Ahead of his 112th birthday, remembering the politics and thoughts of a freedom fighter who died young, through his letters, statements in court, and jail notebooks
Onward A rare photograph of Bhagat Singh, manacled, talking to someone during his detention. The Hindu archives
The Bhagat Singh Reader
Edited by Chaman Lal
This volume, bringing together Bhagat Singh’s writings, categorises them under five heads: letters and telegrams, posters/notices/leaflets, statements in court/essays, articles and sketches/and jail notebooks. The editor lavishes fulsome praise on this young man (1907-1931), who was executed by the colonial government at the age of 23. Chaman Lal’s introduction prompts a question. How should we remember heroes? Through hagiographies? Or through explorations of their political thought, thought which still prove relevant for the political condition we are in today?
Bhagat Singh interpreted nationalism through the prism of Marxist theories of exploitation, revolution and emancipation. He lived in an age of revolutionary violence, but most of this violence was fuelled by religious passions, and ideas of ‘politics as theatre’. Bhagat Singh rejected this. He believed that the masses had to be politically mobilised. But the young are impatient. The martyr decided that the only way to rouse political consciousness was through violence. He was to regret that mode of politics later in his life.
The hero had resolved, along with his colleagues, to kill the man who had ordered a lathi charge on Lala Lajpat Rai. He had led a procession against the Simon Commission on October 30, 1928. The Senior Superintendent of Police, James Scott, ordered his deputy, John Saunders, to attack the leader. Lajpat Rai’s injuries were serious and he died.
The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association decided to punish James Scott. The editor describes the murder. Jai Gopal was chosen to identify the victim, Chandra Shekhar Azad to provide cover, and Bhagat Singh and Rajguru to shoot him.
On December 17, 1928, Rajguru shot Saunders even as Bhagat Singh hastened to warn him — ‘Panditji he is not Scott’! According to Chaman Lal, Bhagat Singh had no option except to pump more bullets into Saunders. No option except to pump bullets in a man who had already been killed by a bullet? Bhagat Singh killed the wrong man. He committed the same mistake as Madan Lal Dhingra.
At the annual function of the Indian National Association held at the Imperial Institute London on July 1, 1909, to commemorate the martyrs of 1857, Dhingra shot Curzon Wylie. Some historians suggest that Dhingra planned to actually kill Lord Curzon. The murder prompted Gandhi to pen his famous argument against violence in Hind Swaraj.
Bhagat Singh was not short of options. He subscribed to Marxist ideology that people have to be revolutionised before armed struggle. He, however, chose to take a life, and give his own, if that could inspire the people of India to rise against colonialism. “Bhagat Singh and his comrades were destined to die for the country,” writes Chaman Lal. It could have been otherwise if our hero had chosen to abide by the precepts of radical theories of freedom. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw two harmless bombs and pamphlets into the Central Assembly, onto frightened and cowering officials. Both were arrested and imprisoned.
Language of freedom
Chaman Lal chronicles details of Bhagat Singh’s life and career, but he does not distinguish between isolated violence, and the contribution of rich and fertile ideas to the political language of freedom. Though spectacular acts of political violence appear courageous and praiseworthy, they are illusive. The masses might admire and acclaim patriots for their bravery, but they remain untouched and steeped in passivity. No agent has invited them into history. Solitary acts of violence reduce the people to spectators and politics to spectacle.
What mobilises people to the cause of freedom are visionary ideas that spark off imaginations. Bhagat Singh gave to India the political slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ originally coined by Hasrat Mohani, and ‘Samrajyavad ka Naashho’ or ‘Destroy Imperialism’. These inspired generations of nationalists. ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ replaced ‘Vande Mataram’ in many circles.
Ideas have no end
Of equal importance is the statement authored by Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt that was read out in court by their lawyer, Asif Ali, on June 6, 1929. Let the imperial exploiters know, they wrote, that by crushing individuals they cannot kill ideas. Revolution is a spirit of longing that things will change for the better. This is the only belief that can check the onward march of reactionary power elites. Today we remember Bhagat Singh for his political sagacity.
Bhagat Singh contributed a secular strain to the struggle for freedom; an alternative to the religious fervour that permeated revolutionary terrorism.
His reflections and writings in prison contributed significantly to the political thought of India. Bhagat Singh and two colleagues were brutally executed by the British on March 23, 1931, and their bodies desecrated. We honour him not because he killed the wrong man. He told us what liberation is and how it can be achieved.
The writer is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University.
