A Lesser-Known event from the annals of the Indian revolutionary movement is the “invitation” that was sent to Bhagat Singh by the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. This invite could not reach Singh, so historians can only speculate on what might have happened if it had been received and accepted. There is no doubt that had it all gone as planned, it had the potential to change the course of our freedom struggle.
The person who connected Bhagat Singh and Stalin was Shaukat Usmani, one of the founding members of the emigre Communist Party of India established in Tashkent in 1920. Usmani was sent to India by MN Roy to establish contact with the Indian nationalists. He came in contact with the revolutionaries through Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the famous editor of the Hindi daily, Pratap, which was published from Kanpur in 1920s.
Bhagat Singh worked as a sub-editor at Pratap. He even reviewed Usmani’s political-cum-travel memoir, Peshawar to Moscow: Leaves from An Indian Muhajireen’s Diary, for the newspaper. Even though Usmani was associated with the communist movement, he maintained active contact with the armed revolutionaries and updated the Comintern about their activities.
In 1928, when Usmani was about to leave for the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, he invited Bhagat Singh and his close associate, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, to come with him to the Soviet Union. Usmani wrote about this incident, “Now I don’t exactly remember when I first met Sardar Bhagat Singh. Either I met him in Lahore or in Kanpur…At that time [the Hindustan Republican Association] HRA was being transformed into HSRA [Hindustan Socialist Republican Association] and it was decided that the new organisation would work in cooperation with the Communist International…I was informed that before they drop armed actions by individuals they would organise some important actions which were already in their list… I told Bejoy Babu (Bejoy Kumar Sinha), ‘Come on, let’s go to Moscow.’ Personally, I believed that Bhagat Singh and Bejoy Sinha’s presence in Moscow would have meant active armed assistance from the Soviet Union.”
Along with Singh, Bejoy Kumar Sinha was in charge of international relations of the HSRA. He confirms this invitation by Usmani in his book, New Man in the Soviet Union. He writes, “Shaukat Usmani, who as representative of the Communist Party of India, was about to leave for Moscow to take part in the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, asked me and my associates to come along with him to the Soviet Union as representatives of the revolutionary movement. I discussed his invitation with Bhagat Singh and we decided that it was not the right time. We decided that we will go to Moscow once we had executed our plans.”
That Usmani had invited Bhagat Singh and Sinha to visit the Soviet Union as representatives of the HSRA is also confirmed by a stalwart of the Indian communist movement, Muzzafar Ahmad. In his autobiography, Myself and the Communist Party of India, Ahmad mentions Usmani and Sinha’s meeting. He also says that Sinha gave Usmani Rs. 200 to undertake the proposed journey, while Usmani assured him of financial help from the Soviet Union.
Usmani next went to the Soviet Union in 1928, where he was included in the Presidium of the historic Sixth Congress of the Communist International. This conference began on 17 July 1928 and ended on 1 September 1928. Interestingly, it noted the activities of the HRA while discussing the colonial question. It recognised the rise of the HRA as a response to the failure of bourgeois parties such as the Indian National Congress, which began as a radical petty-bourgeoisie party but as the struggle proceeded, it became the party of the bourgeois reformists.
The Comintern observed, “…movements such as…Gandhism in India…were originally radical petty-bourgeois ideological movements which, however, as a result of their service to the big bourgeoisie, became converted into a bourgeois nationalist-reformist movement. After this, in India…there was again founded a radical wing from among the different petty-bourgeois groups (e.g. the Republican Party…) which stands for a more or less consistent national-revolutionary point of view.”
Unfortunately, as soon as Usmani returned from Moscow, he was arrested in the Meerut Conspiracy Case which began in March 1929. Meanwhile, Bhagat Singh and his comrades had assassinated John Saunders in December 1928 and were on the run. After the Meerut Conspiracy Case began, Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt, on behalf of the HSRA exploded two bombs in the Central Assembly to protest the anti-worker Public Safety and Trade Dispute Bills, and courted arrest.
