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Bhagat Singh: Shudras and Atishudras’ thinker and warrior

Bhagat Singh wasn’t just born into the Shudra community. His thinking was shaped by the need he saw around him for the upliftment of Shudras and Atishudras and the establishment of social equality – but our historians have always ignored this fact. Ashok Yadav tells the story

Not only India but the whole world remembers Bhagat Singh as one of the greatest revolutionaries. His life, work, struggle and the way he kissed and embraced death put him in the league of world’s great revolutionaries such as Socrates, Bruno, Joan of Arc and Che Guevara. His martyrdom will continue to inspire many generations of revolutionaries to defend truth, justice and freedom even if it costs them their lives. He was a rare thinker. He had mastered the art and science of revolution at a tender age, giving up his life when he was just 23. We still feel the loss that our country suffered at his untimely death. It was not for nothing that the British imperialists hanged him and the future rulers of India preferred to remain silent on his death sentence.

Bhagat Singh

We are well aware of Bhagat Singh’s thoughts on topics such as socialism, revolution, India’s independence, working-class movements, religion and god. His life and death revolved around these concerns. His views on the caste system are generally not known, as he has not written much on this topic. It may be due to the fact that he was a Sikh: among Sikhs, caste-based differentiation and discrimination is not as acute as among the Hindus.

Yet, his article “Achoot Samasya” (The Untouchability Problem) is very important because we get glimpses of his revolutionary thoughts on this basic problem of Indian society. Now, when in the post-Mandal phase, caste and Dalit questions have acquired paramount importance in the sociopolitical discourse Bhagat Singh’s thoughts have become relevant.

Manusmriti, Mahad and Mother India

Bhagat Singh wrote this article in June 1928, as mentioned in the volume of his collected works. Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar had already made history when he and followers burnt the Manusmriti on 25 December 1927. On 20 March 1927, Bahasaheb and his followers drank water from the Cavdar tank in Mahad, which was until then inaccessible to the achoots (Untouchables). Babasaheb and his followers had been demanding a separate Dalit electorate from the British government. The year also witnessed the publication of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India and the furore over it. Mahatma Gandhi dubbed the book “a gutter inspector’s report”. The book exposed the evils of Indian, particularly Hindu, society most nakedly, mercilessly and authentically. The moral hypocrisy, insincerity and hollowness of the elite of Hindu society on the question of eradicating social evils were brought forth before the world. In his article “Achoot Samasya”, Bhagat Singh has quoted a speech of Noor Mohammad, a legislator in the then Bombay Council, which also figures in Mother India. That is not all. In fact, Bhagat Singh quotes Mayo: “Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow.” Thus three major events of 1927, namely Mahad Satyagraha, burning of the Manusmriti and publication of Mother India confronted the national freedom movement with the social question.

Bhagat Singh being interrogated at the Lahore Railway Police Station during his first arrest from 29 May 1927 to 4 July 1927

In his speech to the Bombay Council in 1926, Noor Mohammad had scathingly questioned Congress’ demand for political rights from the British government. He famously spoke, “If the Hindu society refuses to allow other human beings, fellow creatures so that to attend public schools and if … the president of local boards representing so many lakhs of people in this house refuses to allow his fellows and brothers the elementary human rights of having water to drink, what right have they to ask for more rights from the bureaucracy? Before we accuse people coming from other lands, we should see how we ourselves behave towards our own people … How can we ask for greater political rights when we ourselves deny elementary rights of human beings?” Bhagat Singh quotes Noor Mohammad in the original English and then translates it into the vernacular. He is not content with just quoting Noor Mohammad. He whole-heartedly supports him: “What he says is fully justified, but as he is a Muslim, he will be accused of pitching for conversion of untouchable Hindus into Islam.” He then supports religious conversion: “If you treat them worse than animals, they will convert to other religions, where they will get more human rights and will be treated like human beings. Then your lament that the Muslim and the Christian are harming the Hindu fold will be futile.” In these quotes, Bhagat Singh’s thoughts are strikingly similar to those of Dr Ambedkar. Yet what is remarkable is that by 1928, when Bhagat Singh had already written this article, Dr Ambedkar had not yet declared his intention to leave the Hindu fold to embrace another religion.

The thoughts of Bhagat Singh on religious conversions have become even more relevant. After the gruesome killing of Graham Staines and his two children in Orissa, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had supported a national debate on conversions. Then, Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts had challenged those of his ilk. Now, Bhagat Singh’s thoughts too are confronting them.

