How many of our 23-year-olds even know the struggles of 23-year-old Bhagat Singh?

Published: March 26, 2016
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Statues of Shivaram Rajguru, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev Thapar

As the nationalistic fervour of Pakistan Day following March 23rd dies down, one cannot help but notice that there is a criminal lack of commentary on an event that took place exactly nine years prior to what would come to be known as Pakistan Day – the execution of Indian revolutionist Bhagat Singh in Lahore on March 23, 1931.

One of the first Marxist thinkers from South Asia, Bhagat was sent to the gallows after being found guilty for the murder of John P Saunders, Assistant Superintendent of Police. Bhagat and his fellow Hindustan Socialist Republican Association members including Shivaram RajguruSukhdev Thapar, and Chandrashekhar Azad, originally planned to assassinate Superintendent of Police, James A Scott to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai (Lala was one the leaders of the Indian Independence Movement), but a case of mistaken identity resulted in the death of Saunders instead.

Photo: File

There are those who argue that Bhagat Singh had a natural penchant for violence and using that to justify labelling him a chest beating Hindi Nationalist; which could not be further from the truth. He did take part in violent activities but painting his entire struggle under one umbrella is unfair.

Singh had a very different approach to protest when compared to the likes of Gandhi and Jinnah. Having studied European revolutionary movements as a teenager, he was attracted to the Marxist ideologies. There are claims of him reading a book by Russian revolutionist Vladimir Lenin, minutes before his execution. He was an avowed socialist, who not only dreamed of freedom from the British Raj but also of an egalitarian and secular India, where all religions, ethnicities and sects could co-exist. A committed atheist, he was a staunch critic of communal politics and capitalism.

In December 1929, he wrote,

“Revolution did not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. It was not a cult of bomb and pistol. They may sometimes be mere means for its achievement. No doubt they play a prominent part in some movements, but they do not – for that very reason – become one and the same thing. A rebellion is not a revolution. It may ultimately lead to that end.”

But why is such an important part of the subcontinent’s struggle for independence, largely forgotten in the history books taught in Pakistan?

It has been proven time and time again that the history text books taught in Pakistani schools have been repeatedly modified to portray versions of historical events that do not reveal the truth on multiple occasions. They are shamefully silent on the subject of Bhagat Singh, and in the rare cases he is mentioned, he has been portrayed as a heroic Indian Sikh, thereby disregarding the fact that despite being born to a Sikh family, Bhagat Singh was not a practicing Sikh.

After reading Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, he embraced atheism abandoning the Sikh religious belief, famously saying:

“One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he told me when my last days come, I will begin to believe. I said no, dear sir. Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.”

While recent developments, such as the push to revisit his original trial in 1930 in front of a larger bench, and also the renaming Shadman Chowk in Lahore to Bhagat Singh Chowk, are commendable initiatives, but they only attempt to pick at the problem right at the top, leaving the root cause untouched. History is manipulated in virtually all corners of the world to put forward state-sponsored agendas, but things in Pakistan usually reach incredible levels. If it’s not portraying Nehru as a schemer, iconic figures such as Bhagat Singh are conveniently ignored.

Photo: File

Bhagat Singh’s contribution to the independence struggle did not last as long as Jinnah’s, but the ideas that he cherished have stood the test of time. To quote Balraj, commander in chief of HSRA,

“It is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill the ideas. Great empires crumbled, while the ideas survived.”

Photo: The Tribune

He is a symbol of resistance for not just the struggles that took place in the sub-continent, but also in communities around the world that constantly fight against oppression. A country like Pakistan, which is fighting an existential battle, needs such heroes; adding a chapter to the history syllabus text books would just be the first step towards enlightening our youth with the truth, along with giving this great martyr the respect he clearly deserves.

salman Zafar

Salman Zafar

The writer works in the Education Sector and tweets as @salmanzafar1985 (twitter.com/salmanzafar1985)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Blankspc

    Aurangzeb Mirkasim are your ideals ancestor why bother of about three son of soil.Recommend

  • Sami

    Well people still remember Bhagat Singh as a hero especially in the villages of Punjab Pakistan. Still among the population of Punjab Dulla Bhatti, Ranjit Singh, Bhagat Singh, Udham Muhammad Sindh and Sher e Punjab ( Lala Rajpat Rai) are considered the real heroes. .
    No matter how much our establishment will try to fake the history these names will be remembered by the locals as the real heroes. The Punjab government is trying hard to remove each and every bit of these heroes. But the ordinary people do remember them until now.Recommend

