Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Three Revolutionaries

Bhagat Singh's birth centenary has just passed. In India and elsewhere, there has been renewed interest in his life and message. It is pertinent to enquire whether revolutionary tactics work in the modern world, and what is the fate of people who, driven by ideology, embrace violence and opposition to the state in pursuing change.

In this essay, I briefly discuss three prominent revolutionaries of Punjab of the last century: the Marxist-Anarchist Bhagat Singh, the well-known Naxalite poet Avtar Singh Sandhu (also known as Paash) and the little known Naxalite poet Lal Singh Dil.

Bhagat Singh was born in 1907 in a family of Jats who were actively opposing the British rule in India. Due to the influence of his father and other relatives, he also, at a very early age, became convinced that he would dedicate his life to bringing about freedom for India. He became disillusioned with Gandhi's insistence on non-violence, formed his own group of radical communists who tried to irritate the British rule in various ways. To avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, another freedom fighter, who succumbed to his injuries after being thrashed by the police while he was leading a protest rally, Bhagat Singh and some of his accomplices decided to kill the police chief. However, they mistakenly killed some other officer, J P Saunders.

He went into hiding and started publishing leaflets and underground papers.

To protest a new law giving more powers to the British rules to deal with the rising insurgents, Bhagat Singh and his accomplice threw bombs in the Assembly to grab attention (the bombs were not thrown in the direction of anyone present) and shouted slogans. He was duly arrested, found to be also guilty of the murder of Saunders and sentenced to death by hanging. He, and two others, were hanged to death in 1931.


His revolutionary ideas and death did little to catalyse the masses in Punjab. In the blind devotion to his cause of a violent revolution leading to the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and in his eagerness to achieve martyrdom (he declined to enter a plea of clemency), he failed to achieve any change of lasting value. There were a few riots in Punjab after his hanging but the party that he was a leader of dissolved soon after and Gandhi's non-violent protests took center stage.

He was a staunch Marxist, had an almost religious belief in the ideas of Marx and Engels (and later, Bakunin as well). He looked at the Bolshevik revolution as worthy of emulation and considered Lenin a great hero.

So the question is: Did he squander away his life in vain? (The vanity of being a martyr in the image that Marx had created.)

Avtar Singh Sandhu, or Pash, was born in 1950 and in his youth, became immersed in the revolutionary Naxalite movement in Punjab as a poet. He wrote fiery poems to rouse people from their slumber. He was falsely implicated in a murder case, was jailed for two years, came out, got married, and became burdened with financial difficulties. He went to the US for a while and tried to earn some money (thus violating his visa terms), became entangled in some petty disputes with other radicals in US who reported him to the immigration authorities. He came back to India. While he was planning to go back to the US via Mexico etc., he and a friend were killed by Sikh separatists in his village in 1988.


His legacy is a few books of his poems, bubbling with rage and refusal. In his time, he must have managed to enthuse a few young men to enter the Naxalite movement. Today, the Naxalite movement is completely finished in Northern India, while it continues in other parts where it is engaged in extremely violent attacks on police and the government machinery. The government is planning involving the armed forces to root it out.
Most treacherous is not the robbery
of hard earned wages
Most horrible is not the torture by the police.
Most dangerous is not the graft for the treason and greed.

To be caught while asleep is surely bad
surely bad is to be buried in silence
But it is not most dangerous.
To remain dumb and silent in the face of trickery
Even when just, is definitely bad
Surely bad is reading in the light of a firefly
But it is not most dangerous.

Most dangerous is
To be filled with dead peace
Not to feel agony and bear it all,
Leaving home for work
And from work return home

Most dangerous is the death of our dreams.
Most dangerous is that watch
Which run on your wrist
But stands still for your eyes.

Most dangerous is that eye
Which sees all but remains frostlike,
The eye that forgets to kiss the world with love,
The eye lost in the blinding mist of the material world.

That sinks the simple meaning of visible things
And is lost in the meaning return of useless games.

Most dangerous is the moon
Which rises in the numb yard
After each murder,
But does not pierce your eyes like hot chilies.

Most dangerous is the song
Which climbs the mourning wail
In order to reach your ears
And repeats the cough of an evil man
At the door of the frightened people.
Most dangerous is the night
Falling in the sky of living souls,
Extinguishing them all

In which only owls shriek and jackals growl,
And eternal darkness covers all the windows.

Most heinous is the direction
In which the sun of the soul light
Pierces the east of your body.

Most treacherous is not the
robbery of hard earned wages
Most horrible is not the torture of police
Most dangerous is not graft taken for greed and treason.
Again, the question is: Did he squander away his life in vain, unmindful of the reality of a post-colonial democracy where radical violent revolutionary tactics have no chance of succeeding?

Lal Singh Dil was born in 1944. He went to school and college despite extreme financial hardship at home. Started writing poems. Became a daily wager while continuing to be a poet.


Despite his poverty and hardship, he was extremely sensitive. While in college, he went into deep psychological trauma because of the way he, a sensitive poet, was treated as less than human because of his caste. He joined the Naxalite movement but there also he was treated as a low-level errands-boy by the upper-caste Naxalites.

He was arrested by the police on a false charge and was brought before the the DSP, a senior officer of the police who belonged to the Jat caste. Seeing a Naxalite from the lower strata of the society, the DSP flew into a rage and started beating him, while exclaiming "Ab chammar kranti layenge is desh mein? (Now you untouchables will bring revolution to this country?)" Lal Singh dared the DSP to torture him enough to get him to say his name. After beating him mercilessly and seriously injuring him (leading to a lifelong mental imbalance), the DSP left tired and disgusted.

After he was released from jail, he became mentally sick, never married and stayed with his mother till his death. Many of his friends and other writers tried to make him self-reliant, but he had started drinking and could not hold a job. Towards the end of his life, he was running a roadside tea vend (on the right in the photograph below).


He died in a hospital on August 15, 2007. It was ironic that August 15 is India's independance day.

His poetry was never widely known. Some of his friends collected his poems and published them in book form but he never knew it.

I quote a poem by him here:
Does love have any reason to be?
Does the fragrance of flowers have any roots?
Truth may, or may not have an intent
But falsity is not without one

It is not because of your azure skies
Nor because of the blue waters
Even if these were deep gray
Like the color of my old mom’s hair
Even then I would have loved you

These treasure trove of riches
Are not meant for me
Surely not.

Love has no reason to be
Falsity is not without intent

The snakes that slither
Around the treasure trove of your riches
Sing paeans
And proclaim you
"The Golden Bird"
(The reference is to ancient India termed as a Golden Bird because of its perceived riches.)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

From the darwinian perspective Bhagath Singh was highly foolish and a fit candidate for the darwinian awards. He could never enrich the human gene pool, a total failure.

Anonymous said...

the panjabi psyche seems to be fixated with bhagat singh. "he threw the bomb away from everyone" they are always careful to tell you. try being irreverant and you can be sure of being lyched. i personally cant see how a naive 23 year old could have had much of a vision. more like any youthful hothead who didnt mind flexing his muscles to "set em right". no wonder you shall find him on the tip of every panjabi youngster's tongue. boy, we love blending with the mob.

Anonymous said...

it is easy to judge things now , we have all the theories and psyche to know what was going on in the mind of these people. i think it still take guts to oppose British , when everybody knows that death is awaiting you in doing so.we can analyze the material facts of Bhagat Singh's life only , not the hidden psychic ones. How he faced his death coming closer in the jail .....