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Sunday Special » Columns

Posted at: Mar 20, 2016, 2:23 AM; last updated: Mar 20, 2016, 2:23 AM (IST)
Harish Khare

Harish Khare

Why do we not remember Bhagat Singh?

Harish Khare
In a few days’ time, March 23rd, we shall go through the motion of celebrating Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. And, that would be just about it. Otherwise, for the rest of the year, we simply do not remember Bhagat Singh. Perhaps, we do not want to remember.

Bhagat Singh’s place in our memory and history is yet to be finalised. Here was a young man who was wise beyond his years and courageous beyond belief. And, he had that supreme love for the motherland to make the supreme sacrifice, happily and cheerfully sauntering over to the hangman’s noose. 

It was easy for the post-Independence official narrative to ignore Bhagat Singh, not because of what he stood for, but perhaps because of his belief in the efficacy of revolutionary methods and means. He was at odds with the Mahatma's non-violence creed. He remains, as a Bhagat Singh scholar, Professor Chaman Lal of JNU, said “a thorn in the neck of the National Movement.” 

Still, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were very much central to the popular narrative about our struggle towards national independence. In the mid-1960s, that vastly popular movie, ‘Shaheed’, reinforced Bhagat Singh’s iconic place in public imagination. In the process, Manoj Kumar, who played Bhagat Singh, became ‘Mr Patriot’. And, he was quietly co-opted by the Jan Sangh crowd. Manoj Kumar was a gentler, softer predecessor to today’s very loudmouth, Anupam Kher. 

So, the Congress and its historians and other myth-makers had good reason to keep Bhagat Singh way down in public memory. For a while, the Left tried to coopt Bhagat Singh. That too did not work, perhaps because he was too native, too desi to fit in the Left’s borrowed intellectual contraptions. 

It is a real mystery as to why Bhagat Singh has not been sought to be brought to the front-burner by the ruling establishment that is busy rearranging our national icons. All stops are being pulled to “restore” Sardar Patel and Subhas Bose to their rightful, prideful places. If in the process, Gandhi and Nehru have to be brought down a peg or two, so be it. But oddly enough, the same establishment shies away from reviving Bhagat Singh.

Maybe, those who seek to monopolise deshbhakti know that none of their presumed heroes can match the ultimate sacrifice and love for the motherland that Bhagat Singh and his two comrades personified on March 23, 1931. Maybe, Bhagat Singh’s slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ is too radical, too secular for those who insist that everyone should shout ‘Bharat Mata ki jai.’

On Friday morning, I joined that enigmatic but unassuming spiritual man, who is known as ‘Sri M’, as he began his Walk of Hope, this time from Gurdwara Nadha Sahib to Mata Mansa Devi Temple in Panchkula.

I had met Sri M last month in Delhi and learnt a bit about his Manav Ekta Mission. I had promised that I would join his padyatra when his show arrived in this part of India. On Friday morning, there must have been not more than 50 or 60 marchers to begin with. Before the march set out, a beautiful oath was perfunctorily administered to all. The simple oath involved a promise to respect all religions.

There was no slogan-shouting, no wild waving of the flag. The Walk looked like a disorganised affair. 

With unflagging enthusiasm and certitude, Sri M set out. I was invited to fall in step with him. But I was somewhat skeptical of what good was such walking, along highways, with trucks unloading their fumes on us and motorists assaulting our hearing. 

I got my answer. Sri M was recounting his visit to Jamuna Pushta, a kind of 're-settlement colony’ in Delhi. This encounter with that enclave of hopelessness and homelessness appeared to have affected him quite a bit. 

“We should be able to do something for those people. At least some mobile healthcare can be arranged. Why can’t we find a way to educate their children — a mobile school, perhaps?” 

Without agitation, he wondered aloud: “How can we give them Aadhaar cards?" Those people have no homes and, hence, no addresses.

And, then, he appeared to be making a confession:

“I wish I had started all this when I was younger, instead of going away to the Himalayas for meditation and all that so-called learning.”

And then, he answered his own question: “But then perhaps I would have become a self-centred guru.” A gentlest of disapprovals of the whole tribe of babas and gurus, the presumed holy men who are known more for their business acumen and entrepreneurial flair. They also flaunt their proximity to this or that powerful political leader. None of that for Sri M.

We were joined by a group of students. The walk format encourages individuals and groups to join -and, drop out - at any point, while a core of 60-odd men and women has been walking with him from Kanyakumari. An 80-year-old retired officer from the Indian Air Force is probably the oldest marcher.

Sri M’s message is simple: “We walk together, not as members of groups or parties or advocates of ideologies, but as humans. We walk to free society from fear and insecurity, thus igniting the formation of an inclusive and participative society where there is opportunity to all, where talent and efforts are rewarded regardless of caste, religion, language, region or gender.”

Who can quarrel with such a sensible mission statement? 

He has kept away from the politicians' quarrels and inducements. Instead, he has induced men and women into wholesome ideas and values about India.

For some time now, we have been subjected to a spurious debate. Instigated by the right wing, the sole purpose of this debate seems to be to suggest that India’s destiny would have been infinitely better had Sardar Patel, instead of Jawaharlal Nehru, become the first prime minister. An additional variation on this controversy is Subhas Bose and the mystery surrounding his death. There is an understated assumption that Nehru and his political successors went out of the way to diminish the historic role played by Patel and Bose. This criticism is often made the loudest by those who have made very little contribution to the national struggle.

Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma and scholar extraordinaire, has sought to examine this line of criticism in a remarkably readable book, Understanding The Founding Fathers — An Enquiry into the Indian Republic’s Beginnings. I will urge every single Tribune reader to pick up this slim book. The sheer honesty of the inquiry is refreshing. He defends the Mahatma against his critics, examines his relationship with Bose and Ambedkar with clinical precision. It is probably the first book by an Indian writer that refers to the Mahatma as ‘Gandhi’ without the honorific ‘ji’. 

Rajmohan Gandhi is no Nehruite. If anything, in his very fine political biography of Sardar Patel, he came close to suggesting that the Mahatma — perhaps unfairly — favoured Jawahar over Vallabhai. In fact, Rajmohan was never a favourite with the Nehru-Gandhi family. He once allowed himself to become the Opposition candidate against Rajiv Gandhi in the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency. Yet, Rajmohan concludes in this latest book: “Despite major differences, Nehru and Patel did stand together impressively - the Nehru-Patel divide splashed at times in today's media is greatly exaggerated, usually for political purposes.”

This book is Rajmohan Gandhi's twelfth one. But perhaps, his most intellectually provocative work. He is not intimidated by today's notions of political correctness and puts Ambedkar and also Bose in their respective places. He is also very fair towards Mohammed Ali Jinnah. 

Calling our founding fathers as “an amazing set of individuals”, Rajmohan writes: “They were not perfect; they were unable to prevent the great tragedies associated with Partition; but they made a mark on the world; and they left for us a house of which we can be proud, and where we can grow, if we want, in liberty, justice and order.” 

Wise words, in this babble of hyper-nationalism. A worthwhile read.

Oh yes, it is coffee time. Nothing beats the aroma of a freshly-brewed coffee. Join me.


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