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Punjab Reconsidered$

Anshu Malhotra and Farina Mir

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780198078012

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198078012.001.0001

Bhagat Singh

A Politics of Death and Hope

(p.377) 13 Bhagat Singh
Punjab Reconsidered

Simona Sawhney

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter begins by noting some structural similarities between contemporary ‘terrorists’ in Lahore and the celebrated Punjabi ‘extremist’ Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) and his comrades. It proposes, however, that the discursive world inhabited by Bhagat Singh differed significantly from the one available to death-driven youth in Punjab today. Examining the centrality of two elements, hope and death, in Bhagat Singh’s work, the chapter suggests that Bhagat Singh’s existential approach to politics was linked to a quintessentially modern figure of the ‘world’ — a figure that had become an object of immense concern and love. It goes on to contend that the hopeful actions of Bhagat Singh and his comrades can only be understood in relation to international communist and anarchist movements, and hence to a deeply divided West. Conversely, the internal consolidation of the West in our times has sharply constricted, all over the globe, the ability to imagine new worlds and communities.

Keywords:   Bhagat Singh, Lahore, existential, communism, anarchism, terrorists, hope, death, Lajwanti Rama Krishna

The only city where the great sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his comrades created a political movement among the left was Lahore.

—Bipan Chandra1

Asān tān joban rute marnā

We will die in the season of youth.

—Shiv Kumar Batalvi2

Lahore Now and Then

Over ninety worshippers were killed and many others injured as seven assailants including three suicide bombers attacked Ahmadiyya mosques in the Model Town and Garhi Shahu areas of Lahore on 28 May 2010. At least one of the attackers is described by the press as a young Pashto-speaking teenager from the tribal areas. In past (p.378) attacks in Lahore attributed to the Taliban, commentators have likewise alluded to the youth of some of the assailants.

I have not been able to find any more information about the Pashto youth who was arrested on 28 May. What was he willing to kill—and to die—for? Why did the supposed ‘heresy’ of the Ahmadi sect become the focus of his rage? The common narrative, as we know, links these attacks to the orthodox believers’ intolerance of Ahmadi heterodoxy. The Ahmadis constitute a very small minority in Pakistan, yet have been the object of much scrutiny. Though Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim, their belief in the prophethood of the sect’s founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908) is considered heretical by many other Muslims. Indeed, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani state in 1974 and their beliefs are considered blasphemous under Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy law’ (Section 295-C of the Penal Code). Human Rights Watch reports that in 2009 alone, at least fifty Ahmadis were charged under various provisions of the blasphemy law—a law that has been often used to target members of minority communities.3

The news tells us that responsibility for this attack was claimed by the ‘Punjabi wing’ of Al-Qaeda. A text message from the group sent to various media outlets issued a final warning to the Ahmadis, asking them to ‘leave Pakistan or prepare for death at the hands of Muhammad’s devotees’.4 Witnesses contend that the first people killed at the Darul Zikr mosque in the Garhi Shahu neighborhood of Lahore were also young boys—unarmed boys standing outside and ‘guarding’ the mosque. The events provoked the Interior Minister Rahman Malik to admit to the existence of a Punjabi Taliban in south Punjab and to admit that militant groups in south Punjab were now part of Al-Qaeda.5

No doubt what induces some of ‘Muhammad’s devotees’ to kill and die is a complex and powerful force—indeed, a complex of (p.379) such forces. These are forces that belong to our world; they are not only a part of it but in fact they constitute it; this world of whose globalization, or, to use a different idiom, of whose world-ness, comprehensiveness, and interconnectedness, we have barely a glimpse. To what extent is the intensity of such attacks related to internal questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Islam, to the strangely besieged figure of Muhammad himself, whose status as the last Prophet is so decisive for some of his followers? To what extent has that status become a charged but shifting signifier in the internal dynamics of a Pakistani state unable to articulate a meaningful or defensible relation to its minorities? To what extent is the very sign of Muhammad today inextricably linked to US imperialism in South Asia and the Middle East, to drone attacks over Afghanistan and Pakistan, scores and scores of remote-killings—now of suspected warriors, now of their families, of wedding parties and market places?6 All this, and much more, intersects in the horrific slaughter of Ahmadis in Lahore. Indeed, one feels, uneasily, that even such attempts to gesture toward the political and historical contours of the phenomenon remain at a superficial level. How would one begin to articulate the relation between the explosive forces of political economy on the one hand, and on the other the intense psychic drama that such an economy energizes? How would one begin to take account of unemployment and despair, of rage and passion, of the secret paths of identification, of jealousy, desire, testosterone, and youth’s smoldering, inarticulate fascination with death?

It might seem that I am primarily interested in weaving a narrative that would implicitly excuse or justify the actions of the young men who recently turned themselves into weapons of mass destruction in Punjab. That is not my intention. If at all possible, I would like to move away from the language of blame and praise. Instead, I would like to juxtapose these contemporary images of calculated public violence in Lahore with the contested legacy of another time. In the early decades of the twentieth century, several men were hanged in Central Jail, Lahore, on charges of sedition, criminality, or conspiracy. Like many young men in Lahore today, these men were accused of terrorism. They too were willing to kill and die for their beliefs. And they too used violent methods to protest a (p.380) government perceived as tyrannical and unjust. Among the early twentieth century ‘terrorists’ of Lahore, perhaps the one most often recalled is Bhagat Singh who was hanged in 1931 along with his comrades Sukhdev and Rajguru for the murder of J.P. Saunders, Deputy Superintendent of Police. Saunders was killed in retaliation for the death of veteran nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, who died of injuries suffered in the brutal police repression of a march to protest the Simon Commission in 1928.

Bhagat Singh (1907–1931) came from a politically active family in Lyallpur district in Punjab. He was the nephew of Ajit Singh, a leader of the Kisan (peasant) movement. Inspired by the Young Italy movement established by Giuseppe Mazzini in 1831, Bhagat Singh played a central role in organizing the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (The Young India Society) in Lahore in 1926. He was deeply impressed by the heroes of the Ghadar movement that had started in San Francisco, and especially by Kartar Singh Sarabha, who had been executed in Lahore in 1915 at the young age of nineteen. Bhagat Singh became a member of the Hindustan Republican Association and seems to have been largely responsible for changing its name to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in 1928. After the murder of Saunders, he initially escaped from Lahore, but then courted arrest in April 1929. Inspired by the actions of the French anarchist Edouard Vaillant, Bhagat Singh and his comrade Batukeshwar Dutt threw bombs in the Central Assembly in Delhi to protest against the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Dispute Bill. Along with the bombs, copies of a leaflet titled ‘To Make the Deaf Hear’ were scattered. Bhagat Singh’s real fame on the national stage, however, may have come later, when, as a prisoner, he, along with his comrades, went on a sixty-three day hunger strike to protest against the differential treatment of British and Indian prisoners, and to insist that the category of ‘political prisoner’ be recognized and applied to the revolutionaries. The strike created immense solidarity for the prisoners in public consciousness of the time. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were sentenced to death by a special tribunal created under an emergency ordinance, and hanged in Lahore on 23 March 1931, at an unscheduled time in order to prevent public rioting.

