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India’s Revolutionary Spiritual Urge: Bhagat Singh and the Naxalites

Kartar Singh Sarabha and Bhagat Singh

Kartar Singh Sarabha and Bhagat Singh. Image credit: Saurav Kumar, "Remembering The Heroic Sacrifice Of Bhagat Singh’s Mentor–Kartar Singh Sarabha," YKA, November 26, 2017.

Bernard D’Mello is the author of India After Naxalbari (Monthly Review Press, 2018) and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

This article is a consideration of three books. Two of these are on Bhagat Singh: Chris Moffat, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and Promise of Bhagat Singh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Chaman Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader (Noida, India: HarperCollins, 2019); the other is related to the Naxalite movement: Kobad Ghandy, Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2021).

Bhagat Singh (1907–1931), the subject of Chris Moffat’s India’s Revolutionary Inheritance and Chaman Lal’s (edited and introduced) The Bhagat Singh Reader, is an iconic figure of the radical left tradition in India. In a trial by a special tribunal that chose to violate basic principles of law and criminal procedure for colonial-political ends, he was convicted of murdering an assistant superintendent of police in 1928. Singh, along with his comrades Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru, was executed in Lahore (now in Pakistan) on March 23, 1931, when he was just 23 years old, in the prime of his life.

Having come from the revolutionary strand of India’s struggle for independence, the elite nationalist leadership, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, remained ambivalent about Singh, and nationalist historiography has marginalized his political contributions. His substitution of the slogan “Vande Mataram!” (Salutations to Mother India!) with the rallying cries “Inquilab Zindabad!” (Long Live the Revolution!) and “Samrajyawad Ka Nash Ho!” (Death to Imperialism!) was alien to the political sense of India’s elite nationalist leaders. They were apprehensive of Singh’s brand of revolutionary politics appealing to the masses and displacing their own variety of a reformist nationalist mass movement. Indeed, “a confidential Intelligence Bureau account, Terrorism in India (1917–1936) went so far as to declare that ‘for a time, he [Bhagat Singh] bade fair to oust Mr. Gandhi as the foremost political figure of the day.’”1

Singh’s thoughts and deeds were significantly influenced by the memory of an anticolonial (would-have-been) uprising in India, planned by the Hindustan Ghadar (translated as mutiny, revolt, rebellion) Party, which was founded in 1913 in California by immigrant Punjabis, predominantly Sikhs. The Ghadar cause gained broad support internationally in Indian diasporic circles through its widely circulated weekly, Ghadar. Some of its members and followers returned to India, joining hands with homegrown “revolutionary terrorists” (not to be confused with the present-day meaning of terror or terrorists). They intended to bring about a mutiny in the British Indian army and wage an armed struggle against British colonialism in India.

The Ghadar Party’s main political influences came from European and Russian anarchist political thought, such as the anarcho-communist ideas of Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921). They were also influenced by the Fenians, committed to the emancipation of Ireland, and, of course, the Punjabi Sikh vernacular revolutionary tradition. The anarchist doctrine of “propaganda of the deed,” launched at the Berne Congress of the “anti-authoritarian” International Workingmen’s Association in October 1876, an adventurist tactic meant to awaken the workers of Western Europe from their apathy, found favor with the Ghadarites.2 They felt that it had the merit of drawing colonial social injustice to public attention.

The sway of anarcho-communist political theory and practice led the Ghadar Party to want to liberate the country from colonialism through a spontaneous revolutionary upsurge. Revolutions, they seemed to believe, are produced by the force of events. Britain’s entry into war with Germany on August 4, 1914, was viewed as the perfect time to start a revolution in India, with tactical advice, money, and arms from Germany, Britain’s archenemy. Thousands of expatriate Indians in decentralized militant networks—influenced by one or a combination of the Ghadar Party’s strands of revolutionary nationalism, social anarchism, Marxism, and Pan-Islamism, and able to link the discrimination they suffered as low-wage immigrants to the colonization of their home country—left for India by November 1914.

