Stamp # 6 and 7: Tagore and Malaviya’s Educational Legacies

Around five years ago, when I dove more deeply into the education space in India, I found myself uncomfortable with just how much we were borrowing ideas from the west and how we were trying to force-fit them in an Indian context. It was a habit that we had fallen into for generations, like as if we had lost the confidence in our own ways of thinking about learning and education. But the more I looked into it, I realized most people weren’t even aware of Indian thinkers on education or they felt that Indian education thinkers were frequently mixing religion with education. So in this piece, I want to look at two men who tried to make a difference in the field of higher education. They recognized that creating an education system created for an Indian context is important to create Indian thinkers and Indian problem solvers, but their approaches to education was very different. But before we begin, let us look at the educational environment the two men were responding to.

An Oversimplified Story of Indian Schools till the Early 20th Century

Gurukul System. Source: Gurukul Blog

ANCIENT HISTORY: The story of the history of education in India complicated. This is true because the history of India is extremely long. But the prevalent image of ancient Indian schooling at the Gurukuls. People used to deposit their children at the homes of a guru at around the age of 7 or 8. For the next 10 to 15 years, the children were part of the Guru’s household, where they helped in household chores and served their Guru and also learned the scriptures. Over this period, the child learnt self discipline, life lessons as well as academics (in the form of the scriptures). Access to this form of intense education was not universal. It was only available to a small group of boys who were born to a certain caste. The vast majority of the population was excluded from the Gurukuls. Other boys were taught the trade they were born into by their fathers, uncles or any old surviving male relative (because in those days, remember, people died young so the joint family raised its young children together).

MEDIEVAL HISTORY: In the medieval times, gurukuls, madrasas and informal education through apprenticeships continued. There might have been village pathashalas in villages where they had someone who could teach reading and writing, and children would attend during the seasons when they were not required to help in the farms. These schools taught in the vernacular medium, but it always helped to learn the official language of the emperor who ruled over your area if you wanted to rise above your station.

THOMAS MACAULAY’S LEGACY OF BRITISH EDUCATION: The East India Trading Company came quietly in the late 17th century and were settled cozily in India by the mid 19th century. But the British were finding the vast cultural gap tiresome when it came to doing business. They were either going to have to learn the local ways (which many of the early British settlers had done) or get the locals to learn their language and “elevate” the native a little.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, First Baron of Macaulay (April 1856) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The school textbooks today credit Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay with the modern Indian education system. During his recommendations to the Committee of Public Instruction he pointed out that English should be the medium of instruction instead of Arabic or Sanskrit. If the British were going to be spending money on education, they should be looking for some gains or returns. This was 1835 and the British were in India to make a profit, after all. Macaulay summarized the goal of education in India as follows: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.  To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

I think, the education system laid out by the British were actually successful in accomplishing that goal. It did create a class of Indians who were English in opinions, morals and intellect. And many of them did enrich the vernacular dialects with terms of science borrowed from the West, however, many also used the “English opinions, morals and intellects” to examine the English themselves. These English minded thinkers led our freedom struggle and brought extraordinary good to our country.

Unfortunately, what Macaulay’s education also did was make it seem like Indian culture – its music, dance, food, poetry, literature, religion and philosophy and aesthetic were somehow inferior. We see elements of this even today when you look at the CBSE English curriculum for the 10th grade – where they are still reading Robert Frost rhyming about the way a crow shook a dust of snow upon him. Indians know crows but most of us haven’t seen snow or how it dusts on things. Indians have long adopted English as our own and used it to create masterful works of fiction and poetry. Yet it hasn’t seeped into our textbooks so very well.

Macaulay’s education and a subsequent American culture wave has taken a strong hold on our imagination even. In every creative writing session I have ever had, most of kids have written about Bobs, Jacks, Marias and Lucys doing fun or awful things.

The goal of Macaulay’s education policy was to create a class of Indians servile to the West and who were raised to believe in the superiority of Western culture. In the late 19th and early 20th century many people like Rabindranath Tagore and Malaviya felt it was time to provide an education that met the needs of a new Indian nation state. Education was now needed to create a unified national consciousness and create a class of citizens who understood the nation that they were now masters of.

Madan Mohan Malaviya and Rabindranath Tagore

Name: Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946)
Date of Issue: 1961
Issued by: India Post
Name: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Date of Issue: 1952
Issued by: India Post

Both Malaviya and Tagore were born in 1861 and both were founders of two of most India’s well-reputed universities (Benaras Hindu University and Vishwa-Bharati), yet the two men were very different from each other. Just look at them – Malaviya in his turban, neatly trimmed moustache, round tilak and simple tidy appearance versus Tagore’s flowing mane and beard, in his loose robe.

Malaviya, also known as Mahamanas for his wide and generous interests, lived simply. Here is a picture of him in his room, from the archives of BHU. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Madan Mohan Malaviya was a Kayastha Brahmin from an area near Allahabad, UP. His father and grandfather, well known and respected for their mastery of Sanskrit scriptures, were invited to various places to recite the Srimad Bhagavatham. Malaviya attended a local village school and went to college to get a degree in English. Later, he studied law. Over his lifetime, Malaviya donned many hats – he was President of the Indian National Congress, he revived The Hindustan Times in 1924, got 156 of the 177 Chauri-chaura rioters acquitted in his capacity as their lawyer, got British-Indian courts to use the Devanagri script for their record keeping, established the Hindu Samaj as well as a Boy Scouts organisation in India, and of course set up Benaras Hindu University.

Tagore’s accomplishments are more well known. Like Malaviya, Tagore was also Brahmin. His father, Debendranath Tagore, had founded the Brahmo Samaj and was a deeply spiritual man. Tagore grew up in a joint family where music, dance, art, drama, spirituality, poetry, and everything beautiful was within easy reach. He had hated classroom learning and his ideas of education and how it should be delivered came from his inherent discomfort with classroom education.

What I find interesting about Malaviya and Tagore is that they had much in common and yet both have such different vibes. Both men’s vision of education was born from their own personal but very different exposure to Indian religious and artistic culture in their childhood. Their pedagogical approaches reflected these two very different approaches to religion and culture.

Today, Benaras Hindu University is considered one of the top universities in the country – in the same league as IISc , IIT Delhi, Kharagpur and Mumbai. Vishwa-Bharathi University might have stumbled in rankings in recent years, but it has survived in modern India. I do not know how close they are to the vision of their founders, but my interest is in the initial days of these places and the approach each founder applied.

I feel like each university was created in the image of its founder.

Benaras Hindu University (please check out this article to see pictures of it in its early years), like its founder, appeared to be planned in a neat, constrained, orderly fashion. Colleges to teach the Vedas and Vedanta, Ayurveda and medicine, Gandhari Vedas or Fine and Performing Arts were formed. There was also a College of Artha Shastra teaching subjects we would call Economics, Physics, Chemistry, etc. There were buildings and residential quarters funded by various princely states. Initially, Malaviya had intended for all teaching to happen in Sanskrit or the vernacular but then realised that there were no textbooks in those languages.

Shantiniketan and Vishwabharati was founded with a different perspective. Shantiniketan was all about allowing students to commune with nature and learn in an organic fashion. Classrooms were under trees. Religion was to be taught by a mindful observation of nature and the self, rather than through instruction. Culture was again to be experienced through participation in music, art, dance and theatre. Like its founder, Vishwabharati was untamed in form. When someone told Tagore that there were no textbooks for subjects in the vernacular, Tagore simply pointed out that once there is demand for it, supply would follow, and so classes in Shantiniketan were taught in Bengali.

The Place of Religious Education in Secular India

As I was writing this story out, I was half listening to my son reading a news article about communal violence in the background. Communalism and secularism are hot topics in India today where our opinions of the government’s relationship with religion is causing friction. I was torn about what one would make of Malaviya’s vision of Hindu education in these times. Tagore’s interpretation of religion is more palatable in this modern time because it is non-denominational in its expression. In contrast, Malaviya never shied away from scripture. Despite his conservative religiosity, in history, Malaviya was not a dividing force. He was a practicing Brahmin and yet was making peace with Ambedkar during the signing of the Poona Pact in 1932. From all I could find, he was a consistent voice in favour of communal harmony.

