By Bhaskar Sur*
Bhagat Singh has long been an icon of a heroic sacrifice and socialist dream that is yet to be achieved. Udham Singh, his co- patriot, however, is now almost a forgotten figure. Both were products of a militant nationalism that was going through a socialist orientation under the powerful impact of the Russian Revolution. For both of them the Jalianwalla Bagh Massacre (1919) was the point of reference — the raison d’etre for their political activities.
And, both failed, albeit heroically and tragically, to understand that the British imperialism was dying and a transfer of power was imminent; that India was developing the institutions of democracy and a revolution in a democracy is an impossibility.
Bhagat Singh came from an affluent Jat Sikh community and had the opportunity of a better education. Socially, he was better placed than Udham Singh who was a Dalit and grew up in a Sikh orphanage. It is rather intriguing that the Sikh religion, which was born to fight the caste ridden Brahminical oxthodoxy, in course of time came to be infected with the same virus.
Actually, at the moment Dalits constitute nearly 30% of Punjab’s population — highest in the country. Bhagat Singh’s outfit, Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), founded in 1928,was remarkably open to new ideas. In place of the Hindu religiosity of the swadeshi extremists of Bengal, it was committed to Marxism and atheism. Its class/caste base was the same middle class of upper caste origin. It did not have any mass organisation.
HSRA’s actions, says Sumit Sarkar, “Included the murder of Saunders in December 1928 for the assault on Lajpat Rai, bombs thrown at the Legislative Assembly. In 1929, an attempt to blow up Irwin’s train near Delhi in 1929 and a whole series of terrorist actions in Punjub and UP towns in 1930.”
So under the existing laws as much as laws of any civilized country, they were serious crimes and, let us say, ill conceived, ill timed and almost entirely based on a wrong analysis of the situation. Bhagat Singh was arrested, tried and hanged. He defended himself with the stirring words, “We are content. We await the advent of a revolution. Inquilab Zindabad “.
After his death, he became the stuff of a legend; Bhagat Singh dear actually became powerful than Bhagat Singh alive. An intelligence report noted, “For a time, he bade fair to oust Mr Gandhi as the foremost political figure of the day”.
Udham Singh, on the other hand, belonged to the Ghadar Party, funded and run by Punjabi expatriate Sikhs. Singh was only sixteen when the Amritsar Massacre took place. Defying the curfew, he helped one Rattan Devi to recover her husband’s body from the heap of the dead and dying victims in Jallianwalbag ground and got injured. Like many Sikhs, he left India, travelled to South Africa and USA before finally reaching his destination — Britain.
It was in this metropolitan centre that he assassinated Michael O’Dyer, former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab who had approved the shooting order given by Dyer. He was hanged on July 31, 1940 at Pentoville jail. He went to the gallows with a hope of meeting Bhagat Singh in the life to come.
The police found literature supporting communism in his possession Udham was less exposed to new ideas but his hatred for the British rule was no less fierce than Bhagat Singh. Both are remembered as ” saheeds” or martyrs. It was a religious term related to Holy War, now put to a secular use.
Now, both these martyrs who were absolutely convinced that they were fighting holy war against the unholy British Rule, were pathetically insulated from the fast changing reality. Their attitude was no different from most of the Congress leaders like Gandhi or Subhas Bose. Only a few people coming from different philosophical backgronds — moderates like Sapru, former extremist like Sri Aurobindo, Dalit leaders like Ambedkar, Jinnah and the lone Marxist like MN Roy — knew what was really happening.
The British on their part preparing India for a democratic self government through successive reforms — Morley Minto Reform (1909) and Montagu Chelmsford Reform (1919) to be followed by the Government of India Act (1935) and climaxing in The Indian Independence Act of 1947.
The process was expedited by two external causes – the two world wars. MN Roy in 1927 put forward his decolonisation theory, which was based on Marxist analysis of the post-war economic situation. He rightly concluded the British would transfer the power to the representatives of the Indian bourgeoisie as it had no capital to export. Ambedkar as an economist-jurist, clearly saw the problem — the Congress’ unwillingness to share the power and reach a “communal settlement”.
Extremist organisations in Punjab were formed by Sikhs, mostly Jats, though it was a Muslim majority province. This extremism brought them in conflict not only with the British but particularly with Muslims. They opposed the Simon Commission though it was more alive to the problems of minorities, Dalits and tribal, and it proved to be the basis of the Round Table Conference leading to the Government of India Act.
Today, ironically, if Bhagat is remembered more than Udham, it is for his caste. Udham was a Dalit, after all. Again, in his home town, which is now in Pakistan, many opposed naming a street after him as he was, after all, a Sikh extremist!
And what about the Bolshevik dream that he came to espouse as a way to liberation? It has vanished in the thin air in its home country. A Leninist revolution even in Bhagat Singh’s time would have been regressive and counter factual. It would be a way towards dictatorship, not democracy. Today we should value his secular vision of an egalitarian and free society, though we know the path they had taken was wrong and remains a way to social disaster.
*Source: Author’s Facebook timeline