The Bhagat Singh Question that Some Don't Want to Address

Courtesy: Indiatimes

Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar)’s Simranjit Singh Mann asked for the removal of Bhagat Singh’s portrait from the museum at the Darbar Sahib, calling him a terrorist, and sent shockwaves through the political landscape of Punjab. 

However, this is not the first time that he has raised this demand, but the shock value this time is higher given that now he is a Member of Parliament from the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat. 
Criticism has come from every party, with people asking him to stop insulting the image of Bhagat Singh and his role in the freedom struggle.

What is interesting though is the silence of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) on the entire matter. The youth wing of Mann’s SAD(A) has actually shared a letter with the SGPC to support their demand. In this letter, Bhagat Singh claimed that he was an atheist. That is definitely true; in fact, one of his most famous essays, “Why I am an Atheist” is a major lighthouse for the Marxists of India despite the fact that Bhagat Singh definitely was not one. 

The argument that SAD (A) youth wing has given is that ​by displaying the photograph of an atheist in the Central Sikh Museum, the SGPC was promoting idolatry under the influence of Hindutva ideology which was not only against the Sikh culture, traditions and ideology but also against maryada (Sikh code of religious conduct). It is indeed ironic given how only Bhagat Singh’s photo is seen as supporting idolatry but not those of the likes of terrorist Balwinder Jatana

Outside of the national glare, there has been a lot of politics around Bhagat Singh and his identity in Punjab. Questions are raised on his faith, especially by Sikh extremists, who quote his essay on why he was an atheist. To quote from the relevant part:

And in those days, I was not a perfect atheist. My grandfather under whose influence I was brought up is an orthodox Arya Samajist. An Arya Samajist is anything but an atheist. After finishing my primary education I joined the D.A.V. School of Lahore and stayed in its Boarding House for full one year. There, apart from morning and evening prayers, I used to recite "Gayatri Mantra" for hours and hours. I was perfect devotee in those days. Later on I began to live with my father. He is a liberal in as much as the orthodoxy of religions is concerned. It was through his teachings that I aspired to devote my life to the cause of freedom. But he is not an atheist. He is a firm believer. He used to encourage me for offering prayers daily. So this is how I was brought up.

The truth is a little more complicated of course, and points to a past that was ruptured by the communal politics of Punjab. Bhagat Singh was born in a Sikh family, but that family was associated with the Arya Samaj. It was an era that was marked by a fading syncretism between Hinduism and Sikhism. 
Today, such has been the wish of those who want to appropriate Bhagat Singh for themselves, be it Akali Dal or the Aam Aadmi Party, that they have always tried to portray him with a turban. This, when among the grand total of four photos of him, there is just one where he wears a turban - as a child. 

For the record, the way the Sikh panthic leadership treated him should be stated as well. Here is what Manjit Singh GK said in 2016, when protesting against the Bhagat Singh statue in Delhi Assembly not having a turban:

Manjit Singh claimed that Bhagat Singh, who was awaiting his execution in Lahore prison, had “expressed a desire to have darshan of Bhai Sahib Bhai Randhir Singh (a Sikh leader who founded the Akhand Kirtani Jatha) before his death. On being approached, Bhai Sahib refused to see him saying that he had violated the basic tenets of Sikhism by shaving off his hair.”

The DSGMC chief further asserted that Bhagat Singh was “quick to express his repentance and after a two-hour meeting with Bhai Sahib he became a true Sikh at heart and later went to the gallows as a true believer in Sikhism.”

Bhagat Singh’s Stance on the Supposed Language Issue
That Bhagat Singh was wise beyond his years was reflected in many of his writings, whether one agreed with them or not. One such piece was an essay that he had written on the issue of the Punjabi language. This essay is a bulwark against the toxic politics that the Akalis played in the post-independence era to hide their own communal agenda. It is thus, a reminder of an inconvenient truth for them.

The essay, which is available easily for all to read, had highlighted how the Punjabi language had become mired in communal problems. Some context to this essay must be provided of course. 

In 1923, the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan had organised an essay competition. The theme was “The Problem of Punjab's Language and Script”. The General Secretary of Sahitya Sammelan, Shri Bhim Sen Vidyalankar had immensely liked Bhagat Singh’s writing on the subject. Bhagat Singh won a prize of Rs. 50 for his essay and subsequently, it was published in Hindi Sandesh on February 28, 1933. While writing a controversial take, Bhagat Singh had written:

Till now, Punjabi has not been able to become a literary language of the central Punjab. It is written in the Gurmukhi script and is now Known as Punjabi. It is neither widely prevalent nor has any literature or scientific significance. It was left unattended earlier, but even now the deficiency of its script disturbs those who are now attending to it. All the words, cannot end without the sound 'a' and its inability to write compound letter; even the word 'Poorna' (complete) cannot be written. This script is thus even more incomplete than Urdu, but when we already have a scientific and perfect Hindi script, what is there to feel hesitant about adopting it? The Gurmukhi script is only distorted form of the Hindi script. Right from the start all the rules are same, then, how much will we be benefited by our immediate switch over to this. The Punjabi language will start developing immediately by adopting this perfect script. And there is no problem in the propagation of it. Hindu women of Punjab already know this script. The DAV school and Sanatan Dharma schools teach only in Hindi, what could be the problem in such a situation? We shall plead with the supporters of Hindi that, ultimately and certainly, only Hindi will be the language of the whole Bharat, but it will be more convenient to propagate it from now on. Punjabi will become like Hindi by adopting the script and then all the differences will disappear; and it is desirable, too that common people could be educated which is possible only through our own language in our own script. 