There may be many reasons for Bhagat Singh’s current prominence and popularity—and doubtless reasons too to be suspicious of (p.381) what he represents today, especially in divided Punjab, where, on the Indian side, he is frequently associated with Sikh militant separatists of the 1980s, even as the mainstream media constantly attempts to rehabilitate him as a consummate nationalist. In this essay, I want to explore how we might rethink the significance of Bhagat Singh’s work and thought. Is it possible to distinguish between the violent political acts of Bhagat Singh and his friends on the one hand, and those of young ‘terrorists’ in Lahore today—and if so, on what grounds? From a nationalist position, of course the former are heroes and the latter misguided fundamentalists. If we didn’t succumb to such labels, and instead compared the role of the religious community and the significance of religious identity in the thought–work of each group, I suspect the answer might be more complicated. Bhagat Singh himself is often remembered, at least in secular–left circles, as an ‘atheist’, based on his own late essay, ‘Why I am an Atheist’. But regardless of religious belief, his political thinking, especially in the early years of his youth, had been formed by debates surrounding religio-political institutions. In his formative years he had been affected by Sikh political activism of the time as well as Arya Samaj ideals. Conversely, contemporary radical Islamic groups often evoke a strong anti-imperial sentiment and focus on Muslims in terms of the political oppression they suffer—in other words, their focus is usually on Muslims as the political victims of imperialism, whether in Palestine, Kashmir, or Afghanistan. In this regard, they are not unlike earlier third world nationalists.

One may notice other similarities as well: for example, the contention that the exercise of violence by the oppressed is a means of ‘equalizing’ political space by re-distributing, as it were, aggression and vulnerability; and most importantly, the belief that the ability to sacrifice oneself is the true measure of commitment. And yet we cannot disregard the differences either. Perhaps the most salient difference has to do with our current access to the thinking that leads to political violence. Whereas we are able to read the writings of many of the young people who were involved in anti-colonial struggles in the early twentieth century, we have less access to the ideas of the contemporary foot-soldiers of the Punjabi Taliban. They are spoken for by other, more prominent leaders, which perhaps attests to the (p.382) scale of the current movement. What is most easily available, at least in the Western and other English-language media, are the writings and speeches of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri; consequently it is difficult to know whether, and to what extent, young recruits see themselves not just as actors, but also as intellectual and political thinkers, as analysts. At times I have wondered what young recruits of the Punjabi Taliban today would make of Bhagat Singh’s work: whether it would appear to them as a startling and perhaps unnerving mirror. I do not know.

However, it seems to me that Bhagat Singh’s work (as well as the work of some of his comrades) also reveals some crucial and fundamental differences between that earlier world and the world of contemporary Lahore. In this essay I would like to think about this different ‘world’ that Bhagat Singh inhabited and that enabled him not only to take seriously his own reading of international politics, but also—indeed, as a sign of this seriousness—to continually question and revise his political stances. How did Bhagat Singh and his friends—mostly middle class youth with limited access to resources—perceive their actions? What did they want? How may we read today their willingness to suffer and die for an abstract cause? Where may we discern the shape and force of a commitment, and if we call this a political commitment, on what grounds would we do so?

To this end, I would like to look more closely at the terms, the phrases, the repetitions that appear in Bhagat Singh’s work.7 Of course, these writings do not give us any immediate access to desire, intention, or sensibility. But perhaps we may be able to decipher in these texts a kind of symbolic economy: the discursive ground, if you will, that enabled and validated decisions to kill and die. It seems to me that immense energy gathers in these writings around two fundamental elements: hope and death. They provide the essential and elemental shape of ethico-political action—which in this case may be defined as action undertaken in pursuit of a morally valourized vision of a necessarily ‘imagined’ community. I am interested in asking what enabled Bhagat Singh’s and his comrades’ belief that ordinary men have agency, that their words and actions can affect and shape hierarchies and distributions of power—what, in short, may have accounted for their astonishing hope. The second characteristic that marks this discourse (p.383) is the central place it accords to the willingness to die. This is of course a trait it shares with all kinds of other discourses—and especially those we call ‘revolutionary’. Here, I am less interested in the idea of ‘dying to give life’—a phrase that Talal Asad evokes in his work on suicide bombing, and that he relates to liberalism’s own disavowed genealogy.8 Rather, I am interested in the way the ability to die becomes a testament to the strength and indeed, the veracity, of commitment. Surely this is by no means a ‘natural’ or transhistorical phenomenon. In early Indian texts, when warriors proclaim their willingness to die, they do not mention their beliefs—they might die for their own or their kinsmen’s honour, or to prove their courage, or to fulfil their caste duties—and though of course we might discern a politics in all this, it seems quite clear that they do not die because they want to change the world. Dying in order to change the world (rather than redeeming or saving it in a theological sense) may be a characteristically modern phenomenon, one that testifies to the emergence of a global political subject. Keeping these tentative and preliminary remarks in mind, let me attempt to articulate in this essay the historical specificity of the work of these early twentieth century revolutionaries by thinking about their conception of community, action, hope, and death.

Bhagat Singh was executed before he had turned twenty-four. His many articles, essays, speeches, pamphlets and letters reveal a persistently restless and astonishingly cosmopolitan mind, searching for new and convincing analyses of the poverty, oppression, and misery he saw around him. Most striking perhaps is the confidence and conviction with which he and his friends wrote about the future. Despite moments of doubt and despair, they were more or less convinced that a better and brighter world could be built, and all that was needed to build it was the dedication and courage of young people. The strength of this conviction seems inextricably connected to Bhagat Singh’s sense of himself as a citizen of the world. Though his immediate concern was with Indian independence from British rule, the shape of such independence increasingly became a question for him. Convinced that capitalist democracy would only substitute the Indian elite for the British rulers, he read and wrote extensively about anarchism and communism. Events in France, Italy, Russia, the US, Ireland, and Japan are of urgent and absorbing significance for (p.384) him, as are the thoughts and writings of a diverse group of Russian, European, and American intellectuals.

One of the most obvious but nonetheless noteworthy effects of colonial occupation was its construction of the ‘West’ as an interlocutor for many Indians. This West was not, however, perceived as monolithic. This is crucial for understanding how Bhagat Singh’s optimism—the astonishing faith and conviction with which he and his comrades approached the political field—cannot be accounted for only in terms of a modern belief in historical progress. Such a belief is doubtless discernible in their work, but it is propped up and supported by the perception that the West is not one: that the West is, indeed, at war with itself, on many fronts, and that consequently it is not only possible, but at times inevitable, exhilarating, and necessary, for third world nationalists to understand and establish their own critique of the warring ideologies of the West. The figure of a fissured Europe, divided not only by intra-state wars, but more crucially, by radically different visions of a European and world future—enabled Bhagat Singh and his comrades to conceive of their own cosmopolitan and historical significance in terms that may no longer be available to youth in the third world. Neither a narrative that focuses exclusively on the resurgence of religion in the wake of cold war politics in the postcolonial world, nor one that emphasizes socio-economic discontent and resistance to modernity, nor indeed any other narrative that remains focused on the internal dynamics of the Middle East or South Asia can adequately explain the difference between contemporary Islamic militancy and third world militancy of the early twentieth century. In thinking this difference, we must also think of the West’s own consolidation in our times—its internal defeat of some of the most powerful evocations of egalitarian communal life to have appeared in modernity. I focus on Bhagat Singh’s work partly because it puts this defeat most strongly in relief.