Remarkably, before the decision to throw bombs in the Central Assembly, HSRA leaders held the view that Bhagat Singh should be sent to the Soviet Union since he was already an absconder in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. It was decided that some other revolutionary would throw the bomb. However, on the insistence of Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh was selected for the task as it was agreed that he could present the party’s point of view before the court and in the press in the best possible way. HSRA members were not aware that Usmani was carrying a message for them from the Soviet Union. Due to his arrest, even the latter was unable to communicate Stalin’s message for Bhagat Singh and the HSRA.
Later, Usmani, in an article in the Hindi journal Nai Zameen, published from New Delhi, wrote that before he was leaving for India, Stalin asked him to convince Bhagat Singh to come to Soviet Union. According to Usmani, Stalin’s words were, “Ask Bhagat Singh to come to Moscow.”
Now the question arises, how did Stalin come to know about Bhagat Singh?
According to Virender Sindhu, niece and biographer of Bhagat Singh, Stalin and the Comintern might have learnt of Bhagat Singh through two Ghadarite revolutionaries, Baba Santokh Singh and Baba Gurmukh Singh, who were working closely with the Communist movement in Punjab. They had even tried to recruit Bhagat Singh to their Kirti group.
However, the interest shown by Stalin in Bhagat Singh and the Indian revolutionary movement might also have been the result of the thesis adopted by the Sixth Congress on the strategy and tactics of the national liberation movements in colonies such as India and China. The Communist International was already aware of the Hindustan Republican Association and considered it as a petit bourgeoisie-led national revolutionary organisation, in contrast to the national-reformists led by the Congress.
The Sixth Congress adopted a very sectarian position on tactics and strategy of anti-imperialist struggle in colonies. This Congress proposed that Communist Parties in colonised countries “should from the very beginning demarcate themselves in the most clear-cut fashion, both politically and organisationally, from all the petty-bourgeois groups and parties”.
However, with respect to the national-revolutionary parties led by the petty-bourgeoisie, the Sixth Congress said that a temporary union or cooperation with them was possible “provided that [the national revolutionary movements was a] genuine revolutionary movement, that it genuinely struggles against the ruling power and that its representatives do not put obstacles in the way of the communists educating and organising in a revolutionary sense the peasants and wide masses of the exploited”.
As Usmani knew about the transition of the HRA into the HSRA and their decision to work for the goals of socialism, it is quite possible that he appraised the executive committee of Communist International on Bhagat Singh and his plans to reorganise the HRA, which might have sparked the interest of Stalin in Singh.
After the arrests of Bhagat Singh and Sinha in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, HSRA decided to send veteran Ghadar Party leader Prithvi Singh Azad to the Soviet Union for ideological and military training but Azad could not go there immediately. So, HSRA chose Surendra Pandey and Yashpal (the future Hindi novelist) in his place. However, the sudden death of its commander-in-chief Chandrashekhar Azad in February 1931 foiled the party’s plans.
Yashpal was also arrested in a few months and eventually Pandey was also put behind bars. After his release, Pandey tried to revive the HSRA in Kanpur and worked in close coordination with the communists. From the courtroom, Bhagat Singh and his comrades also sent a telegram to the Communist International expressing their respect and solidarity on the death anniversary of Lenin on 21 January 1930.
Even though the HSRA members tried to go to the Soviet Union, the journey eluded them. It was only after the withdrawal of the British from India that Bejoy Kumar Sinha was able to make a trip to the Soviet Union.
(www.newsclick.in, 22nd March, Prabal Saran Agarwal and Harshvardhan are PhD scholars at JNU. The views expressed are personal.)
(Note: Throughout this article, we have preserved Bhagat Singh’s use of the word ‘untouchable’ in his writings, which reflected contemporary usage. His use of the word, and its contextual use in this article, should be read as ‘so-called untouchables’. Similarly, the phrase ‘lower strata’ should be read as ‘so-called lower strata’, ‘upper caste’ as ‘so-called upper caste’, etc.)
The influence of socialist and Marxist thought on the writings of Bhagat Singh has been well documented, discussed and debated. However, his thoughts, as well as that of the broader revolutionary movement, on the questions of caste and untouchability have not been paid much attention in academic as well as activist circles.
Apart from his popular article – ‘Problem of Untouchability’, published in the June 1928 issue of Kirti -there are a few other articles and essays as well where Bhagat Singh criticised caste and related aspects. And even though all his writings are in the form of pamphlets or newspaper reports and appear as running commentary, we can delineate the line of reasoning which informs his criticism of caste and untouchability.
It is one thing to criticise caste-based discrimination and atrocities from an abstract concept of ‘equality’, and completely another to criticise caste as a form of institutionalised discrimination whose legitimacy is derived from the religious doctrines of Hinduism. While the former can take place without criticising Hinduism in radical terms, (e.g. Vivekananda, Gandhi, Savarkar etc.) the latter has to take into consideration the roots of the caste system in Hindu religious principles and philosophy (e.g. Phule and Ambedkar). Bhagat Singh’s criticism of caste and untouchability is firmly anchored in the latter approach.
Religious Basis of Caste/Untouchability
Bhagat Singh understood caste and the practice of untouchability and its associated binary of purity-pollution as an integral part of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma). The belief that an untouchable’s touch can pollute and destroy the ‘dharma’ of an upper-caste is criticised by Bhagat Singh at several places. ‘The Problem of Untouchability’ begins with questions like: “Would the contact with an untouchable mean defilement of an upper-caste? Would the gods in the temples, not get angry by the entry of untouchables there? Would the drinking water of a well not get polluted if the untouchables drew their water from the same well?”
At another place critiquing the purity-pollution binary, he writes: “…if a low-caste boy garlands people like the Pandit or the Maulvi, they have a bath with their clothes on and refuse to grant the ‘janeyu’, the sacred thread, to the untouchables…”
These practices, according to Bhagat Singh were legitimised by Sanatana Dharma, which “is in favour of discrimination of touchable-untouchable”. At the centre of Bhagat Singh’s criticism of caste is the Brahmanical theory of karma, which postulates that people are assigned caste or Varna according to the merit of their previous birth. In the ‘Problem of Untouchability’, Bhagat Singh attacked karmic theodicy as the ideological edifice built to counter the resentment emerging from the discriminations of the caste system. He writes: Historically speaking, when our Aryan ancestors nurtured these practices of discrimination towards these strata [untouchables] of society, shunning all human contact with them by labelling them as menials, and assigning all the degrading jobs to them, they also, naturally started worrying about a revolt against this system. [They floated the philosophy of re-birth]. All this is the result of your past sins; what can be done about it? Bear it silently! and with such kinds of sleeping pills, were they able to buy peace for quite some time.
He reiterates this point again in his 1930 pamphlet, Why I am an Atheist, where he says: “…well, you Hindus, you say all the present sufferers belong to the class of sinners of the previous births. Good. You say the present oppressors were saintly people in their previous births, hence they enjoy power. Let me admit that your ancestors were very shrewd people; they tried to find out theories strong enough to hammer down all the efforts of reason and disbelief”.
In the same essay he goes on to criticise the Varna system which fixed the task of every Varna and also earmarked strict punishment for those who violated the rules. Criticising one of the most severe forms of punishment reserved for the untouchables if they even heard the Vedas or other “sacred” scriptures, Bhagat Singh says that these rules and laws related with the Varna system ‘are the inventions of the privileged ones’ to ‘justify their usurped power, riches and superiority’.
According to Bhagat Singh, the lower strata of the Hindu society was deliberately kept away from education by the “the haughty and egotist Brahmins”, who made learning a criminal act for them.
Consequences of the Caste System
According to Bhagat Singh, the institution of caste and the practice of untouchability had two negative impacts upon Indian society. Calling the practice of untouchability ‘a grossly cruel conduct’, he pointed out that it “amounted to the negation of core human values” and therefore adversely affected the “self-esteem and self-reliance” of those who were condemned as untouchables. Here Bhagat acknowledged the psychological as well as mental toll resulting from caste-based discrimination.