In this essay, however, was also the seed of syncretism:

In the early days of Arya Samaj movement, the Sikhs and Arya Samajists used to have religious gathering at the same place. At that time they had no feelings of being different, but afterwards, a few sentences of Satyartha Prakash caused malice and mutual hatred. The Sikhs, swept in the same stream, started hating even Hindi as well. Other did not take even notice of it.

Afterwards, it is said, a Samaji leader, Mahatma Hansraj Ji held consultations with many leaders and proposed that if they accept the Hindi script, he would get the Punjabi language in Hindi script, and he would get the Punjabi language in Hindi script recognised in the University. 

In fact, Bhagat Singh had advocated for the adoption of Mahatma Hansraj’s formula of a standard Hindi script, and identified how language differences had assumed communal colours in Punjab:

But they could not understand the importance of this proposal because of their narrow-mindedness and absence of literary awareness. At this moment, three views prevail in Punjab. Firstly, there is strong attachment for Urdu among the Muslims; secondly, for Hindi among Arya Samajis and certain other Hindus; and thirdly, for Punjabi.

Discomfort Around Hindu Leaders of the Time
Another uncomfortable topic for many politicians in contemporary Punjab has been the fact that Bhagat Singh murdered the Police official of British origin, J P Saunders, to avenge Lala Lajpat Rai’s death. Lala ji was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha.
Having suffered grievously from the lathi charge during the protests against the Simon Commission, Lala ji had passed away soon after. The pamphlet released by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HRSA) soon after the death of Saunders was in fact titled “J.P. Sunders is dead; Lala Lajpat Rai is avenged, making the reasons amply clear.

However, the views of Sikh extremists about Lala Lajpat Rai today range from dismissive to downright vulgar. Questions on his martyrdom, and comments about him being a British stooge remain a part of mainstream discourse. Several claims are made about Lala Lajpat Rai being a coward, who did not participate fully in the Pagdi Sambhal movement against oppressive British taxes on agriculturists alongside Sardar Ajit Singh, Bhagat’s uncle. 

But that is not all. 

In 2010, famous singer Babbu Mann, in a concert in the United Kingdom, had claimed that freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai did not die of cane blows but of a heart attack many months later. This claim was later attributed to a book called Sachi Sakhi by Kapur Singh, who had been a civil servant under the British but went on to play a major role in Sikh politics with the Akali Dal in the future. What is ironic is that in the same book Kapur Singh had this to say about the incident:

In 1942, when I was the Deputy Commissioner of Karnal District and Mr Hamilton Hardinge was the Deputy Inspector General Police of Ambala Range, we  were having dinner together one night. That is when he  told me this tale that in 1928, at the advent of Simon  Commission, it was he who had swirled his stick which had touched the rim of Lala Lajpat Rai's umbrella. He said that Mr Scott remained on the platform of the Railway Station all the while, and Lala Lajpat Rai had an old score to settle with Mr Scott because of which he named him and concocted this story to malign him, (the detailed description of which cannot in any way enhance the  reputation of Lala Lajpat Rai). I did not divulge to him that fourteen years ago I too had witnessed the whole scene but I was deeply touched by the honesty of this British officer, who after fourteen years in which many tragic results had emerged from this incident, was not diluting the truth in any manner.

Incidentally, this man had also said the following about Hindus in the Parliament in 1960:

It is these very Hindus of the Punjab who, with the ready aid of the Government of India leaders, even when their understanding was not qualified to keep pace with the wishes of their heart, adopted every conceivable posture, and shrank from no strategem to keep Sikhs permanently under their political heel, first, by refusing to form a Punjabi-speaking state in which the Sikhs might acquire political effectiveness, and second, by falsely declaring that Punjabi is not their mother tongue. 

This not only shows the attitude towards Hindus, but also bares open the truth of the Punjabi Suba movement. Incidentally, Lala Lajpat Rai had been associated with the Hindu Mahasabha in an era when there were fierce debates on the question of the status of Sikhs as a separate religion or a sect of Hindus. At that time, the Hindu Mahasabha had in fact conducted a meeting in Punjab chaired by a Sikh to underscore the point.

Bhagat Singh’s association with Veer Savarkar has emerged as a problematic point in recent times for many Punjabi politicians. Author Vikram Sampath had recently pointed out that in an article "Vishwa Prem" published twice in Matwala of 15 and 22 November 1926 Bhagat Singh spoke of Savarkar's tender heart despite being a revolutionary. Sampath quoted the following:

World-lover is the hero whom we do not hesitate a little to call a fierce insurgent, staunch anarchist- the same heroic Savarkar. Coming in the wave of world love he used to stop walking on the grass thinking that the soft grass would be mowed under the feet.

Savarkar had been extremely appreciative of the Sikh community, and had called them the very embodiment of Hindus, classifying them as that. That very point has been a bone of contention throughout, with the mainstream view being that ‘we are not Hindus.’

Bhagat Singh’s legacy will remain contested, and his ideas debated. But it is not in the least surprising that we have people like Simranjit Singh Mann claiming what they do - that Bhagat Singh was a terrorist because he had also killed a Sikh constable Channan Singh alongside Saunders. As if the terrorists who are being glorified did not kill any.


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