What would it mean to read this work as a text—not so much as an argument, but as a web, a discourse? How may we take into account its variegated strands: its undeniable romance with violence and young death, its fundamental absorption in a cult of male friendship and love, its reliance on figures of male honour, no less than its astonishing confidence—the confidence and hope of an anti-colonial (p.385) thought-and-work that sees itself participating in an international challenge to authoritarianism and a global quest for more egalitarian political communities.9

Much has been written about Bhagat Singh’s life and work.10 A strand that emerges often in discussions concerning this work is its (mis)appropriation by various forces: those of the Left and the Right; those that speak in the name of religion and those that don’t; those aligned with a nationalism, and those aligned with a Marxism.11 Such appropriations are sometimes contested by highlighting certain elements in Bhagat Singh’s work and challenging or marginalizing others.12 However, in reading his writings, I am indeed struck by the diversity of tropes, elements, and indeed, discourses, which intersect in this work and render it, in effect, appropriable by several forces that we might consider formally opposed. In an early and astute essay, the Marxist historian Bipan Chandra puts this very perceptively: ‘The new generation of terrorist revolutionaries were men of ideas and ideologies. Their ideas were, of course, rapidly developing and cannot be studied except in motion, so to speak’.13 As soon as one thinks about this phrase, one realizes that any idea worth the name is always in motion—the idea that is studied no less than the idea that studies. The question then is: how to make such motion visible or legible, without attempting to circumscribe or limit it, without immediately reading it in terms of a contradiction—as Chandra proceeds to do. Indeed, it seems to me that by resorting too quickly to the category of contradiction, Chandra perhaps gives up on the task of pursuing a more complex analysis. His argument is as follows. He is struck by the ‘historical paradox’ that though most of the revolutionary terrorists were committed to a version of Marxism, their own deeds and words were appropriated by the nationalist leadership:

Basically their failure can be expressed in a series of contradictions between their ideology and their work. While in theory they were committed to socialism, in practice they could not go beyond nationalism. While in theory they desired mass action and armed struggle, in practice they could not rise above terrorist or individual action… While in theory they wanted to create and lead a mass movement, in practice they remained a small band of heroic youth.14


The failure of the revolutionaries, according to him, ‘was not merely that of not linking their practice with their theory’, but also ‘that of not integrating nationalism and socialism at the theoretical and programmatic plane’. Their political aspiration was to ‘accomplish at one stroke the nationalist as well as the socialist revolutions’, but since historical conditions could not allow them to do that, they were forced to keep the two ideals distinct.

Let us consider for a moment the terms of this analysis. Two pairs are central: nationalism/socialism on the one hand, theory/practice on the other. Chandra first asserts that nationalism appropriates (and hence negates) socialism, then proposes that perhaps the revolutionaries themselves could not integrate the two, either at the level of theory or at the level of practice. This is a suggestive analysis—and all the more powerful because it is evidently written from a perspective that reads this moment in light of its political significance for the future. At the same time, however, I wonder whether by taking as given the limits of each of his central terms, Chandra also does not thereby limit his analysis. For what emerges most powerfully in his discussion and in the movement of his text is indeed the confusion, the slippage and the mutual instability of the terms of each pair. Should one not then re-think the work performed by these in the colonial context? If it was not possible for the revolutionaries to either integrate or segregate what is called ‘nationalism’ and ‘socialism’, maybe these concepts do not provide a strong enough frame to articulate the forces that were most insistent in the thought/praxis of the revolutionaries. If, finally, the revolutionaries found themselves unable—in theory or practice—to renounce a certain attachment to the figure of the nation, we should likewise ask whether the shape of this attachment should be necessarily subsumed under available concepts of nationalism. In what follows, I will make a few steps in this direction. I am aware that a more substantial analysis of this kind would require that instead of focusing on Bhagat Singh, we read as well the work of several writers of this ‘generation of terrorist-revolutionaries’ as Chandra calls them. Though I will occasionally mention some of these other figures, my remarks here will mostly be limited to the corpus of writings that are recognized as Bhagat Singh’s—even though he wrote under several pseudonyms. (p.387)

Apne-ParĀye(One’s own/the other)

An early essay, ‘Punjabi kī bhāshā aur lipī kī samasyā’ (The Problem of the Punjabi Language and Script),15 which won an award from the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, was written in 1924 but published posthumously in 1933. It is an interesting study in the tensions between several kinds of solidarity: to the region, the nation, and the world. Ultimately, the young Bhagat Singh writes, Indians should be guided by the ideal of unifying the entire world, but before that, they must create one language, one script, one ideal and one nation (rāshtra) in India. Language is of primary significance in this regard because it will enable mutual understanding. In the essay, Punjab emerges as an especially appropriate example of the national problem, since, unlike other states, it has no unifying language. Moreover, Bhagat Singh connects this lack of a common language to religious division, and in particular to the Muslim community which insists on the importance of its own language, Urdu. Here the essay takes a turn that we sometimes see in Bhagat Singh’s early writings, though it is almost entirely absent in his later work:

Like other states, the language of Punjab should be Punjabi, then why didn’t it happen, this question naturally arises, but the local Muslims adopted Urdu.16 Muslims entirely lack Indianness (musalmānon men bhārtīyatā kā sarvathā abhāv hai), that is why, not perceiving the importance of Indianness for India, they want to propagate the Arabic script and Persian language. They do not understand that it is important for all of India to have one language and that too Hindi. That is why they kept up their chant of Urdu and sat aside.17

Though the essay goes on to indict all religious communities—Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims—for their attachment to their own language and script, and for their role in the communalization of language and culture in Punjab, Muslims are obviously singled out, and a familiar trope that reiterates the ‘outsider’ status of Muslims and the Urdu script is repeated.18 Indeed, despite all its evocations of regional, national, and international unity, in effect the essay dramatizes precisely the difficulty of conceiving such unity. More importantly, it dramatizes the difficulty of reconciling the force of local attachment and singular history with abstract ideals of community. This difficulty is at the crux of (p.388) the young Bhagat Singh’s deliberations on language, and his advocacy of a shared language. On the one hand, he is attracted to the idea of a single national language, and advocates that this language be Hindi. On the other, he is also convinced that the Punjabi language speaks to Punjabis in a way that Hindi cannot. A hesitation regarding the status of Hindi is thus hard to miss, in spite of his general argument in favor of adopting the Hindi script in Punjab.

Arguing that the language of Punjab should be Punjabi, but a Punjabi written in the Hindi script, the essay at first seeks to demolish Urdu’s claim. It discusses how Punjabi Urdu poets exhibit a pervasive lack of ‘Indianness’ (Bhārtīyatā), and how the Urdu script cannot be called full-limbed (sarvāngsaṃpūrṇa) on account of its inability to accurately represent the vowels and consonants of Hindi and Punjabi. Towards the end, however, as Bhagat Singh evokes several popular Punjabi verses, he also suggests that the Punjabi language, the one whose rhythm and vocabulary is most familiar and beloved in Punjab, might actually be further from Hindi than from Farsi: ‘It [Hindi] as yet seems rather outsiderly (parāyī-sī). The reason is that Hindi is based on Sanskrit. Punjab is now leagues apart from it. Farsi has kept a strong influence on Punjabi…I mean to say that in spite of being close to Punjabi [perhaps from the perspective of historical linguistics], Hindi is yet quite far from the Punjabi heart’ (45). Writing Punjabi in the Hindi script is therefore presented as the solution to this problem: ‘Yes, when the Punjabi language is written in the Hindi script and when an attempt is made to [thus] produce a [Punjabi] literature, then it will certainly come closer to Hindi’ (45). Where is Farsi in this map? It is at the same time near and far; it is closer to Punjabi than Hindi, but propagating its use is anti-Indian.

We cannot disregard this ambivalence about the status of Urdu, Farsi, and Muslims that surfaces at several moments in Bhagat Singh’s early writing, in spite of its ostensible commitment to an ‘anti-communal’ stance. What does this ambivalence signal? To what other tropes, patterns, and discourses is it related? Is it possible to follow the Marxist historian Irfan Habib in believing that the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (Young India Society), formed by Bhagat Singh and his friends in 1926, was ‘above all petty (p.389) religious politics of the times and stood for secularism’?19 While the Sabha might indeed have ‘stood for’ secularism, how did it think the secular—what were the elements it drew upon to conceive of the political community, or even community itself in its most fundamental sense? Could community be thought outside the distinction between apnā/parāyā (one’s own and the other, the outsider) evoked by Bhagat Singh? And if not, then in what sense is it possible to idealize a world community? These seem to be the very complex and thorny questions that lie beneath ostensible confusions regarding nationalism, socialism, and internationalism. Indeed, this early essay on language is only one text among several others that signal a persistent engagement with the tropes of the near and the far, one’s own and the other, the intimate and the foreign. In one way or another, this engagement circulates through many of Bhagat Singh’s writings. In reading this work, we are struck by the difficulties it encounters in articulating a vision of cosmopolitanism. At the same time, we become aware of the moving coordinates of the world that Bhagat Singh inhabited—a world in which Mazzini,20 Garibaldi, and Lenin at times appear to be closer to Bhagat Singh than contemporary Indian thinkers.

