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This article first appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.
Bhagat Singh’s presence in Indian society wears an aura of mystery. He is a dominant presence on social media and in national discourse, his name is invoked more frequently than that of any other freedom fighter, but his image is a stereotype largely based on folklore. In fact, he was a writer of some repute even in his lifetime, and newspapers from 1929-1931 carried his heroic image and reported his actions ― court statements and prolonged hunger strikes in jail ― so diligently that today’s highest political figures can only envy him. With real black and white pictures, the press was giving him more space than even the Viceroy!
The Tribune in Lahore, a national daily, carried seven pages in its October 22, 1929 issue, when Netaji Subhas Bose had come to preside over a Punjab students’ conference. A brief message from Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt was read out, asking the students not to arm but instead to organise peasants and workers and make them aware of their rights. And yet, after his execution, Singh’s writings were allowed to go into oblivion and the romantic image of a fearless freedom fighter was built, using a lot of folklore like songs, plays etc.
The Punjab and Delhi governments have decided to use Bhagat Singh and Dr Ambedkar’s photographs in government offices. This is appreciable, and Dr Ambedkar offers no problem, since many real photographs are available. Four photographs of Bhagat Singh also exist, but due to the folklore built around his bravery, almost all his images in use are romanticised artworks. Many of these imagined paintings are unsigned. Very few offer a faithful likeness.
One such is the photo based on a painting being used in Punjab government offices. It was painted by the artist Amar Singh in 1975, and commissioned by Giani Zail Singh, then chief minister of Punjab. Prior to that, there was only the photo of Singh in a felt hat, clicked by Ramnath of Cashmere Gate, who testified about it in court in the Delhi Assembly bomb case. Ironically, this photograph was the choice of Bhagat Singh himself, to be used for propagating his ideas after the bomb incident and arrest.
But that was when identity politics was taking root in India. Though the painting of Bhagat Singh in a basanti turban conveys the look of a romantic revolutionary, it does not do justice to his intellectual sharpness, to which his radical writings bear witness. In ‘Letter to Young Political Workers’, written just one and a half months before his execution on February 2, 1931, he reflected on the real intent of his revolutionary movement ― to uproot not only British colonialists but Indian capitalists too, and hand over political power to the working class and peasantry: “What difference does it make to them whether Lord Reading is head of the Indian Government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas? What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin?” (From ‘Letter to Young Political Workers’ in The Bhagat Singh Reader, page 232). Lord Reading was Viceroy of India, 1921-1926, and Irwin from 1926 to 1931.
Images have a purpose for any ruling class or party. As Bhagat Singh’s ideas are too dangerous for any ruling party or class in India, they shift the focus from his ideological moorings to his romantic image. A real photograph does not create any extra imagery, but a painting based on it can. That’s why authentic camera pictures of Bhagat Singh are not used for official purposes, so that the focus is not on his ideas or vision, as many family members of Bhagat Singh have emphasised, but limited to his imagined, romantic, revolutionary image, created through a painting!
Chaman Lal is former dean, Faculty of Languages, Panjab University. He teaches at JNU and is honorary advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi.