Bipan Chandra praised Bhagat Singh when he called him 'revolutionary terrorist': JNU professors
The three professors condemn the attack against the book, India’s Struggle For Independence, which they co-authored with Professor Bipan Chandra
In a quaint house in Dakshinapuram at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan are busy calling up people, and discussing ‘statements’ that are to be issued towards condemning the attack against India’s Struggle For Independence, a book they co-authored with noted historian and professor Bipan Chandra in 1988. The book, which is 'essential reading' for students of history and political science across the country, and is a staple diet for UPSC aspirants, is under fire for referring to Bhagat Singh and other 'revolutionary' leaders as "revolutionary terrorists". All three of them spoke to Firstpost and explained the reason and context for the using the expression and how they are very much in favour of removing the word from the book now as it had acquired quite a negative meaning with time.
Professor Mridula Mukherjee
You have to read the chapter in which this term (revolutionary terrorist) has been used. I think even a young person, perhaps a school student, can easily figure out that the whole tone of the chapter is actually not critical of revolutionaries, but is, in fact, one of admiration. It shows them in quite a positive light. So you are just picking up the particular term 'terrorism', which in any case is always called ‘revolutionary terrorism’ in the chapter. So you are ignoring the adjective ‘revolutionary’.
When the British used the word, they only said terrorist. In fact, the word revolutionary was added to make the distinction clear. The term was used only in an analytical and descriptive manner to explain a certain method that was adopted: it was the use of violence as opposed to non-violence that was followed by the Congress and Gandhi. The purpose was to explain to the readers the contrast between the different streams in the national movement.
Secondly, in the 1920s and 1930s, when the word ‘revolutionary terrorism’ came to be used by people, there was no such negative meaning to the word terrorism because people who were using terrorist methods were doing so to target opponents who were generally oppressors. They were not using it against common citizens and innocent people. In the present phase of terrorism, the targets are quite often innocent people. Thus the term and the phenomenon have acquired a very negative connotation.
Today, young people, particularly those who do not understand the past usage of the term, may get confused when they read it in history books. So there is a simple solution which Professor Chandra himself talked about back in 2006-07. In 2007, in a public statement, he said that he no longer wanted the word terrorist to be used for revolutionaries because it had acquired a negative meaning.
In 2006, he wrote an article as an introduction to two of Bhagat Singh’s pamphlets ‘Why I am an Atheist’ and ‘Dreamland’. In that article, he never used the word 'revolutionary terrorist'. He uses 'revolutionary socialist'. He has dropped the word from his own writing.
Why is the word still in the book? Because the book in the market today is the reprint of the 1988 version. No new edition has come out in 28 years. Professor Bipan Chandra wanted to revise it but could not due to illness. But all of us, the co-authors, have issued the public statement in which we have clearly said that we would like to carry out Professor Bipan Chandra’s wishes and revise the book and change the term. We have sent a note out to the publishers.
There is no difficulty in it. Now this is where it is necessary to issue a public statement saying sale and distribution of this book has stopped. All one needs to say is that the necessary changes have been agreed to by the authors and will be made in the existing copies and ones to be published in the future.
Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha also said that this term should be removed and never said that this book should be banned.
Different members of the Bhagat Singh family were known to Professor Bipan Chandra personally for the last 40 years. They admired his effort to bring Bhagat Singh to the centre stage and for having done so much for him. He was the first historian who saw the revolutionary not just as a brave person willing to sacrifice his life for the country but also brought Singh, the intellectual and the thinker, to focus. He said Singh had the best vision and understood the mistakes made by the revolutionaries and how the latter was moving away from individual revolutionary heroism to mass movement.
He talks about Ram Prasad Bismil and Chandra Shekhar Azad as thinking people and not as irrational patriots loaded with romanticism. He tried to bring out the revolutionaries' other dimensions.
It is obvious that the government is making an excuse out of some words that might have been used some 20 or 30 times in a 600-page book, which can be easily removed.
It’s not terrorism; the government’s real target is something else
I ask them what they want. They don’t want people to read this book. But why? There is something else about the book that they don’t like. This book tells the people about the real struggle for freedom, its principles and values. It talks about the vision of the freedom struggle which was to establish an independent, secular and democratic, republic. It believed in democracy and secularism as essential elements of modern society.
It talked about a certain kind of economic development that was supposed to be egalitarian and pro-poor and not the one we have today. It talked about an independent foreign policy. All these features defined the freedom struggle. For today’s government what can be of concern is the emphasis of secularism in the book and an independent pro-poor economic policy in the economic realm, not the one we have today.
And more importantly, this book talks at length about communalism, which as a phenomenon was dissected by Bipan Chandra in the book where he explains communalism and its ideology. He also writes about how accepting religion is as basis of notion divides this country. He talked about how communalism was a colonial ideology, which was adopted by certain sections of the society to further their interest, something that the freedom struggle never approved of.
I think this regime, which has a problem with the secular vision and wants to project communalism as nationalism, finds this book troublesome as it tells people the reality, about true nationalism. What you see today is fake nationalism.
Bipan Chandra in his last lecture remarked that if Bhagat Singh would have been alive he would have become the Lenin of India. Lenin was the maker of a revolution and by calling him Lenin he wanted to say that Singh would have been maker of the revolution in India. Professor Chandra was a great admirer of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, but he still called Bhagat Singh as Lenin. And you call him anti-national and anti-Bhagat Singh. Then you can call anyone anything. I feel like Alice in Wonderland; it is all upside down.
Professor Aditya Mukherjee
I don’t think a single reader will come away with the feeling that Bhagat Singh is being criticised. It's like people who have not read the book telling others not to read the book. It is a witch hunt of people with whom you cannot agree. This book represents inclusiveness; it was deliberately written in a manner to make it inclusive. It is not written from the Left or from the Right perspective. It includes all sections of thoughts. For example, moderates, whose contributions have been dismissed because they were thought not to have contributed much to the national freedom struggle, were given substantial focus in the book. It tells us how important they were.
So there is no tendency to ignore any stream of thought. We have given due importance to the Left and Gandhi who takes centre stage in this book. But this did not mean other elements were ignored or treated badly. Professor Chandra was responsible for bringing back Bhagat Singh to the focus of the narrative of national movement. He was respected in any case; Professor Chandra has not made him famous.
However, what he did was to demonstrate the fact that Bhagat Singh was a tremendous intellectual. He highlights the fact that at the young age of 23, he was extremely well read. It is this aspect that he brings out in the book. He writes that Singh was an enormously courageous, deeply secular intellectual who was moving towards the Left. The picture he paints of Singh is nowhere critical. It is indeed sad that they are misusing the words, which Bhagat Singh used, to target the book. Bhagat Singh referred to his early life as that of a terrorist. Just before his end, he writes an essay for his fellow revolutionaries in which he says that terrorism performed a very useful role at one point of time and that they have not given terrorism up completely but insisted that they should move towards mass movement.
Generally, this book, and all of us have been criticised as being nationalist, and it comes as a shock that now we are termed as anti-nationalists. Many people who are criticising the book are those who have never read the book. The real issue is the agenda of arriving at independent secular thinking in this country. This book is particularly critical of colonial and communal forces and shows how they went hand-in-hand. This is not palatable to those forces who are communalists. So this is a clear attack on secularism in an underhand manner. We would have preferred them to argue with us with another book. That is the brave way to do it. What they are doing is the cowardly way of doing it. That is why this Fascist power is nothing but cowardice. If you have the courage, argue. However, instead of arguing, they will put pressure, file cases, and harass you, and this is certainly not the civilised way of debating in a modern democracy.
Professor Sucheta Mahajan
Different words acquire different meanings with time and the usage changes. So is the case of the word ‘revolutionary terrorist’. In spite of the fact that we all agree to change the word, we being targeted only means one thing. We took a strong stand on supporting JNU students in the last three months after charges of sedition were slapped on some of them and we are being punished for that. This is pure vendetta.
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