September 28 is the birthday of Bhagat Singh—a day to remember him and his legacy. Even 84 years after his death, he remains an eternal youth icon. Indeed, there are often complaints that the overarching presence of Gandhi and Nehru has deprived Bhagat Singh and revolutionaries like him their due place in Indian history. The complainers cite Subhash Chandra Bose as the other example.
Bhagat Singh and Bose, we are reminded, were revolutionaries who took the violent path to fight against the British. The two are seen as uncompromising fighters, whereas Gandhi and Nehru are portrayed as manipulators who negotiated their way to power. It is believed seriously by many that had India achieved freedom through the means used by Bhagat Singh and Bose, the Indian story would have been different.
In popular Indian perception, Bhagat Singh and Bose were made of the same metal, while Bose and Nehru were the two poles of pre-Independence Indian politics. Nehru was the one who supposedly led a comfortable life, whereas Bose was the one who renounced the glorious Indian Civil Service and later his position in the Congress to launch a more authentic nationalist battle against the British. The same with Bhagat Singh. He courted and chose death over life. Nehru outlived them both, using cunning to enjoy power. It was he who kept Bose away from India: so scared was he that he even asked his spy agencies to keep the whole of Bose family under watch.
But how did Bhagat Singh see the two—Bose and Nehru? What could have been his trajectory had he lived longer? Would he have joined Bose when the latter broke away from Gandhi and Nehru and went on to found Azad Hind Fauj and collaborated with Tojo and Hitler against the British? Who was his ideal between the two?
‘An emotional Bengali’
In 1928, Bhagat Singh, a young man of 21, published an article in the journal Kirati, titled Naye netaon ke alag-alag vichar (Different thoughts of new leaders). In this, he compared the worldviews of Bose and Nehru. Bhagat Singh wrote the article to help the youth of Punjab choose their political path at a time when there was dejection all around over the failure of the Non-Cooperation Movement and the division among Indians was reflected in the Hindu–Muslim conflicts. Which way should they go?
Bhagat Singh was not a Congressman, nor was he a member of the Communist Party of India. The young man had not spared even Lala Lajpat Rai, the revered leader of the freedom struggle, for his communal views. So, how did he look at the two nationalist leaders? In the article, Bhagat Singh pronounces Bose as an emotional Bengali, a devotee of the ancient culture of India, and regards Nehru to be an internationalist. In his view, Bose is a soft-hearted romantic and Nehru a revolutionary. After reading the speeches of the two leaders at the Amritsar and Maharashtra Congress sessions, Bhagat Singh says that although both of them are supporters of Poorna Swaraj, they are worlds apart in their thoughts.
He refers to a public meeting in Bombay in which Bose was the speaker and Nehru the chair. Bose’s speech, including the remark that India has a special message for the world, is described as a crazy rant in the Kirati article. It remarks that Bose finds the origin of everything, including Panchayati Raj and Socialism, in ancient India and notes that Bose believes that the old times were great. Bhagat Singh finds the nationalism of Bose narrow and self-obsessed.
He then moves to Nehru’s presidential speech. Nehru contradicts Bose and says that all nations feel that they have some special and unique message for the world. “I do not find anything special in my nation. Subhash Babu believes in such things.” What is the difference between the two? Bose wants freedom from the British because they belong to the West and we are from the East. Nehru wants freedom because, according to him, we can change our social system by establishing self-rule. For social transformation, we need complete independence and self-rule.
Bhagat Singh says that for Bose, international politics matters only to the extent that it addresses the question of India’s defence and its development. On the other hand, Nehru has come out of the narrow confines of nationalism and into the open fields of internationalism. After comparing the two leaders’ thoughts, Bhagat Singh asks: “Now that we know their views, we must make our choice.” Bose, according to him, has nothing to give to the youth to quench their intellectual thrust. He has nothing for their mind.
Shunning militant nationalism
It is remarkable that Bhagat Singh was not impressed by the nationalist rhetoric of Bose and finds Nehru intellectually more challenging and satisfying. The youth of Punjab need intellectual nourishment badly and they can get it only from Nehru: “Panjabi youth should go with him [Nehru] to understand the real meaning of revolution… The youth should firm up their thought so that in the times of dejection and defeat they do not get deviated.”
This article of Bhagat Singh is ignored even by the Left. A few years ago, I was asked by my friend Kavita Srivastava, a well-known human rights activist, to write a leaflet on the occasion of the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh. I had quoted heavily from this article to give a glimpse of the intellectual make-up of Bhagat Singh. I found to my shock that the organisers of the event who were to use this leaflet had deleted these portions. Srivastava explained that Leftist friends of the forum refused to believe that these were Bhagat Singh’s thoughts. When told about the source, they said, well, this article was not significant enough.
The clarity with which Bhagat Singh could see the danger of the narrow and militant nationalism of Bose is amazing. But this is what sets him apart from other revolutionaries. Three years after the publication of this article, Bhagat Singh was hanged. Nearly 12 years after this, Bose was to flee India to shake hands with some of the biggest war criminals. Bhagat Singh’s fears about Bose were confirmed. He was not there to see them come true. How is it that we refuse to see them even today?