Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary

The revolutionary movement was an epic of bravery and self-sacrifice, and this deserves to be celebrated. Indians proved that they were willing to fight and would no longer put up with the ignominy of foreign rule. In that context, young Bhagat Singh, who was sought for his killing policeman John Saunders, committed his attack on the Central Assembly in 1929. However, here we want to focus on the lessons to be drawn from this experience, and therefore we will pay attention to the mistakes made.

At the time, the Congress leadership incarnated in Mahatma Gandhi condemned these violent acts in pursuit of a cause which was also his own, viz. freedom from British colonial rule. Congress president Madan Mohan Malaviya approached the British authorities for clemency to Bhagat Singh, which was not granted, but the movement's official judgment of Bhagat Singh's act was still negative. It was merely influenced a bit by the freedom fighter's great popularity. So, at age 23, he was hanged.
Was Mahatma Gandhi's criticism of Bhagat Singh and of the revolutionaries in general correct? For him, it was first of all a moral issue: freedom should not be won at the cost of British or Indian lives. If the opponent could be violent, we should show our moral superiority by not being violent. This position should not be taken as lightly as the critics of Gandhi (those of the left a well as those of the right) tend to do. He who fires the first bullet generally doesn't know what kind of conflict he is letting himself in for. World War 1, the conflict by which everything was measured in those days, started with young men singing ang carring flowers in their rifles on the way to the front, but ended up becoming four years of miserable trench warfare, poison gas, and futile offensives resulting in mass death. But even if the quantity of violence can be contained, that first bullet still remains morally reprehensible. That killed policeman is likely just following orders, he has a grieving family too, and even if he is guilty he is not so to the extent that you have a right to execute the death penalty.
But to Gandhi, non-violence was not just a moral stance, it was also a strategy. By being non-violent, his activists would appeal to the colonial rulers' conscience and thus convince them to vacate India. The Indian republic formally still upholds the myth that this Gandhian strategy of non-violence won India's freedom. In fact, in the crucial years of World War 2 and its aftermath, Gandhi was politically paralyzed and his only campaign, the Quit India movement of August 1942, was a failure and anything but non-violent. Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister during the transfer of power, testified later in an interview that Gandhi's influence on the decesion to decolonize had been "minimal".
On the contrary, purely military factors had been decisive: the weakening of British power by the war and by its economic effects, and the creation of a large Indian army of which the loyalty had become doubtful. Whereas Gandhi had given a call for boycotting the incipient war effort, the business class massively made money out of the war production (after the US, India became the great economic victor of the war), and Mohammed Ali Jinnah's Muslim League as well as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's Hindy Mahasabha called on Indian young men to join the army. This they did in their millions, and Indian troops were crucial for the Allied victories in North Africa, Iraq and Southeast Asia. During the war, many Indian soldiers in Axis captivity defected to Subhas Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Fauz, and after the war, the Naval Mutiny had driven home to the British that their Indian troops would not obey their foreign masters in the event of a national revolution.
As a strategy, Gandhi's non-violence was not much of a success. In South Africa, for instance, the African National Congress adopted it as their policy until the political position of the Blacks had deteriorated so much and the prospects for advancement so bleak that it founded an armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). In India it was discredited further when Gandhi refused to use his ultimate pressure instrument, the fast unto death, against his second major opponent, the Muslim League, when it forced the Partition and the creation of Pakistan on an unwilling India. It has become a habit among Indians of all political persuasions to blame the British for the Partition, but in fact the British wanted none of the idea when Jinnah presented it to them. Only in 1947 did they start considering it inevitable -- but so did the Congress leaders, including, by June 1947, the Mahatma himself. At any rate, it was the Muslim League that had been working overtime to push its Pakistan plan, which it had officially adopted in 1940.
It is only as a moral stand that Gandhian non-violence proved durable. As a strategy, it moved some individual minds but it did not shake the colonial power structure. But does this mean that Bhagat Singh's strategy was better?
