'I Want to Die in Such a Place and Manner That Nobody Knows of It and Sheds Tears'

On the 90th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagwati Charan Vohra, it is important to remember that the freedom struggle's young revolutionaries were radical not just in action but in their politics and ideology too.

In popular public perception, the story of the Indian revolutionary movement – largely associated with a few names – is a story of spectacular actions: robberies, assassinations and bombings. A saga of bravery and self-sacrifice; a tale of heroism and romanticism. This dominant framework of Indian revolutionary movement – which largely flows from and gets strengthened through movies, chapters in school textbooks and popular story books – works to detach the ideological-theoretical  component of Indian revolutionaries from their ‘actions’. In this way, the Indian revolutionaries are robbed of their revolutionary ideology and goals, and converted into harmless icons, with ritualised worship on their birth and death anniversaries. They are considered radical not because of their political programme, but because of their actions.

It is essential that we intervene in this popular perception by exploring and understanding the ideological and polemical side of the Indian revolutionary movement. I will attempt to do so here by focussing on a relatively unknown but important figure from the mosaic of the Indian revolutionary movement – Bhagwati Charan Vohra.

A brief life sketch

Vohra was born on November 15, 1902 in a very affluent family of Lahore in undivided Punjab known for its loyalty to the British Raj. He was married at a very young age to Durga Devi, who also went on to become a daring anti-colonial revolutionary like him, popularly known as Durga Bhabhi.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre which led to the death of hundreds of innocent Indians at the hands of British troops greatly agitated Vohra and he jumped into the anti-colonial struggle. He took admission in the National College and completed his B.A. from this nationalist institution.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 also greatly influenced Vohra and other educated Indian youth like him. They saw communism as a solution to India’s poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, agrarian crisis and exploitative social conditions. Vohra established contacts with the nascent Communist Party of India and started smuggling M.N. Roy’s periodical, Vanguard, and other Marxist literature into India. But soon he got disillusioned with the lack of initiative shown by the fledgling communists and instead got attracted to the underground armed resistance led by the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA).

Vohra was a gifted orator, effective writer and a voracious reader. Along with Bhagat Singh and others, he established a very successful youth organization in Punjab known as the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and became its propaganda secretary. In 1928, HRA transformed itself into the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and got engaged in popular violent attacks on the British to attract youth to its fold. Vohra and Yashpal bombed the special train carrying the viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, in 1929. However on May 28, 1930, when he was testing a bomb on the banks of river Ravi in Lahore, the bomb accidentally exploded on his hand and he died on the spot. He was just 28.

The life of Bhagwati Charan Vohra is deeply entrenched with the history of two organisations which he co-founded with other revolutionaries, namely the open mass organization Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) (1926) and the underground organization, Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) (1928). Vohra was the propaganda secretary of the Sabha and became president of the latter.

Shiv Verma, a compatriot of Vohra, notes in his memoirs, “Bhagwati Charan was one of the tallest intellectuals and propagandist of HSRA”. Verma also mentions that Vohra authored a number of small booklets, tracts and pamphlets addressed to Indian youth. One of his booklets titled ‘Message of India’ was quite popular among the youth of Punjab. Through his write-ups, Bhagwati played an important role in infusing an ideological component in the Indian revolutionary movement.

Unfortunately, as Verma notes in his memoirs, none of the major works of Bhagwati Charan were able to survive the ravages of time.  What we are left with are three documents, all co-authored by Vohra. He co-authored the manifesto of the NBS and the HSRA and wrote another polemical essay titled ‘Philosophy of Bomb’ with Chandra Shekhar Azad and Yashpal.

These documents, though co-authored, are capable of presenting an intellectual portrait of Bhagwati Charan Vohra.

Critique of colonialism and the Indian bourgeoisie

Self- trained in Marxist thought (like other young revolutionaries of his time), Vohra presented a scathing critique of British imperialism and its dynamics. Borrowing from the works of early economic critique of colonialism by Dadabhai Naroji, Romesh Chandra Dutt and William Digby, Vohra criticised the detrimental impact colonialism had upon the development of indigenous commerce and industry in India. He specifically cited the case of Ghadarite leader Baba Gurdit Singh and his attempts to establish a steamship company, which was crushed in its infancy by the British authorities.

Further, Vohra articulated the development of the comprador nature of Indian bourgeoisie under the conditions of imperialism.

In the manifesto of the NBS published in 1928, Vohra writes “along with the advent of the 20th century the British bureaucracy has adopted quite a new policy towards India. They are drawing our bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie into their fold by adopting the policy of concessions. Their cause is being made common. The progressive investment of British capital in India will inevitably lead to that end. In the very near future, we will find that class and their great leaders having thrown their lot with the foreign rulers”.

This co-option of a certain section of the Indian bourgeoisie in the British colonial machinery is further emphasized in the manifesto of the HSRA published in 1929, where Vohra talks about the extremely critical position of the Indian people (described as constituting of workers and peasants) under the yoke of Imperialism. The precarious position of Indian proletariat according to Vohra arose from the fact that “Indian capital was preparing to betray the [Indian] masses into the hands of foreign capitalism” and as a price of this betrayal received “a little share in the government of the country”.  This collaboration was evident, according to Vohra   in “the leaning of certain politicians in favour of dominion status”.

Critique of communalism

The first half of the third decade of 20th century in India was replete with communal violence. More than a dozen major riots took place across length and breadth of Indian subcontinent, as a result of growing communal consciousness. The band of young revolutionaries recognised the threat possessed by communalism to the twin goals of overthrowing imperialism and ushering socialist revolution. Perhaps for the first time in the nascent history of anti-colonial struggle in India, an organisation (NBS) made rules against practicing communal politics.

Out of the six rules drafted by Vohra and Bhagat Singh for joining the NBS two were exclusively directed against communalism. The two rules were a) “to have nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas” and b) “to create the spirit of general toleration among the public considering religion as a matter of personal belief of man and to act upon the same fully.” Aspiring members were made to sign a pledge that they would place interests of their country above those of their community.

In the manifesto of the NBS, Vohra criticised communalism from two vantage points. Firstly, Vohra criticised the negative role played by religion in presenting a united front against British colonialism; communal division helped the foreign enemy. Vohra castigated the youth of the nation for uncritically falling into the communal trap. In what seems to resonate with our contemporary situation, Vohra describes the general dynamics of communalism in the manifesto as follows,

“…a branch of peepal tree is cut and religious feelings of the Hindus are injured. A corner of a paper idol, tazia, of the idol-breaker Mohammedans is broken, and ‘Allah’ gets enraged, who cannot be satisfied with anything less than the blood of the infidel Hindus. Man ought to be attached more importance that the animals and, yet, here in India, they break each other’s heads in the name of ‘sacred animals’.

Vohra criticises both communities and community leaders from respective religious communities for inflaming communal passion and accused them of “creating a false issue and screening the real one”. Vohra emphasised that the differences of the revolutionary movement with the Hindu Mahasabha and their leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malviya was a difference of principle, as he accused them both of practicing communal politics.

Secondly, Vohra extended the critique of communalism to denounce religion in general from the point of view of hindering social progress and development of critical thinking.  He writes “religious superstitions and bigotry are a great hindrance in our progress. They have proved an obstacle in our way and we must do away with them.” For Vohra religion was anti-rational as he writes, “reason has little in common with faith” and therefore he writes “the thing that cannot bear free thought must perish”.

Philosophy of Bomb: Revolution, violence and youth

Undoubtedly, Mahatma Gandhi was the dominant figure – both ideologically and politically – in the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence as both principle and method for achieving India’s freedom often brought him in conflict with the revolutionaries who stood “for revolution in India in order to liberate her from foreign domination by means of organised armed rebellion”.

The debate between Gandhi and the revolutionaries took place mainly over the questions of ‘revolution’ and ‘violence’. Revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev debated with the Mahatma on several occasions. However, the most powerful critique of both Gandhi’s philosophy and politics was produced by Bhagwati Charan Vohra and others in a short tract titled ‘The Philosophy of Bomb’, which was a reply to Gandhi’s critique of Indian revolutionaries titled ‘The Cult of Bomb’ which appeared in the journal Young India, after the failed attempt on the life of Viceroy Lord Irwin.

In this four page riposte, Vohra and his co-authors basically take Gandhi to task over the question of violence and overall politics of the Indian National Congress. Apart from almost a theological-idealistic exposition of what revolution means, Vohra presents two very important insights his essay.

First, he questions the supposedly “mass” character of leadership of Gandhi and questions the legitimacy of his ‘experiences’ upon which Gandhi emphasised that Indian people believed in non-violence.  Vohra approaches this question through the concept of class and says that though Gandhi did interact with the masses, his interaction was limited to the rich and affluent classes,

“[Gandhi] thinks that on the basis of his experience…he is right in believing that the large masses of Indian humanity are yet untouched by the spirit of violence and that non-violence has come to stay as a political weapon…though it is true that the average leader confines his tours to places where only the mail train can conveniently land him while Gandhi has extended his tour limit to where a motorcar can take him, the practice of staying only with the richest people…of spending most of his time on being complimented by his devotees in private and public, and of granting Darshan now and then to the illiterate masses whom he claims to understand so well, disqualifies him from claiming to know the mind of the masses. No man can claim to know a people’s mind by seeing them from the public platform and giving them Darshan and Updesh.”

