In India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh, Chris Moffat has produced an engaging and novel account of the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. Based on archival research and fieldwork in India and Pakistan, the historian-cum-anthropologist traces the revolutionary promise of Singh’s life and its continued influence on the contemporary politics of South Asia, writes Rahul Rose.
India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh. Chris Moffat. Cambridge University Press. 2019.
Bhagat Singh, while confined to jail awaiting execution, read tirelessly, undertaking a programme of intense self-study that included everything from Engels and Bertrand Russell to Milton and Walt Whitman. It is said that the young freedom fighter, who was sentenced to death in 1930 for killing a British police officer in protest against colonial rule, was reading a biography of Lenin on the evening of his execution. As death loomed and prison guards arrived to take Singh to the hangman, he remained committed to his course of revolutionary self-education to the last, requesting additional time to finish one more chapter of Lenin’s biography before going to the gallows.
Such stories about Singh create an image of a man preparing for death as though it were not a terminal end, but rather another step in a revolutionary journey. As a self-proclaimed atheist, it is doubtful that Singh believed in an afterlife of the supernatural variety, and yet, his comments in life suggest that he expected to play a part in India’s worldly affairs after death. “After I am hanged, the fragrance of my revolutionary ideas will permeate the atmosphere of this beautiful land of ours,” Singh is alleged to have said while in prison (p. 17). In one telling of Singh’s death, already in the moments after his execution, which took place away from public view, the electric presence of the dead freedom fighter’s spirit could be felt as primal chants of “Inquilab Zindabad” [Long Live Revolution] were carried late into the night by prisoners and nearby villagers.
In the ninety odd years since Bhagat Singh’s death, he has become perhaps India’s most cherished young martyr. Pictures of his cocked trilby and moustached visage adorn walls across the country, while innumerable street names and statues ensure a continued presence for the revolutionary in the official architecture of the Indian nation. It is this afterlife of Singh, which exists in stone and image, but also as a forceful spectral presence, that forms the focus of Chris Moffat’s engaging and novel account of the freedom fighter. Based on archival research and fieldwork in India and Pakistan, the historian-cum-anthropologist traces the revolutionary promise of Singh’s life and its continued influence on the contemporary politics of South Asia. Moffat writes of Singh’s presence in the tangled space of contemporary South Asian politics (largely Indian, although touching on Pakistan), not as something conjured and controlled by the needs of the living, but rather as a continuing interference. Singh appears to the living as a continued spectral presence whose sacrifice in death means he is owed a debt, and “whose function is precisely to cajole, to stir from slumber, to demand action and critique rather than idle acceptance and compromise” (p.17).
The revolutionary’s demanding and often subversive presence in India’s contemporary politics is in Moffat’s reckoning a continuation of a life, outlined in the first part of the book over a hundred or so pages, that was transgressive, fiercely iconoclastic and unfinished (he died aged just 23). Singh repeatedly denied familial connections during his short lifetime: rejecting an arranged marriage in 1923, claiming already to be wedded to the Indian freedom struggle; choosing atheism over the religious beliefs of his ancestors; and chastising his father for petitioning the Viceroy of India to save his son from the hangman’s noose. Part courageous revolutionary, part rebellious son attempting to distance himself from parental interference, Singh’s public comments against his father for showing weakness to India’s colonial rulers are telling: “in the political field my views have always differed with those of yours. I have always been acting independently without having cared for your approval or disapproval” (p. 25).
For Moffat, this politics of dissent, with its fidelity to revolution and the future perfect at the expense of dominant codes and obligations, can also be found in Singh’s uncompromising actions in a pair of court cases between 1929-30 in which colonial authorities sought to tie the revolutionary and his comrades to a bombing of the colonial government’s Legislative Assembly (the same building that now houses the Lok Sabha) as well as a host of other allegedly seditious acts, including the killing of a British police officer. Singh refused the logic of a justice system that sought to cast him as criminal, singing in court, choosing to represent himself in his own words and readily accepting many of the charges levelled against him, transforming them from accusations of shameful illicit activity into courageous acts of revolution. Moffat argues that Singh and his comrades, in their defiant actions and unflinching pursuit of a martyr’s death, broke from conventional nationalist courtroom strategies (which often called for a reformed or alternative legal system), instead showing that the the very notion of justice itself was separate from the authority of the legal code.
