COMMENT: Remembering a martyr —Saroop Ijaz - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Source :\03\23\story_23-3-2011_pg3_4

COMMENT: Remembering a martyr —Saroop Ijaz
Men like Bhagat are relevant at all times to all nations, and because of that make all governments and states itchy. Yet the need for Bhagat in Pakistan today is greater than it has ever been in the past. The particular kind of courage Bhagat displayed was the quiet tenacity to look tyranny in the eye, unconquerable yet without hysteria

“To die hating them, that was freedom,” writes Orwell in 1984. On March 23, 1931 Bhagat Singh was hanged to death in Lahore. Bhagat was convicted and executed for exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly. The bomb did not kill or injure anyone, as it was not intended to. Bhagat gave himself up for arrest after the incident. Bhagat Singh was hardly 24 years old at the time of his execution and his actions can be mistaken for those of any ideologicaly motivated juvenile, except they cannot.

In recent times the Indian and the Pakistani states have begun to own Bhagat, even holding the occasional memorial. Yet, the ownership remains uncomfortable. Bhagat was a proud Marxist-Leninist and an avowed atheist. Bhagat can be remembered and honoured while disagreeing with his particular convictions, but not while ignoring them. Bhagat was unquestionably a nationalist; however, making sense of his actions without accounting for his political and religious beliefs leads to an apparent absurdity. Bhagat’s death anniversary is condemned to be overshadowed in Pakistan every year by an event that happened somewhat ironically on the same date, in the same city nine years later, i.e. the Pakistan Resolution. Nonetheless, each year few of our mainstream social and political leaders do feel compelled to articulate a few words on the indomitable courage of Bhagat. These eulogies can easily be mistaken for those delivered periodically for the Muhammad Bin Qasims and the Ghazi Ilam Dins and hence are pathetically dishonest. Bhagat Singh would have brazenly detested this adulation, and the vulgarity of the comparisons.

In his very first letter to the commissioner of the special tribunal constituted for the trial, Bhagat unequivocally expressed his intention to decline being a party to the farcical show and take no part in the proceedings. Admittedly there is fatalism in the approach; he and his comrades were not willing to give themselves any chance for clemency or intervention of fate. Lest anyone draws a comparison between this equanimity with the present day suicidal maniacs, Bhagat writes to Sukhdev, “....that suicide is a heinous crime. It is an act of complete cowardice. Leave alone revolutionaries, no individual can ever justify such an act.” More significantly for Bhagat the grass was not greener on the other side, since there was no other side. He had neither virgins in paradise waiting for him nor an eternal life of indulgence.

After the passing of his sentence and with no practical hope of being saved, Bhagat wrote a pamphlet titled ‘Why I am an atheist’. Regardless of religious convictions this display of audacity in such a Kantian moment is unnerving. Bhagat concludes the pamphlet with “...One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, ‘When your last days come, you will begin to believe.’ I said, ‘No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.’ Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it.” It was indeed vanity. He was aristocratic in the purely Nietzscheian sense in so far that he had contempt for imbeciles and cowards. In spite of individual religious views, one is compelled to admire almost to the point of bitterness this poise and indifference towards death. Bhagat’s last recorded communication is a letter to the Governor of Punjab written after the death sentence has been passed. In the letter, Bhagat nonchalantly writes, “We wanted to point out that according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead instead of to be hanged.” He made an intricate legal argument in that letter to justify that he and his comrades be shot instead of being hanged. This certainly was no delusional 24-year-old.

Men like Bhagat are relevant at all times to all nations, and because of that make all governments and states itchy. Yet the need for Bhagat in Pakistan today is greater than it has ever been in the past. It is not because of his religious views, or arguably even his political views. It is not only because of the courage, but the particular kind of courage. The bar for the selection of national heroes in Pakistan is fairly low, and is often one-dimensional. Muhammad Bin Qasim is praised not because he led a huge army of foreign invaders into Sindh, but because he was a Muslim who waged war against a Hindu. The fact that it was an invasion is obscured and overridden by the fact that he was a Muslim. Ghazi Ilam Din murdered an unarmed Hindu publisher to fortify his own place in heaven. Killing or even dying when hopelessly convinced of being granted a blissful eternity seems like an extremely agreeable bargain, hardly selfless, certainly not courageous. There are scores of other such heroes, mostly invaders, whose only redeeming feature was their religion. The underlying assumption is that Muslims cannot or at least should not have non-Muslim heroes. Shahbaz Bhatti had no chance really, while Mumtaz Qadri does fulfil the necessary criteria for glory, i.e. he is a Muslim with a weapon.

It is entirely plausible to disagree with Bhagat’s religious views while honouring his valour. The fear in owning Bhagat stems from the fear that acknowledging his religious and political views might be construed as an endorsement. And yes, we are equally afraid of the term ‘Marxist’. I will not be surprised if one of our brilliant revisionist Islamic historians comes up with a groundbreaking revelation that Bhagat converted to Islam just before his execution, or better still was a closet faithful all along. It will certainly make him more palatable.

The particular kind of courage Bhagat displayed was the quiet tenacity to look tyranny in the eye, unconquerable yet without hysteria. There may lie a lesson or two for the liberals in Pakistan. Shock, rage and loathing aimed at the state of affairs in general are noisy, yet without specifics it is neither brave nor constructive. As an example, discussions about the blasphemy law (which there are none, now) are unlikely to be productive without specifically addressing the Ilam Din narrative calmly yet fearlessly. The coincidence of Bhagat’s death anniversary and Pakistan Resolution is an opportunity to talk about the ideological foundations of this country not by trading clichés but candidly and cogently. Today we need unruffled irreverence. There is a need for being unapologetic with precision, which should not be confused with being merely boisterous. Do not petition to have a roundabout named after Bhagat; he does not need it and would not have wanted it. We need Bhagat’s name in the history curriculum in schools infinitely more than on monolith fixtures.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment