail. He was ten years older to Bhagat Singh, but he considered him as his role model. He observed hunger strikes in the London jail, prior to his execution on the pattern of Bhagat Singh’s hanging. He wanted to use his London trial as a platform to propagate his political views like Bhagat Singh used it before the Lahore trial. Due to Bhagat Singh setting an example, Britishers were determined not to allow him this liberty. Udham Singh, like Bhagat Singh, did not follow any religious ritual before his execution and was reading Waris Shah’s romantic epic Heer in jail. 

Please do tell us about the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. What was the nature of comradeship in terms of ideas and values, between, say, Bhagat Singh and Ramprasad Bismil, Jatin Das, Chandrashekhar Azad, Durga Bhabi and others?

HSRA was formed on September 8/9, 1928 in the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla grounds in Delhi. Ten revolutionaries from different states had met and added ‘socialist’to the name of the group (HRA) after long ideological deliberations. It was Bhagat Singh’s proposal which was supported by Bejoy Kumar Sinha and others. Bhagat Singh had explained the idea to Chandershkhar Azad prior to this meeting, who was himself not present but he had supported Bhagat Singh. Phaninder Ghosh and Manmohan Bannerjee had opposed the idea; both became traitors to the movement later. Phaninder Ghosh was assassinated by Baikuth Shukal in 1933, for which he was also hanged.

Gandhi did speak to Irwin, but, reluctantly. He was against the violence, but was appreciative of their bravery. To my mind, Gandhi had missed taking his own principled position at that time. He should have spoken against their death sentence, especially for political reasons. 

Relations within the group were most cordial, warm and selfless and everyone was ready to sacrifice his own life for his comrades. Durga Bhabhi had met Mahatma Gandhi while being underground for shooting Brtish officers in Bombay. Gandhi asked her to surrender promising that he would take care of her case. Durga Bhabhi had retorted that she had not come seeking help for herself, but to plead to save the lives of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Mahatma Gandhi told her that he will be unable to do anything for them.

Durga Bhabhi’s husband Bhagwati Charan Vohra died while testing a bomb at the banks of river Ravi in Lahore. The bomb was meant to be used for getting Bhagat Singh released from jail. Durga Bhabhi, at that time, could not even have the last glimpse of her husband and could not even shed a tear due to the intense and relentless stress of underground life.

Jatin Das had fasted for 63 days in Lahore jail and died in the arms of Bhagat Singh while listening to the songs of Bengali revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam and RabindranathTagore.

While various institutions in India have been named after various leaders and politicians, including dynasties, Bhagat Singh’s legacy has been ignored by the ruling elite of various dispensations, even while he is loved and respected by several generations of Indians, including youngsters and students. How is it that the legacy of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and his comrades has been ignored in India?

Yes, all political parties since 1947 have used the name of Bhagat Singh for influencing the voters, especially young voters, among whom Bhagat Singh remains immensely popular, but all the political parties in India have deliberately ignored Bhagat Singh’s ideas to change Indian society. Only now, since the last two decades or more, the youth and Left parties have been trying to imbibe the spirit of Bhagat Singh’s ideas. Can you believe that none of the 800 universities in India is named after Bhagat Singh? There are a couple of universities named after Chandrashekhar Azad or Rajguru, but none is named after Bhagat Singh.

There are portraits of a totally unknown person in the Central Hall of Parliament, but not of Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries who sacrificed their life in the freedom struggle. Even after the Punjab and Haryana state assemblies resolved to name the Chandigarh airport after Bhagat Singh since 2009, it has still not been named. Ironically, Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar even suggested to name it after an unknown Mangal Sen!

A railway station and other institutions have been named after RSS ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya since 2014.  What role did he play in the freedom struggle of India? Ironically, even the Left governments in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, during their long rule, never paid attention to highlighting Bhagat Singh, whom they consider their own icon!

Bhagat Singh
Mahatma Gandhi

Not even the Punjab government has ever chosen to take up this issue. I wrote to former Congress Union HRD ministers (late) Arjun Singh and his successor Kapil Sibal to name the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, set up in 2009, to be named after Shaheed Bhagat Singh. I asked Somnath Chatterjee, then Speaker of the Lok Sabha in the UPA government post-2004, to install plaques where Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt sat in the visitor’s gallery on April 8, 1929, before throwing bombs in the Central Assembly and also where the bombs fell. Everything about Bhagat Singh seems to fall on deaf ears. Today, the rulers are as deaf as the British rulers were to the people’s sensitivities. Savarkar, who was an accused in the Gandhi murder case, has his portrait installed in front of Gandhi in the portrait gallery in the Parliament complex, but there is no Bhagat Singh there! Our current rulers are as scared of Bhagat Singh as were the British.

Many people think that the sacrifices made by Bhagat Singh and his comrades, including others who were tortured and killed in the ‘Kalapani’ in Andaman, has been completely forgotten in India, not only by the ruling establishments and mainstream political parties, but also by ordinary folks and the civil society. That their

sacrifices have become a waste in a country which cares little for their values and idealism. Do you agree?

Not exactly. Indian society is not a great lover of history; it is more a mythology lover. Ruling establishments tend to forget even if they had themselves suffered. The intoxication of power makes them forget everything. The fault lies in the system we have built or live in. Ruling establishments have adopted the same oppressive colonial system against which they were themselves supposedly fighting.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades knew this well; that is why they said clearly that it makes no difference if power changes from white hands to brown, yellow or black hands, if the system remains the same. Yet, when a crisis erupts in society, people have to look for history, as can be seen in the present students’ and mass uprising against the oppression of rulers in the name of CAA or NPR/NRC. Now, everyone is falling back upon the legacy of the freedom struggle.

Political awareness of the masses is a must in every age, that is what Bhagat Singh and his comrades emphasised upon. Surely, their sacrifices have not gone waste if one sees the youth resistance of today.

What would be Bhagat Singh’s understanding of the rise of Hindutva fascism in India and the decline and fall of the Left and progressive forces?

It would be just an interpretation, as one cannot become Bhagat Singh in his absence and the interpretation can be more objective if it is based on his expressed ideas. Bhagat Singh’s writings are freely available now and at least 130 authenticated writings are available in Hindi, English, Punjabi, Urdu and Marathi. On the basis of these writings, one can perhaps surmise that Bhagat Singh would have been in the forefront to fight fascist forces of any kind. For him, colonial and fascist regimes would be of the same nature. He and his comrades would have probably started from scratch again to build the socialist movement if they found it to be lacking in spirit. His comrades’ memoirs indicate that he filled them with a sense of responsibility and commitment towards the revolution. There would have been no sense of defeatism even in the worst of conditions. Whatever be the conditions of the Left and progressive forces in contemporary India, the resistance and revival of the movement would have been the task of those undefeatable, fearless and far-sighted revolutionaries. Perhaps that spirit is getting revived in the current times of struggle!

Bhagat SinghChandrashekhar AzadFascistFreedom MovementGandhiHUnger StrikeLeninMarxNehruSubhash Chandra Bose

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Prof Chaman Lal, expert on Bhagat Singh and the revolutionary freedom movement, speaks to Amit Sengupta
‘Bhagat Singh would have fought fascist forces’