In the short run, it was an obvious failure as well. First of all, the Central Assembly was a symbol of the colonial dispensation, no doubt, but it was also an embodiment of India's incipient democracy. Surely, the revolutionaries could have chosen a less ambiguous symbol of British rule. Secondly, the revolutionaries threatened the lives of individual British administrators and security personnel (which is why they preferred to deal with Gandhi and his non-violence) but not the colonial establishment. All they achieved was that they themselves ended up in jail or on the gallows. But if the movement had caught on, if political leaders had supported it, if foreign powers had provided weapons and safe havens, it could have worked. The British in India were very few, and it is said that the British Empire was based on bluff. There is no way the British could have held on in India if the revolutionary movement had grown from stray acts of terrorism to a coordinated and purposeful effort on a larger scale.
In the 1970s, as I remember vividly, our neighbour Germany was rocked by the abductions and bomb attacks of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF, Red Army Faction). When the first-generation leadership was in prison, the second generation committed abductions to force the authorities into setting them free. One of them, Horst Mahler (who later converted to the right), refused this forcible release. He was allowed to explain his motive on TV. While in prison, he had joined the Maoist party Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD), and said his party preferred organized mass revolution at the right time to the stray acts of terror of the RAF. He concluded with an optimistic: "Onwards, with the KPD!" This analysis was historically correct: when an anarchist managed to kill the Czar in 1881, he found that it was easy to kill an indidual czar but very difficult to dislodge the czarist power structure. Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher who had inspired the RAF, commented that acts of terrorism can be useful in a revolutionary situation, when the masses only need a trigger to join the action; but that, alas, what prevailed in Germany at that time was a counterrevolutionary situation.
Applying this to Bhagat Singh's situation, we can say that the situation in India was by no means ripe. Stray acts of violence were like seeds falling on the rock, because the masses were not ready for violence, and because the political leadership had opted for another strategy. Gandhian non-violence may or may not have been the right choice, but it resonated with the Indian masses. It also formed a continuum with the strategy of the so-called moderates, reformers who sought to achieve big changes by using to the fullest the little steps that were possible within the system. These forces had prepared the ground for a different form of activism than the armed struggle of the revolutionaries.
Another shortcoming of the revolutionary movement was the lack of a consistent ideology. The first revolutionaries in Bengal, including Sri Aurobindo, were animated by an unfettered nationalism. It was for them that Savarkar translated the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini's writings. To dissuade them from anarchic terrorism against British individuals, the authorities gave them Marxist literature in prison, because orthodox Marxism believes in mass violence once the revolution arrives, but not in stray acts of violence. The British would take care that the great revolution never came, and meanwhile the terrorists-turned-Marxists would remain physically harmless. That is how Bengal as the hotbed of revolutionary nationalism became the centre of Indian Marxism.
However, it would be wrong to see that British calculation as the only factor of Marx' popularity in India. After the Bolshevik Revolution, many naïve but action-oriented youngsters the world over waxed enthusiastic over this new socialist utopia. The Panjabi student Bhagat Singh was likewise touched, and called himself a socialist. He spread the slogan "Inqilab zindabad" (Persian-Urdu: "long live the revolution"), which the Soviets had used to garner support among the Central-Asian Muslims against the Czar, a common target of the Muslims and the Bolsheviks. Bhagat Singh was executed, but his ideological preference went on to become independent India's official economic policy. With the benefit of hindsight, contemporary Indians judge socialism one of their country's most tragic failures. While Indians abroad were impressively successful as businessmen, India itself became proverbially poor under Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors. We can forgive young Bhagat Singh, he hadn't thought about those matters and died too young to get much real-life experience. He is remembered not for his ideological excursions, only for his nationalist acts.
We may conclude that Bhagat Singh cannot serve as an example to be emulated by today's Indians. His political-economic vision, still inarticulate, was to prove wrong. His strategy was not the best for his country at that time, though it deserved a more nuanced judgment than Gandhiji's condemnation. His love of his nation, however, was genuine and heartfelt. His acts were morally ambiguous but undoubtedly patriotic and heroic. It is in that sense that Bhagat Singh must be remembered.

