ICONIC national figures are often appropriated by social organisations and political parties either to improve their public image or to bolster their sagging fortunes. When Chander Pal Singh found that Bhagat Singh’s image of a national martyr was being made over into that of a Marxist ideologue, he decided to find out why and how it had happened. For this, he undertook to investigate the life and mission of Bhagat Singh by scrutinising critically all the available primary and secondary sources on him, which resulted in the book under review.
Singh reconstructs the life of Bhagat Singh in three phases. In the first phase, we get to know Bhagat Singh as a growing child in his patriotic family, which was under the strong influence of the Arya Samaj. Singh writes about the early influences on his life and thinking: of his teachers in the DAV School and the National College, where he met the revolutionary Sanyal. When people from his home tried to arrange his marriage, he ran away to Kanpur, which began the second phase of his life. He became a part of the growing revolutionary movement and of the Hindustan Republic Association. He attended its meetings, met and talked with other revolutionaries like Azad, Sukhdev, Rajguru, and others, travelled extensively between Lahore, Delhi, and Agra, and wrote articles for various newspapers and magazines. Singh also discusses his association with Kirti Kisan Party and Naujawan Bharat Sabha. When, along with Batukeshwar Datt, Bhagat Singh threw bombs in the Central Assembly and surrendered to the police, he was put in prison, which marked the beginning of the last phase of his life.
Singh’s contention is that Bhagat Singh became a legend in the jail. He read a great deal, rallied people around him, and even organised a hunger strike for the improvement of conditions in the jail. The case against him in the court provided him with an opportunity to explain his views on issues related to freedom and the means for realising it. Singh also writes that political leaders like Nehru admired him and Gandhiji made efforts to secure his release by speaking to the Viceroy, who seemed willing to help, but the bureaucrats in Punjab did not support him, and Bhagat Singh was hanged.
Singh discusses the writings of Bhagat Singh and the problems related to them, especially because people have claimed to unearth new works by him from time to time. He examines the different versions of single works, spots letters of doubtful authenticity, comments on the reliability of the articles attributed to him and the four books that he was supposed to have written in jail.
Finally, Singh provides details about what his contemporaries and comrades thought about Bhagat Singh. He even has a small chapter on Gandhi versus Bhagat Singh, in which he writes about the efforts that Gandhiji made to seek his release and how he was criticised by several political groups for not doing enough in this regard. Because his initial impulse was to find out why the Marxists had taken him over, Singh has a separate chapter on Bhagat Singh as a Marxist. He makes it quite clear that during his life time the Marxists did not show much interest in him because his style did not suit their ideology. They did not approve of projecting individual self as the point of attention. But right from 1953, members of the Communist Party have started claiming him as their own. Singh thinks that it is totally inappropriate and just an act of “ideological hijacking.” The communists are embracing him only because communism is going through a grave ideological crisis globally.
Chander Pal Singh’s book is interesting and useful for all those who are interested in the history of our country. It should be of special interest to future researchers because it critically examines all the available sources on Bhagat Singh, which are documented in about 45 pages of the book, and raises important questions about his work and mission. I feel Singh should have paid a little more attention to its organisation, avoided needless repetitions, and trimmed the heavy overload of quotations from different sources.
(Originals, Low Price Publications, A-6, Nimri Commercial Centre, Near Bharat Nagar, Ashok Vihar, Delhi-110 052)