In early 1997, an emotionally challenged man, driven by the daily din marking 50 years of India’s Independence, managed to break into the then unguarded martyrs’ museum outside Khatkar Kalan village. Ignoring anything of real monetary value, he made off with the ashes of Bhagat Singh, his socks, wristwatch and a tattered pair of trousers that had belonged to the martyr’s uncle Ajit Singh, also a revolutionary of the freedom movement. “Stay away from me,” he shouted to a posse of burly Punjab policemen that tracked him down two days later. “I am Bhagat Singh!” he declared zealously trying to protect his looted ‘treasure’ from him.
Punjab’s outraged authorities, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP dispensation which was ruling the state then, were unforgiving. Balbir Singh, a harmless simpleton, was sentenced to an 18-month jail term. Bhagat Singh, however, would perhaps have approved: his uncle’s trousers, rather than uselessly lying in a glass-topped showcase, were keeping a poor, homeless man warm on a wintry January night.
”Lover, lunatic and poet are made of the same stuff,” the martyr wrote on the second page of a notebook issued to him in Lahore Jail, months before he chose to go to the gallows alongside Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. Everybody wants a piece of Bhagat Singh. It is 84 long years since that fateful day on March 23, 1931, more than time enough for even the most endearing memories to fade away. But Bhagat Singh remains the most sustaining symbol of the national freedom movement. An icon that almost every political grouping—from the extreme left Naxalites to the right-wing ultra-nationalist fringe, the Khalistanis for instance—have over the years attempted to appropriate, though always conveniently re-versioning or using only the parts of his legacy that suit their individual ideologies. Despite their competition literally to hijack a portion of the martyr’s legacy, each one of them faces a contradiction in making that claim. Oxford Brookes University professor Pritam Singh says: ”Gandhi-inspired Indian nationalists find Bhagat Singh’s resort to violence problematic, Hindu and Sikh nationalists find his atheism troubling, the parliamentary Left sees his ideas and actions as closer to the perspective of the Naxalites, and the Naxalites find Bhagat Singh’s critique of individual terrorism an uncomfortable historical fact.”
The struggle to claim the hero is very evidently driven by the fact that he has continued to fascinate youth across regions, languages and communities. ”Bhagat Singh is an icon that transcends generations. He was a youth icon 80 years ago and somehow remains one today,” says Yogendra Yadav. The Aam Aadmi Party spokesperson says Bhagat Singh has a ”longer shelf life than any other figure from the freedom movement. There has never been a rush to commandeer Chandrashekhar Azad, or even Rajguru and Sukhdev”.
Four years after his death, the then director of the Intelligence Bureau, Horace Williamson, wrote: ”His (Bhagat Singh’s) photograph was on sale in every city and township and for a time rivaled in popularity even that of Mr Gandhi himself.” In 2008, Bhagat Singh was voted the ‘Greatest Indian’ in an INDIA TODAY poll, ahead of both Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose.
The newest kid on the block—AAP—Yadav admits, was quite literally forced to accept Bhagat Singh as an icon. The party’s first dharna at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in November 2012, he points out, was held against the backdrop of Bharat Mata (Mother India). The second big show of strength at the Ramlila Maidan in the national capital sought its inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. ”The Aam Aadmi Party never officially presented Bhagat Singh as a symbol. He was brought in by our younger volunteers,” he says, adding that without any official directions, the martyr naturally gained currency as AAP’s central icon and inspiration.
Both Gul Panag in Chandigarh and Rakhi Birla in Delhi kicked off their election campaigns only after paying homage to Bhagat Singh. And Bhagwant Mann, who recorded a blistering victory lap in the Lok Sabha election in Sangrur, will now go to Parliament only wearing abasanti (yellow) Bhagat Singh turban. In Punjab, where he was born, the association with the martyr is perhaps the strongest. He would have been over 100 years old today, but Bhagat Singh is still invariably addressed as ”bai-ji“, ”veerji“ or ”mittar“. He remains the awe-inspiring older brother and friend in scores of folksy popular songs by almost every Punjabi singer that made it to a recording studio. You only need to search ‘Bhagat Singh’ on YouTube.
Bollywood music sensation Yo Yo Honey Singh, too, paid his ‘respects’ in a 2009 rap number celebrating the John Saunders killing: ”Soorme hath-pistolan wale karde fire firangi te? (Fearless heroes with pistols shoot down Englishmen).” He wraps it up with a flourish: ”This is for the qaumi (national) hero, the one and only, Sardar Bhagat Singh.”
Images-artists’ impressions-of Bhagat Singh wearing a turban in a 1924 group photo at the National College in Lahore, or the April 1929 studio shot showing him clean-shaven in a hat and fashionable Shakespearean collars of the time, bound as bumper stickers on cars, in truck art, and increasingly amid social networks like Facebook. Last year, the hashtag #bhagatsingh trended on Twitter even in neighboring Pakistan around the anniversary of his martyrdom. Two years ago, members of a truck union installed a life-sized statue of the martyr in the center of their compound in Punjab’s Patran town. Truck drivers told his nephew Jagmohan, who was invited to unveil the sculpture, that he’s been their savior for years. ”In the worst of times, no one would question our patriotism outside Punjab if we had a picture of Bhagat Singh on our trucks.” They said they had decided to bring the martyr to their home.
Bhagat Singh’s recent resurrection is concurrent with the emergence of a younger India, already home to one of the largest population of under-25-year-olds, which is slated to grow to over 500 million in the next six years. The nation is growing younger by the day. The frantic struggle to claim Bhagat Singh—and by association his rapidly expanding constituency—is then no surprise.
On February 23, the then BJP president rather indignantly took exception to Warwick University historian David Hardiman’s description of Bhagat Singh as a ”terrorist“. Addressing a large gathering at Jagraon in Punjab, Rajnath Singh promised to bring a resolution in Parliament to mount pressure on the British government to correct history books in that country. Though apparently contradictory to both MS Golwalkar and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder HB Hegdewar, who were dismissive, if not derisive, of the hero’s revolutionary ways, the invoking of Bhagat Singh as a martyr and national hero by Rajnath Singh has the blessings of the new RSS led by Mohan Bhagwat.
A January 2008 editorial in the RSS mouthpiece Panchjanyaresponding to voices within the BJP demanding Bharat Ratna for former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, instead suggested that it would be more befitting to bestow the honor on ”Shaheed Bhagat Singh and the Indian soldier”.
Anjum Rajabali, 56, who scripted The Legend of Bhagat Singh, the most acknowledged of five Bollywood movies on the martyr ahead of his birth centenary, had, what he describes as an ”amusing encounter“, during the shooting of the film in Pune in 2002. A bunch of BJP student activists told him: ” Bhagat Singh was a direct-action fighter. He shot the Britishers. And then bombed the parliament of traitors. He a true nationalist like us.” The BJP youngsters, like a large majority of Bhagat Singh’s young admirers across the country, evidently have little notion of what their favorite freedom icon really stood for. Yadav says that it is essentially the image of an “uncompromising, militant patriot” that attracts most of the young people. This, he admits, may be true of many of AAP’s young volunteers who champion the martyr. Professor Pritam Singh says besides his heroism, Bhagat Singh’s undeniably handsome looks possibly infuse a Che Guevara-like enthusiasm in young Indians.
Like Guevara, from T-shirts, decals, coffee mugs, jigsaw puzzles, sweatshirts and hoodies to even wallpapers on Google+, Bhagat Singh lives on. But it is not only the young who remain oblivious or want to deny Bhagat Singh his visionary moorings of him. In 2008, impelled by Bhagat Singh’s enduring and popular appeal, Parliament’s belated decision to install his statue of him provoked a most-curious skirmish.
Congress minister Manohar Singh Gill vehemently opposed suggestions by the Left Front MPs to portray the martyr in a hat—in the image that he perhaps wanted to be remembered by. “He was a Sikh martyr,” an indignant Gill declared, insisting that Bhagat Singh must be depicted in a turban. The turban won. Back in Bhagat Singh’s ancestral village now part of a district named after him, there is no “turban versus hat” debate.
”Shaheed ho gya pair mulk azad kara gya (He became a martyr but got the country its freedom),” says 90-year-old Baljit Kaur. But there are more tangible reasons for Khatkar Kalan to be proud of its most illustrious son. With metalled lanes and tastefully laid out park spaces and a jostle of mansions built from overseas earnings (a majority of residents are NRIs), the village seems out of place in Punjab. Bhagat Singh’s village is also the only rural settlement in the state with 24×7 power supply. ”Baaki pindan ch bijli aandi nai par ithe bijli kadi jaandi nai (There is hardly ever power in other villages but here it never fails),” says the old woman, her face lighting up.
Shades of Bhagat Singh
He remains the most enduring symbol of the Indian freedom movement
1. The Atheists
All shades of the Left depict Bhagat Singh in his last known avatar in a hat and stylish Shakespearean collars. The most-widely published and recognized face of the martyr, this is also possibly how Bhagat Singh wished to be remembered.
2. The Nationalist
Sikhs and right-wing Hindu groups assert that Bhagat Singh returned to the ‘faith’ during his final months in jail at Lahore and eventually went to the gallows as a ‘Sikh martyr’. The image in chains is, however, attributed to his custodial interrogation of him at least four years before his execution.
3. The Revolutionary Prodigy
At 12 years, young Bhagat Singh was already aware of the political tyranny of the time.
4. The Sardar
Bhagat Singh’s Punjabi compatriots are more than zealous about presenting him in the ‘correct’ attire—a turban-wearing Sikh with unshorn hair and beard. This is how every statue in Punjab as well as the one installed in Parliament (2008) depicts him.
(The article was published in the INDIA TODAY issue dated August 25, 2014)