Caste system and the contempt for labour

Bhagat Singh understood that the caste system had basically promoted contempt for labour and, therefore, had blocked India’s rise. He writes in the most simple words, “… Disrespect for even the essential types of work grew among the people. We scorn the Julahas. Even weavers are treated as Untouchables. This has retarded our development.” Obviously, Bhagat Singh links development to social justice – unlike today’s model of development in which economic development is completely delinked from social justice.

The Second Round Table Conference on 7 September 1931

Like Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh supported the Untouchables’ (“Dalits” in today’s parlance) demands for a separate electorate. On 23 March 1931, Bhagat Singh was hanged along with his two comrades. Had he been alive he would have supported Dr Ambedkar in his debates with Mahatma Gandhi over a separate electorate system in 1932. He is unambiguous on this count: “We do understand that their organizing themselves separately and, being equivalent to the Muslim in population, demanding equivalent rights, are welcome indications. Either do away with caste-based discriminations or bestow separate rights to them. Councils and assemblies must strive to give them equal rights to avail facilities of schools and colleges, wells and roads. They should not just pay lip service but they themselves should lead them to public facilities. They should ensure admission of their children in schools. But the moot question is, in an assembly where in the name of religion people raise hue and cry over a legislative bill to curb child marriage, how can they dare to embrace the Untouchables. It is, therefore, necessary that they should have their own representatives so that they are able to secure more rights for themselves.”

It is noteworthy that Dr Ambedkar crystallized his demand for a separate electorate for Dalits only around the First Round Table Conference in 1930. But other Dalit protagonists had already been demanding a separate electorate. By supporting a separate electorate for Dalits, Bhagat Singh stood in opposition to the social imperialists and won Dalits’ everlasting love, respect and confidence. Gandhiji too opposed Untouchability in society but he was dead against a separate electorate system for Dalits. By supporting the demand for a separate Dalit electorate, Bhagat Singh proved that he was their true friend. As Kanshi Ram has contended in his famous polemic The Age of Stooges, the Poona Pact, by denying a separate electorate to Dalits, prevented the emergence of independent Dalit leadership. Repealing the Poona Pact and winning the right of a separate electorate still figure prominently in the Dalit agenda. Therefore, Bhagat Singh is still relevant to Dalit politics.

A British government telegram sent from Lahore to Delhi says Bhagat Singh will be executed on 23 March 1931

The militant Bhagat Singh suddenly turned bitter in his article and said, “Laton Ke Bhoot Baton Se Nahi Bhagte” (Those who need to be thrashed cannot be chased away with words). He goes on. “Unite, be self-reliant and then challenge the whole of society. Then you will see no one will dare to deny you your rights. Don’t allow others to deceive you. Don’t expect anything from others.” He arouses pride in Dalits: “The so-called Untouchables, the true servicemen and brothers of the people, rise. Know your history. None but you were the muscle of the army of Guru Gobind Singh. It was on your strength that Shivaji could do what he did and for which he is still alive in history. Your sacrifices have been inscribed in golden letters.” Then he quotes Mayo: “Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow.”

Bhagat Singh puts forward an important formulation that still holds great importance for Dalit politics. He warns Dalits against bureaucracy: “Don’t get trapped by bureaucracy. They are not willing to get you help. Rather, they are on the look-out for how to make you pawns of their designs. This capitalistic bureaucracy is the real cause of your poverty and slavery. Never make an alliance with it. Beware of their machinations. Then everything will be set aright.” Note that Bhagat Singh does not directly blame the British regime for their miseries. Instead, he takes an indirect route and blames the capitalistic bureaucracy. He does not even call it “British bureaucracy”. So far as Bhagat Singh desists from directly blaming the British regime he is in conformity with Dr Ambedkar, who too did not blame the British directly for the ills of the Dalit.

Dalits and the brahmanical bureaucracy

Given the state of Dalit politics today, the words of Bhagat Singh appear prophetic. The biggest flaw of Dalit politics today is that it is heavily dependent on the bureaucracy. It is dependent on the bureaucracy in two ways. First, it takes guidance from the Dalit bureaucracy in putting together the agenda of Dalit politics. Second, when Dalits come to power, like Mayawati has done in Uttar Pradesh, they again depend entirely on the bureaucracy for designing and implementing welfare measures. All talks are centred on how to increase Dalit participation in the State apparatus. Both Dalit parties and other political parties professing social justice talk a lot but when they come to power they are helpless in taking the welfare measures to the targeted population because of the small representation of SCs, STs and OBCs in the bureaucracy. They are unable to understand that as long as the brahmanical system is intact, the bureaucracy may not have sufficient SC/ST/OBC representation. It is the bureaucracy that supports Brahmanism and SC/ST/OBC bureaucrats are compelled to make compromises in order to survive in the brahmanical bureaucracy. No system has ever been changed by people who have become part of that system. Despite 60 years of SC/ST reservation and 15 years of OBC reservation in the central services, the percentage of SCs, STs and OBCs has remained abysmally low in IAS, IPS, IRS, etc.