But with the colonial state’s intelligence network’s early inroads, the plans for revolution were known in advance and all infiltrated regiments were disarmed or disbanded before the planned start of the revolt on February 21, 1915. The rebellion was brutally nipped in the bud. Many of the leaders and cadre were taken into custody and stood trial under the Defence of India Act of 1915 (and the rules thereof), a war-related instrument of political repression, in special tribunals. This was mainly in what came to be known as the First Lahore Conspiracy Case, against members of the Ghadar Party, a merciless lawsuit by the colonial state, in which the “conspirators” were tried in special tribunals, resulting in many executions and droves of life sentences.

Singh’s hero was the Ghadar martyr Kartar Singh Sarabha (1896–1915), who was reportedly an engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, actively involved in the Ghadar Party since its inception. Temperamentally audacious, courageous in the face of extreme adversity, and totally dedicated to the Ghadar cause, Sarabha returned to India in 1914 to bring about the revolution but was captured in February 1915 and executed at the age of 19 for his role in planning and coordinating the would-have-been uprising. Historically, the Ghadarites need to be placed within the revolutionary socialist tradition as a whole, rather than merely that of revolutionary anticolonialism.3

Singh was a founding member and general secretary of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), the open front of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA, founded in 1923). It was he who proposed, and his comrades concurred, HRA’s change of name to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in September 1928. The HSRA, as stated in its manifesto, intended to “liberate…[India] from foreign domination by means of organized armed rebellion.” The NBS, as HSRA’s open mass front, was to propagate HSRA’s politics “to make the people really understand what the Indian revolution [a revolution by the masses and for the masses] would really mean.” The dream was of transforming the country into an independent socialist republic after the expropriation of both foreign and Indian capital.4

At his trial in the Assembly Bomb Case on June 6, 1929, Singh and B. K. Dutt clarified that revolution was “not the cult of the bomb and pistol” but “the ultimate establishment of an order of society…in which the sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognized, and a world federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and misery of imperial wars.… The establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat [is required] to pave the way for the consummation of the ideal of revolution.” In jail, awaiting execution for the murder of assistant commissioner of police J. P. Saunders, Singh embarked on a study of Marxism and penned a moving essay entitled “Why I Am an Atheist,” defending his rejection of religion. The influence of Mikhail Bakunin is made clear in this article, as well as in a three-part essay Singh wrote on “What Is Anarchism?” for the Ghadar communist magazine Kirti in 1928.5

In one of his most important writings, a communication to young political workers on February 2, 1931, at a time when the Congress Party was contemplating a compromise with the British government, Singh proved prophetic: “What difference does it make to them [workers and peasants] whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshottamdas Thakordas? What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin!”6 It only became clear much later, in the post-independence period, that the Indian National Congress, supported by Indian big business, in its leadership of the national movement for independence, had successfully disguised what was a class project as the national project.

But the revolutionary traditions of the Ghadarites, Singh, the HSRA, and the NBS have not been left behind. They are still present today in India’s radical left, the Naxalites (Indian Marxist-Leninists/Maoists). Neither is repression a thing of the past. One important radical left intellectual “serving the oppressed” and seriously ailing senior citizen, Kobad Ghandy, was kept in jail for ten years (September 2009–October 2019) in spite of being acquitted of grave charges under the anti-terrorist 2008 amendment to the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and criminal conspiracy sections. He was only found guilty of impersonation charges. New cases were added just in time to maximize the length of his incarceration without sentence.7

Some of us in the civil liberties and democratic rights movement began to fear that Ghandy could be a victim of “judicial death,” but his legal team and some fair and sensitive judges saved his life. Unlike the idealist core of the HSRA accused, who considered themselves “not accountable to a tyrant’s justice” and thus not concerned with pleading to their cases in a manner that could have foiled the prosecution on its own terms, Ghandy’s defense councils did exactly what the norms of bourgeois law permitted, and he eventually got bail.8 This, despite constant big media portrayal of him as one of the top leaders of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), which, if proved in court, would have led to life imprisonment under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Bail enabled Ghandy to complete Fractured Freedom, which he called a “prison memoir.” But Fractured Freedom is really much more than that. It covers his years of radical left activism from the early 1970s onward, with its roots in the late 1960s, when he radicalized in response to the racism he encountered in England while training to be a chartered accountant. This is followed by an account of his “four decades of grassroots activism” in India and a decade in (mostly the high security wards of) seven Indian jails in five states as an undertrial, accompanied by “the torturous procedures of the courts.”9

