By Swapan Dasgupta
March 23 was the 69th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. Like most sarkari occasions, the commemoration was characteristically tokenistic and would have remained confined to telecasts of “Rang de Basanti” and “Legend of Bhagat Singh” had it not been for two contrived controversies. First, there was a protest by Leftists over an official ad showing Bhagat Singh with a turban rather than his hallmark trilby; and, second, a legal notice was sent to actress Preity Zinta for allegedly hurting “sentiments of the people” by depicting the freedom fighter in a Kings XI Punjab poster.
The great Indian penchant for tamasha has not spared its hero worship. The various commemorations of freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad and Subhas Chandra Bose is invariably followed by complaints that ‘official’ India has been woefully selective in projecting the freedom movement. Soap-box orators have even hinted at a ‘conspiracy’ to reduce India’s recent past to a family history.
Suggestions of a conspiracy may be hyperbolic but there is a basis for the perception that the grand narrative of the national movement doesn’t accord due recognition to the little struggles that either complemented the Congress’ battles or followed an entirely different course. Textbook history, which aims at turning the past into a manageable package, cannot accommodate the different strands and many loose ends. In the quest for simplicity and homogeneity, rich complexity is a casualty.
That Bhagat Singh and many others have been downsized by capsuled history is undeniable. However, there is a rash temptation by many, not least those who accept celluloid and comic book versions of the past as the hidden reality, to suggest that it was the revolutionary nationalists rather than the Mahatma and his followers who really brought about Independence. This was certainly the theme of many 140-syllable interventions on Twitter just days ago. Many tweets argued that nonviolence prompted a compromise with the British Raj and prevented India from disinheriting the entire colonial legacy.
Youthful impetuosity has invariably been at odds with the ethical quirkiness of Gandhi. As impressionable undergraduates, many of us internalized the British Stalinist R P Dutt’s catchy assessment of Gandhi as “mascot of the bourgeoisie”, “that general of unbroken disasters” and the “Jonah of Revolution”. The Mahatma’s abrupt withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura, his initial prevarication over Purna Swaraj, his settlement with Lord Irwin, his unequivocal disavowal of “Bhagat Singh worship” and his spiteful campaign against Subhas Bose in 1939 were held out as examples of Gandhi’s unwillingness to release the full tide of anti-imperialist passion. The likes of Bhagat Singh with his fervent commitment to socialism were never similarly inhibited.
Rubbishing the Mahatma has become an unofficial national pastime. Militant Hindus charge him with betraying Hindu interests and facilitating Partition; Muslim separatists always perceived him as a wily Bania; radical Marxists see him as an upholder of the status quo; and a new breed of Dalit activists accuse him of social condescension towards the community. Compared to his passionate critics, the Mahatma’s defence seems piteously proforma. No eyebrows are even raised at his transformation into an icon for selling fountain pens and tabloid newspapers. The few remaining Gandhians have painted themselves into a faddist corner, obsessed with temperance, vegetarianism and naturopathy.
Gandhi is a victim of India’s impatience with historical rigour. It is casually assumed that India was forever ready for a grand anti-colonial explosion and that Gandhi used his moral standing to derail the process. It’s a romantic proposition which, unfortunately, cannot be historically sustained.
First, it was not until the late-1930s that self-rule became an accepted goal for all Indians. This realization was itself the culmination of the many campaigns waged by Gandhi since 1918. Bhagat Singh was a fierce patriot but his belief that a few exemplary acts of violent protests would trigger a revolution was wildly optimistic, if not naïve. The young Bengalis who raided the armoury in Chittagong in 1930 shouting, ironically, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” made a similar miscalculation. Their spark awed India but it didn’t light a prairie fire.
Gandhi realized better than many of his colleagues that the biggest impediment to India’s self-awakening was mass passivity, even fatalism. Unlike the revolutionaries, he shied away from grand proclamations and focused on creating awareness. He knew the human costs of armed liberation struggle and consciously chose the path of a moral struggle using India’s greatest strength — its sheer numbers. He turned adversity into advantage and spared India the bitterness and inhumanity of China’s revolutionary violence. Gandhi bequeathed to independent India a stable society, not one devastated by civil war.
There were many patriots in the freedom movement but Gandhi was perhaps the only visionary. He doesn’t deserve to be mocked.