A painting that depicts the Mahad Satyagraha

Hindustan Times, dated 21 December 2009, carried a news item based on the figures provided by the minister of state for personnel that said that of the 88 secretary-level officers in the Government of India there was no Dalit; of 66 additional secretaries only one was a Dalit; of 249 joint secretaries only 13 were Dalits and of 471 directors only 31 were Dalits. So, besides widening the scope of reservation, to increase SC/ST/OBC representation in bureaucracy, it is essential that we move towards restructuring the administrative system so as to decentralize and democratize it. Though SC/ST/OBC participation in the bureaucracy has not reached the desired level, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of Dalitbahujans in Parliament, state assemblies and local government bodies.

Empower people’s representatives

In a true and effective democratic set-up, elected representatives are entrusted with the powers of executive to oversee the implementation of government projects as well as maintenance of law and order. However, in our country, in order to keep power in the brahmanical bureaucracy, MLAs and MPs have been reduced to mere ceremonial figures, even in their own constituencies. An MLA or an MP is a helpless onlooker of the excesses of a police or administrative officer in his or her constituency. All powers are concentrated in DMs, SPs and in the Chief Minister of the state. Hence, the common refrain is that the DM (District Magistrate), CM (Chief Minister) and PM (Prime Minister) run the administration of the country. Such a centralized administrative system can never provide welfare and succour to the helpless poor, most of whom are Dalitbahujans. So the best course of action for the sake of democracy and Dalitbahujan empowerment at the grass-roots level would be to transfer to the maximum possible extent the administrative powers from the bureaucracy to the people’s elected representatives. Against this backdrop, Bhagat Singh’s warning to the Dalits to beware of capitalistic bureaucracy assumes significance. Unfortunately, Dalit intellectuals spend all their energy in targeting the Hindu religion to such an extent that other pressing issues remain neglected. Capitalistic bureaucracy is one such issue that has seldom figured in Dalit discourse. The “state” has an important place in strategy and tactics of any democratic movement.

At the end of his article, Bhagat Singh writes, “You are the real proletariat … get organized.” This is a great lesson to the Indian left, which has never taken into account the social question in determining the class that would form the vanguard of revolution. Dalits are socially and economically the most oppressed sections of Indian society.

In Indian society, a person’s caste and its position in the caste hierarchy determines his consciousness. Capitalism in India is not more than one hundred fifty or two hundred old but caste system dates back to ancient times. So, the social and political consciousness arising from the caste system is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Improvement in economic conditions may dampen revolutionary fervour among an upper-caste proletariat but may fuel social consciousness among a Dalit proletariat. Improved economic conditions may give them the leisure to study the history of oppression, subjugation and discrimination faced by their ancestors. So, the economic criteria alone cannot help a theorist of social revolution to determine which class is the real proletariat in Indian society. By taking into account the social as well as economic conditions, Bhagat Singh arrives at the conclusion that Dalits are the real proletariat of this land.

“Bring revolution through social movements and then be prepared for political and economic revolutions,” Bhagat Singh concludes in “Achoot Samasya”. From Jotiba Phule to Dr Ambedkar, all have emphasized the need for a social revolution to bring about the final, political and economic, revolutions. Bhagat Singh, who otherwise devoted a major part of his short life to socialism and national liberation, did not digress much from India’s great social revolutionaries in prescribing this trajectory of revolution. When Bhagat Singh began the life of a revolutionary, national liberation from British rule was his sole preoccupation. He quickly realized that the ground for political and economic revolutions in India cannot be prepared unless social revolution is effected. Bhagat Singh thus undertook a great daring and thrilling journey in the realm of philosophy.

(This article first appeared in Countercurrents.org on 23 December 2009. All the quotations of Bhagat Singh in the article have been translated from Hindi by the author. “Achoot Samasya” referred to here is the version that is part of Bhagat Singh’s collected works published by Rajkamal Prakashan.)

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About The Author

Ashok Yadav

Ashok Yadav is a social activist. He has been writing regularly for more than a decade on the various dimensions of social justice and issues related to them. He has written a book on the principles of reservation, which has been translated into Tamil.

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