(Law Animated World, Hyderabad, 15 March 2013)


Ghost Writer said...

It may be convenient to blame British for the partition - but it also happens to be true. Reality is that the British needed Pakistan for strategic reasons to protect middle-eastern oil (Wells of Power)from the Soviets - and once they saw the Indian nationalists were determined not to oblige them with this; they created a zone for their air-bases.

There is no doubt that the British built-up Jinnah - especially after the debacle of the 1940 election where the League got wiped out. Even in 1946 when the League did well - they did not manage much in NWFP and it was only the governor (GM Syed's) vote in Sindh that gave them a majority. For these 6 years - where did the funding, support and encouragement for the League come from? You only have to read Churchill's comments on India to know who built Mr. Jinnah up as the only spokesman.
The Indians voted with their feet against the nationalist movement when they joined British WW-II war effort. This put paid to the nationalists hopes of capitalizing on Britain`s discomfort. They could have agreed to enter into an Anglo-American defense pact against he Soviets - which would surely have kept India united. Had they entered into the Marshall plan - it would also have given India a head start on the economic front, not to mention an assured supply of oil.
Alas Mr. Nehru was too fond of empty pontification and was rather enamored of socialists - not to mention Soviet communists.

ysv_rao said...


I think you give too much credit to Indians and the British.
Never attribute to malice what you can to incompetence a wise man once said. And this applies both to the foolish insular and provincial Indians of any political stripe or the panicky,desperate British grasping at straws to hold on to the slipping empire while fighting the Axis.
I am not sure the Marshall plan applies to Indians, it was meant to resurrect the nations who were thoroughly devastated by the war,India was indirectly affected and indeed as Dr Elst points out profited from it.
I believe morally,strategically,ideologically and economically entering the Anglo American sphere wouldve been the right thing to do for India.However to do so would require incredible foresight,clear thinking resolution and fortitute from the Indian leadership and sadly Indians were rather lacking in this department.

aronite said...

Applying this to Bhagat Singh's situation, we can say that the situation in India was by no means ripe”.
True- the Gadar uprising and Hindu German Conspiracy had failed largely due to this prematurity just as Bengali Anuseelan samiti.
KE talks of the Moderate Line continuum but misses the Extremist continuum though he spells out how it was the latter Force continuum that delivered the Freedom as done deal via netaji’s INA.
“Stray acts of violence were like seeds falling on the rock, because the masses were not ready for violence, and because the political leadership had opted for another strategy. Gandhian non-violence may or may not have been the right choice, but it resonated with the Indian masses’.
Not without a tacit Imperial preference, and its Media’s projection and a few assassinations of the key figures through its agents. Much material exists to suggest that Gandhi and Jinnah were both an Imperial set up.
It was not a spontaneous ‘Moderate’ leadership that spontaneously resonated, but an Imperial counter strategy with covert ops that fabricated that.
It was in spite of all such Imperial puppetry and orchestration that the Extremist line and its actions that prevailed and in this British empire met with a failure to eradicate it as a threat.
Since the foxy British empire failed to thwart the Militant nationalism as a force- the logical deduction leaves open still the question of the present times and future-
How can one bet the present Pseudo secular system will do better and hope to prevail over the Hindu militants where even the British Empire had to bite the dust?
International communism was at rudimentary stage of evolution while Indian nationalist movement’s militant faction was already century old stepping into a world undecided which way? –the capitalist roader’s or the communists’.
Bhagat singh himself says he was still reading a lot and learning the world of ideas-so he can be excused for his choice then- especially since he was a revolutionary socialist and never a member of the Bolshevik Party at any time. The revolutionary socialists were the infamous ‘useful idiots’ that Lenin massacred and fell to one their bullets in his neck. Bagat singh’s subsequent hypothetical relationship with the CPI would’ve been no different?
Bhagat singh’s dallying with socialism alone is anachronistic. Hindu revolution however is seen vindicated by Koenraad elst’s admission about which if the two contenders liberated India-and therefore must clue on to the future victor.

ysv_rao said...


