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The Image That Became Part of Bhagat Singh’s Enduring Appeal

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Bhagat Singh’s celebrity, over and above all other revolutionaries who gave their lives to the cause, has been a source of wonderment for some time. In the days after his execution, Jawaharlal Nehru wondered aloud how it was that “a mere chit of a boy suddenly leapt to fame.” How did Bhagat Singh achieve such extraordinary and enduring popularity? He did not attend the gallows alone; his friends Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged alongside him. Yet even in the months before his hanging, the condemned trio were frequently referred to in the press as “Bhagat Singh and others” or “Bhagat Singh and his comrades,” to the point that the two words “Bhagat Singh” were frequently used as shorthand for the revolutionary movement writ large.

How can we explain his prominence over that of his fellow martyrs, or over important members of the HSRA, such as Chandrashekhar Azad?

Bhagat Singh’s hat portrait, and the extraordinary campaign around it, holds some of the answers to these enduring questions.

The photograph is a fairly conventional studio portrait (reproduction above). The young revolutionary – he was just twenty-one when he posed for the photograph – stares calmly into the camera, as if to defy the empire and the weighty charges that are about to be brought against him, namely, that he had been engaged in conspiracy to wage war against his Majesty, the King Emperor, and to deprive him of the Sovereignty of British India, and to overawe by criminal force or show criminal force to, the government established by law in British India and to collect arms and ammunition and men for, or otherwise make preparation for the said object and purpose.

Bhagat Singh knew these charges would inevitably lead to a death sentence, yet he stands cool and poised, a felt hat tipped on his head. The photograph has become an icon of defiant nationalism, which continues to be widely referenced in poster art and calendars. It is a regular feature of the contemporary urban landscape in India, readily encountered on cars and hoardings, and in bazaars, on posters and books.

The ubiquity of the image in contemporary Indian popular culture is such that it is frequently compared to Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara.

Che Guevara by Alberto Korda. Credit: Wikipedia

Che Guevara by Alberto Korda. Credit: Wikipedia

Both Bhagat Singh and Che were undeniably photogenic, effectively capturing the romance, idealism and sacrifices demanded of the revolutionary, factors which no doubt make their portraits captivating.

Both photographs, too, have been so widely appropriated that they have become disconnected from their historical context. In Bhagat Singh’s case, this is partly because there is considerable uncertainty about the nature of his portrait’s production.

However, I demonstrate that the photograph was taken with the ethos that it should be as widely distributed as possible and that this was such a success that the origins of the image have been obscured.

Some have assumed that Bhagat Singh’s famous photograph was taken to be fixed to a security pass, enabling him to infiltrate and undermine British institutions; others have speculated that the police took the photograph immediately after his arrest in 1929.

Neither of these is correct. This chapter traces the genealogy of the photograph and in doing so, situates it within the nationalist politics of interwar India, with particular reference to the late 1920s and early 1930s. During this time the image was, simultaneously, memento, propaganda, evidence and placard.

The story of the portrait’s journey contributes to existing theories of social communication vis-à-vis the spread of nationalism in the early twentieth century, providing one answer to the question of how “political leaders in a poor country with a relatively low rate of general literacy should have been able to create a widely diffused and popular nationalist movement so early.”

Sandria Freitag has connected Chris Bayly’s conceptualisation of an information order to popular South Asian visual culture as an effective conduit of political ideas, a visual vocabulary acting as an instantaneous vector of anticolonial content.

This is evident in the story of the portrait’s journey from a studio photograph to a widely reproduced icon, demonstrating how the image travelled and morphed, defying attempts to arrest it and sparking animated debates about empire and resistance.

The image: a prelude to a martyrdom

Bhagat Singh’s photo-portrait may appeal to different viewers for any number of reasons. These might include his youthful handsomeness, his engaging, clear and steady stare, and his rather fashionable hat, set at an angle, just so.

But thinking of the photograph in Barthesian terms, “that element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces me” is the knowledge that the dashing becomes all the more compelling with the realisation that Bhagat Singh explicitly had it taken as a political tactic, before provoking the government of British India to seal his fate – to hang him by the neck until dead. The portrait, therefore, can be seen as both a prelude to and a vital ingredient in the widespread acceptance of him as a shaheed (martyr). This story is largely unknown and is one worth telling, not least because it amplifies the power of the image.

Besides Bhagat Singh’s direct eye contact, perhaps the most arresting feature of the portrait is his stylish but obviously western hat. Bhagat Singh had, in order to wear the said hat, renounced his kesh (the uncut hair of a Sikh) and turban when disguising himself became vital to evading capture, in September 1928. After the widespread distribution of the photograph, Bhagat Singh’s hat would become his defining attribute. Only relatively recently have images of Bhagat Singh wearing a turban become popular.

It is important to note, however, that his Sikh heritage was explicitly acknowledged in the 1930s. He was known as “Sardarji” among friends and was memorialised as a Sardar in eulogies, although this was not so much a communal designation in pre-partition India, as much as it was a polite, and often affectionate, form of address for a Sikh gentleman.

Scholarly debates on Bhagat Singh’s fame

In his work on the contemporary visual culture of Bhagat Singh, Christopher Pinney draws attention to and elaborates on observations made by Simeran Gell, suggesting that the power of Bhagat Singh’s portrait lies in its embodiment of that discomforting form of mimicry first described by Homi Bhabha.

Credit: Penguin Books

Credit: Penguin Books

By posing as a sahib in modern, fashionable dress, Bhagat Singh closed the racial gulf between “Indian” and “European” which was the basis of the colonial rationale. Pinney describes how the hat photograph recalls an incident in Bhagat Singh’s life, popularised across a range of popular cultural formats such as comics and film, in which he disguised himself as an Anglo-Indian to escape Lahore in 1928, after taking part in Saunders’ assassination. Therefore the photograph, alongside Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary politics, signals a threat to the imperial order, and stands as an icon of what British intelligence rhetorically referred to as the “violence movement.”

However, historian Neeti Nair negates the idea that Bhagat Singh was popular because he was violent, or that, as Pinney would have it, he represented “a structural negation of Gandhi’s corporeal practices.”

Rather, for Nair, Bhagat Singh’s popularity stemmed from his hunger-strike in jail, well-documented in newspapers at the time, for a popular cause: the rights of political prisoners. Nair challenges the prevalent idea of the violent Bhagat Singh by drawing attention to ample evidence which points to a clear hesitation on his part to inflict violence to achieve his aims – to remove British rule, and create the conditions for a more equitable society.

Somewhat provocatively, Nair mounts an argument for closing the longstanding ideological ground between Bhagat Singh and Gandhi, suggesting that “with regard to the strategic use of non-violence and the relationship between means and ends, Bhagat Singh was ideologically closer to the Mahatma than the latter cared to acknowledge.”

Thus, according to Nair, Bhagat Singh may be read as a satyagrahi, and herein lies his fame. “The immediate images that flashed across the minds of Punjabis when they thought of Bhagat Singh,” she concludes, “were not of the trilby hat but of the painful ordeal that the young men had undergone for the sake of political prisoners.” Nair draws attention to the often-forgotten support in the Congress (with the important exception of Gandhi) for the hunger strikers.

However, if the hunger strike was critical in popularising the revolutionaries, then why is it that the Bengali HSRA member Jatindranath Das, who died a slow and horrible death as a result of his hunger strike, does not eclipse Bhagat Singh, who survived several gruelling fasts, before he was delivered to the gallows?

An excerpt from A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, published by Penguin Random House.