Observed malpractices by Naxalite prisoners in Jharkhand’s jails, and authentic information from two Naxalite prisoners about the dismal reality of the Naxalite movement in parts of the states of Odisha and Jharkhand, deeply troubled Ghandy. Regarding his own plight, ten years of incarceration for four decades of serving the people: “Such is the fate of all those sincerely working for the oppressed of the country.” While imprisoned, he “drew courage from people like [the] Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Che [Guevara], Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose.” He rounds all of this off with ethical and philosophical reflections (in Section III of the book) on his and the radical left’s past in India, and the failures of the socialist project in post-revolutionary Russia and China.10

The subject matter of the three books, taken together, then becomes Bhagat Singh in colonial India and Naxalites in “independent” India. If Singh, killed in the resistance to British colonialism, were to return from the dead, would he feel that the India of today, brought about by its ruling classes and their political representatives, was really worth his and his comrades’ martyrdom? I have no doubt that he would discover betrayal—an India turned neofascist (“semi-fascist,” retaining the legal framework of “free competition” for votes and public office) and a junior partner of U.S. imperialism; an India of monstrous inequalities, with most of its population still inadequately fed, miserably clothed, wretchedly housed, poorly educated, and without access to decent medical care; an India of a deeply oppressive and exploitative social order crying out for revolutionary change.11

But, in India’s Revolutionary Inheritance, Moffat, adhering to the theoretical framework of postcolonialism, which draws on poststructuralism to deal with colonial questions, is not interested in presenting “the ‘real’ Bhagat Singh nor in judging the validity of existing claims over others.” India’s Revolutionary Inheritance “aims instead to open Bhagat Singh out into his afterlives, providing a language with which to comprehend his widespread popular appeal and continuing potential as interlocutor and instigator in modern Indian politics.” In Part II of the book, Moffat explores how Singh is differently conceived in independent India by various sections of the Indian left, by Hindutva nationalists, by Sikh militants for an independent nation of Khalistan, and so on—all claiming a responsibility to Bhagat Singh and his “revolutionary inheritance.”12

Moffat is not interested in the validity of the different claims to truth being made or in assessing the authenticity of the documents invoked by the various claimants to Singh’s inheritance. He seems to opine that Singh’s writings, given their “fragmented, ‘unfinished’ nature” and with “the often-contradictory propositions of a young man finding his way in politics,” are inherently open to abuse and misappropriation, and that purposeful citation to prove one’s own assessment is futile. The poststructuralist in Moffat seems to be suspicious of Enlightenment norms of notions of truth, reason, and objectivity. India’s Revolutionary Inheritance draws from poststructuralist thought (mainly the abstruse theorist Jacques Derrida) to deal with Singh’s promise and the politics of his revolutionary inheritance. In the historical part of the book, in Section I, however, Moffat largely keeps aside Derrida’s “practice” of “deconstructing” history.13

However, in his introduction to The Bhagat Singh Reader, Lal seeks an understanding of Singh not only through his political actions, but through his writings, and it is wonderful that, though he views Singh as embracing Marxism-Leninism, readers are left to form their own opinion about Singh through these writings. In a way, the putting together of all of Singh’s available documents and writings in the form of The Bhagat Singh Reader in English is the culmination of work that began in the late 1960s and early ’70s by the revolutionary’s nephew, Jagmohan Singh, and HSRA veteran Shiv Verma, joined later by persons like M. J. S. Waraich, Bhupender Hooja, and Lal. One shortcoming on the part of the publisher is the lack of a complete table of contents and an index.

