Manufactured Anger on Bhagat Singh ‘Revolutionary Terrorist’ Tag is Cover for Sangh’s No Show in Freedom Struggle

If the word terror carries with it a negative connotation today, it is thoughtless to assume that it has always been so, or that it has always carried the same meaning as in present times.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On April 27, BJP member of parliament Anurag Thakur voiced his concern in the Lok Sabha at the fact that Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Surya Sen and others, who laid down their lives for India’s freedom, were termed as “revolutionary terrorists” in a book that was part of the history syllabus of Delhi University. In response, quite like the recent spate of decisions by “autonomous” universities, DU decided to stop the sale and distribution of the Hindi translation of the book – Bipan Chandra et al’s India’s Struggle for Independence, first published in 1987.

The ostensible object of the government’s ire is the use of the pejorative word ‘terrorist’ to describe nationalist heroes like Singh, Azad and many others. The charge is, how can the term ‘terrorist,’ which has acquired a virulent anti-national baggage, be used to describe the bravest and most heroic of our nationalist leaders? Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani said that those who lost their lives during the freedom struggle would not be allowed to be demeaned under intellectual cover. Chandra’s book, she alleged, commits “academic murder” of these martyrs.

Politics is an activity that is partially constituted via concepts, terms, keywords and the meanings they carry. These meanings are historically mutable. The meaning of a term or a keyword is not something that is fixed in time – it evolves and mutates with changing socio-political contexts. In the case at hand, a quick look at the principal texts of two “revolutionary terrorist” organisations – the Hindustan Republican Army (HRA, of which Ram Prasad Bismil and Sachindranath Sanyal were key members) and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA, of which Singh and Bhagwati Charan Vohra were founding members) – would be helpful in understanding the meanings that the term ‘terrorist’ carried at a different historical time.

The HSRA’s The Philosophy of the Bomb written by Vohra (in response to Gandhi’s critical inquiry into The Cult of the Bomb, not only lyrically outlines the goal of socialist revolution in India, but also qualifies and demarcates the use of violence and terror. Vohra states:

“Terrorism… is a phase, a necessary, an inevitable phase of the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution and the revolution is not complete without terrorism. This thesis can be supported by an analysis of any and every revolution in history. Terrorism instills fear in the hearts of the oppressors, it brings hopes of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses, it gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering, it shatters the spell of the superiority of the ruling class and raises the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world, because it is the most convincing proof of a nation’s hunger for freedom. Here in India, as in other countries in the past, terrorism will develop into the revolution and the revolution into independence, social political and economic.”

The HRA manifesto, The Revolutionary, too espouses the use of terror. “The revolutionaries,” it states, “think, and rightly, that it is only by resorting to terrorism alone that that they can find a most effective means of retaliation. The British government exists, because the Britishers have been successful in terrorising the whole of India. How are we to meet this official terrorism? Only counter-terrorism on the part of revolutionaries can checkmate effectively this bureaucratic bullying.”

Although the term ‘terror’ was qualified by the two documents (especially by the HRA manifesto that goes to some length in qualifying and demarcating the meanings that are to be ascribed with the terms terror, terrorist and terrorism) what remains uncontested is that the epithet ‘terror,’ together with its noun and adjective adjuncts, form a part of the revolutionaries’ self-description.

The manifestos qualify the sense in which the term can be used to describe them but they proudly pronounce the use of it. It is worth noting that the HSRA manifesto was titled The Philosophy of the Bomb. There is both a strategic and a philosophical identification with the use of terror. Its ability to induce fear in the enemy and thereby enhance the stature of the terror user is identified clearly. To disclaim this association, through a post facto reading of the term is ahistorical and silly.

Words reflect our social or intellectual attitude and there is, undoubtedly, a political nature to the word-concept relationship. However, this relationship is not a stagnant one. If the word terror carries with it a negative connotation today, it is thoughtless to assume that it has always been so, or that it has always carried the same meaning as in present times.

Disputes over linguistic usage, as Quentin Skinner argues, often mirror wider socio-historical disputes. At the heart of this dispute – and most of the  ‘history wars’ the Sangh parivar engages in from time to time – is a festering irritant for the ruling dispensation: the fact that right-wingers played little or no role in the freedom movement, and consequently in the history of the Indian nation-state. The quest then becomes one of re-presenting history, appropriating nationalist leaders, re-signifying terms and events so that new meanings, in ideological consonance with contemporary nationalist identities, can be forged into a new national consciousness that they hope to define. The fuss about ‘terrorist’ is after all not just about a signifying word. It is a larger project that seeks to educate us anew, that seeks to liberate us from the yoke of Nehruvian obeisance. While there is a pathological need for the current practitioners of nationalist politics to lay down a conceptual and historical terrain, attempts to superimpose trivial meanings over historical ones is like a Photoshop job, done badly yet again.

Rajshree Chandra teaches political science at Delhi University.