In the essay titled ‘Vishva Prem’ (Love of the World), published in November 1924 under the pseudonym ‘Balvant Singh’ in the Calcutta weekly ‘Matvala’, Bhagat Singh glosses the concept of the other (parāyā) in terms of hierarchy. To wish for an end to otherness, he indicates, is not to wish for the end of difference, but rather to wish for the end of hierarchical relations. The ‘other’ thus emerges here as not a racial or national other, but instead as the one who is differentiated by a structural and unjust hierarchy.

‘World-Friendship’—I, for one, understand this as nothing else but equality in the world (Sāmyavād, world wide equality in the true sense).

How lofty is that thought! That everyone be one’s own. No one be an other. How joyous [sukhmaya] that time will be, when otherness will be entirely destroyed in the world…

Trade will be at the epitome of progress that day, but there will not be terrible wars between Germany and France in the name of trade. Both America and Japan will exist, but there won’t be westerness and easterness [pūrvīya aur paścimīyapan] in them. Black and White will exist, but the (p.390) residents of America will not be able to burn alive the black residents (Red Indians). There will be peace but not the necessity of a penal code. The British and the Indians will both exist, but they will not understand themselves as slaves and rulers.21

Here, his consciousness of hierarchy and inequality gives rise to an amalgam of hatred and compassion towards the weak: a symptom perhaps all the more clearly visible in the writing of a seventeen-year-old boy who does not mask his words. Castigating those who fear the bloodshed and anarchy of revolt, he writes:

Let unrest [ashānti] spread if it will, it will also mean the end of dependence. Let anarchy spread if it will, it will also mean the destruction of subjection. Ah! The weak will be ground down in that struggle. [Us kashmakash men kamzor pis jāyenge]. This daily weeping will end. [Roz roz kā ronā band ho jāyegā]. The weak will no longer exist, there will be friendship among the strong. Those who have strength will be close to one another. There will be love among them, and it will be possible to propagate universal love in the world.

Yes, yes, the weak will have to be ground down, once and for all. They are the culprits of the entire world. They are responsible for terrible unrest [ghor ashānti]. Let everyone become strong, otherwise they will become grist in this mill.22

The ensuing argument appears to be at least partially a response to Gandhi. Bhagat Singh, like many of his comrades, had participated in the non-cooperation movement that was called off by Gandhi after the violence of Chauri-Chaura in 1922, much to the dismay of many of the young men who saw the incident as part of the unavoidable violence of political conflict. Universal friendship and brotherhood, Bhagat Singh writes, only has value as a principle when it is articulated and practiced by the strong; if a weak human being claims that he does not resist oppression because he is a follower of universal brotherhood, his statement has no significance since it is likely to be read as indicative of his powerlessness rather than as a principled stance. In essence, he makes an argument that was often made by the revolutionaries: non-violence truly makes an impact only when it is practiced by those who have the ability to be violent. It must be chosen, not adopted expediently by those who have no other means to resist.

(p.391) At the same time, the weak are also necessary for the way in which political and ethical struggle is envisioned, here as well as in other writings. In this political imagination, the world is divided into oppressors, victims, and heroes. Ultimately, the hero is the one who is unable to witness suffering, and instead, is himself willing to suffer. This image appears at several moments in Bhagat Singh’s work. In this essay, for instance, he writes that the aim of the revolutionaries is to spread anarchy on the sites of those imperial states that, blinded by power, have caused the agony of millions. It is the duty of revolutionaries to save the suffering, the exploited. The true proponent of universal love is one who takes on suffering in order to save others.23 This seems to unite figures as diverse as Lenin (who suffered unspeakable hardships), Brutus (who, for his birthland, murdered his beloved Caesar with his own hands, and then committed suicide) and Savarkar (carried away by universal love, he would stop while walking on the grass so that tender leaves may not be crushed beneath his feet).24 These are the fundamental ingredients of heroism: first, an inability to witness the suffering of the weak, and second, a capacity to both inflict and suffer violence. The former—a capacity for boundless compassion—justifies the violence of the hero and differentiates it from the violence of the oppressor.25 The hero’s violence is born out of intense compassion and sensitivity, and it is, moreover, employed not for one’s own benefit but for the benefit of others. Indeed, its primary task is to expose the oppressor’s own vulnerability and strip him of his apparent immunity. In so far as it is directed toward exposing the weakness of the strong—toward exposing the strong as weak, as mortal, as living in the midst of the same battlefield as those who are more regularly attacked and crushed—it may be guided by a powerful impulse to render public space more ‘egalitarian’.

In this context, we might also recall Osama bin Laden’s words after the 2004 Madrid bombings: ‘It is well known that security is a vital necessity for every human being. We will not let you monopolize it for yourselves […]’.26 As Faisal Devji notes in his analysis, for Al-Qaeda, terror becomes ‘the only form in which global freedom and equality are now available’.27 Devji reads this as a sign of Al-Qaeda’s profound implication in a vision of globality eviscerated of ideology and politics. (p.392) In this sense, he reads Al-Qaeda as participating, albeit perversely, in the same logic that governs humanitarianisms that privilege the interrelatedness of the global community at the cost of historical and political analyses. Though I am not at present persuaded by all aspects of Devji’s argument,28 I share his sense that, despite rhetorical and other similarities, there are also important differences between contemporary Islamic militancy and earlier insurgent or revolutionary movements. Contemporary militancy, he writes, ‘unlike all previous forms of terrorist or insurgent action, refuses to set up an alternative utopia for itself, something that even anarchists are not immune to’.29 My question may be similar to, but simpler than the one Devji confronts: I wish to explore what enabled Bhagat Singh and his comrades to imagine such a utopia—to imagine its nearness, and, moreover, to believe that they themselves could be instrumental in realizing it. To this end, I attempt to re-read the significance of the terms that are privileged in their writings. For example: death. Is it only sacrifice that beckons when death beckons?

Mit JĀne kĪ Hasrat (The Desire to be Erased)

One of Bhagat Singh’s most famous articles, ‘Holi ke Din Rakt kī Chīnte’ (Splashes of Blood on Holi), published under the name ‘Ek Punjabi Yuvak’ (A Punjabi Youth) in Pratap in March 1926, commemorates six members of the Babbar Akalis who were hanged in Lahore Central Jail a few weeks earlier, on 27 February.30 The Babbar Akalis were a radical splinter group of the Akali movement for the reform of Sikh temples. Excusing any mistakes or follies these men might have committed, Bhagat Singh insists that we view their actions in terms of their devotion to ‘this unfortunate land’: ‘They could not bear injustice, could not bear to watch the fallen state of the country, the cruelties inflicted on the weak became unbearable for them, they could not stand the exploitation of the common people…’.31 Such phrases are repeated countless times in Bhagat Singh’s hagiographic accounts of the Babbar Akalis, the Kakori heroes, and other revolutionaries. These phrases are evidently not merely descriptive, but rather prescriptive in their intent. Indeed, if these two qualities are repeatedly valourized—an inability to witness (p.393) the suffering of the weak, and the corresponding ability to challenge or attack wrong-doers, even in the face of death—it is perhaps because in the analytic perspective of the revolutionaries these were the qualities most vividly lacking in the Indian public. Fear of death, in this analysis, inoculates in advance, as it were, against compassion. Correspondingly, the true measure of compassion is the overcoming of such fear. It has become a truism that colonial discourse and practice produced and sustained an image of the weak and effete Indian male and so one could read the revolutionary position as a response—indeed a challenge to such an image. Evocations of male honour and the importance of fighting humiliation are scattered through Bhagat Singh’s writings. Idealized manhood is figured, first, as that which does not publicly submit to domination, and second, as capable of great, immense love—not, of course, for women—but either for the motherland or for other heroes. Such love, the love of heroes for one another, is predicated on overcoming fear and is the most cherished and precious of all human bonds.32 The idea of overcoming fear is crucial to the political, moral, and aesthetic sensibility of the revolutionaries. At the risk of stating the obvious, let me attempt to parse this.