Let me then come to Singh’s complete available writings in English in The Bhagat Singh Reader and my first impressions of this oeuvre. For reasons of length, I choose to focus on the evolution of his political thought. These are the writings of an angry man, but not the outpourings of a spontaneous, uncontrolled anger. The fire in Singh’s writings comes from his grasping of the truths about colonialism. The anger is controlled—he was searching and struggling to get to the roots of the colonial situation and what needed to be done to transcend it.

The “us” for him was the anticolonial revolutionary nationalist and all those who supported the anticolonial struggle. The “them,” overlapping with the “us,” were those whom he was trying to reach out to through his writings, and these writings show that he firmly believed they could be reached by appealing to reason, logic, and emotion. In his writings, the appeal of the Ghadar martyr to attract and retain youth in the revolutionary movement is evident. Singh held that the anarchist tactic of propaganda of the deed, accompanied by written or publicly spoken explanation, would free the millions of victims of colonialism from inaction or despair, make them fearless, and restore their sense of dignity and self-respect.

With the nomenclatural change of the HRA into the HSRA, Singh takes on the more difficult task of explanation in his writings, justifying why the revolutionary nationalist movement of which he was a part should develop into a socialist, humanist, social revolutionary movement, or else risked going awry, down a blind alley. To Singh, this was a difficult struggle, which required organization for the long haul. Indeed, how prescient? In India, over the last decade, the Congress Party’s nationalism has been upstaged by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva nationalism, an Indian variant of Nazism, seriously undermining India’s future.

There is much controversy over whether Singh was a social anarchist or a Marxist. I sense the need to clarify aspects of the social anarchist and Marxist traditions. The idea that socialism as the embodiment of liberty, equality, cooperation, and solidarity would be a sham, if the system were to be controlled by an autocratic elite in command of a vanguard party, a technocracy, and a state bureaucracy, was common to Karl Marx and Bakunin (after 1864). In the Marxian conception of revolution, the revolutionary period came to be divided into three sub-periods: (1) capitalism in the process of being overthrown, (2) the transitional period to a classless society, during which there would be the need for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and (3) the initial period of socialism. There was an awareness that even after the first sub-period, the counterrevolution, invariably backed by imperialism, would have to be combated and vanquished, or there would be a likelihood of failure, defeat, or betrayal.

However, in practice, in every case, after the first sub-period of the revolution, tightly organized revolutionary parties under non-proletarian elite leaderships came to power, expropriated the bourgeoisie and the landowners, and more or less centralized all the instruments of production in the hands of the state. That state was, however, not that of the proletariat (and the semi-proletarian poor peasantry) organized as the ruling class. The societies in the second sub-period of the revolution, therefore, could not be properly called, in the original Marxist meaning, societies in transition to socialism. Needless to say, the state was never in a process of withering away. Indeed, it was quite the contrary, with an autocratic elite—in command of the vanguard party, the technocracy, and the state bureaucracy—metamorphosing into a ruling class and, with the passage of time, in a great leap backward, even restoring capitalism.

I will try to restrict my inclination to make guesses about the manner in which Singh’s political thought would likely have evolved had he lived longer. As mentioned, he wrote a very favorable three-part article on “What Is Anarchism?” in Kirti magazine in 1928. And, when he was on death row, he was engaged in a serious study of some available texts of Marx, Frederick Engels, and V. I. Lenin. What is clear from his writings is that he considered the thoughts of Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman, as well as Marx, Engels, and Lenin to be very valuable. Perhaps if he had more time, he would have begun to concretize a synthesis of Marxism and social anarchism.

It is likely that Singh would have known of or read Kropotkin’s 1890 pieces admitting to “the sterility” of the anarchist doctrine of propaganda of the deed and affirming that “‘one must be with the people, who no longer want isolated acts, but want men of action inside their ranks.’”14 I say this because a few more pages from Singh’s “To Young Political Workers” were later found containing, among other things, a critique of revolutionary terrorism, including the tactic of propaganda of the deed, although this phrase is not used therein.15

As is perhaps evident, I am interested not just in Singh as a historical figure, but also as an emerging anarchist and Marxist thinker. His writings suggest that he had developed an aesthetic sensibility and the ability to think and reflect deeply, and that he would certainly have been a lifelong learner. It is unlikely that he would have been at home in a Communist party with the democratic component largely stamped out of the inner-party organizational practice of democratic centralism, and with the rank and file’s deference to the top leadership in all matters concerning the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism.

