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Bhagat Singh on Students and Politics

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Summary

The students/youth fought for freedom, democracy and secular values during the freedom struggle. They defended these values even after independence, whenever they perceived any threat like they did against the imposition of emergency in 1975. Bhagat Singh and the political values he bequeathed, should be the guiding spirit for students and the youth today. It is an opportune moment to rebuild an India Bhagat Singh aspired for.  

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We are going through a huge political and social turmoil these days and students from diverse universities are up in arms to defend our constitutional values under attack. The involvement of students, for many of us, is neither surprising nor anything new. The youth have a future to look up to and they have always defended it whenever they perceived any threat. These student protests have often faced state repression. Historically, nationalism had been a convenient tool for all the fascist governments globally, at least from the nineteenth century onwards.

 

We often hear these days that students need to shun politics; the universities are not meant for political mobilization/protest as the students imperil their future by such wasteful indulgence. Most of those who say this are themselves products of the student movements, so this amnesia is clearly motivated by political expediency. Many in the ruling party today and also among its allies, are the erstwhile student leaders of the JP movement. Can’t even start naming them as the list is really huge.

They are also oblivious of the fact that many nationalist icons that they love to venerate, like Bhagat Singh for example, were students themselves who began their revolutionary careers from their colleges. The colonial government used similar arguments to curb their right to protest in the 1920s/30s.  Let us delve a little more into Bhagat Singh’s emphasis on the role of students in politics.

 

Bhagat Singh joined DAV College, Lahore after his father Sardar Kishan Singh moved to the city from his village Banga. Bhagat Singh was a politically aware child, being born in a family of committed nationalists. His uncle Ajit Singh was involved with the peasantry, founded the Bharat Mata Society and spent most of his life in exile, fighting against imperialism. His other uncle Swaran Singh spent many years in prison and died young due to tuberculosis. Bhagat Singh’s father was an active Congressman who also spent time in British jail. Given this background, Bhagat Singh evolved as a political being early in his life and thus participation in anti-colonial struggle came to him naturally.

 

In 1928 Bhagat Singh wrote an article ‘Students and Politics’ in response to some suggestions that students should keep away from politics. He says “We concede that the basic duty of the students is to study, so he should not let his attention waver in that regard. But is it not part of the education that the youth should know what the conditions are in their country and be enabled to think of solutions for their improvement?” And Bhagat Singh did not prescribe this only for the struggle against British imperialism but any situation where exploitation is palpable. In an explicit message from prison, just a few days before his martyrdom in 1931 he exhorted the youth to continue their struggle, even if their exploiters were purely Indian. He wrote: “…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.” So he was clear that the students and the youth in general have to be in the vanguard of all struggles, even if the British are gone and Indians are in command.

 

In 1926, Bhagat Singh and his comrades founded Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a platform from where an overt campaign was possible amongst the students and the youth. The colonial government didn’t allow many student unions to exist so the Sabha used to be the student’s platform in Punjab, Western UP and Rajasthan during the 1920s and early 30s. All those who want to revere him merely as a martyr need to follow his vision and track his political profile as a student leader and later as an iconic young revolutionary. They also need to remember that the Naujawan Bharat Sabha admitted members who committed themselves to secularism and kept the interests of the country above those of the community. The revolutionary ideas Sabha espoused, the ideas of freedom, equality and economic emancipation stirred the youth to an unprecedented degree. It’s activities led to the founding of youth leagues and Student Unions in several towns throughout India.

 

Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha influenced the students of D. A. V College, Lahore to an extent that the government was chary of recruiting youth educated there. Many students were found to be instilled with a revolutionary spirit, undaunted by state repression, leading to even the ruining of many careers. Mindful of the possibility that it would ruin their careers, the students participated enthusiastically in the activities of Naujawan Bharat Sabha.

 

In the context of the ongoing communalization of our polity and life in general, we need to recall that the students under Bhagat Singh’s leadership confronted bitter sectarian politics in the 1920s and 30s as well. They devised a concerted plan to counter it, including the slogans they used. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha took a categorical position on the slogans rejecting the common ones used by the Congress like “Allaho Akbar,” “Sat Sri Akal” and “Vande Mataram,” which were used to project unity in diversity. Bhagat Singh, however, saw them as divisive, as they made Indians conscious of their religious identities. Instead, they raised two slogans: “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Hindustan Zindabad,” hailing the revolution and the country. All those who insist on slogans of their choice today and want to impose them on all as the ultimate test of nationalism should care to comprehend the diversity and variety of slogans we have used during our freedom struggle.

 

The students/youth fought for freedom, democracy and secular values during the freedom struggle. They defended these values even after independence, whenever they perceived any threat like they did against the imposition of emergency in 1975. Bhagat Singh and the political values he bequeathed, should be the guiding spirit for students and the youth today. It is an opportune moment to rebuild an India Bhagat Singh aspired for.

 

Syed Irfan Habib is an Indian historian of science and was the former Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration. The views expressed are personal.

 

This article is part of a Confluence series on Students and Political Protests. The remaining articles in this series can be found here.

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