In a site of extreme and visible hierarchy, the political domain cannot but appear as the arena of a moral war in which those who exercise power are in some immediate sense wrong, immoral, unjust, and only able to hold on to their position because of force. Correlatively, those who submit to an obviously unjust force would only do so—in this view—out of fear. For the revolutionaries, what sustained the power of the British in India was not the consent of the ruled, but neither was it just the coercive power of the ruler. Moral responsibility for colonial rule was assigned—in fact, appropriated—through this focus on, and indictment of, fear and in the final analysis fear was understood essentially as fear of death. In a long exchange with Gandhi, Sachindranath Sanyal, one of the founding members of the Hindustan Republican Army, writes at length about this:

If you mean that these reforms [the annulment of the Bengal partition; the Minto-Morley reforms; the Montford reform] are no index to true progress, then I would venture to say that this revolutionary movement (p.394) has achieved no mean progress in the moral advancement of India. Indians were miserably afraid of death and this revolutionary party once more made the Indians realize the grandeur and the beauty that lay in dying for a noble cause. The revolutionaries have once again demonstrated that death has a certain charm and is not always a dreadful thing. To die for one’s own beliefs and convictions, to die in the consciousness that by so dying one is serving god and the nation, to accept death or to risk one’s life when there is every probability of death, for a cause which one honestly believes to be just and legitimate—is this no moral progress?33

In a similar vein, in 1928 Bhagat Singh writes an essay extolling Madan Lal Dhingra, who was hanged in 1909 for killing Sir Curzon Wyllie, political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India. The essay was published in the journal Kirti as part of a series ‘Martyrs for Freedom’ (Āzādī kī bhent shahādaten), under the name ‘Vidrohi’ (Rebel). The aim of the series was to explain to readers ‘how Punjab awakened, how work was carried out, and for what actions, what ideas, these martyrs dedicated (even) their lives’.34 The essay cites Madan Lal’s final testimony in English: ‘…I believe that a nation held down by foreign bayonets is in a perpetual state of war…The only lesson required in India at present is to learn how to die, and the only way to teach it is by dying ourselves’.35

The colonial situation powerfully corroborated this vision of the world, which perceived suffering and inequality as a consequence of the greed and arrogance of those in power, and thus legitimated actions that would diminish and undermine the colonizer’s sense of immunity: ‘The British government exists, because the Britishers have been successful in terrorizing the whole of India. How are we to meet this official terrorism? Only counter-terrorism on the part of revolutionaries can checkmate effectively this bureaucratic bullying’.36

But it is clear that the existential dimension of courting death also presented to the revolutionaries a vision of political work that was very far from what they saw as the drab work of compromise and negotiation fo llowed by professional politicians. In place of the professional politician, they wanted the professional revolutionary. ‘We require—to use the term so dear to Lenin—the “professional revolutionaries”. The whole-time workers who have no other ambitions or life-work except the revolution’.37 Several distinct but related images (p.395) mesh in the valourization of a life entirely saturated by revolutionary activity and thought, and risked in honorable battle. Images of a glorious death, no doubt—a ‘beautiful death’ (kalos thanatos) not unlike the one valorized in epic narratives of war.38 Such a death is beautiful because it erases the inexplicable futility of human life and death. Revolution ‘uses up’ both life and death and in this use, gives both the value that otherwise eludes them. In a fascinating letter to Sukhdev written during their hunger strike, Bhagat Singh relates an incident when he was advised by secret service agents to aid the British and save his life. In the presence of his father, these agents said that since he was not prepared to do so, he must be deeply unhappy and desirous of death. In effect they argued, Bhagat Singh writes, that his death in these circumstances would be akin to suicide. In response, he told them that a person of his beliefs could not bear to die in vain. ‘We wish to obtain the utmost value for our lives [Hum to apne jīvan kā adhik se adhik mūlya prāpt karnā chāhte hain]. We wish to render as much service as possible to humanity. Particularly a person like me, whose life is not unhappy or anxious in any way—far from committing suicide, such a person doesn’t consider it appropriate to even let such a thought enter his heart’.39

Suicide carries connotations of cowardice or despair, and hence seems to be the inverse of the heroic death desired by revolutionaries.40 Indeed Bhagat Singh’s letter to Sukhdev makes several arguments against the legitimacy of suicide as a personal or political act. But though suicide is distinguished from what Bipan Chandra calls ‘propaganda by death’41 in terms of its motives, occasionally a different note may be heard in passages of revolutionary writing: a note which suggests that death itself may, indeed, have become sweet or desirable. One of Bhagat Singh’s most famous comrades, Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’, was hanged in 1928 in the Kakori conspiracy case. In his adulatory essay about the Kakori prisoners, Bhagat Singh describes in detail his last moments. Just as he is about to be hanged, Bismil recites several passages of poetry. Among them, the following:

  • Ab na ahle valvale hain, aur na armānon kī bhīrh
  • Ek mit jāne kī hasrat, ab dil-e-bismil men hai.42
  • (p.396)
  • No more now fruitless passion, nor throngs of hope
  • Now, in this wounded heart (the heart of ‘Bismil’), one desire: to be erased.

How should we understand this desire to be erased? The desire to extinguish all desires? To be sure, we may read it in a spiritual register, for Bismil was by all accounts a devout believer. Another verse he is reported to have recited in the moments before ascending the gallows starts thus:

  • Mālik terī razā rahe aur tū hi tū rahe
  • Bāqī na main rahūn, na merī ārzū rahe.43
  • Lord, may your will remain and may you alone remain
  • Apart from that, let neither me nor my desire remain.

Yet I would suggest that the spiritual register may not entirely exhaust Bismil’s ‘mit jāne kī hasrat’, just as the heroic may not entirely account for Bhagat Singh’s own movement toward death. Let us take note of two cryptic entries in the Jail Notebook:

  • Tujhe zabāh karne kī khushī, mujhe marne kā shauq,
  • Merī bhī marzī vohī hai, jo mere sayyād kī hai.44
  • You delight in slaughter, I am drawn to death
  • My wish is the same, as that of my executioner.

And many pages later, a short citation from Rousseau’s Émile: ‘If we were immortal we should all be miserable; no doubt it is hard to die, but is sweet to think that we shall not live for ever’.45

I am treading on thin ground here. If I draw attention to a fascination with death that surfaces at moments in the writings of the revolutionaries, and that appears to exceed what we usually understand as spiritual or political motives, I do so neither to circumscribe and thus dam the spiritual and the political, nor to drain them in some swamp of the psyche. I am aware that both can become colonial moves. Instead, I do so in order to indicate the deep and complex relation between the political, the spiritual, and the psychic, and to underline the centrality of death in this understanding of politics. I would not deny that the recurrence of the trope of sacrifice in Bhagat Singh’s writings—especially his earlier writings commemorating other heroes—should (p.397) be read as part of the repertoire of religious nationalism; nor would I deny that nineteenth and early twentieth revolutionary thought was nourished in part by the energies of romanticism and in particular by romantic images of heroic death. In his famous essay ‘Why I am an Atheist’ Bhagat Singh himself suggests that up till about 1926 he was ‘only a romantic idealist revolutionary’. Nevertheless, moving at a tangent from those readings, I want to underline that an existential approach to the political remained in a crucial sense foundational for revolutionary thought. By an existential approach I do not mean an approach influenced by Western existentialist thinkers, but rather an approach for which the essential mortality of human life and the question of political community were mutually implicated and gave meaning to one another. In a context where political community was difficult to imagine and describe (as the tensions arising from regional, religious and linguistic, not to speak of ideological difference demonstrate), death was recruited, as it were, in the task of creating community. But this is not a politics of despair. On the contrary, I want to draw attention to the essentially hopeful and confident strain in this approach, as made evident in the writings and acts of the revolutionaries of the early twentieth century.