Vohra accused Gandhi of elitism and asked “has Gandhi, during recent years, mixed in the social life of the masses? Has he sat with the peasant round the evening fire and tried to know what he thinks? Has he passed a single evening in the company of a factory labourer and shared with him his vows?” According to Vohra, Gandhi failed to do so and therefore his ‘experiences’ were nothing but an imposition of his own personal beliefs upon the masses.

On the contrary, Vohra claimed that the revolutionaries had interacted with peasants and workers much more organically and therefore they were the true representative of the masses. He writes,

“We assure Gandhi that the average Indian, like the average human being, understands little of the fine theological niceties about Ahimsa and loving one’s enemy. The way of the world is like this. You have a friend: you love him, sometimes so much that you even die for him. You have an enemy: you shun him, you fight against him and, if possible, kill him…we affirm that the masses of India are solidly with us because we know it from personal experience”.

Second, Vohra gave a rudimentary theory of psychology of revolution, through which he tried to underline the point that violence played an emancipatory role for subjugated people. This emancipatory role of violence found its profound theorisation and popularisation in the works of Algerian Marxist-psychoanalyst Franz Fanon some decades later.

Vohra talks about the role of violence and what it means. Instead of an objectivist understanding of violence, Vohra presents a subjectivist and more nuanced understanding of this morally loaded concept.

He writes, “violence is physical force applied for committing injustice”, and it was the British government which was committing injustice whose misrule had reduced Indians to paupers and dishonoured them. Vohra defended the violence of Indian revolutionaries as counter-terrorism, to the official terrorism committed by the British administration which existed because it had been successful in terrorising the whole of India. Vohra writes, “only counter-terrorism on the part of revolutionaries can checkmate effectively this bureaucratic bullying”.

But more importantly, Vohra highlights the emancipatory role which violence has on psychology of subjugated people.

Apart from a concrete socio-economic-political analysis of revolution, by which Vohra meant a) the overthrow of British imperialism along with b) Indian exploitation and overall c) end of capitalism and class distinctions and privileges, Vohra also presented the psychological aspect of revolution.

The psychology of revolution, according to Vohra manifests itself in the “restlessness of the youth, in its desire to break free from the mental bondage and religious superstition that hold them”. For this reason, Vohra also says that ‘Revolution might be anti-God, but not anti-man’.

Further Vohra writes…

“…as the youth will get more and more saturated with the psychology of revolution, it will come to have a clearer realisation of national bondage and a growing, intense, unquenchable thirst for freedom. It will grow; this feeling of bondage, this insatiable desire for freedom, till, in their righteous anger, the infuriated youth will begin to kill the oppressors”.

For Vohra, revolution is not merely political freedom of colonial subject but also psychological freedom and violence expresses the extreme desire of that freedom; it signifies a break with the overall past and tradition. Therefore, Vohra says that “terrorism is a phase, a necessary an inevitable phase of revolution” as it “instils 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”. Thus according to Vohra, [revolutionary] terrorism develops into revolution and the revolution into independence, social political and economic.

Unlike Fanon, who identified the lumpenproletariat as the group which will practice anti-colonial revolutionary violence, for Vohra, it was the undifferentiated youth – a social category defined on the basis of ‘age’ – which will lead the charge. This evocation of youth to take up the anti-colonial struggle is not only a practical one just because the appeal was being made on the behalf of a youth organisation. Instead, according to Vohra, the youth occupied a unique position in society because of their age. In the manifesto of the NBS, Vohra writes “we have appealed to the young only. Because the young are brave, liberal and emotional. Because the young bear the most tortures smilingly and face death without hesitation”.

According to Vohra, ‘revolution’ and ‘making of a nation’ demanded extreme forms of sacrifice, which only the youth was capable of offering. Only the youth had a chance to start afresh and think anew. Therefore Vohra, for whom revolution means overall transformation of not only socio-economic-political structures of society, but also a process of psychological transformation among subject people, appealed to the youth to “think independently…and free themselves from any [past] influence and join the cause of Indian Independence”. The ‘youth’ for Bhagwati had a historical task to fulfil.

Bhagwati Charan Vohra lived life in accordance with the motto which he perched. His motto for the youth was ‘service, suffering, sacrifice’; all threeprecepts found expression in Vohra, who lived the life of a revolutionary stoic. According to his comrade, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Bhagwati Charan often used to say that “I want to die in such a place and manner that no one may know of it and shed tears”. Perhaps, in what can only be called a cruel tragedy, history heeded to his wishes. Vohra, the intellectual giant of India’s revolutionary youth, faded from both popular and academic memory after his untimely death.