Guest post by HARSH MANDER
Eighty five years ago, on 23 March 1931, Bhagat Singh walked bravely, proudly to the gallows, his two young colleagues Rajguru and Sukhdev by his side. His lustre continues undimmed as an icon for succeeding generations, so that it is easy to forget he was only 23 years old. Subhash Bose spoke then of Bhagat Singh as a ‘symbol of the new awakening among youth’. Nehru saw in him ‘a spark that became a flame in a short time and spread from one end of the country to another dispelling the prevailing darkness everywhere’. His popularity rivalled that of Mahatma Gandhi.
In the decades after his passing, in times of public ferment, despair, confusion and anger, successive generations in India have found their own inheritors of young Bhagat Singh’s mantle, men and women embodying defiant youthful idealism and dissent, young people battling for social and economic equality, for true freedom, sparks that once again set aflame a beleaguered wearied country battling the darkness of the times.
I believe that our generation in India today – in young people like Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, and Ashutosh Kumar – has found its own youthful heroes, with courage to speak truth to power, to sacrifice, to fight and dream of equality, freedom and solidarity. All in their twenties, in many ways they are this generation’s heirs and progenies of Bhagat Singh – new torch-bearers of the flames of uncompromising, unflinching, audacious love for the country and its oppressed people that Bhagat Singh lit in his tragically brief life. These youthful warriors fight today another kind of freedom struggle from that of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, but it is a struggle for freedom nonetheless.
Bhagat Singh underlined the centrality of dissent if the world has to change. ‘Every man’, he declared, and indeed this must include every woman, ‘who stands for progress has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith’. Note the words ‘has to…’ For him, dissent was not just a right but a duty, an obligation, for all who seek a more just world. It is this duty to dissent that has thrown all these young people today into trouble with their governments. For Bhagat Singh and his comrades, dissent ultimately led to the scaffolds. For today’s young freedom fighters, their rebellion had different consequences. It resulted in the suspension from his university of one young man for ‘anti-national activities’, an expulsion that pushed him down a slippery slope into an abyss of so much despair that he took his life. For the others, criminal charges of sedition, or acts against the nation, were slapped, subjecting them to long hours of police interrogation, and for three of them jail.
Bhagat Singh was deeply anguished by the communal violence that erupted in the mid-1920s, when he was still a teenager, and often warned that communalism was as big a threat as colonialism. Each of the young people charged with ‘anti-national’ acts today also see communal ideologies of the RSS as the biggest threat of the times. Both Umar and Anirban wonder poignantly if they would have received the same nation-wide solidarity if they were charged with sedition as practising, skull-capped Muslims from Azamgarh, and call for collective resistance to communal profiling by the state as much as communal hate-mongering by the Sangh.
What also bind together these youthful freedom fighters across the generations is a passion for equality, and a passionate solidarity with the oppressed and suffering of their world. Bhagat Singh declares: ‘I am a man and all that affects mankind affects me’. Generations later, Rohith Vemula says that every human being is ‘a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living’. But he mourns that the ‘value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing’.
But none of these young people, then and now, allow themselves to be reduced to their immediate identity. Theirs is a much larger solidarity with all oppressed people. Bhagat Singh was only 20 years old when he issued a searing statement in 1928 about ‘labourers and producers’ who ‘are victims of exploitation and have been denied basic human rights…Farmers, who produce, die of hunger. The weaver who weaves clothes for others cannot do so for his own family and children…Masons, carpenters, ironsmiths who build huge palaces die living in huts and slums.’ Nearly nine decades later, Anirban Bhattacharya, just released from prison on bail, rages in similar vein: ‘What is the boiling point for your blood?’ When Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis are killed, does your blood not boil? When more than 70 per cent people are forced to live on 20 rupees a day, when security forces rape women in Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir, when women in Manipur strip themselves naked protesting rapes by the army, when rationalists like Pansare and Dabholkar are killed, when women are told to stay at home by the RSS, does your blood not boil? In the same vein, he speaks of half the countryside reeling under drought, school meals being closed in drought-hit Bundelkhand, farmers pushed to suicide, a Muslim constable stripped naked, Christian nuns raped, Rohith Vemula driven to suicide, a couple killed in broad daylight because they had married out of their caste. Is this nationalism, he asks. If so, he is proud to be ‘anti-national’.
All these young men, then and now, are deemed by governments as persons pitted against the nation – traitors and seditionists. But Bhagat Singh spoke luminously of his love for his country. ‘May the sun in his course’, he wrote, ‘visit no land more free, more happy, more lovely than our own country’. I think today of Kanhaiya Kumar’s resounding call for freedom in India, not from India, freedom from hunger, poverty, exploitation and fear.
In this way, when governments oppress and suppress, each generation searches and finds its own inheritors of the traditions of Bhagat Singh, of revolt, courage, solidarity and a passionate commitment to secure true freedom to persons crushed by caste, class, gender, communal profiling, hunger and want. In their voices we find, again and again, our own voices, we find resistance and hope.