August 02, 2020
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‘His Violence Wasn't Just About Killing’

Kuldip Nayar, eminent journalist and Rajya Sabha member, spoke to Outlook about his latest book that’ll be formally released by the PM on the 25th. Excerpts

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‘His Violence Wasn't Just About Killing’

Why a book on Bhagat Singh now?
Because, sadly, Bhagat Singh is a name the new generation is hardly aware of, leave alone being familiar with his work. Even the Lahore Central jail, where he and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, were hanged has been mostly demolished. The scaffold is now a traffic roundabout. There is no marker to their memory. I wanted to remember these forgotten heroes, these people who belonged to an altogether different ethos. These days, young people seem to have absolutely no awareness of our heritage, of the sacrifices that went into making India. Then there’s the fact that Bhagat Singh was a staunch secularist. Today, when the country is being polluted by fanatics and religious parties are trying to hijack our culture and heritage, Bhagat Singh assumes greater importance. These revolutionaries had united all communities for the task of building the nation.

Is there a need to return to Bhagat Singh’s methods?
He believed in violence, yes, but not for the sole purpose of killing. Violence was to be used if necessary to further the cause of revolution. We also have to remember that it was Gandhi’s time, so there was this debate about violence and non-violence. What also sparked off the book was a letter I got from Harjinder Singh and Sukhjinder Singh, who were awaiting a death sentence for assassinating former army chief Gen A.S. Vaidya. They questioned the basis on which Bhagat Singh was hailed as a revolutionary and they were branded terrorists. So I wrote to try and show the difference between revolutionaries and terrorists.

The book brings out the fact that many thought Gandhi didn’t do enough to try and save the three from being hanged...
It tries to show what Gandhi did and did not do. There was the letter Sukhdev wrote to Gandhi a couple of days before the hanging when he heard Gandhi was negotiating with the government for the release of prisoners not convicted of violence while appealing to the revolutionaries to end their movement. Sukhdev asked Gandhi why he was doing so and ended the letter by signing as "Yours one of the many". In his reply Gandhi gave his own reasons as to why he thought Sukhdev wasn’t "one of the many" and stressed his method of non-violence. And as I said, Bhagat Singh himself didn’t propound violence for the sake of it. They did try and avenge Lala Lajpat Rai’s death, but even when throwing the bomb in the legislative assembly they took great care not to kill anyone.

Haven’t events in independent India validated Bhagat Singh’s belief in the inadequacy of democracy as long as an exploitative elite exists?
Bhagat Singh’s idea was of a welfare state, a socialist state. Though the focus was on the events of that time, he did believe that only political freedom didn’t mean anything unless the country was economically free as well. In a letter to his mother he expressed his belief that progress meant the destruction of the old, antiquated system. Without that it would merely mean replacing ‘white sahibs with brown sahibs’. And that’s precisely what happened.

You’ve also included an account of the revolutionary-turned-approver Hans Raj Vohra...
Yes. That’s something unique about the book. It includes the letter Hans Raj Vohra wrote before his death explaining why he turned approver. It was his testimony that was crucial in the death sentence handed out to Bhagat, Sukhdev and Rajguru - his ex-comrades

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