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

Abhinav Kumar
Abhinav KumarMay 02, 2016 | 18:32

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

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Dinanath Batra is seeking a ban on the famous book India's Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, and KN Panikkar. According to a recently published report in The Hindu, Batra has written a letter to the Union HRD ministry complaining about Bhagat Singh being labelled a "revolutionary terrorist" in the book. Also, family members of Bhagat Singh have complained about it. This is not the first time that Batra is demanding a ban on a book. He forced publishers of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger to withdraw the book.


Why do people get offended when they read a book? What does it tell us about people who get offended by reading a book? The book by Chandra and others which is at the centre of the issue has sold more than one lakh copies and almost every History student must have read it in parts or full.

It is also considered to be one of the best books on India's struggle for Independence. A lot of people have read what is written about Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries in the book but most of them would not agree that Bhagat Singh was a terrorist of any kind. Why?

Reading a book is like entering into a conversation with the writer. The relationship between a book and its reader must not be passive. The reader tries to understand the ideas presented in the book in light of his own experiences and simultaneously examines his own views and perceptions according to what has been mentioned in the book. Most people would not consider Bhagat Singh a terrorist because it is written as such. The co-authors of the book had clarified that the word "terrorist" did not have pejorative meaning when the book was written.

The book that has been at the centre of the controversy. 

We must enter into a conversation with the the writers and see what it is trying to convey while understanding the claim made by Batra. One of the chapters in the book is titled "Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen, and the revolutionary terrorists" and Batra is probably referring to this chapter. We must examine how the book describes "revolutionary terrorists".

"Bhagat Singh, born in 1907 and a nephew of the famous revolutionary Ajit Singh, was a giant of an intellectual. A voracious reader, he was one of the most well read of political leaders of the time."

Is it an attempt to describe a terrorist? I don't think so. Batra might disagree. Here is something he should ponder over. Who would call someone "a giant of an intellectual" if he wishes to portray him as a terrorist? When the book tells us that Bhagat Singh turned to Marxism and started believing in mass movements, it must have given a perception to Batra that a terrorist is being described here.

Batra's belief that it is a description of a terrorist was further strengthened where the book emphasises that Bhagat Singh, along with Sukhdev, organised students for political actions. In the current political scenario of India Marxism, mass movements, and student politics are enough to shape Batra's views about people who associate themselves with these ideas.


The book also discusses Bhagat Singh's view on communalism and how he considered it as one of the biggest problems India was facing. This might jeopardise the plan of appropriating Bhagat Singh by the BJP for its political benefits. It quotes the freedom fighter and other revolutionaries at length about the meaning of revolution. It tells us that revolution for them was not militancy and violence but the change of an unjust order and abolition of capitalism and class domination. This description of Bhagat Singh must have made some of Batra's patrons uncomfortable.

The book describes the incident of Bhagat Singh's hanging in following words: "Bhagat Singh became a household name in the land. And many persons, all over the country, wept and refused to eat food, attend schools, or carry on their daily work, when they heard of his hanging in March 1931."

It is surely not talking about hanging of a terrorist. It tells us that Bhagat Singh was a man whom the country adored and loved. It tells us that his revolutionary thoughts connected with the masses to a degree unmatched by any other leader of his time except Mahatma Gandhi.

The book describes their trial in courts in the following words: "Their fearless and defiant attitude in the courts - every day they entered the courtroom shouting slogans 'Inquilab Zindabad', 'Down, Down with Imperialism', 'Long Live the Proletariat' and singing songs such as 'sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai' and 'mera rang de basanti chola' - was reported in newspapers".

What can we understand about Bhagat Singh and his ilk when we read this? To me, he seems to be in love with the people of his country and is willing to sacrifice his life happily for the sake of independence and social justice. Does the book portray him as a terrorist in the way we understand terrorism? Definitely not. I am not sure how Batra understood it though.

Surya Sen, another "revolutionary terrorist" is also described in the book which makes it pretty clear what it means by the word revolutionary terrorist. The chapter describes Surya Sen as "a brilliant and inspiring organiser, was an unpretentious, soft-spoken and transparently sincere person".

Although Batra might find this as a description of a terrorist but he certainly does not sound like a terrorist to me. The book tells us that Surya Sen made the ultimate sacrifice in order to show the youth of Bengal the path of organised armed struggle and encouraged them to sacrifice themselves for the noble cause of independence.

The chapter concludes by pointing out the limitation of revolutionary terrorists by highlighting their inability to connect to the masses and activate them into political action. The final few sentences of the chapter sums up, what the book means by the word revolutionary terrorism: "They made an abiding contribution to the national freedom movement. Their deep patriotism, courage, determination, and sense of sacrifice stirred the Indian people. They helped spread nationalist consciousness in the land; and in northern India the spread of socialist consciousness owed a lot to them."

Does it sound like terrorism? Not to me. It puts very eloquently their importance and contribution in the nationalist movement and also points out their limitations. The book is a strong rebuttal of any charge of terrorism and violence on the part of the revolutionaries. It seeks to clarify what they meant by revolution and their strong desire not only for independence but also for social justice.

I don't know which part of the chapter he found disturbing enough to demand a ban on it. I think the word that offended him is not "terrorist" but "revolutionary". Probably Batra and others subscribing to his ideology are scared of revolutionary politics.

They are not confined to the RSS-BJP combine but also include all those people who want to strip nationalism of all its revolutionary potential and use it to demand unquestioned loyalty from the masses. They are scared that the portrayal of Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary would harm their politics of nationalism which is trying to strip Bhagat Singh of his revolutionary character.

They want to appropriate him for the so-called nationalist cause and in order to do so, they must annihilate all descriptions of Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary who was inspired by Marx and Lenin and who strongly believed in the cause of social justice through revolution and mass movements.

Last updated: March 23, 2018 | 21:01
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