The 1920s in India had its revolutionary possibilities, from the time Singh came on the political scene in the midst of massive numbers of youth exasperated by and deeply resentful of Gandhi calling off the Non-Cooperation Movement after movement participants set a police station on fire in Chauri Chaura, in retaliation for at least two comrades being killed by police fire. They viewed mere nonviolent resistance as a totally inappropriate tactic against the highly repressive colonial capitalist order.

The political situation was abundant in unforeseen possibilities, and the appearance of unexpected circumstances and opportunities could not be ruled out. The emergence of a revolutionary mass movement was a distinct possibility if a radical left party with a strategic vision of revolutionary action, able to seize an exceptional moment, had come on the scene. To argue that the HSRA conceived of and practiced the Blanquist model of revolution—conspiracy of a revolutionary minority, a coup de main by such a group—is wrong. Singh criticized models of revolution not rooted in real movements from below, calling for “train[ing] and educat[ing]…the masses…in the struggles…[as part of a] programme [that] requires at least twenty years for its fulfilment.”16

Singh and the HSRA were willing to engage in political action that involved high risk and great danger of failure, but also hope of success, to which they had committed their lives. They were inspired by an ethical imperative and a moral exigency to overthrow the unjust and inhuman colonial system, even if the chances of succeeding were not favorable. Their confidence, their courage, their fortitude, even their wit and their guile in the course of struggle, call into question the “superiority” of their vicious and powerful opponent. Of course, one should not idealize them. Indignation at what the Indian people were suffering and unyielding hostility to colonial oppression should not have led the HSRA to target individuals for assassination. Marxism does not advocate hatred of (and vengeance against) individuals—those who have been degraded to instruments that carry out the imperatives of an unjust and oppressive system—but rather of the system itself.

Importantly, questions raised now about the history and remembrance of Singh and the HSRA have come up in “a moment of danger.”17 The historical-materialist intellectual and the socialist revolutionary have to weave the weft of Singh and the HSRA’s struggles against colonialism into the present struggles in India against neofascism. Both neofascism now and colonialism then are and were deeply rooted in capitalism and imperialism, combining scientific and technological progress, especially in the realms of intelligence and militarism, with social and political barbarism, wielding power by a combination of manipulation and violence, backed by a repressive apparatus, coercive legal structure, and colonial value system. This “moment of danger” adds up to a two-fold menace.

First, neofascist politics are bent on rewriting the history of India to serve their own ends, which entails the falsification of history on an unprecedented scale. Second, fascist politicians are bent on turning large sections of the oppressed into tools they can manipulate at will. If the far right gets its way, Singh and the HSRA, on one hand, and the oppressed and those moved by their plight in India today, on the other, will not be safe from the neofascist enemy: servile, conformist historians and the Hindutva nationalist regime, respectively.

Applying Walter Benjamin’s conception of history, which to me is a revolutionary understanding of history, the life and death struggles of the past, such as Singh and the HSRA’s, viewed from the standpoint of the oppressed, can be clarified by the light of the budding antifascist struggles in India today, with the thus intelligible past itself becoming an inspiring force in the present. Left to itself, the Indian variant of Nazism presents grave dangers in the form of new wars against Pakistan and China; anti-Muslim pogroms; Dalits beaten, raped, or killed at the whim of upper-caste privileged persons; crude colonial oppression, with a belittling disdain, in Kashmir; and other thoroughly modern manifestations of barbarism. “Redemption,” inspired by the victims of our past—understood in a secular sense as emancipation of the oppressed by the oppressed and their accomplices, and as a “collective reparation on the terrain of history”—would, if put on track, interrupt the ongoing “historical evolution [that is] leading to catastrophe.”18