I am amazed at how just 35 years of Gandhis entry in India's freedom struggle so completely transformed Indias image so that everyone looks at India's more than 4 millenia of recorded history through a pacifist lens.

But when you ascribe the moderate movement to a grand imperial conspiracy you are venturing into Capt Ajit Vadakayil territory filled with crank conspiracies and deranged views of how the world works.
That is not to say that the Gandhian pacifism and moderation wasnt a relief to the British Raj. To be sure, they preferred this type of toothless adverseray but then again they mustve looked on with confusion and alarm for Gandhi support for WWI and WWII as well as the violent Quit India movement.His 2nd in commands Subhash Chandra Bose shocking and unanticipated collusion with the axis.
Gandhi's PR campaign around the world actually yielding fruit and had a role in Americans being strongly annoyed by British presence in India. And when you lose Americans , you might as well as pack it up and leave.

Once again as I explained to Capt Ajit on his paranoid fact free anti semitic blog, it is easy form conspiracies but they never according to plan as humans are not automatons but quite unpredictable and have a habit of going off script.

The world cannot be operated by a software or algorithm. This is why command economies fail, no one has figured out a formula for the predicting the stock market, its why "game" doesnt really work at bedding women, its Napolean wanted lucky generals than merely capable ones,why nation building collapses, its why there arent rich economists.

Its the dance of Shiva.

Its something that conspiracy prone lunatics will never understand.

ysv_rao said...

I forgot to mention, we cant really blame Bhagat Singh for being enamored of socialism in that era. After all ,many leading economists, politicians,authors, journalists not to mention world leaders were quite taken by it.
No need to pile on poor 23rd year old Bhagat Singh for jumping on the bandwagon.

SmileAbhi said...

He was in line with other who went to gallows before him and were practising Hindus and in general with Hindu sense of history have been forgotten .One of the first whom courage even Churchill admired and who Gandhi criticised was Madan lal Dhingra who was hanged in london in 1909 and whose ancestral house in amritsar was demolished a year ago in front of teary eyes of thepoor self and in general with hindu imbecility no one gave damn if possible please do write about this hero who came from very wealthy family and could have enjoyed his life but decided to give it for sake of his country,Meanwhile it was our very own khushwant singh's father who was crown witness in bhagat singh case. Perhaps shaheedon ki chittaoon par lagengey har baras meley watan par mitney waalon ka yahee antim nishan hogaah.

Anonymous said...

Dear Koenraad,
I have found your blog, which I really like it. Enjoyed to read your posts.
I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing your posts and ideas on Glipho? It's a quite new social publishing platform for bloggers, where you can connect to every social network accounts.

Koenraad Elst said...

@Monika: Never heard of Glipho, but this blog is in the public domain now and can be reproduced anywhere. Cheers.

Koenraad Elst said...

@Ghost Writer: In 1940, the Soviet Union was not in the picture, and in 1941-45, it was an ally. In those years, the British did not make calculations in terms of an anti-Soviet outpost. Yet the League adopted the Pakistan plan in 1940. It did so out of its own calculations, without the British and against their conception of an coherent Indian empire. A billion Hindus may be united in pursuing a fantasy, but I will keep on affirming the truth: the Partition was not the handiwork of the British but of the Muslims. 65 years down the line, Indians prefer to beat the dead horse of the British to facing the actual threat of the Musalmans.

Meanwhile, you may be right in arguing that if Nehru had thrown in his lot with the Anglo-American camp, the anti-Partition forces might have been strong enough to defeat Muslim separatism. The British and Congress resistance against Partition would have been firmer. Yes, Nehru's guilt is even greater than we thought.

Atman said...

good blog.want to know more abt ur hippie life and life at hindu banaras university

Koenraad Elst said...

Not much interesting to be said. Once my work is done, I may have some time for a little autobiography. For now, I have too much urgent work to do.