The Spurious Debate on Bhagat Singh and Terrorism

A group of historians, academics and artists has issued a statement on why the controversy over references in a history book to Bhagat Singh and other freedom fighters as ‘revolutionary terrorists’ is nothing to get upset about.

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In the wake of the attack on Bipan Chandra and other authors of India’s Struggle for Independence by politicians and commentators on TV and its subsequent withdrawal from Delhi University, a group of historians, academics and artists has issued a statement on why the controversy over references in the book to Bhagat Singh and other freedom fighters as ‘revolutionary terrorists’ is nothing to get upset about.

The statement has been issued by SAHMAT and is reproduced below.

In recent days it seems to have become a habit of some latter-day “nationalists” to raise divisive or non-substantial issues to parade their patriotism.

The most recent example of this is the attack on a major history of our national movement authored by the distinguished historian Professor Bipan Chandra and his colleagues, titled India’s Struggle for Independence, published 28 years ago in 1988.

The objection is that Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his comrades have been described there as “revolutionary terrorists”. The critics, however, forget that this was really a term the martyrs had practically used for themselves.

The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, to which Bhagat Singh and his colleagues belonged, said in its Manifesto (1929):

“We have been taken to task for our terrorist policy. No doubt, the revolutionaries think and rightly that it is only by resorting to terrorism that they can find a most effective means of retaliation… Terrorism has its international aspect also. England’s enemies, which are many, are drawn towards us by effective demonstration of our strength. That in itself is a great advantage”.

To Gandhiji’s critical article ‘Cult of the Bomb’, the Association answered through a statement titled “Philosophy of the Bomb”.

Here it was asserted that it was owing to British repression that “terrorism [has] been born in this country. It is a phase, a necessary and inevitable phase of the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution, and the revolution is not complete without terrorism”.

It is true that in his later phase Bhagat Singh stated: “Apparently, I have acted like a terrorist; But I am not a terrorist”. Clearly, two definitions of the word ‘terror’ were already at work, and Bhagat Singh was being influenced by his reading of Lenin’s teachings against individual terror. But the main point is that the entire movement to which Shaheed Bhagat Singh belonged, terror had till then seemed a revolutionary path that they were wholly committed to.

Their conception of “terror” as a method of revolutionary action actually derived from a tradition that went back to the Russian revolutionaries’ struggle against Tsarist tyranny. Now, however, in the last two or three decades, terror has come to mean almost all over the world the killing of innocent men, women and children. And it has thus assumed a heavily pejorative sense, not necessarily borne by it in the 1920s and 1930s.

Clearly, today many of us would not like to call our national heroes – Bhagat Singh or Surya Sen or Chandrasekhar Azad – “terrorists”. But if we claim to be nationalists, we should at least know more about our national movement and not forget that there was a time when this tag was borne with pride by people who actually died for the cause of this country. And so let us not go about demanding changes in books, or banning them altogether and so display our own ignorance to the world.

The withdrawal of the translation of the book by the Delhi University and the hounding of the authors on TV shows and at law courts that has now begun is particularly odious and only too characteristic of such campaigns by the RSS and its various fronts.

Irfan Habib
Amar Farooqui
Arjun Dev
Biswamoy Pati

D N Jha
Iqtidar Alam Khan
K M Shrimali
Lata Singh
Prabhat Shukla

R C Thakran
Shireen Moosvi
Suvira Jaiswal
Vishwamohan Jha
Romila Thapar

R P Bahuguna
K L Tuteja
Rajesh Singh
Kesavan Veluthat

A K Sinha
Santosh Rai
Shalin Jain
H C Satyarthi
V Ramakrishna

Ramakrishna Chatterjee
Arun Bandopadhyaya
S Z Jafri
Vivan Sundaram
Prabhat Patnaik

Mushirul Hasan
Mihir bhattacharya
Sashi Kumar
Ram Rahman
Sukumar Murlidharan

Anil Bhatti
Anuradha Kapur
Archana Prasad
Badri Raina
C P Chandrasekhar

Geeta Kapur
Indira Chandrasekhar
Jayati Ghosh
M K Raina
Madangopal Singh

Madhu Prasad
Malini Bhattacharya
Moloyshree Hashmi
N K Sharma
Nilima Sheikh

Nina Rao
Parthiv Shah
Praveen Jha
Rahul Verma
S Kalidas

Saeed MIrza
Saif Mahmood
Shakti Kak
Sohail Hashmi

Ari Sitas
Thierry Costanzo
Veer Munshi
Vikas Rawal
Indira Arjun Dev

S Irfan Habib
Shireen Gandhy
Rajat Datta
Mukul Kesavan
Zoya Hasan

Tadd Fernee
Shantha Sinha
C P Bhambri
Rahul Mukherji
Krishna Ananth

Chandi Prasad Nanda
Shri Krishna
Pritish Acharya
Neerja Singh
Najaf Haidar

Bhupendra Yadav
Richa Malhotra
Richa Raj
Deepa Sinha
Amit Mishra

Rizwan Qaiser
Bodh Prakash
Rakesh Batabyal

Saurabh Bajpai
Ranjana Das
J V Naik
Ajay Patnaik

Subodh Malakar
Girish Mishra
P. Bilimale
Sujoy Ghosh
G. Arunima
Ayesha Kidwai

  • Aman Prakash Singh

    Saffron parties need agendas time and again to survive politically and be in limelight, this issue is certainly one among them; they sell it, we buy it and it goes on and on.