Yet, is Malaviya’s brand of religious education good for peace and harmony in secular India? I looked into Malaviya’s own writing for the answers. Believe it or not, he seemed to familiar with my worry. You will find the direct quote below, but here is the summary. He felt that

  1. The absence of compulsory religious education had not prevented the growth of sectarianism, but perhaps a truly religious education might liberate the mind and create a spirit of brotherly feeling between men.
  2. He believed that “instruction in the truths of religion whether imparted” at “Benaras Hindu University or Aligarh Moslem University” will produce men who are true to their religion,… God,… and country. In other words he appeared to believe in the universal message of love, harmony and brotherhood at the core of all religions.
  3. And therefore, he felt that a true religious education is a more likely to lead to peace and harmony than not.

Here is his complete quote, that I summarised above:

“It  will  not  promote  narrow  sectarianism  but  a  broad liberation  of  mind  and  a  religious  spirit  which  will  promote brotherly  feeling  between  man  and  man.  Unfortunately  we are  all  aware  that  the  absence  of  sectarian  religious  Universities, the  absence  of  any  compulsory  religious  education  in our  State  Universities,  has  not  prevented  the  growth  of  sectarian feeling  in  the  country.  I  believe,  my  Lord,  instruction in  the  truths  of  religion,  whether  it  be  Hindus  or Mussalmans,  whether  it  be  imparted  to  the  students  of  the Benares  Hindu  University  or  of  the  Aligarh  Moslem  University, will  tend  to  produce  men  who,  if  they  are  true  to  their religion,  will  be  true  to  their  God,  their  King  and  their  country. And  I  look  forward  to  the  time  when  the  students  who will  pass  out  of  such  Universities,  will  meet  each  other  in  a closer  embrace  as  sons  of  the  same  Motherland  than  they  do at  present.” (page 29, Speeches and Writings of Madan Mohan Malaviya)

Like Malaviya and Tagore, many others including Gandhi tried to provide an alternative to the British system. Today, I see several schools around India that make a real effort to take the homegrown Indian route and I deeply appreciate the effort. It is challenging when the entire structure is borrowed but it is nice to see that we are making efforts to fix that every now and then even at government levels like with the NEP. But what I understand from Malaviya and Tagore isn’t a surface level exposure to Indian culture through cursory chanting of prayers or grandiose celebration of festivals but through a deeper examination of the self and the world we inhabit through the lens provided by Indian philosophy, as well as an exposure to the contribution of various philosophers, writers and poets in more modern times as well.

“How did he find the time?” I asked my husband, ruefully. “He didn’t have Netflix or Insta-reels” he said jokingly. And I wonder if that might be true. I wonder at all the lost potential.

The Stamp Series# 2 – Dr Rajendra Prasad Tests the Extent of Presidential Authority

Name: Dr. Rajendra Prasad – President of India 1950-1962
Date of Issue: 13 May 1962
Denomination: 15 nP
Source: India Postage Stamps

The other week, I was introducing my Civics class to the Indian Parliamentary system. Everyone understood the idea of a bicameral legislature. They understood the role of the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet. But when we came to the President, there was general bemusement. One young boy said, “So, basically, the President is powerless, right?” He said disparagingly and I felt the spirits of all previous Presidents of India – dead and alive – flinch in unison. Dr Rajendra Prasad, our very first President of India, himself, struggled with coming to terms with the limited role of the President in the Indian polity.

Dr Rajendra Prasad was a well-respected lawyer, journalist, scholar, freedom fighter and member of the Constituent Assembly. Born in 1884 to a modest Kayastha family in Bihar, he had trained as a lawyer. In his thirties, he was recruited by Gandhi to work in the campaign to support indigo peasants in Bihar. Over time, he rose through the ranks of the party to become President of the Indian National Congress.

Photo Source: Anandabazar

Upon Independence, Rajendra Prasad and Nehru became an odd couple at the top of the new Indian government. Rajendra Prasad was a traditional Hindu and had spent much of his career campaigning for Hindi to be the official national language. He also suggested that all other Indian languages shift to the Devanagari script as nearly all Indian languages found their root in Sanskrit. He had grown up in a middle-class Indian family and had his early schooling in a traditional elementary school before moving to Patna and Calcutta to pursue higher education. In other words, Rajendra Prasad was more son of the soil than Eton and Cambridge educated Nehru. His upbringing and life experience coloured his perspective and philosophy on the role of the government just as much as Nehru’s Western education, privileged upbringing and life experience had influenced Nehru’s world view on the same subjects.

Naturally, Prasad and Nehru did not see eye to eye on things. Rajendra Prasad wanted Republic Day (26 January 1950) to be rescheduled because it was not an auspicious day. The rational and scientifically inclined Nehru was mortified at the suggestion. Their biggest differences were centred around each man’s understanding of secularism. To Prasad, the traditional Hindu, a secular government’s role was to allow each individual to enjoy the freedom to practice his/her religion without state interference. To Nehru, the secular government’s role was like a benevolent father figure who protected all communities, especially minorities, and who tried to repair inequities within communities.

These differences led to a small constitutional crisis when they faced off over the Hindu Code Bill. While everyone agreed Indian society had issues concerning women’s rights and caste discrimination, they all had different opinions on how these inequities should be addressed. Nehru, Prasad and other members of the Constituent Assembly had wanted to create a Uniform Civil Code, but practical issues of how to address minority concerns and preserve cultural identities of various religious groups crippled the process. In the end, Nehru narrowed his focus on the Hindu personal laws.

RK Laxman on Nehru and the Hindu Code Bill

At the time of Independence, nearly 80% of India considered themselves Hindu and yet it was hard to pinpoint what being Hindu really meant. Nehru intended for the Hindu Code Bill to unite this diverse religious community. With Ambedkar, he saw an urgent need for reform and standardisation of personal laws concerning marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. Being a Hindu himself, he thought himself more entitled to reform Hindu personal laws than address the similar issues concerning the Muslim and Christian communities in India.

Rajendra Prasad, ever the traditional Hindu, was vocally opposed to government interference in Hindu personal laws. He wrote his objections in various long and detailed notes to Nehru. While both Prasad and Nehru were secular, Prasad felt that the government should support all religions equally but should not interfere with any single communities’ laws and practices. If Nehru did want to reform Hindu society, then why not extend that reform to all communities within India through a Unified Civil Code? Why single out Hindu society?

His other objection was that the Constituent Assembly that would have passed the Hindu Code Bill into law, had been elected to write the Constitution. They were not there to reform a religious community’s social problems. If Nehru and Ambedkar wanted to do this the right way, senior members of traditional Hindu communities should be included in the process. (Of course, Nehru and Ambedkar could not do that because it would have led nowhere. Traditional Hindus were against several proposed laws including a Hindu woman’s right to inherit her father’s property, or preventing Hindu men from having more than one wife) Nehru had no qualms about being utterly undemocratic about the process because he felt the ends justified the means in this case. And so, they engaged in a wonderfully polite but serious struggle for power. Rajendra Prasad felt that as President he was duty-bound to do something. And as first President, he was going to have to figure out just what a President could do when he disagreed with the Government.

When he realised Nehru was not going to change his mind, Rajendra Prasad threatened to send the bill back to Parliament and take actions “with the dictates of [his] own conscience” as he wrote to Nehru. Nehru was alarmed. He wrote back telling Rajendra Prasad that his actions would raise uncomfortable questions about the “President’s authority and powers to challenge the decisions of the Government and the Parliament” – uncomfortable questions whose answers might disappoint the President.

As they went back and forth, debating whether a President had the right to interfere in the work of the legislature, Prasad and Nehru asked the Attorney General to share his opinion. India’s first Attorney General, M.C. Setalvad referred to Article 74 in the Constitution that stated that “there shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions”. Based on his optimistic interpretation of the Article, Rajendra Prasad felt that he had the right to stop legislation even without referring to the Council of Ministers. But Setalvad pointed out that the role of the President was equivalent to the role of the King or Queen in Britain. They were just figureheads and “the President was bound to act in accordance with the aid and advice tendered to him by the Council of Ministers.” In short, Rajendra Prasad could not act independently and block the Hindu Code Bill because he lacked the support of the Council of Ministers. The President soon realised he only had the power to express his objections but not actually do anything about them.

And so, after his futile attempts to exercise some power, Rajendra Prasad receded into the background, signing the dotted line when needed, and playing the role of dignified state elder, figurehead and rubber stamp. In 1977 and ‘ 79, Amendments 42 and 44 clarified that the President could only act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers and that the President can send the advice back for reconsideration only once. If the Council of Ministers sends the same advice back again, then the President was obliged to accept it.

Photo Source: The Print

It turned out that my student was right. Presidents in India do not have very much power when it comes to legislation. Of course, throughout our short history post Independence, Presidents have tried to push and expand their power and ability to affect change when they felt they needed to with varying degrees of success.

Two years before leaving office, Rajendra Prasad gave a speech at the inauguration of the Indian Law College where he said “It is generally believed (that) like the Sovereign of Great Britain, the President of India is also a constitutional head… I should like, to be studied and investigated, the extent to which the powers and functions of the President differ from those of the Sovereign of Great Britain…” This exhortation to the students came before Indira Gandhi pushed for Amendments 42 and 44 that strictly defined the powers and functions of the President. Rajendra Prasad, who died in 1964, was spared seeing the final nail in the coffin of Presidential power and independence. But, Rajendra Prasad set an example for future Presidents to act according to their conscience, push back against the Government and honour their oath “to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution” and for that, in addition to all his contributions as a founding father of the nation, he is remembered and honoured by history.

Resources:

About Rajendra Prasad:

  1. Rajendra Prasad on Wikipedia
  2. Eminent Parliamentarian Series: Rajendra Prasad (A Collection of essays on Rajendra Prasad)

About Nehru vs Rajendra Prasad and Hindu Code Bill and Article 74:

  1. Kaun Banayega Rashtrapati, by Ramchandra Guha in the Indian Express Archives
  2. Clash between President Dr Prasad and PM Nehru over Hindu Code Bill most serious, by Prabhu Chawla in India Today (1987)
  3. Disagreement between Rajendra Prasad and Nehru over Hindu code bills, India Today
  4. Letters to the Editor: Difference between Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, Anandabazaar (Translate to English)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code: A Victory of Symbol over Substance? by Reba Som, Modern Asian Studies (on Jstor)
  6. Why We Need An Executive President, Rajinder Puri in The Outlook
  7. Whether the aid and advice theory has any relevance in the Constitution of India? by Mahitha Reddy in Judicere
  8. Mr Badal’s Blunder in Uday India

Rediscovering Bhagat Singh (Part 2): The Hunger Strike

Jatindra Nath Das (1904-1929) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On September 13, 1929, 25 year old Jatindra Nath Das died after an epic 61 day fast. He had joined Bhagat Singh’s hunger strike against the unequal treatment of Indian political prisoners compared to European prisoners. Jatin Das had built bombs for the HSRA and had been arrested with the rest of his revolutionary comrades in the Lahore Conspiracy Case (regarding the assassination of Saunders). When he had first heard of Bhagat Singh’s idea of a hunger strike, he had been doubtful about the strategy. He had warned other enthusiastic strikers that “inching toward death in a hunger strike is far more difficult than death in a gun fight or on the gallows,” It wasn’t that Jatin Das lacked commitment. He was practical. “It is better not to join the strike than suffer a premature withdrawal,” he had warned. But when his comrades assured him of their determination to see this through, Jatin Das joined the hunger strike demanding that Indian political prisoners receive the same dignity and rights that are afforded to a petty European criminal in Indian jails. As his health declined and the public grew increasingly concerned about his well being, the British panicked. They tried all kinds of tricks to force the hunger strikers to break their fast. They filled the drinking water pots with milk, hoping to trick thirsty strikers into drinking milk. They placed tasty foods outside their cells and tried to tempt the strikers to give in. And eventually they tried to force feed these men, phyiscally holding them down and pushing food into them. Jatin Das struggled all of these torments. He fell sick when food that they had tried to force into him got lodged in his lungs. When he died, 61 days after he first started his fast, an entire nation stirred and the British quaked.

The archival video below shows a river of men in white flowing through the streets of Lahore as part of Jatin Das’s funeral procession. Subhash Chandra Bose had sent train fare to transport Jatin’s body from Lahore, where he had died, to his home in Bengal. The revolutionaries who had hoped to make the British tremble through planned violence, had achieved greater success through their adoption of Gandhi’s weapon of choice – fasting.

The video shows “fanatical hordes” (as the video calls them) peacefully and respectfully accompany Jatindranath Das’s body to the railway station for his final journey home. Source: British Pathe

This hunger strike that captured the attention of a nation had been Bhagat Singh’s idea. During his brief stint in prison in 1927, Bhagat Singh had noticed petty European criminals received better food and treatment in jails compared to Indian political prisoners. Surely there was a difference in quality between a European thief or murderer and an Indian political prisoner who was in prison for upholding their ideals and values.

But how do you protest effectively in prison? Bhagat Singh took a page out of Gandhi’s handbook. He decided on going on a hunger strike until changes were made. He found a way to sneak the message across to his comrade B.K. Dutt before he was sent to another jails. Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt spread the word in their respective jails. Word spread rapidly and political prisoners across the nation began to join the strike. Some like Jatin Das lost their lives. Some, like Baba Sohan Singh who was close to being released after serving a sentence of 15 years, joined the strike and were punished by having their sentences extended.

Bhagat Singh, as usual, put pen to paper. He wrote to the home member of the Government of India explaining why the strikers were protesting and what their demands were.

We, as political prisoners, should be given better diet and the standard of our diet should at least be the same as that of European prisoners… We shall not be forced to do any hard and undignified labour at all… books… along with writing materials should be allowed to us without restriction. Toilet necessities… better clothing… at least one standard daily paper should be supplied to every political prisoner.

from Without Fear by Kuldip Nayar

Bhagat Singh’s demands had been simple and clear. He was asking for dignity, respect and fairness. According to Nayar, Bhagat Singh had been concerned that the message of revolution was being misunderstood by the youth of India. He did not want revolution to be linked to the romance of guns, bombs and dramatic acts of violence. It was about sacrifice for a greater purpose. Bhagat Singh showed through his choices that if violence did not do the trick, then revolutionaries should change their ways and choose whatever path would lead them most expediently to their goal. Like Jatin Das, Bhagat Singh seemed aware that hunger strikes were far more difficult than dashing around with guns and bombs. But his body and voice were the only tools available to him in jail. He and all his fellow hunger strikers reminded India that even though Indians were trapped in circumstance – either in an actual jail or in a society ruled by outsiders – every individual was not only capable of bringing change but had a duty to try.

This message was not lost on Indians across the subcontinent. The efforts of Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das and so many other men and women in jails across India captured the interest of Indian media. Regional language newspapers like Sandhya, Bande Matram, Karma Yogin, Sanjibani, etc and English language papers like The Tribune reported the story and got the revolutionaries message to the common man. The strikers had gained so much sympathy from the public that the whole nation celebrated 21 June, 1929 as Bhagat Singh Day. He had achieved celebrity status during his own life time using methods that had made Gandhi, a man whom he felt was constantly chasing a Utopia at the cost of the present realities of the land, a household name.

Credit: The Tribune

It wasn’t just public sympathy and admiration that Bhagat Singh received. Mainstream names like Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah were openly ackowledging their support for the revolutionaries while carefully adding a disclaimer that while they did not support their violent methods, they admired the dedication, devotion and courage that these young men were displaying.

In his autobiography, Nehru who had visited the strikers in Lahore Central Jail described Bhagat Singh as having an “attractive, intellectual face, remarkably calm and peaceful.” He noticed that his faced did not seem to have “any anger in it” and that he spoke very gently. However, Nehru admits that anyone who had been fasting for over a month “will look spiritual and gentle”.

Despite frequent criticisms of Gandhi’s apparently weak efforts to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Gandhi would state his disagreement with the revolutionaries’ methods while also openly acknowledging their sincerity and courage. He did try to convince Viceroy Irwing to commute the sentence but obviously failed. Later, he published Sukhdev’s open letter to Gandhi that he had sent before his execution and wrote a gentle and reasonable response giving Sukhdev’s words the due respect they deserved. This attitude of mutual respect that all these various freedom fighters had for each other makes me marvel at the quality of people who were leading our country at that time. Something we can all learn from – how to respectfully disagree.

When we look at the details of Bhagat Singh’s short life, I realised that school textbooks have done Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries a great disservice. While it is certainly true that the revolutionaries took to political assassinations and violence, there was more to their story than that. Perhaps they were misguided in their methods. Yet, they were not attached to violence. They were attached to their cause – a free India. When violence did not help, they turned to non-violence. It is true that they did not turn to it for the idealistic reasons that led Gandhi. They turned to it for more practical reasons. Yet, in that change in tactic, what I realised was that they were devoid of ego and blind and violent hatred for the enemy.

In his statement during the Legislative Assembly Bombing case, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt had said the following:

We hold human life sacred beyond words, and would sooner lay down our own lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone else.