The second side-effect of untouchability/caste was its promotion of contempt for labour, especially physical labour. This, according to him, had negatively impacted the historical economic development of Indian society. Underlining this particular consequence, he writes: “…In broader social perspective, untouchability had a pernicious side-effect; people in general got used to hating the jobs which were otherwise vital for life. We treated the weavers who provided us cloth as untouchable. In UP water carriers were also considered untouchables. All this caused tremendous damage to our progress by undermining the dignity of labour, especially manual labour”.
The caste system, according to Bhagat Singh, was a system to extract free and cheap labour from the most under-privileged communities. Celebrating the strike of the sanitation workers of Jamshedpur, Bhagat Singh in his article ‘Satyagraha and Strike’ (1928) writes: “…the ‘scavengers are on strike and entire city is in a mess…we do not allow these brothers who serve us the maximum to come close to us, cast them off calling ‘bhangi! bhangi! and take advantage of their poverty, and make them work for very low wages, and even without wages! They can bring the people, especially in the cities to their knees in just a couple of days. Their awakening is a happy development”.
Commenting upon the historical contribution of untouchables in progression of Indian society, he called them the “real sustainers of life….the real working class.the pillars of the nations and its core strength”.
Critique of Upper-Caste-Led Social Reform Movements
Bhagat Singh was very sceptical about various reform movements that were supposedly fighting to do away with the menace of caste and untouchability. The upper-caste led social reform movements, according to him, resulted not from any genuine concern for the untouchables, but were a reaction to the introduction of communal representation or separate electorates by the proposed Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. The communal award, as it came to be known, threatened the dominant position of upper-caste Hindus vis-à-vis Muslims and Sikhs, as the number of seats in the legislature was to be fixed in accordance with the size of the respective communities.
Since untouchables were being targeted by Muslim, Christian and Sikh missionaries with the promise of equality is social life, the upper-caste Hindus who previously did not consider untouchables as part of the Hindu fold, felt threatened in the numbers game of the electoral arena. This threat, according to Bhagat Singh, had “shaken Hindus from their complacency in the matter” and even “orthodox Brahmins [too have] started giving the matter another thought” along with some self-proclaimed reformers, as they tried to remove the menace of untouchability.
But these reform movements led by upper-caste reformers were not serious and reeked of hypocrisy. To substantiate his argument, Bhagat Singh cited an incident from Patna where social reformers had gathered to discuss the problem of untouchability. When questions emerged about the eligibility of untouchables to wear sacred thread or reading the Vedas/Shastras, a number of social reformers lost their temper and protested against the move.
Criticising Madan Mohan Malviya, who undertook campaigns to remove untouchability, Bhagat Singh further writes: “a reputed social reformer like PanditMalviyaji, known for his soft corner for untouchables, first agrees to be publicly garlanded by a sweeper, but then considers himself to be polluted till he bathes and washes those clothes. How ironical!”
Similarly, in another essay titled ‘Religion and our Freedom Struggle’, published in the May 1928 issue of Kirti, he writes: “…people also say that we must reform these ills [of untouchability]. Very good! Swami Dayananda abolished untouchability but he could not go beyond the four varnas. Discrimination still remained!”
Bhagat Singh was not only against the practice of untouchability, but against the entire caste system as evident from the above quote as he reprimands Swami Dayananda. In the same essay, he says that only way to do away with these problems was to oppose the Santana Dharma, which favours the discrimination of touchable-untouchable.
Advocacy of Separate Electorate
Bhagat Singh approached the question of separate electorates in a very positive light. According to him, the proposed communal reward was a step towards a) strengthening the untouchables as a political group and b) it would help to weaken the caste structure. He writes: “In the context of our advance towards national liberation, the problem of communal representation may not have been beneficial in any other manner, but at least it means that Hindus/Muslims/Sikhs are all striving hard to maximise their own respective quota of seats by attracting the maximum number of untouchables to their own respective folds…all three are trying to outdo each other, resulting in widespread disturbances…this turmoil is certainly helping us to move towards the weakening of the hold of untouchability”
Bhagat Singh was also in complete favour of the untouchables organising on their own a distinct identity. He writes: “ultimately the problem cannot be satisfactorily solved unless and until untouchables communities themselves unite and organise….we regard their recent uniting based on their distinct identity…as a move in the right direction…we plead that they (the untouchables) must persist in pressing for their own distinct representation in legislatures in proportion to their numerical strength…without your own efforts, you shall not be able to move ahead”.