Scholar-activist Suraj Yengde wonders when India’s progressive brahmins will take up anti-caste work on a war footing
Is it possible to have a meaningful conversation about any aspect of India without engaging with the idea of caste? Absolutely not, says Suraj Yengde. In Caste Matters, the scholar-activist has authored a powerful polemic that marshals elements of traditional philosophical inquiry, memoir, history, social anthropology, and cultural studies to activate a dialogical narrative primed for a singular agenda: to shift the framework of conversations about caste, from something that happens to Dalit-Bahujans (such as reservations and atrocities) to something that upper castes preserve and benefit from but rarely acknowledge.
The book’s opening chapter, ‘Being a Dalit’, sets the tone with a part-existential, part-sociological inquiry into the nature of ‘Dalit being’. “I am forced to live in the world as though I am secondary, and the Brahmin and his universality are primary,” writes Yengde. Drawing inspiration from Heidegger and Sartre, Yengde argues that caste society enacts the othering of ‘Dalit being’ through the erasure of Dalit space and Dalit time.
Dalit freedom fighters
For instance, mainstream Indian history has little space for Dalit freedom fighters. Yengde offers the stunning contrast of Laxmi Bai, a Brahmin born in the household of Peshwa Baji Rao II, and Jhalkari Bai, a Dalit born into the Kosi caste. While Laxmi Bai is justly celebrated for resisting the British, it was Jhalkari Bai, “her adviser and soldier,” who disguised herself as Laxmi Bai and actually fought the British army led by General Hugh Rose, enabling her queen to escape. “Brahminical historians preserved the memory of Laxmi Bai as a martyr and eliminated Jhalkari Bai,” notes Yengde. He points out that such erasure is done systematically out of fear that these stories “will inspire Dalits to fight against oppression and cause a Dalit rebellion.”
Some of the most inspired sections of the book pertain to “Dalit love”. For Yengde, Dalit love is the most potent “antidote to the malady of caste.” He writes, “The fact that we have ‘arranged’ marriages in India is primarily because of the fear of Dalit Love, which has the ability to inject the ideals of justice, compassion, forgiveness… into closed orthodox minds; hence, it is banished by a prejudiced society.”
While progressive savarnas have critiqued various aspects of the caste system, it is Dalit-Bahujans who have written incisively about the worst damage inflicted by caste on a society and its individuals — a diminishment of their ability to give and receive love.
Is it any wonder, then, that it seems to have become so easy to fill the hearts of so many, so fast, with so much hate, as India has recently discovered?
The section on Dalit capitalism explodes the myth that the market can liberate Dalits from caste oppression. Given that Indian capital is overwhelmingly bania-brahmin capital, its modes of accumulation, too, follow caste boundaries, Yengde argues.
Call to action
The last chapter, ‘Brahmins against Brahminism’ is a call to action — issued by a Dalit not just to all Brahmins but to anyone who enjoys brahminical privileges linked to their caste identity.
Drawing on the example of the whites who risked their lives for the abolition of slavery in 19th century America, Yengde wonders when India’s progressive brahmins will take up anti-caste work on a war footing. He cites the example of the ‘Knapsack Anti-Racism Group’, a workshop organised by white liberals in the U.S. for fellow whites in order to sensitise them to the ‘knapsack’ of white privilege that they carry around. But “in contrast, the privileged-caste citizens of the Brahminical world seldom talk about or question the notions of privilege when discussing caste—with a few exceptions.”
Rigorously researched and closely argued, Caste Matters is a significant intervention in discrimination studies.
Among savarna readers, the conservatives will find it infuriating, and the progressives, illuminating. There is little doubt, however, that every dispossessed human of caste society will find it an inspiring read.
Tea and Parle-G
I read one article recently. Not in your esteemed newspaper. Some other newspaper or magazine, maybe from the U.S. Article writer is saying, Ayya Ayyo Ayappa, friendship and family and all is destroying these days because of politics. If father says something means son will fight. If son will say even single Trump, Obama, something, mother itself will shower abuse. Better to spend time with same-to-same politics people, it said.
Madam/sir, what and all nonsense they are publishing in foreign newspaper? Shall I tell you one better way? OK. Two-three days back who came to visit Mrs. Mathrubootham and spend one or two weeks in Chennai? Her brother from Nagercoil, Mr. Ravi.
Whether you are remembering Mr. Ravi from Nagercoil? I told you in one letter he is Modi supporter means fully supporter. Morning to night to next morning to next night if you talk to Ravi means Modi, Modi, Modi. Nonstop.
Holiest of all
I told Ravi, “Excuse me Ravi, hello Ravi please calm down, even Mr. Modi’s mother is also not saying Modi Modi so much.” He said, “How dare you Mr. Mathrubootham, how dare you take name of holiest of all women in India like this in your talk, did you take name of Nehru’s mother like this?”