In Moffat’s account, Singh appears as an anarchic and critical force whose political project seeks constantly to disturb the present, rather than establish a new order. Rather than binding Singh to a particular future, whether communist or national, as others have tried, Moffat depicts Singh as a figure of perpetual motion, always moving towards, but never reaching. As Singh himself wrote: “Older order should change, always and ever, yielding place to new, so that one ‘good’ order may not corrupt the world” (p.67). What space is there for this uncompromising figure within India’s contemporary politics? Broadly, Moffat outlines two strategies of the living to deal with the demands of Singh – those that seek to contain and nullify the revolutionary’s anarchic potential, incorporating him into dominant orders, and those that take Singh’s sacrificial toil as a call to responsibility, a demand for action against the imperfections of the present.
In the latter camp fall a motley bunch of political actors and movements: the 2011 India Against Corruption movement, right-leaning protest groups, student activists and politicised Bhangra artists. For each of these groups, according to Moffat, Singh appears as a “spectral third person”, who serves as a demanding interlocutor in the present, with the question “what would Bhagat Singh have wanted?” often guiding the actions of activists. This politics of dissent guided by Singh makes him a peculiar figure for those who hold authority in present-day India. Singh serves simultaneously as a stalwart of India’s dominant nationalist narrative, as well as an active interlocutor in present-day politics that demand change, revolution and the undoing of current orders. Moffat argues that one strategy to manage Singh’s unruly potential is to construct monuments – a memorial landscape depicting Singh and his revolutionary comrades criss-crosses India, especially in the north, ranging from small sculptures in villages to larger-than-life bronze monuments. For Moffat, such memorials exorcise Singh’s spectral presence from the world of the living, attaching him to a past now finished. Through monuments, Singh is given solid, static form as “another routine ornament of everyday life” that may be honoured or ignored as the living see fit (pgs. 209-10). Tellingly, when Moffat visited the memorial marking the site where Singh and his revolutionary comrades were burnt following execution, it was empty bar a single bored attendant and a group of young people playing cricket.
The muted Bhagat Singh of seldom visited monuments is but one iteration in the martyr’s afterlife, an afterlife which, in Moffat’s own words, is “extraordinary and multifarious”. The revolutionary plays multiple, often contradictory roles in modern South Asia: there’s communist Singh, Sikh separatist Singh, neoliberal Singh, and the secular liberal Singh of Pakistan, to name but a few. So numerous are the avatars of Singh in the region’s contemporary politics that one begins to wonder how realistic it is to say, as Moffat does, that the revolutionary appears “not as an object to be ‘appropriated’ or ‘used’ by the living but as an entity to whom something is owed” (p. 5), a figure with agency who makes demanding interferences in the present. Certainly, if Singh is to be cast as an actor in the affairs of the living, he must often be no more than a junior partner, his desires and revolutionary zeal rendered subsidiary to the pragmatic demands of the present. How else could one explain a statue of the martyr occupying pride of place in a shopping centre in the centre of New Delhi?
Moffat’s book is both well written and original. Its insights extend beyond just Bhagat Singh, weaving together a host of historical figures and present-day actors into a compelling account. The book prises contemporary Indian politics away from linear narratives that mark 1947 as the originating point of the modern and the terminal point of the past. Instead, it shows the peculiar and unruly presence of a dead, pre-1947 figure in the actions and decisions of the living. Of course, Bhagat Singh is not the only non-living character to haunt the political present of India – what would Gandhi have wanted? What would Malaviya have wanted? What would Ambedkar have wanted? Or, indeed, what does Ram want? – are all questions that variously motivate Indian politics, depending on context. Moffat’s work then, with its blend of field and archive, provides an excellent example for how scholars might go about studying the tangled temporal orders of contemporary South Asian politics, one in which the divine, the dead and the living all play a part.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics.