The Punjab government’s decision to display a likeness of Bhagat Singh — based on a painting by one Amar Singh — rather than any of the revolutionary’s four available authentic photographs at its offices is illustrative of the approach taken over the years by India’s governments towards the hero who was hung by the British on this day, March 23, ninety years ago.
The image — and imagery — that is frequently invoked on social media and in political discourse derives from certain romanticized stereotypes rooted in the folklore around the unparalleled bravery and fearlessness of Bhagat Singh, who was only 23 when he gave his life for the nation.
Pre-independence: Mixed signals
From 1929, when he was arrested and jailed, to 1931, news and pictures of Bhagat Singh — his statements in court and hunger strikes for better prison conditions — were published widely in newspapers in multiple languages across India. And yet, after his execution of it, Bhagat Singh’s own writings were allowed to slip into oblivion.
Between 1931 and 1936, at least 200 pieces of writing, including nearly 100 books in Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, English, Punjabi, and other languages — many of them written by Bhagat Singh’s comrades and contemporaries, and individuals who knew him personally — were outlaw. Some of these writers were penalized; Jitendra Nath Sanyal, who was acquitted in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, was jailed for two years for writing Bhagat Singh’s biography of him.
The first major personality to eulogize Bhagat Singh was EV Ramasamy Naicker, founder of the anti-Brahminical Self-Respect Movement, who wrote an editorial in the March 29, 1931 issue of his journal Kudi Arasu. Months later, Periyar got Bhagat Singh’s seminal 1930 essay ‘Why I am an Atheist’ published in the September 27, 1931 issue of The People of Lahore. A translation in Tamil, by P Jeevanandham, was published in Kudi Arasu in 1934.
Dr BR Ambedkar wrote a mild editorial in his Marathi newspaper Janta at the time, and prominent leaders of the national movement, including Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose, and Madan Mohan Malviya paid tributes through press statements.
Interestingly, while Gandhi accepted black flowers in Karachi from activists of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha for not being able to save the life of Bhagat Singh, a Congress resolution condoling the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev ran into hurdles. As per Gandhi’s wish of him, the resolution moved by Nehru and seconded by Malviya, paid tribute to Bhagat Singh, but asked the nation’s youth to not follow his path of him. It passed by only a thin majority of delegates.
Gandhi also refused to associate with the memorial planned by Naujawan Bharat Sabha and Punjab Congress leaders in Lahore, for which an appeal for a fund of Rs 10 lakh was issued. The plan could not come through as the Naujawan Bharat Sabha was banned, and Congress leaders in Punjab dragged their feet in view of the Mahatma’s disinclination.
Post 1947: Mostly lip service
Bhagat Singh’s undisputed appeal for the youth notwithstanding, none of the more than 1,000 universities of independent India, including more than 250 controlled by the government, was named after him. It is only recently that an engineering college in Ferozepur, Punjab, which already carried his name, has been upgraded to a university. A proposal to name Chandigarh airport after Bhagat Singh is stuck in technicalities.
Until four decades after his execution, Bhagat Singh’s writings were not collected in a single volume; however, they are now available in many languages and in international editions. The Bhagat Singh Chair at Jawaharlal Nehru University remains unfilled 15 years after it was created, and no major academic program or research has been organized under its aegis.
Bhagat Singh (as also others like Chandrashekhar Azad and Masterda Surjya Sen) does not find a place in the portrait gallery of Parliament’s Central Hall, even though the somewhat lesser known revolutionary Hemu Kalani, who was executed before he turned 20 in 1943, was featured in 2003 after then Home Minister LK Advani took a personal interest.
In 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt had thrown bombs in the same complex, then called the Central Assembly, to “make the deaf hear”. The reluctance to name institutions after Bhagat Singh, honor him in Parliament, or promote his ideas and vision of him even while paying lip service to him in speeches reflects a dichotomy similar to the one of not using his authentic picture in government offices and advertisements.
Indeed, a statue of Bhagat Singh was unveiled in the Parliament House complex by then President Pratibha Patil in 2008. But even in this case, members of the revolutionary’s family had complained about the way he looked. Freedom fighters too had objected, and Fahmida Riaz, the late Urdu poet from Pakistan, had written a poem saying this was not the face of the real Bhagat Singh.
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When the Government of India issued Rs 5 and Rs 100 coins in Bhagat Singh’s centenary year 2007-8 showing him wearing a hat, Akalis in Punjab protested that his turbaned form had not been depicted. Interestingly, in the 1970s, then Chief Minister Giani Zail Singh had unveiled a statue of Bhagat Singh with a hat in the presence of his younger brother Kultar Singh at Nawanshahr (Now Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar), but the statue was later replaced with a turbaned version.
Chaman Lal is a retired professor of JNU and Honorary Advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, Delhi Archive, New Delhi. He is editor of The Bhagat Singh Reader.