However, in view of the specific failure of the Marxist socialist project in the twentieth century, Marxism as heir and fulfiller of the emancipatory dreams and struggles of the past needs moral discourse. This is what Ghandy comes to in Part III of Fractured Freedom. Reflecting on the relevance of four decades of political activity, Ghandy sees his and his beloved wife and comrade Anuradha Ghandy’s (1954–2008, known as Anu or comrade Janaki) “work among Dalits” in their “role in creating a new consciousness,” drawing on both the thought of B. R. Ambedkar and Marx, as having been somewhat sustained. This, he thinks, has “been made possible by working with them and living in their midst.”19 Ghandy also credits Anu’s constant efforts to undermine and upturn deeply entrenched patriarchal relationships, a very difficult and protracted struggle in India against both brutally patriarchal, caste-based feudal culture and capitalist patriarchy.

Brought up by communist parents, Anu did not have the mentality of someone socialized in the institutions, values, and habits of thought inculcated by the culture of capitalism and caste-based semi-feudalism in India. Never seeking any privileges, never resorting to self-promotion, full of love and inspiration, and never suppressing her inherent spontaneity, she was a source of human happiness. Tragically, Anu, who had underlying autoimmunity syndrome and systemic sclerosis, died prematurely at the age of 54 in 2008 when she did not receive proper diagnosis and medical care in time after being stricken with falciparum malaria while in Jharkhand to conduct classes on women’s oppression for the Maoists there.

A prominent leader of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the last phase of her life, always leading by example, Anu was deeply involved in enabling women comrades to take on “greater leadership responsibilities” in the Maoist movement. Her thoughtful and incisive tract on the “Caste Question in India,” posthumously published in 2011, needs to be carefully read and considered by all those who have put the “annihilation of caste” on their learning, research, teaching, and revolutionary agendas.20

Inspired by Anu, Ghandy’s meditative thought (in the confines of the jail) led him to suggest that “an environment of freedom…a new set of values…epitomized by…Anuradha…and [the] goal [of] universal happiness” needed to be woven into the socialist project from the start and carefully “nursed.”21 Anu’s “inner feelings,” he writes,

were very much in tune with her outward reactions; as a result, she was closest to what we may call a free person. Yes, here we have the naturalism Marx referred to: “Communism, as a fully developed naturalism, is humanism, and as a fully developed humanism, is naturalism.”… Happiness, Freedom and Good Values…have remained in the realm of dreams not turned into reality. The importance here is to evolve a beautiful mosaic of the three interwoven into the fabric of a just economic order. This, in fact Marx, sought to do, but somewhere in the stream of the practical movements it got lost, or at least took a back seat. The point is to bring it to the forefront…[learning from] the rich experiences of the past.… The building of the new order…[needs to be] reflected in organizational work—whether mass organizations, cultural organizations…and most important, the party organization and the structures and organs of state power when they arise. In all these [structures and organizations]…the three aspects of happiness, freedom and good values need to be interwoven. After all, our goals should be reflected in embryonic form throughout the entire process of its achievements. Only then will the final outcome not get reversed and sustain after the seizure of power as well. Unfortunately, I don’t see such a process in India.22

Basically, Ghandy, the spiritual revolutionary, is saying that the emancipation Marx called “human” has to begin to be made real, albeit in embryonic form, within the revolutionary process itself, and it has to be practiced by revolutionaries themselves in revolutionary organizations and their social life. The leaders and rank and file, and the people among whom they have been working and living, must begin to discern freedom in relationships of equality, cooperation, community, and solidarity, even as they are in the process of trying to get rid of the structures, institutions, values, habits of thought, dogmas, and the ever-pernicious privileges of capitalism and caste-based semi-feudalism.

