Bhagat Singh martyrdom day reduced to a ritual

Tribal revolutionaries Birsa Munda, Sidhu-Kanhu and Tilka Manjhi have universities named after them. There is none that carries Bhagat Singh’s name. States mostly have universities named after their local heroes or saints. Bhagat Singh’s name was not thought of by Punjab or Left-ruled states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, which own him as the icon of their youth and student organisations.

Bhagat Singh martyrdom day reduced to a ritual

Chaman Lal

Honorary Adviser, Bhagat Singh Archives & Resource Centre, New Delhi

Every March 23, leaders of the nation pay homage to the three supreme martyrs of the freedom struggle: Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Eighty-nine years after their martyrdom, Bhagat Singh, who became an icon of the revolutionary movement even during his lifetime, continues to be one of the most popular icons of the nation, along with Mahatma Gandhi and, perhaps, Subhas Chandra Bose. But has the nation really honoured Bhagat Singh in the 73 years of Independence or just made it ritualistic by paying lip service to the martyred ones?

Since Bhagat Singh is the most popular youth icon, has any university been named after him? Have his thoughts and beliefs — in the form of his writings — been made part of school/college/university syllabuses? Even the youth day of the country is not named after him. Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary — January 12 — was declared the National Youth Day in 1984 by the Government of India. Would the Punjab Government dare to declare September 28 as the Punjab Youth Day, especially in the light of its drug-infected youth who could look towards the alternative in the inspiring vision of Bhagat Singh?

This very powerful icon of the freedom struggle does not even find a place in the gallery of portraits in the Central Hall of Parliament, where even lesser known revolutionaries, like martyr Hemu Kalani, find a place. Since Hemu Kalani was from Sindh, then Deputy PM LK Advani saw to it that his portrait is displayed in the Central Hall’s portrait gallery. Bhagat Singh’s statue has been put up along with those of Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and others outside Parliament. However, their portraits are also displayed in the gallery, but not that of Bhagat Singh. Ironically, the portrait of VD Savarkar, accused in the Mahatma Gandhi murder case, is displayed right opposite Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait!

There are scores of colleges in India and hundreds of schools and youth clubs named after Bhagat Singh not only in Punjab but also throughout India. But why not a university? The University Grants Commission (UGC) website shows a number of universities are named after freedom fighters. As on February 1 this year, the UGC has listed 935 universities in the country. These include 50 Central universities, 409 state universities and 127 deemed-to-be universities. Then there is a spurt in private universities — 349 at present — and their numbers are increasing rapidly.

A lot many universities are named after the states or cities where they were set up, like Delhi University, Calcutta University, or Panjab University, and after eminent national leaders or scholars. A perusal of only Central and state universities shows interesting data. The maximum number of public sector universities is named after BR Ambedkar — 14 in total. And exactly half — seven — are named after Mahatma Gandhi. The most vilified national leader in the present regime — Jawaharlal Nehru — also has seven named after him, whereas his daughter Indira Gandhi has six, and Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi has eight universities in his name! Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel have three each named after them.

The fast-growing name is that of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who already has four universities in his name and may cross the mark of Gandhi and Nehru soon. Even APJ Abdul Kalam has four universities in his name, while Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Education Minister of India, has just one. Four universities are named after Swami Vivekananda. One pleasant surprise is that of scientist CV Raman, who has three universities in his name. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rabindranath Tagore have two each.

Among the revolutionaries, Birsa Munda, Sidhu-Kanhu — tribal revolutionaries — have two universities in their names. Tilka Manjhi, another tribal revolutionary, has one. Of all the well-known revolutionary icons, only one university — in Kanpur — is named after Chandra Shekhar Azad. There is none named after Bhagat Singh or any other well-known revolutionary, like Master Surya Sen.

States mostly have universities named after their local heroes or saints. Bhagat Singh’s name was not thought of either by Punjab or Left-ruled states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura that own Bhagat Singh as the icon of their youth and student organisations. When the Central University of Punjab (CUP) was set up in Bathinda in 2009, I wrote to the then HRD Minister, Arjun Singh, and his successor Kapil Sibal to name it after Bhagat Singh, but I received no response. Punjab MPs in Parliament should pressure the Central government to rename the Central University at Bathinda after Bhagat Singh. If the Central University of Arunachal Pradesh in Itanagar can be named after Rajiv Gandhi, why can the CUP not be named after Bhagat Singh?

Despite Bhagat Singh’s 130 writings being now fully available in many languages — Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, English and Marathi — and in lesser numbers in many more languages, despite his serious and relevant political writings, like Religion and our freedom struggle, Communalism and its resolution, The problem of untouchability, Letter to young political workers and Why I am an atheist, no state or Central university or school board of any state has included his writings in its curricula.

The naming of the Chandigarh international airport after Shaheed Bhagat Singh is being held up indefinitely, despite the Punjab and Haryana Assemblies passing resolutions to this effect in 2009-10. On the other hand, there is a spree of naming railway stations/airports/universities in the name of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.

Mass organisations of workers, peasants, students, youth and employees love to have Bhagat Singh’s photographs, songs and slogans as part of their mass struggle/processions, as is visible in the Shaheen Bagh dharna and other protests all over the country. Bhagat Singh’s favourite slogan Inquilab Zindabad reverberates in all Shaheen Bagh dharnas and in struggles of mass organisations. They are, thus, honouring Bhagat Singh at a non-official level.

Meanwhile, in the time of the coronavirus lockdown, when even temples, gurdwaras, masjids and churches are being closed for the public, the words of Bhagat Singh from his classic essay Why I am an Atheist come to mind: He poses the question — I ask why your omnipotent God; Why did he not kill warlords or the fury of war in them and thus avoid the catastrophe hurled down on the head of humanity by the Great War? Perhaps, he would have posed this question today: Why does he (God) not kill coronavirus, which is causing such a catastrophe in the whole world that even his places of worship are closed?

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