But Bhagat Singh was also of the view that the problem of caste or untouchability could not be solved only within the legislative framework. He asks a very relevant and practical question: “can a legislature, where a lot of hue and cry is raised even over a bill to ban child marriages on the grounds that it shall be a threat to their religion, dare to bring the untouchables on their level as their own?”
In his view, those belonging to the privileged upper class/caste would always try their utmost to “keep on oppressing those below them”. So, he was of the view that bureaucratic/legislative-led “gradualism and reformism shall not be of use” and only way out was to “start a revolution from a social agitation and grind up…for political and economic revolution”.
Fighting Caste and Untouchability in Practice
It is a well-known fact that just before his execution Bhagat Singh “wished for roti cooked by ‘Bebe’ (mother), which was how Bogha, a Dalit prisoner in jail, was addressed”. This was not merely a symbolic act, but formed part of a broader praxis of Bhagat Singh’s politics. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) which was formed by Bhagat Singh and his comrades in 1926, used to organise social dinners to which people of all castes and creeds were invited and where they served each other, thereby attacking the notion of purity and pollution associated with commensality.
Bhagat Singh was also of the view that the so-called upper-caste should collectively apologise to the “untouchables” for the wrongs they had done in the past. He also believed that no ritual ceremony or acts of purification was required to consider the untouchables as equal human beings. In, the ‘Problem of Untouchability’, he writes: “…present is the moment of its atonement…In this regard strategy adopted by Naujwan Bharat Sabha and the Youth conference is, most apt – to seek forgiveness from those brethren, whom we have been calling untouchables by treating them as our fellow beings, without making them go through conversion ceremonies of Sikhism, Islam or Hinduism, by accepting food/water from their hands”.
In his article ‘Religion and our Freedom Struggle’, Bhagat Singh says that the “meaning of our freedom is not only to liberate ourselves from the clutches of the English but also complete independence, when all people live together harmoniously, liberated from mental slavery”. Here the term “mental slavery” is related to the hold of religion as well as the practice of untouchability in society, as he writes that cooperation and unity against the British is possible “by leaving aside our narrow-mindedness…by changing partisan food habits and removing the words touchable-untouchable by their roots”.
Further, in the historic meeting held at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in 1928, where the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) was transformed into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and socialism was adopted as its official ideology and goal, another historic decision was taken in regards to caste and religion. It was decided that the revolutionaries would discard all symbols of religion and caste (emphasis added). Again, this decision to discard religious and caste symbols was not an impromptu decision taken by the Bhagat Singh and his contemporary revolutionaries.
Even before these historic decisions, the revolutionaries of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) like Rajendranath Lahiri, Manmath Nath Gupta, KeshavChakravarty and others (all sentenced under the Kakori Conspiracy case) had thrown away their sacred thread, the “janeyu”. As I wrote in an earlier article with Ankur Goswami: “That the HRA revolutionaries used to break Brahminical socio-religious conventions is also confirmed by Gupta in his autobiography They Lived Dangerously. Gupta writes, “We used to take beef in defiance of the whole society. This does not mean that all our members were of this view.” Even though the ‘old’ members did not support the eating of beef, they did not impose their beliefs among the ‘young’ members who were experimenting with revolutionary ideals in every aspect of life. According to Gupta, the ‘old’ members tried to dissuade the ‘young’ revolutionaries, not by citing ‘religious codes’ but through debates and discussions over the merits of eating non-vegetarian food.”
Bhagat Singh’s criticism of caste and untouchability is not merely a class- or economic-based criticism or criticisms based on an abstract idea of equality. Instead, he attacks the very foundation of caste and untouchability by attacking the philosophical, religious and spiritual rationale of caste system as enshrined in Brahmanical religious scriptures.