  • Sane

    Do you know General Bakht Khan? Who was a real hero of 1857 struggle against British Raaj. Before you try to be history buff, first get you updated. Baghat Singh is an exaggerated characters and was named and highlighted just before a decade or a couple. Before that this was absolutely an unknown character.Recommend

  • Aadil Qureshi

    Why should we care about “Bhagat Singh” when we have our great Islamic leaders who made this country Pakistan possible and free from Hindu tyrants.Recommend

  • Joe Aranjo

    While it is commendable that you have written an article praising Bhagat Singh, it is rather shameful that you would look beyond your personal biases by trying to term Mr Jinnah as a freedom fighter. Mr Jinnah had zero contribution to the freedom struggle. He and his chum in the muslim league did not spend a single day , nay not a single hour in prison in the cause of the freedom movement. All that he did was engage with the british for better status for Indians over cups of teas and shared cigars. It was only after innumerable sacrifices of people like Bhagat singh, Gandhi, badshah khan, Nehru, lajpat rai and abul kalam all of whom suffered long years in prison that freedom was won and that is when Mr Jinnah demanded his pound of flesh called pakistanRecommend

  • Naseer Akhter

    Bhagat Singh remains an inspiring figure but the question remains: could his methodology of individual assassination lead to the fruition of freedom movement? There have been many similar romantic revolutionary movements in many parts of the world, the Russian Decemberists of early 19th century being the most well known. All these men and women were brave persons who did not hesitate before the supreme sacrifice for the cause. They have our admiration. Yet, the question of effectiveness of terror as a political weapon remains to be faced and answered.Recommend

  • Faulitics

    Bhagat Singh is not muslim. enuf said!Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    A modern Indian. Inspiration to the youth.Recommend

  • Arbit

    Thanks for the write up. Bhagat singh was a born bred and died Lahori. Beyond mature for his years. A revolutionary in the true sense of the word. His words can act as a balm and uniting force even today.Recommend

  • Sane

    You gave a long list of heroes including Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh could be your hero, but not for the people of Punjab and Muslims of Pakistan. You badly need to study historyRecommend

  • Sanity

    Forget it. He was not muslim. Pakistan must not portray non muslims as an icon. That would create problem with the kind of distinguished culture and history that Pakistani muslims wanted. You guys are rulers and we were/are slaves of Pakistani Mughal descendants and so was our Bhagat Singh.Recommend

  • Sanity

    My point exactly the same. You got your Islamic leaders who can’t think beyond their religious goggles as it is prohibited by Islam. Thus no need to portray Hindu slaves as muslim’s hero. You already got Jinnah, Zia ul Haq, Bhutto, Musharraf and ofcourse the only and the best Taliban, Al qaida, Lashkar, ISIS.

    People who have made Islamic state on land of Hindu civilisation wiping out the real natives of land speak of obtaining freedom from India as if it’s the Hindus who invaded their Musalman mulk and not the other way round. If they had any shame, they would run back to the desert that they came from but why would they when we are ourselves idiot enough to provide them land by tearing our own land.Recommend

  • Bana Post

    Mullah product grow upRecommend

  • Jatt Sher

    Gandhi, Nehru etc adopted tactics against the British that were ineffective and mainly ended in riots with people beingg killed. In the end the British left due to having low funds and political pressure to end colonialism after WWII. And Pakistan has every right to exist as it is culturally, historically, linguistically and ethnically distinct from Mainland and Peninsular India.Recommend

  • Sane

    When you can not answer you start abusing.Recommend

  • Bana Post

    first dont see history trough religious prism what to answer your question thats why i insist pakistanis are ignorant of writing unbiased history Religion and fanaticism what else u got u postings says you are not worthful of historical discussionRecommend

  • Suhas Sengupta

    The British could exert control over India with the help of the Royal Indian Army. If the Indians in the army could be persuaded to shift their loyalties, the British would have found it difficult to maintain order. Mutinies that erupted in the Navy and Army following the execution of INA members was a significant factor for the British to leave India.

    It is entirely possible revolutionaries could have brought about this change.Recommend

  • Suhas Sengupta

    Becauase Bhagat Singh fought for independence for all – not just one community.Recommend

  • Suhas Sengupta

    This is not a beauty contest to judge who is more popular. Bhagat Singh should be judged on the merit of his devotion to achieve independence for India. If you think he is not worthy of being honoured simply because he is not a muslim, please make that clear.Recommend

  • Suhas Sengupta

    I have often wanted to review Pakistan’s history books. Are they available online for free?Recommend