The stories of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad and Rajguru have fired our collective imagination for years. But what we know barely begins to scratch the surface, and has been shaped by representations of these heroes in pop culture, especially Hindi films.
In a new book called A Revolutionary History of Interwar India (Penguin), however, associate professor of South Asian and World History Kama Maclean provides a comprehensive look into the ambitions, ideologies and actions of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), formed by Azad and Bhagat Singh.
In an interview with Firstpost, Maclean tells us how she embarked on the project, and what were some of the most fascinating aspects she discovered about these brave men who played such a fundamental role in helping India become independent:
You've mentioned in the foreword to the book how the film Rang De Basanti (and your screening the film for your students) was a trigger in a sense for you to start writing about the revolutionaries in India. How did that happen?
RDB merges the historical and the contemporary, in an entertaining format that appeals to students, and so it provides an entry point into history. It merges the historical — in the youthful members of the HSRA, who were so heavily attuned to their political context and engaged in anti-colonialism — with the contemporary disillusionment of the Indian state, corruption and communalism. Watching the opening scenes of the film, in which Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev are hanged, which then cut to the scenes of a young filmmaker in London being told that she should make another film about Gandhi, because ‘Gandhi sells’ to the West, resonated with my students.
However, after watching the film, I found that there was no scholarship readily available that elaborated on these themes, that contextualised the revolutionary struggle vis-a-vis the nonviolent Congress movement. There were many biographies of Bhagat Singh, in particular, but nothing that closely demonstrated how the revolutionary movement was enmeshed with Congress campaigns, and what they achieved. So that was what I set out to do. My book shows how revolutionary actions catalysed Congress programs, such as Civil Disobedience, but also that the fear of further attacks propelled the British into negotiating with the Congress, especially Gandhi, when otherwise they may not have been so inclined.
In the process of researching and writing A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, did you come across documents, oral accounts or findings that you were really surprised by?
Researching this book was extremely exiting; at times, it was absolutely enthralling. I was regularly surprised by the narratives, stories and allegations that I read, not only in the form of disclosures in oral history interviews, but even in the concessions of British administrators that I encountered in the colonial archive. There were jaw-dropping forms of evidence and many allegations that took a lot of time to substantiate against other accounts to form a viable historical narrative. The foremost among these has to be the level of engagement that emerged between the Congress leadership, especially Motilal Nehru — long presumed to be a moderate nationalist who supported non-violence — and the revolutionaries, mostly through intermediary Congress workers, but also directly. Motilal Nehru gave financial, legal and strategic advice to the revolutionaries, including to Chandra Shekhar Azad directly. All of this, of course, had to be kept secret from the British; accordingly it finds little mention in archives. But it comes out in multiple oral history interviews.
Among the perceptions that the book challenges is the idea that the revolutionaries and the Indian National Congress were completely antagonistic to each other. And you've shown that this wasn't really the case, and that while leaders like Mahatma Gandhi took great pains to say that they did not agree with the methods revolutionaries used, their patriotism could not be faulted...
The idea that the Congress and the revolutionaries of the HSRA were opposed to each other comes out of the written polemics between Gandhi and the revolutionaries in early 1930 (the ‘Cult of the Bomb’ and the ‘Philosophy of the Bomb’, respectively), following the Lahore Congress, which the revolutionaries had such an impact on, and it ends of course with the allegations that Gandhi did not do enough to save Bhagat Singh. This is a debate which seems to have no end; and it has created a sense that the revolutionaries were opposed to the Congress as a whole.
I think it’s important to make a distinction between the elected Congress leadership — the key figures in this period are Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, Presidents of the INC in 1928 and 1929, respectively — and Gandhi, who endeavoured to influence Congress developments during the period. There was a lot of ambivalence about nonviolence as a political strategy in the late 1920s, and both Motilal and Jawaharlal publicly expressed a sense of uncertainty about it, Jawaharlal in his Presidential Address at the Lahore Congress in 1929. To a degree, there was convergence in the interests of the HSRA and the Congress — to remove the British — but a fundamental difference about how to achieve it: through constitutional, agitational, or violent means. There were also debates about this within the Congress itself, in what was left in the late 1920s of the moderate/extremist divide that split the Congress in the early 1900s.
Gandhi realised the impact of the commitment of the revolutionaries, especially their suffering in hunger-strikes, that had popularised the anti-colonial struggle and heightened a sense of self-sacrifice among the masses. This also animated members of the Congress, in particular Jawaharlal Nehru, who went to visit the revolutionaries in prison, and Motilal Nehru, who visited them in court in Lahore. Gandhi was cautious of their support among Congress circles, and yet he wanted to exhort the importance of nonviolence in the struggle against the British. This led to a series of convoluted statements to the effect that the Congress appreciated the sacrifice of the revolutionaries, but did not endorse political violence, which at the time, was escalating. There is no doubt that this put Gandhi in a difficult position.
What did you find most striking about the revolutionaries you researched? What were the stories that seemed to illuminate an aspect of these men's (and women's) characters that we don't focus enough attention on?
The revolutionaries had individual personalities, which we have lost sight of, I think as a result of film narratives that are pressured to squeeze a complex narrative into two hours. The result is a rather two-dimensional rendering of the revolutionaries. In his memoirs, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, who was imprisoned for life for his role in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, told the story of how, when he arrived in Rajahmandri Central Prison in Andhra in 1931 to serve his sentence, there was first excitement, and then disappointment, among other prisoners at meeting him. The prisoners, he wrote, ‘had thought that as a northern Indian revolutionary, a colleague of Bhagat Singh and Azad, I would be a flaming youth of an austere face with red hot eyes, that I would be sullen and silent, would fly at a tangent at the least provocation from the authorities. In short they expected a revolutionary to be an uncommon creature —an object of adoration and respect but inspiring positive fear and awe.’
There was no one revolutionary personality in the HSRA: at times, they disagreed with each other on strategies. Each of them was different in their personal propensities, interests and inclinations, but they loved life, they had a hunger for knowledge, and above all, they yearned for fairness and equality. It was this that propelled them into political action. I have tried to bring some of this out in my book.
As for revolutionary women, there has not been enough attention on them, so I have a whole chapter devoted to Durga Bhabhi, who has been assigned only a walk-on role in the movies. I tell the story of what she did after, and for that matter before, she helped Bhagat Singh to escape Lahore in December 1928, disguised as his wife.
Could you recount an anecdote about one of the revolutionaries from the HSRA for us?
I was struck by an oral history account given by Jaidev Gupta, Bhagat Singh’s firm childhood friend, who told his interviewer that while Bhagat Singh was in jail, ‘European or British ladies and children of the officials at times used to come to see this brave man of India. He would meet them just as his own family members had come. No malice against them for their being European or British. And when some European or British officer came to see him as a representative of the imperialist power he was very cold and hard towards him and even would not greet him. His fight was against the capitalist and imperialist system and not against any individuals. Such was the nature which can be felt and experienced and not explained. Had you the fortune of seeing him, you would have never forgotten the broad charming smile and pleasing manners with which he would have received you.’
We've had a few Bollywood films that attempted to bring the life of Bhagat Singh to the screen. What
have pop culture representations got right or wrong about him?
The first Bhagat Singh film came out in 1954, another followed in 1963 with Shammi Kapoor, and they have been I think four or five since then, depending on whether you would count RDB as a Bhagat Singh biopic. But I have generally avoided the films, because filmmakers have different objectives to historians. My main problem with the film genre is that, as the above anecdote suggests, the revolutionaries were not, by and large, the angry young men that they are often portrayed as in films. Yes, they were often incensed by the injustice of colonialism, and other entrenched and constructed social divisions. But they could also be reflective, thoughtful, bookish, and playful. Bhagat Singh for example enjoyed movies, and not just realist films, but also escapist cinema. HSRA member Jaidev Kapoor said in an interview that Bhagat Singh ‘loved reading, writing, cinema and swimming. He was able to appreciate beauty and he sought it out. Whenever there was a [party] meeting in Agra he would schedule it for the Taj Mahal, because he loved its beauty.’