Further, Bhagat Singh also understood caste also as an ideological system which functioned to justify and legitimise the prevailing economic inequality. This was an extension of his criticism of religion, which according to him was a tool for manipulation. Clearly, his views of caste and religion, as far as their ideological function is concerned, were clearly inspired from the Marxist framework. He did not limit himself to an economic understanding of caste, but also acknowledged its cultural and psychological impact.
Bhagat Singh understood caste in a comprehensive manner, and his solution too was of comprehensive nature. He did not create the binary of cultural-economic or political-cultural or economic-political while commenting on caste. Caste, at once was a social, cultural, economic and political issue and the only way to deal with it was by taking all these seemingly disparate spheres as a whole.
As in the end of his article on untouchability, Bhagat Singh exhorted the untouchables to “raise the banner of revolt” and “challenge the existing order of society” with the famous quote from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains”, but added an important addendum that, “you are the real working class”. He was of the firm view that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ at its axis could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation.
(The Wire, 23rd March 2021)
At a time when we are highlighting the significance of Naxalbari Uprising and the 52nd anniversary of CPI(ML) formation, exposing and denouncing the CPI and CPI(M) leaderships who had degenerated to the social democratic trend, highlighting shahid Bhagat Singh on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his martyrdom along with Sukhdev and Rajguru, just as an icon of revolution is not sufficient. His writings on each and every aspect of Indian revolution on the basis of his own analysis of Indian society based on the Marxist-Leninist insight he could grasp after started reading the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, without any doubt makes him the greatest Marxist- Leninist in India who really understood what is the soul of Indian people and Indian revolution. His approach to the caste system, a “distinctive inhuman system in India society” takes him to the understanding of this barbarity and to identify it as one of the basic features Indian revolution should address.
In the end of his article on untouchability, Bhagat Singh exhorted the untouchables to “raise the banner of revolt” and “challenge the existing order of society” with the famous quote from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains”! And here he added an important addendum that, “you are the real working class”. He was of the firm view that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ at its axis could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation. Remember he wrote these lines when already the RSS was formed in 1925 with the goal of turning India in to a Hindurashtra with Manusmriti as its Constitution, and when the so-called mainstream Communist Movement in India had refused to recognize the great relevance of caste annihilation to unite the working class and lead the class struggle forward, and failed to come out with a critic of this fascist organization which was effectively used by the British colonialists to foment the two-nation theory and eventually divide the country communally amidst the flood of blood of millions, fulfilling the imperialist conspiratorial plot to keep the sub-continent splintered and backward for their plunder till today.
Bhagat Singh’s writings reveal that while he was ridiculing the untouchability movements launched by the upper caste forces to dilute the caste contradiction, he was applauding the renaissance movement from among the down-trodden masses, in many regions, as coming out through the contributions of Phule-Savitri-Ambedkar, along with Ayyankali, Narayana Guru and Periyar from the South. When the mainstream communist movement was repeatedly failing to recognize the importance of establishing the leadership of the working class and its vanguard, the communist party in the national liberation movement, as Mao could successfully do in China, and as Comintern had pointed out, Bhagat Singh was crystal clear that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ at its axis could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation. He repeatedly exhorted that nothing substantial shall happen by replacing the white sahebs with the black Brahmanical leadership; what is required is an Inquilab, a great revolution which overthrows the vultures of the past and create a socialist India. And, he marched to the gallows with the clarion call: Inquilab Zindabad.
The article given below, prepared by com. Harshwardhan based on his research of Bhagat Singh’s articles gives how scientific he was in understanding the Indian society and the basic principles of Indian revolution. During these dangerous days, when RSS parivar has come to hegemonic positions in India, still when the social democratic CPI(M) is upheld as the mainstream communist party at the clever dictation of the Godi media by most of the so-called ‘left intellectuals’, even after it has become the ‘apologists of neo-fascism’ as we witness in W. Bengal now, working hard to pave the way for a RSS/BJP victory in the present elections there as it did in Tripura during last elections there, it is high time that we uphold Bhagat Singh as the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our country. Let us learn from him and develop our path of revolution by understanding and changing the present barbaric situation by learning from him. n