You think he is causing scene only during politics talks? Madam/sir, no, no, thousand times no. Suppose I am in next room discussing some household issues with Mrs. Mathrubootham. “Where is mobile bill? Whether you are watching Netflix again old man?” Like that, normal day-to-day talks.
Suddenly Ravi will insert head into the room like dysentery entering stomach. “Hello what are you talking? Are you talking about Prime Minister Modi? Are you putting gossips about great leader like Pakistani spies? Is there any patriotism in this house or only traitorism?”
Problem is so unbearable that when Ravi is in house family members are sending WhatsApp message to each other.
“Kamalam what is for dinner?”
“Rice and vathakuzhambu.”
“Kamalam, any other option?”
“One other option is there full-night hunger.”
“Kamalam first option is better, thank you.”
But now, madam/sir, I have discovered new method of dealing with Ravi. Discovered last week only. As soon as he came to the flat, Kamalam said, “Let us have tea.” She put tea and Parle-G on the table. Immediately he said, oh you are serving Parle-G…?
I immediately said, “Ravi, I have one very good idea for saving time. Let us quickly finish Modi talks in two minutes and then enjoy. Ok? So you will say Parle-G blah blah. Then I will say what is the Hindi word for numeral five? Then you will say five is paanch, every patriot is knowing. Then I will say economy ka growth rate paanch percenthai. Then you will go and sit in the bedroom for 3 hours until lunchtime. Correct or no? Correct. So, now why don’t you go sit in the bedroom for two minutes, take tea and Parle-G with you, then afterwards when you are feeling fresh, we can go to Marina Beach and Anna Tower and see evening show film and all?”
Madam/sir, it is working like anything. Just now we are going to Ganga Sweets to get some rasmalai for dinner sweet dish. Never before so much happiness in Ravi life. In between he got Modi emotions again. I said, “Ravi no problem after dinner we will fight for 10 minutes before sleep.” He said, “Excellent Mathrubootham, you are great.”
Yours in family satisfaction,
With smart classrooms and a happiness curriculum, New Delhi’s government schools give private ones a run for their money
With the times A smart classroom at Shaheed Hemu Kalani Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya government school in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. The Delhi government has been giving schools and education a much-needed makeover, including introducing modern seating modules, smart blackboards and other technology aids to make learning fun.
Looking up The stars on the ground at Rajkiya Sarvodaya Bal Kanya Vidyalaya in West Vinod Nagar.
Sea of faces Assembly held under a new roof at the West Vinod Nagar school.
At play Students in the junior section of Rajkiya Sarvodaya Bal Kanya Vidyalaya also have a well-stocked recreation room now.
Right notes Students rehearse for the zonal folk song competition at Shaheed Hemu Kalani Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya.
Lapping it up The swimming pool in Rajkiya Sarvodaya Bal Kanya Vidyalaya is the first in any government school in New Delhi.
Problem solved Students at the renovated, newly designed corridor in Rajkiya Sarvodaya Bal Kanya Vidyalaya.
Spanking new buildings, smart classrooms, activity rooms, a mobile app to help parents monitor children on CCTV, and a happiness curriculum in which students meditate, exercise and are taught moral values. Schools run by the Delhi government are giving elite schools in the capital a run for their money. The Rajkiya Sarvodaya Bal Kanya Vidyalaya school in West Vinod Nagar even has a swimming pool, the first in a government school.
All this without exorbitant fees or donations. Education is free and comes with mid-day meals till Class VIII. Students in Classes IX to XII have to pay ₹20 every month.
No wonder then that students are loath to miss a single day of school. Parents are happy with how the children are faring. Teachers have been trained to make learning attractive, and their emphasis is to make learning an aspect of life. Girl students, especially, have done exceedingly well in the Board exams. The schools now make accountability and transparency a priority.
With private schools charging hefty fees, the accessible and good education now available in Delhi’s government schools is making a difference. There’s a rush when admissions open, and parents queue up eagerly. The Delhi initiative has set the bar high for other States.
Kalyan Varma, the wildlife filmmaker whose documentary has been nominated for the Emmy Awards, has shot what is probably the only high-end video of the Sundarbans tiger there is
Illustration: R. Rajesh
Studied mechanical engineering at P.E.S. Institute of Technology, Bengaluru
Worked for Yahoo! from 2001 to 2004, in application security and cryptography
Worked on many nature documentaries, including The Mountains of the Monsoon, One Million Snake Bites and Wild Karnataka
Co-founder of Nature InFocus, Asia’s largest nature photography festival
Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer and filmmaker Kalyan Varma, whose work has featured on BBC Wildlife and National Geographic, is out with his latest project, a documentary on that most elusive of cats, the swamp tiger of the Sundarbans. The documentary, part of BBC’s Super Cats series, has been nominated for this year’s Emmy Awards. Varma talks about what drove him to give up an IT job for a career photographing wildlife, and his 600-hour sail through the mangroves in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You made a pretty radical switch from an IT job to a career in wildlife photography. What was the turning point?
Well, I was quite fascinated by the natural world even when I was working for Yahoo!. I would travel out on weekends. Then I decided to take a break for six months, spend it entirely in the forest. I asked the Karnataka Jungle Lodges and Resorts inBR Hills if I could stay in their lodge for a couple of months, and they said, why don’t you just work here as a naturalist. So, basically I was supposed to show tourists around, explain a thing or two about wildlife. I spent a lot of time with the Soliga tribes too. So that was really where my learning began.
There’s a growing number of amateurs and professionals committed to serious wildlife photography in India — they document everything from road ecology to urban wildlife. Is photography becoming a tool for conservation?
I think it’s a double-edged sword, to be honest. I think, yes, an average Bengalurean knows quite a bit about wildlife beyond tigers and elephants, there’s a lot of interest in bird life in their backyard, for instance; and when there’s a plan to cut trees, there’s quite a bit of protest. I think that’s very good. But there is also an overcrowding of our national parks and sanctuaries. And what I feel really bad about is that exploring wildlife has become an activity of the privileged. A rural person who wants to explore wildlife just cannot afford to. I think the forest departments should have systems in place to make protected areas accessible to everyone.
In this age of tiger selfies, animal baiting and drone cameras, is there also a growing sense among photographers and videographers that an ethical code must be followed while shooting wildlife?
To get that great shot, photographers sometimes cross a line — but what is that line? That is not defined. Of course there are laws, for instance you can’t get off vehicles in protected areas. But ethics is more about questioning yourself. I remember when I started photography, 10 years ago, you didn’t have those big lenses. Photographers were extremely competitive. Say they found a nest of a tailor bird, the impulse was to clear out all the branches so they could get a clear shot — now the reason the bird has nested there is so predators don’t see it. Now, some photography contests don’t accept bird nest pictures any more. A lot of flash photography at night has also reduced, partly because of the advances in technology where you can shoot in low light. I must have done things too that I wouldn’t do now.
Your documentary on the Sundarbans tiger, for the BBC series Super Cats, has been nominated for the Emmys. You spent 600 hours on a boat that eventually broke down. Was filming the notoriously elusive Sundarbans tiger even tougher than you expected?
More than being physically demanding, it needed a lot of mental strength. I was scanning the islands with my binoculars from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — spotting a tiger through vegetation means you have to be on high alert always or you might just sail past it. Halfway through the shoot I realised I hadn’t even seen the tail of a tiger and the pressure was building. It was an expensive shoot after all. But just two days before we were to wrap up we saw pug marks on an island. We circled it and eventually, the tiger showed up. We were in a tiny country boat, and the engine shook the boat; the tide made the boat turn and sometimes move closer to the shore. That could have been dangerous. The tiger happened to be territory marking, so I could capture it as it walked for some two kilometres along the shore. At one point it even sat by the water and then disappeared into the forest. This is probably the only high-end video of the Sundarbans tiger there is.
You don’t believe in charging for your pictures and all your material is up on open source platforms. What prompted the decision? And how does it work for you?
I think that decision had something to do with my previous job in IT. I was an advocate of free and open source software. Yes, I have to survive and pay my bills. But what got me into wildlife photography was not money, it was the joy of documenting wildlife that you can share with people. That couldn’t happen if I kept it behind copyright. A lot of my photographer friends were very angry with me and said I was insulting the whole profession. But for me, photography is an art. And it does pay off eventually. People recognised my work and commissioned projects and bought high quality prints. Today 80% of what I do is ‘pretty pictures’, but I still get to do some hard-hitting conservation stories, which hopefully will have some positive impact.
What do you make of wildlife programming on TV where nature is always somehow ‘deadly’ and ‘dangerous’, and where anchors must often wrangle with it?
Yes, that is a bit of a cultural thing, very different from the David Attenborough-style of filmmaking where he’d be on camera but he’d leave the animals alone. But these presenter-led, animal-handling shows are cheap to make. You go along with a snake-catcher for a few days and you have a half-hour programme ready. But now with online platforms, budgets are increasing everywhere and people are appreciating these shows less and less. The only such show that is still around is Man vs. Wild, which needs to die. It probably will do so soon, with all the criticism.