They had meant it when they spoke of their willingness to lay down their lives in the service of humanity. Leaders say it all the time; very few actually mean it. These young men in their early twenties lived by their words. There is good reason why Bhagat Singh features in our textbooks. But he is not there because he was willing to pick up a gun for his country. He is part of the narrative because he and his revolutionary brothers sincerely loved their country and are an example of how even when all freedoms were stripped from them, so many Indians showed the rest of us that we always have a choice.

Resources:

  1. Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh by Kuldip Nayar
  2. The Tribune photo on Jatin Das shook British empire by Vishav Bharti for The Tribune, September 12, 2019.
  3. ‘Bhagat Singh respected Gandhi for his impact on masses, but thought his ideas couldn’t bring a social change for equality’ Interview of historian Chaman Lal for the Times of India, September 27, 2019
  4. ‘Modi Says No Congress Leader Visited Bhagat Singh in Jail, but That’s Not True’ by Arjun Siddharth for The Wire, May 10, 2018
  5. ‘The Hunger Strike of Revolutionary Jatin Das’ from Prashant’s Blogworld posted on January 2, 2017
  6. What Mahatma Gandhi did to Save Bhagat Singh by Chander Pal Singh for MKGandhi.org

My Re-Introduction to Bhagat Singh: The Bombing of Central Legislative Assembly

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The picture above was taken by the police during Bhagat Singh’s first stint in jail in 1927. At the time of the picture he was only 19. His hands were bound in chains and he was in conversation with Gopal Singh Pannu, DSP, CID who was interrogating him on his role in the Lahore Dasehra Bombing Case. One year later, Rajguru and Bhagat Singh would kill Saunders, an Assistant Police Commissioner in Lahore. They had meant to kill Scott, the policeman who had beaten Lala Lajpat Rai brutally and that led to the legendary leader’s death. But when this picture was taken, Bhagat Singh had no idea that he was going to commit a political assassination. He did not know that two years later he would lob bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly Chamber and then wait patiently for the police to arrest him. Nor did he know that he and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, would be remembered in Indian history as martyrs and heroes.

My own introduction to Bhagat Singh had been through a paragraph, like the one below, in my history textbook. As a student, I could not understand Bhagat Singh’s place in the story of Indian Independence. In a struggle made famous for its non-violent approach, here was a man who seemed unafraid of violence. He killed a man, bombed the Legislative Assembly when it was in session, and was executed for his actions. How were his actions any different from that of a modern terrorist? Why do we include him in a textbook? Why do we still remember him?

Credit: Our Pasts III, NCERT Grade 8 Textbook

My husband did not like that I compared Bhagat Singh to a common terrorist. “Absolutely not,” he had said fiercely. “Bhagat Singh was an intellectual, not just a revolutionary.” His defense of Bhagat Singh spurred me to do my own reading on the subject. I started with Kuldip Nayar’s book Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh, followed by Bhagat Singh’s own writings. In the process my own attitude towards Bhagat Singh changed. While I agree with my husband that Bhagat Singh was absolutely not a terrorist, I think what makes Bhagat Singh extraordinary is that his life was his message or, as Sukhdev called it, ‘propoganda by action’.

In the following blog posts, I will focus on two events that made me change my mind about Bhagat Singh. The first (and the focus of this blog) was his role in the Central Legislative Assembly Bombing. The second was his protest against the treatment of Indian political prisoners compared to Europeans (which I will cover in the next blog). I wish I had heard these stories when I was in school because it would have highlighted the various paths Indians took to achieve the same desired outcome of Independence and might have allowed us to reflect on how grey a lot of these approaches really were.

Bhagat Singh’s Role in the Central Legislative Assembly Bombing

Credit: India Today

Bhagat Singh belonged to a communist group called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Although Bhagat Singh was not a founding member, he joined the party when he was still in his teens and became an active member. After Saunder’s assassination, the HSRA had been disappointed with the response. The mainstream leaders of the freedom struggle had clearly disavowed the actions of the young revolutionaries and the British seemed unfazed. The public had also seemed unimpressed. If they wanted to make any serious impact on the British and the public, this clearly had not been the way. HSRA also realised that “mobilising public opinion and making people believe in their ideology was the real necessity, not random bombs and killings.” (Nayar, Without Fear).

So, how do you create a splash? The HSRA decided to toss a few low intensity bombs into a crowded Legislative Assembly Chamber when it had assembled to discuss two bills that they were against – the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill. After throwing the bombs and propaganda fliers in an emptier part of the hall, to avoid killing anyone, the two chosen HSRA members were supposed to wait for the police to come and find them. The idea was to use their time in court to explain their philosophy, bring attention to the faults of the British and to inspire the Indian youth to join the freedom movement.

There had been some debate over who the two sacrificial lambs should be. Bhagat Singh desperately wanted to be one of them. He would have been a good option because they needed someone articulate and confident to highlight the problems with the British, defend the revolutionaries’ ideals and inspire the public. But, they did not originally select him because they all knew that if the British had Bhagat Singh they would not let him go alive. They would have to hang him for the killing of Saunders. He would have to be made an example of.

Yet, even with full knowledge of this inevitable end, Bhagat Singh pushed for his inclusion in the plan and finally won out. On the day of the bombing, as the smoke cleared, the police finally mustered up enough courage to confront the two men in the balcony above the Assembly who were shouting Inquilab Zindabad. Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt stood there waiting. Bhagat Singh handed the policeman the gun he had used to kill Saunders. And later, as the two had hoped, they used the court as a platform to get the common man in India to pay attention to the revolutionary agenda.

In court, their lawyer Asaf Ali read out a statement that Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt wrote together. They explained the intention behind their most recent act as follows:

It was necessary to awaken England from her dreams… We dropped the bomb on the floor of the Assembly Chamber to register our protests on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heartrending agony. Our sole purpose was to make the deaf hear and give the headless a timely warning.

“We are neither perpetrators nor lunatics: Full text of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutta’s argument in 1929 Assembly Bomb case”, DNA India

They also addressed their disagreement with the nonviolent approach to freedom head on. They said:

The elimination of force at all costs is Utopian, and the new movement which has arisen in the country, and of that dawn we have given a warning, is inspired by the ideals which guided Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, Kamal Pasha, Riza Khan, Washington, Garibaldi, Lafayette and Lenin.

“We are neither perpetrators nor lunatics: Full text of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutta’s argument in 1929 Assembly Bomb case”, DNA India

By tracing their movement’s lineage to such famous predecessors as Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, etc, the revolutionaries were trying to point out that their ideas were neither new nor too radical since great heroes in history also resorted to the same methods. If you have a chance and sufficient interest, it is worth reading in its entirety. As I read it after having read Bhagat Singh’s other writing, I could see his hand in this as well. He is an emotive writer; it is hard to walk away from his work without some response. I did not always agree with him, and yet I did not walk away feeling that this was a rash and unthinking trigger-happy young man. He was, in fact, a person who was thinking and feeling deeply for his country and doing what he felt was right for her. He and his comrades felt so strongly about it that they were willing to suffer the torments of imprisonment (it was certainly torturous because they were frequently beaten brutally and suffered several humiliations and discomforts) and death for their ideals. Every time I read his words, I think back to the picture at the top of this article.

We are lucky that the photo of Bhagat Singh sitting on the charpoy in conversation with an investigator (that you can see at the top of this article) exists because that picture highlights two things – one is just how young Bhagat Singh was. At the time of his death he was only 23. The other is how confident Bhagat Singh appears. He looks comfortable in his shackles and relaxed in his conversation with the policeman. I could not find any sign of fear or apprehension in the collection of his personal correspondence and articles that I could find online. He seemed to overflow with conviction and dedication to his cause. Before, he died, he was visited by his grieving family. He was particularly affected by his younger brother who could not stop crying. He wrote him a particularly tender letter and included some couplets to console him. It ended as follows:

Meri hawa mein rahegi khayal ki khushboo,
Yeh musht-e-khak hai, fani rahe rahe na rahe.

(Our faith and ideas will fill the air.
What harm if this handful of dust is destroyed?)

Without Fear, Kuldip Nayar

Those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause must have to view themselves with tremendous humility in the face of their faith and ideals. Through many of Bhagat Singh’s letters to his friends and family, Bhagat Singh seems to repeatedly come back to this point of how he as an individual does not matter as much as the cause.

Bhagat Singh expresses this sentiment through word and action over and over again in his short life. This is why we remember him. Not for having killed Saunders or for having bombed the Legislative Assembly as the textbooks imply. We remember him as being one of many men and women who viewed themselves as a handful of dust in the wind. They dedicated themselves to their principles and ideals regardless of the cost. Whether they chose revolution or non-violence, the love, dedication and sacrifice for their nation was the same.