Hope in a World at War

This hopeful strain arose from a certain reading of Marxism, as well as a certain understanding of world politics. But even more importantly, it arose from a certain condition of the world. That is to say, it was not just a matter of what and how the young Indian revolutionaries were reading. It was also a matter of what was happening in a world, which, as I have suggested before, presented itself as fundamentally fissured and on the brink of momentous change. Most crucially, this fissure did not appear as a fissure between the west and the rest, but rather as a growing divide between authoritarian regimes of various kinds and challenges to them—a divide that ran through the West as much as it did through the East. It is important to remember in this context that the Public Safety and Trade Dispute Bills that provided the occasion for Bhagat Singh’s and B.K. Dutt’s spectacular agitation at the Central Assembly were (p.398) introduced after the South Indian Railway and the Bombay Textile workers strikes in 1928. Both bills were aimed at the growing labour movement and an immediate objective of the Public Safety Bill was the deportation of British communists helping to organize workers in Bengal and Bombay.46 Commenting on this moment, Sumit Sarkar convincingly argues that Bhagat Singh’s interest in Marxism ‘must be placed in the context of what was in some ways the most striking feature of 1928–29—a massive labour upsurge (particularly in railways, cotton textiles, and jute), accompanied by considerable Communist penetration into trade unions’.47 Where the pamphlet ‘To Make the Deaf Hear’ opposes the ‘indiscriminate arrests of labour leaders working in the open field’ it clearly refers to the thirty-one communist and labour leaders who were arrested on 20 March 1929. Three of these men were British. The arrests led to the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case; those arrested were charged with being aligned with the Communist International, with inciting antagonism between Capital and Labour, creating workers’ and peasants’ parties, youth leagues, and other such organizations, and ultimately, with conspiring to overthrow the government. Among the organizations listed by the prosecution as ‘co-conspirators’ were the League Against Imperialism as well as The League for National Independence, of whose executive committee Jawaharlal Nehru was a member.48

It is clear from Bhagat Singh’s Jail Notebook as well as other writings that he had read at least some texts by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. From these he had distilled an understanding of history that, on the one hand, set him apart, and on the other, oddly converged with the more spiritual leanings of some of his friends in emphasizing the relative insignificance of the individual. A striking passage in his letter to Sukhdev (written in 1929), cited earlier, offers a glimpse of this understanding. It is unfortunate that Sukhdev’s letter, to which Bhagat Singh systematically responds, has been lost. But the response indicates that Sukhdev had expressed despair over the hardships of prison life, wondered about the futility of political work, suggested that suicide might be appropriate in certain circumstances, and expressed a new conviction about the significance of (erotic) love in human life. Bhagat Singh’s letter is long and (p.399) thoughtful, addressing several of Sukhdev’s concerns, and in the process discussing some of the changes that have occurred over the years in their respective perspectives. I will cite an extended passage here, translated from the original Hindi:

Do you mean to imply that if we had not stepped into this field, no revolutionary work would have been done at all? If so, you are mistaken. While it is correct that we too have proved helpful in changing the environment to a considerable extent, we have merely been produced by the necessities of our time [hum to keval apne samaye kī āvashyaktā kī upaj hain].

I would in fact also say that the father of communism,49 Marx, was not in reality the one who gave birth to this idea. Actually the industrial revolution in Europe had produced people of a particular way of thinking. Marx was one among them. Yes, doubtless Marx was to some extent helpful in giving the wheel of time a particular kind of speed.

I (and you) have not given birth to socialist and communist ideas in this country; they are the result of the impress of our time and circumstances upon us.50

Let us note two moves here. An analytic move: historical conditions produce certain necessities, needs. The Hindi word āvashyaktā, from āvashya—that which cannot be brought under control or conquered, that which must be—brings together the idea of necessity with the idea of need. But the necessary—that which cannot be subdued, that to which one must submit—no longer signifies what it once did. Fate has been recast and reshaped, as it were, by historical determinism. Now it is history that determines the necessary. Thus the relative insignificance of the individual: the individual is not the original author of his ideas, but should instead be seen as the proponent of ideas that are produced by the necessities, the needs of time and circumstance.

This theoretical humility, if we may thus name it, does not, however, translate into personal humility. The letter presents Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev as political actors in the world, their situation analogous to Marx’s. This is the other move, and it seems to be as significant as the first one. By using a term such as ‘humility’ I certainly do not mean to suggest that its lack signals an ethical flaw in the revolutionaries. Rather I want to draw attention to the way in which these young activists saw themselves as part of a global historical (p.400) process and found models and comrades in various far away spaces. Later in the same letter, Bhagat Singh writes,

Do we not have in front of us examples of such revolutionary workers who returned after enduring prison sentences and are still working? If Bakunin had thought like you, he would have committed suicide at the very beginning. Today you may see countless such revolutionaries who occupy responsible posts in the Russian state and who have spent most of their lives under sentence in prison. Man should attempt to stand firmly and unwaveringly by his beliefs. No one can predict the future.51

That Russia was a powerful inspiration is evident from several different essays. The anarchist writers Bakunin and Prince Kropotkin are approvingly cited in various places, and especially in the series of essays on anarchism (arājaktāvād) published in 1928. Bakunin's life is here described with reference to a chain of political events: labour and peasant revolts in Poland, France, Spain, and Italy. Four of his followers are then singled out: the Italians Carlo Cafiero and Malatesta, the French Paul Brousse, and the Russian Peter Kropotkin. Bhagat Singh briefly paints a picture of a Europe in revolt: peasant revolts in Italy and France in the late nineteenth century; two unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the Italian king Umberto followed by his (successful) assassination in 1900; two assassination attempts on Kaiser Wilhelm I within three weeks of one another; the killing of police officers by radical anarchists in Vienna in 1883–4; the revolts of silk workers in Lyons; the ‘haymarket’ riots in Chicago in 1886; the throwing of a bomb in the Chamber of Deputies in France by Auguste Vaillant in 1893. His aim is both to provide a ‘plot history’ of anarchist actions, and to demonstrate to his readers the motives behind the violent actions undertaken by anarchists all over the world. Anarchists, he writes, are not blood thirsty and cruel people who delight in destruction, but rather those who are willing to sacrifice their lives in fighting for the rights of the poor against capitalists and authoritarian rulers.52

The essay seems to foreshadow a passage in Benedict Anderson’s book Under Three Flags, where Anderson succinctly describes an ‘imagined community’ that has not gained quite the same recognition as the one described in his book on nationalism. This is not the community imagined by any particular nationalism, but rather the (p.401) community of the revolutionary-assassins who operated in various parts of the world, yet shared a common stage:

But beginning in the early 1880s the preliminary tremors were being felt of the earthquake that we remember variously as the Great War or the First World War. Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 by bomb-throwing radicals calling themselves The People’s Will was followed over the next twenty-five years by the killing of a French president, an Italian monarch, an Austrian empress and an heir-apparent, a Portuguese king and his heir, a Spanish prime minister, two American presidents, a king of Greece, a king of Serbia, and powerful conservative politicians in Russia, Ireland, and Japan. Of course, a much larger number of attentats failed. The earliest and most spectacular of these assassinations were carried out by anarchists, but nationalists soon followed in their wake. In most cases the immediate aftermath was a mass of draconian anti-terrorist’ legislation, summary executions, and sharp rise in torture by police forces, public and secret, as well as militaries. But the assassins, some of whom could well be described as early suicide-bombers, understood themselves as acting for a world-audience of news agencies, newspapers, religious progressives, working-class and peasant organizations, and so on.53

As I have attempted to demonstrate, such assassins had a powerful impact on Bhagat Singh; at various moments in his writings, he attempts to yoke the Indian nationalist movement to an international movement for the liberation of the oppressed. Because in describing these events, he focuses in a very general way on the fact of oppression, and the moral and physical courage of those who challenge the powerful and the wealthy, he is spared the labour of distinguishing too carefully between nationalists and anarchists, republicans and Marxists. What is of significance for him is the very possibility of international uprising on the grounds of an ethico-political critique of inequality and imperialism—however hazy or amorphous such a critique may be.

In this brief series of comments I have by no means been able to do any justice either to Bhagat Singh’s own work and thought, or to the complex forces that structured his word. In conclusion, let me attempt to pull together some of the strands that I have highlighted and summarize my argument in two general remarks. First, the focus on death and sacrifice in the thought of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, a focus partially enabled by the vocabulary of a religio-nationalism, and (p.402) partially by a masculinist discourse of honour and action, must also be read in terms of an existential approach to the political. This may be a stronger force than has hitherto been recognized—a force more primary than the nationalist, Marxist, or anarchist ideas that Bhagat Singh was, at different moments, attracted to and invested in. Though such an approach becomes most evident at certain times and among certain groups, and though it can quickly become associated with a fascism, we must also ask ourselves whether any commitment to an ideal of community can be articulated at a distance or a remove from it. This existential approach was linked to a new figure of the ‘world’ that had become available as an object of concern, care and love. To love the world meant risking one’s life in order to affect its possible futures.

And second, the actions of nationalists and anarchists at the end of the nineteenth century, the First World War, and above all perhaps, the Russian revolution had a profound impact on Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Perhaps, taking a cue from Bhagat Singh’s own understanding of history, we may say that what separates today’s young Punjabi terrorists from the Punjabi revolutionaries of the last century is less a difference of individual capacity or perspective, and more a worldly difference—a difference in the world they inhabit. What Bhagat Singh saw was a deeply divided West: a West perhaps on the brink of transforming itself by making a stupendous commitment to a politics of equality. That is why nowhere in his work do we see the kind of sweeping suspicion of the West that we see in the writings and speeches of contemporary terrorists, for whom America and her satellites present a stark monolith, barren of any meaningful internal dissent. Could we say that Bhagat Singh lived in a world where war—that is to say, the confrontation of sovereign powers—was still possible and that hope, in that world, arose precisely from the dark fertility of that possibility?



() Earlier drafts of this essay were presented in October 2010 at the Political Theory Colloquium, University of Minnesota and at a conference on ‘Love and Revolution’, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. I am grateful to the organizers and members of the audience at both venues for their comments and questions. Special thanks to Naheed Aaftaab, G. Arunima, Abir Bazaz, Patricia Hayes, Premesh Lalu, Ajay Skaria, and Antonio Vasquez-Arroyo for their questions—some of which still remain to be addressed. I am also grateful to the editors of this volume, Anshu Malhotra and Farina Mir, for their thoughtful suggestions, encouragement, and patience.

(1) Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1996 [1979], pp. 251–2.

(2) Shiv Kumar, Sampuran Kāv Sangreh, Ludhiana: Lahore Book Shop, 1997, p. 259. (p.403)

(6) This essay was written before the US Special Forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden on 1 May 2011.

(7) Bhagat Singh wrote in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and English. His writings include letters; articles published in journals such as Pratāp (Kanpur), Kīrti (Amritsar), Mahārathi (Delhi), Chānd (Allahabad), and Arjun (Delhi); statements at court; a Hindi adaptation/translation of Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom (Breen’s book was published in 1924); and a Jail notebook mostly consisting of citations from, and notes about, the books he was reading in prison. Hindi readers will find extremely useful the collection of his writings edited by Chaman Lal, Bhagat Singh ke Saṃpūrṇa Dastāvez, Panchkula: Adhar Prakashan, 2004. The collection includes a comprehensive and very informative Introduction by the editor. I am not able to treat Bhagat Singh’s work in its entirety in this essay, but will refer only to selected texts.

(8) ‘I want to suggest’, writes Asad, ‘that the cult of sacrifice, blood, and death that secular liberals find so repellent in pre-liberal Christianity is a part of the genealogy of modern liberalism itself, in which violence and tenderness go together’. See Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 88.

(9) Mazzini’s influence is a telling example in this regard. Discussing this influence, C.A. Bayly writes, ‘The hermeneutic that interpreted him to Indians was the mid-nineteenth-century conjuncture in Eurasia. This finally destroyed the papacy’s secular power, and announced the “springtime of peoples in Europe”. It also shook the sultanate, destroyed the vestiges of Mughal legitimacy, and called into question the efficacy of Brahminical ritual’. See C.A. Bayly, ‘Liberalism at Large: Mazzini and Nineteenth-Century Indian Thought’, in C.A. Bayly and Eugenio F. Biagini (eds), Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalization of Democratic Nationalism 1830–1920, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 365.

(10) Some recent books include: Irfan Habib, To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and his Comrades, Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2007; P.M.S. Grewal, Bhagat Singh: Liberation’s Blazing Star, Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2007; Ishwar Dayal Gaur, Martyr (p.404) as Bridegroom: A Folk Representation of Bhagat Singh, New Delhi: Anthem Press, 2008; and Jose George, Manoj Kumar, and Avinash Khandare (eds), Rethinking Radicalism in Indian Society: Bhagat Singh and Beyond, Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2009.

(11) A fascinating study of such appropriations is a 1990 documentary by Anand Patwardhan titled Unā Mitrān di Yād Piyārī (In Memory of Friends).

(12) Bhagat Singh’s appropriation by nationalist discourse is sometimes challenged by focusing on his Marxism. See for example Jose George and Manoj Kumar, ‘Bhagat Singh: Transformation from a Patriotic Nationalist to a Revolutionary Communist’ and Datta Desai, ‘Revisiting Bhagat Singh: Ideology and Politics’, in George, Kumar, and Khandare (eds), Rethinking Radicalism in Indian Society: Bhagat Singh and Beyond, Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2009.

(13) Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism, p. 232.

(14) Ibid., p. 249 (emphasis added).

(15) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh ke Saṃpūrṇa dastāvez, pp. 39–46. This and all other translations from Hindi texts are mine.

(16) I have attempted, as far as possible, to preserve the syntax of the Hindi essay.

(17) Ibid., p. 42.

(18) For example, following a standard Hindu–Sikh narrative, Muslims are presented as needlessly cruel and provocative in an article about the Kuka rebellion. See Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, pp. 73–84.

(19) Irfan Habib, To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and his Comrades, Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2007, p. 43.

(20) Mazzini’s influence requires greater exploration. S.N. Bannerjee wrote and spoke extensively about him, and Lajpat Rai translated Mazzini’s Duties of Man in Urdu. In 1895 he wrote a biography of Mazzini as well. Savarkar also translated his biography in Marathi—a book that became immensely popular, and was widely read and discussed. It was the first book to be banned by the Indian Press Act. See Gita Srivastava, Mazzini and His Impact on the Indian National Movement, Allahabad: Chugh Publications, 1982. Though one finds references to Mazzini in many texts of the period, of particular interest in this regard is a short story about Mazzini’s life by Premchand, Ishke Duniyā va hubbe vatan, Love of the World and Attachment to the Homeland. Published in Urdu in Zamana in 1908, it is considered to be Premchand’s first Urdu story. It was included in the collection Soz-e-Vatan (Dirge of the Nation)—most copies of the book were confiscated and burnt by the colonial government. See Premchand, Soze vatan tathā anya zabtshudā (p.405) kahāniyān, ed. Balram Agrawal, Delhi: Manu Prakashan, 2008, pp. 26–34.

(21) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 47. Parenthetical phrases are from the original text. Words in square brackets are added to indicate the words of the original.

(22) Ibid., p. 49. Emphasis added.

(23) Writing about his ‘revolutionary friend’ in Young India in May 1925, Gandhi says, ‘I have a soft corner for him in my heart for there is one thing in common between him and me—the ability to suffer’. Manmathnath Gupta, They Lived Dangerously: Reminiscences of a Revolutionary, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1969, p. 85.

(24) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 51.

(25) In her analysis of the French Revolution, Hannah Arendt has written about the moment when ‘compassion became the driving force of the revolutionaries’ (Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, London: Penguin Books, 1990, p. 75). Arendt is suspicious of compassion as a political virtue because she reads it as a passion, and hence as constitutively incapable of entering the mediated realm of human discourse. Intensely focused on the particular suffering being it encounters, compassion has, she writes, no capacity for generalization. In her taxonomy, compassion is opposed to pity on the one hand, and solidarity on the other—the latter obviously being the most suited for political action. While I am not able at present to engage with this argument in any detail, it seems to me that perhaps we could question this strict division posited by Arendt between compassion and solidarity. This division evidently draws its meaning from the division between the private and the public that structures Arendt’s thinking, and hence perhaps remains tied to a limited concept of the political.

(26) Lawrence (ed.), Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, London: Verso, 2005, p. 234. Cited in Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 43.

(27) Ibid.

(28) In brief, I would articulate my discomfort in the following way: Devji’s critique of humanitarianism draws on Hannah Arendt’s work and reads humanitarianism as an imperialist discourse that replaces the category of the citizen with that of the human being, whose rights cannot be guaranteed by any political entity. Thus Devji writes, ‘It is possible even in our own times to see imperialism at work as a global project in the steady replacement of the citizen by the human being, whose biological security now routinely trumps his rights of citizenship in anti-terror measures at home and humanitarian interventions abroad’ (The Terrorist (p.406) in Search of Humanity, p. 7). On this view, humanitarianism functions as a dehistoricized and depoliticized discourse; it hides its imperialist moorings. However, if contemporary Jihadi discourse mimics or shares the tropes of humanitarianism, does it also share its imperialist aspirations? On this point, Devji is not very clear. Further, I am not persuaded that humanitarianism as such can be entirely exhausted or accounted for by this critique. I am not sure if the anti-statist move that humanitarianisms and ecological discourses make can always be subsumed within imperialist politics, even though they often appear to function in the interests of imperial powers. These are preliminary thoughts; at some point I would like to engage Devji’s intriguing work in a more systematic way.

(29) Ibid., p. 45.

(30) On the historical context of the Babbar Akalis, as well as the Kuka movement and the Ghadar movement, see, for example, Mridula Mukherjee, Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004, pp. 25–45. See also Susana Devalle and Harjot S. Oberoi, ‘Sacred Shrines, Secular Protest and Peasant-Participation: The Babbar Akalis Reconsidered’, Punjab Journal of Politics, 7 (2), July–December 1983, pp. 27–62.

(31) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 56.

(32) Of particular interest in this regard is Bhagat Singh’s description of a meeting between Madan Lal Dhingra and V.D. Savarkar in England. After a rite of exhibiting and demonstrating commitment, the heroes embrace. ‘Ah, how beautiful was that moment. How invaluable and rare those tears. How beautiful, how exalted, was that meeting. How would we worldly people—we who are cowards and fearful even of the thought of death—how would we know how lofty, how pure, and how worship-worthy are those who give their lives for their nation and community’ (Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 90).

(33) Gupta, They Lived Dangerously, pp. 74–5. Gandhi’s response to the revolutionaries is complex and expresses his fundamental belief in non-violent politics. For instance, he writes, ‘Armed conspiracies against something satanic is like matching satans against satan. But since one satan is one too many for me, I would not multiply him…I do not regard killing or assassination or terrorism as good in any circumstances whatsoever’. Gupta, They Lived Dangerously, p. 82. This seems to be a categorical denunciation of violence as such. At other moments, however, his arguments are less powerful and his words almost appear to validate some of the grounds of revolutionary activity. Let me cite an extended passage from the same letter: ‘The revolutionaries are at liberty to reject the whole of my philosophy. To them I merely present my own experience as a co-worker in the same cause even as I have successfully (p.407) presented them to the Ali Brothers and many other friends. They can and do applaud whole-heartedly the action of Mustafa Kamal Pasha and possibly De Valera and Lenin. But they realize with me that India is not like Turkey or Ireland or Russia and that revolutionary activity is suicidal at this stage of the country’s life at any rate, if not for all time in a country so vast, so hopelessly divided and with the masses so deeply sunk in pauperism and so fearfully terror-struck’. Gupta, They Lived Dangerously, p. 84. It is one thing to categorically oppose violent methods in political life and quite another to argue that the particular conditions of India—the pitiable conditions of its ‘masses’—render it unsuitable for revolutionary activity. It seems this confusion between a pragmatic and an ethical opposition to violence continually aggravated the revolutionaries. An interesting comparison of Bhagat Singh and Gandhi’s thought is offered by Neeti Nair in her article, ‘Bhagat Singh as “Satyagrahi”: The Limits to Non-Violence in Late Colonial India’, Modern Asian Studies, 43 (3), 2009, pp. 649–81.

(34) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 87.

(35) Ibid., p. 91.

(36) Manifesto of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, prepared by B.C. Vohra, and widely distributed in 1929, at the time of the Lahore session of the Congress. Shiv Verma (ed.), Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, New Delhi: National Book Center, 1986, p. 186.

(37) Bhagat Singh, Message to Young Political Workers (1931) in Gupta, They Lived Dangerously, p. 46.

(38) Certainly there is a link between the idea of the beautiful (young) death, and the injunction to remember that constantly appears in Bhagat Singh’s writings about heroes.

(39) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 226.

(40) In his last letter to his comrades, Bhagat Singh writes, ‘My name has become a symbol of the Indian revolution, and the ideals and sacrifices of the revolutionary group have carried me very high—so high that in the event of living on, I could never be higher than this. Today my weaknesses are not in the public eye. If I escape hanging, they will become manifest, and the symbol of the revolution will fade or possibly be erased. But if I boldly accept the noose with laughter, Indian mothers will wish for their children to become like Bhagat Singh, and the number of those who sacrifice for freedom will so increase that it will no longer be possible for imperialism or any evil power to stop the revolution’ (Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 232).

(41) Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism, p. 251.

(42) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 71.

(43) Ibid., p. 71 (p.408)

(44) Bhagat Singh, The Jail Notebook and Other Writings, compiled by Chaman Lal and annotated by Bhupendar Hooja, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2007, p. 48.

(45) Ibid., p. 115.

(46) See Sumit Sarkar, Modern India: 1885–1947, Delhi: Macmillan India, 1983, pp. 269–274.

(47) Ibid., p. 269.

(48) See History of the Communist Movement in India, I: The Formative Years 1920–1933, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2005, p. 176.

(49) The Hindi word for ‘communism’ is sāmyavād, literally ‘the discourse of equality’.

(50) Chaman Lal, Bhagatsingh, p. 224.

(51) Ibid., p. 225.

(52) Ibid., pp. 138–41.

(53) Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination, London: Verso, 2005, pp. 3–4 (emphasis added).