Youth icons Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh have much in common

The latter lived for just 23 years between 1907 and 1931, whereas the former lived for 39 years from 1928 to 1967.

 |  7-minute read |   07-10-2016
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Indian and Pakistani youth recently celebrated Bhagat Singh’s 110th birth anniversary on September 28, and a few days from now, youth of the world will remember Che Guevara on October 9, completing 49 years of his martyrdom at the hands of the US-supported Bolivian reactionary regime in 1967.

Guevara became a symbol of resistance to US imperialism from the early Seventies at the height of the Vietnam War, and with passage of time and publication of his writings, became more and more of a fascinating hero for the youth the world over.

The Bhagat Singh phenomenon among Indian youth was there since his martyrdom in 1931, but it is only in digital times that his image as a hero has travelled beyond India.

Pakistani youth and liberal intelligentsia are now equally enamoured of him and claim him to be Pakistan’s hero. Left intelligentsia the world over is also now recognising him as much of a hero as Che Guevara is!

How have both these icons sustained and expanded as heroes for the youth? Bhagat Singh lived between 1907 and 1931 for just 23 years and five months, whereas Guevara lived from 1928 to 1967 for 39 years.

Bhagat Singh got seven years-plus of political life, whereas Guevara's political life started at the age of 23 when, as a student of medicine, he travelled around South America on his motorcycle with friend Alberto Grenado in 1951 for 8,000km.

The journey took Guevara through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Miami and Florida 20 days, before returning home to Buenos Aires. They spent nine months on the travel and some time in a leper colony in Peru.

The sight of crushing poverty and hunger in rural areas made Guevara think of the liberation of South America. Prior to this, he had taken a solo journey in Northern Argentine for 4,500km alone on an engine-fitted bicycle in 1950. In 1953, he completed medical studies and officially became Dr Ernesto Che Guevara.

Guevara was born in Argentina on June 14, 1928, in a well-to-do family. He got an enlightened atmosphere at home to grow intellectually. He suffered from asthma from his childhood, which did not leave him till the end of his life, yet he excelled in swimming, football, golf and was an untiring cyclist! Guevara was born three years before Bhagat Singh was hanged by British colonialists.

Bhagat Singh also got political awareness from his family; his grandfather, father and two uncles were part of India's freedom struggle and there were lots of books and journals in his home in many languages, which made him grow into a multi-lingual personality.

Bhagat Singh’s early life was also shaped by Punjab peasants' suffering from debt, against which his uncle Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai were organising a resistance movement. Bhagat Singh became a full-blown political activist at the tender age of 16, when revolutionaries formed the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) which five years later turned into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association/Army (HSRA) due to the ideological colour given to it by Bhagat Singh by his deep study of Marxism and the Soviet Revolution of 1917.

Guevara, after his 1951 motorcycle trip, started again on July 7, 1953, this time to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. On December 10, 1953, before leaving for Guatemala, he sent an update to his Aunt Beatriz from San José, Costa Rica.

In the letter, he spoke of traversing through the dominion of the United Fruit Company; a journey which convinced him that the Company's capitalist system was a terrible one. In Guatemala, he saw the overthrow of democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz’s government by American-supported local right-wing forces in 1954.

castro-embed_100716014214.jpg Che Guevara was made second-in-command to Fidel Castro. (Photo credit: Reuters) 

Guevara himself was eager to fight on behalf of Arbenz and joined an armed militia organised by the communist youth for that purpose, but frustrated with the group's inaction, he soon returned to medical duties. Following the coup, he again volunteered to fight, but soon after, Arbenz took refuge in the Mexican embassy and told his foreign supporters to leave the country.

Guevara's repeated calls to resist were noted by supporters of the coup, and he was marked for murder. He had to seek shelter in the Argentine embassy, before he could get safe passage to Mexico. He worked as a doctor in Mexico, where he met the Castro brothers in 1955, who were trying to organise the Cuban Revolution from Mexico.

Castro had attempted a revolution in Cuba on July 26, 1953 - The Movement - by attacking the military garrison in Moncada. The revolutionaries were sentenced for long jail terms and released after more than two years, after which they had come to Mexico. Guevara joined them there and they set out for Cuba on the leaking yacht Granma with 82 fighters on November 25, 1956.

On reaching the mountains of Sierra Maestra in Cuba, dictator Fulgencio Batista's forces killed most of them, with only 22 remaining. They met after many days in the mountains and Guevara was made second in command to Castro; within two years, they orchestrated the world’s most amazing revolution and captured power on January 1, 1959.

Batista and his supporters fled to Miami in the US. Guevara himself liberated Santa Clara with just 400 hundred soldiers in front of Batista's army which was ten times in numbers!

Guevara helped the Cuban Revolution succeed, and was one of the senior ministers in Castro's cabinet, yet his heart was in revolution and he wished to carry it forward in the whole of Latin America, especially his birth country Argentina.

Feeling restless, he went to Congo and other African countries to help liberation movements. Later, in 1966, he decided to go to Bolivia and try Cuba-like revolutions. He tried to organise guerrilla forces despite suffering from asthma, but failed due to heavy odds.

US-supported Bolivian dictator Rene Barrientos got him killed brutally after he was captured on October 8. When in captivity, Guevara was tortured most cruelly but he kept his head high all the time and it was his manner of facing death that made him immortal and a hero among youth.

He wrote his own epitaph: Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that our battle-cry may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons.

Guevara was true internationalist - born in Argentina, fought in Guatemala and Congo, participated in a revolution in Cuba and died in Bolivia, again while organising a revolution.

In 16 years of his active life, he did so much and wrote so much. His writings - motorcycle diaries, Bolivian diaries, on guerrilla warfare, Congo diary, the Che Guevara Reader, which includes speeches, letters and interviews, on global justice and Marx and Engels - show his remarkable mind.

Five of his children survived him, some are now known figures in Cuba. His personal collection of books includes books by Jawaharlal Nehru as well, whom he met during a visit to India and Pakistan. He was probably not aware of Bhagat Singh’s writings!

Singh's jail notebook, from September 12, 1929, to an undated time before March 23, 1931, and the Bolivian diaries of Guevara, dated from November 7, 1966, to October 7, 1967, the day before his capture, though different make for interesting reading.

While Singh was taking notes of world classics on literature, history and political economy, Guevara was taking critical notes on his revolutionary activities. Both were voracious readers and would be found reading in the odd conditions of life underground.

Both faced death in a most honourable manner. Singh wrote to the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab to shoot him and his comrades as they were "war prisoners" and Guevara exhorted his killer - "shoot coward"!

Also read: 'Revolutionary', not 'terrorist' Bhagat Singh scares the right-wing


Chaman Lal Chaman Lal @profchaman

The author is a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of Understanding Bhagat Singh.

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