What about Singh’s moral, ethical, and spiritual concerns? He did not set them aside in his writings, but transposed them into the domain of concrete action. For instance, in an ethical indictment of untouchability, in 1928 Singh wrote: “We can worship beasts but cannot make a human being sit next to us.” What must not, however, be forgotten is that, in concrete action, he “treated and respected…[a] manual scavenger [working] in [the] jail just like his mother.”23

The spiritual dimensions of social anarchism and Marxism can throw light on how to make a revolution without vitiating it; how to struggle for the attainment of freedom without destroying it. “Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary,” Singh once wrote. In practice, he never separated politics from ethics.24

The incorrigible romantic that I am draws me to a stanza from a poem by the Telugu poet, Sri Sri, a tribute to Singh and the Naxalites, the translation of which I have adapted here:

The colonial tyrant called you the terrorist Bhagat Singh that day,
The neofascist despot calls you the terrorist Naxalite today.
But everyone will call you the morning star tomorrow.25


  1. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885–1947 (Delhi: Macmillan, 1983), 268–69.
  2. Much of the West European working class had by then come over to social-democratic reformism.
  3. Maia Ramnath, Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). My brief introduction to the Ghadar movement has drawn on, albeit not uncritically, Ramnath’s book.
  4. Chaman Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader (Noida, India: HarperCollins, 2019), 549, 551.
  5. Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader, 115, 175–76, 183–84, 200.
  6. Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader, 231–32.
  7. Kobad Ghandy, Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2021), 12.
  8. Chris Moffat, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and Promise of Bhagat Singh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 94.
  9. Ghandy, Fractured Freedom, 22.
  10. Ghandy, Fractured Freedom, 20, 22. Unfortunately, Fractured Freedom is impaired by the publisher’s poor copyediting.
  11. Bernard D’Mello, India After Naxalbari: Unfinished History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018).
  12. Moffat, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance, 3.
  13. Moffat, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance, 124, 147.
  14. Daniel Guérin, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 78.
  15. Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader, 236–37.
  16. Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader, 228, 234.
  17. “To articulate what is past…means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” Walter Benjamin, “Thesis VI,” in “On the Concept of History,” often referred to as “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Dennis Redmond (1940; repr. 2005), available at
  18. Dalit is a self-description of India’s outcasts—those who have been relegated below the lowest varna in the caste hierarchy, as the “crushed” or “oppressed.” Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2005), 9, 30. My interpretation and application of Benjamin’s Theses to and for India have greatly benefited from reading Löwy’s Fire Alarm.
  19. Ghandy, Fractured Freedom, 222–23.
  20. Ghandy, Fractured Freedom, 91. Anuradha Ghandy, “Caste Question in India” and “The Caste Question Returns,” in Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, ed. Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen (Delhi: Daanish Books, 2011), 7–91; Hiren Gohain, “Towards a Revival of Revolutionary Ideas,” Economic & Political Weekly 47, no. 18 (2012): 35–40.
  21. Ghandy, Fractured Freedom, 220.
  22. Ghandy, Fractured Freedom, 231–33. Emphasis added.
  23. Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader, xliv–xlv, 153.
  24. Lal, ed., The Bhagat Singh Reader, 202.
  25. Sumanta Banerjee, ed., Thema Book of Naxalite Poetry (Calcutta: Thema, 1987), 92.


Comment by Chris Moffat

Bernard D’Mello summons some bogeymen to aid in his critique of my book, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance. I am a “poststructuralist” and a “postcolonialist”; as a result, I “seem to be suspicious of Enlightenment norms of…truth, reason, and objectivity.” It is unfortunate that the mere appearance of “the abstruse theorist Jacques Derrida” in my footnotes has so startled the learned Mr. D’Mello that he fails to take seriously the questions my book asks, nor grapple with the reasons I am asking them. My research stands on the shoulders of scholars like Chaman Lal, Jagmohan Singh, and others who have done a crucial service recovering and disseminating Bhagat Singh’s writings. It does not dismiss this archive, but is interested in a different problem: What can those on the left do when a cherished hero and original revolutionary thinker is celebrated with gusto by those very reactionary, “neofascist” forces of which D’Mello rightly warns? And what if these claimants do not care about what Bhagat Singh wrote or whom he read, and instead fixate on those features crucial to making Singh an anticolonial icon: action, physical force, courage, sacrifice? This is a pressing question of strategy for the left. But the glimmer of “poststructuralism” is so disorienting that D’Mello neglects our shared affirmation of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history.

India’s Revolutionary Inheritance approaches history as a terrain of struggle: it recognizes that the past is not settled but must be redeemed in the present. Not even the dead are safe from the enemy if he wins. My book grapples with Singh’s enduring potential in Indian politics—his continuing power as interlocutor and agitator—and recognizes that his most effective inheritors renew the revolutionary questions in light of the struggles of the twenty-first century. D’Mello, meanwhile, clings to those tired, speculative questions that have characterized the insular left discussions of Singh for decades, and which I sought to transcend. Singh “would have begun to concretize a synthesis of Marxism and social anarchism,” arguing that “it is likely that Singh would have known of or read Kropotkin’s 1890 pieces” and “unlikely that he would have been at home in a Communist party.” Considering D’Mello insinuated that I have a loose attachment to truth, reason, and objectivity, his own reading is full of would haves, filtered through subjective hope. This is fine, of course: D’Mello’s “purposeful citation” allows him to weave a compelling radical tradition from Ghadar and Bhagat Singh through to the Naxalites. It is precisely this desire to convene with the dead to help reorient the present that my book places at the heart of contemporary Indian politics. It is disappointing that D’Mello dismisses my writing with the help of bogeymen, rather than reflecting on the grounds for struggle it identifies and which he himself is navigating.


Reply by Bernard D’Mello

I am sorry that my review article “India’s Revolutionary Spiritual Urge: Bhagat Singh and the Naxalites” (Monthly Review, December 2021) has appeared to Chris Moffat as a dismissal of his book, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and Promise of Bhagat Singh. Dismissal was not my intention. The central focus of my essay was that of understanding Bhagat Singh and the Naxalites by drawing on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and open conception of history, which, I think, draws mainly on classical Marxism and revolutionary romanticism. Although I was quite impressed by certain parts of Moffat’s book, I was not able to weave a proper discussion of the book into my account.

For instance, I particularly liked Moffat’s vivid description, in the first chapter, of Lahore as an active intellectual center of anticolonial politics in the 1920s, rivalling Calcutta; of Lahore’s Tilak School of Politics, tailored on New York City’s then Rand School of Social Science; the Government College that had a hand in the making of the Urdu poet Muhmmad Iqbal, the Ghadar leader Har Dayal, and the Urdu and Punjabi poet and author Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The pull of Bradlaugh Hall, the National College, and the Dwarka Das Library. The India Tea House frequented by intellectuals, journalists, and poets. The city’s subversive pamphleteers and publishers. And, of course, the Ghadars in their second incarnation, the Kirti-Ghadarite communist group, and the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, which was banned from the city’s university campuses in 1927. Surely, as Moffat puts it, Lahore’s intellectual atmosphere shaped the “importance of critique in the political thought of Bhagat Singh.”

But, I reiterate, Moffat’s book is based within the theoretical perspective of postcolonialism. The central idea of inheritance, which also appears in its title, draws on the thought of the abstruse, poststructuralist theorist Jacques Derrida, for whom the notion of inheritance is “necessarily heterogenous.” There cannot be one “true” “inheritor” of Singh. There can only be a “multiplicity of inheritors” affirming their sense of “responsibility” (in Derrida’s meaning) in contrasting ways. Moffat thus argues that there is no “‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ way to respond to Bhagat Singh’s call, or indeed a ‘proper’ form for an inheritor to take.” As I have noted, Moffat thinks that Singh’s writings, given their “fragmented, ‘unfinished’ nature” and “often-contradictory propositions of a young man finding his way in politics,” are “amenable to creative misreading and purposeful citational engagement.” Was I then wrong about Moffat’s relativism regarding truth, in reckoning that he does not attach a similar value to Singh’s writings as Chaman Lal does?

I would like to conclude by stating that I admire some postcolonial studies scholars, especially those who have endeavored to combine certain poststructuralist and Marxist ideas to produce “authentic knowledge.” For instance, Edward Said brought together ideas from Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci in his 1978 classic, Orientalism. Moffat writes that he and I have a “shared affirmation of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history.” I would like to think so, if he too perceives this work of Benjamin as an open conception of history that draws mainly on classical Marxism and revolutionary romanticism, which is not evident from his book.

2021, Volume 73, Number 7 (December 2021)
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