Friday, February 22, 2019

The young and the political

We all maintain an internal list of things that happen to people out of luck. Things too awful to contemplate: hunger, arrest, getting beaten or stripped naked, being declared an enemy of the state.

How does a literature graduate with no political ambitions end up in jail? How does the son of an urban trader wander from the political right to the left? Is rebellion picked up on campus like a virus or is it seeded in the cradle? Questions like these led me to meet students and political activists who have taken political positions that they, or their families, could not have foreseen.

... One of the things common to aspiring activists was that they are inspired by each other. Chandu, Umar Khalid, Jatin Goraiya, all were inspired by Bhagat Singh. In turn he was inspired by boys like Kartar Singh Sarabha, executed by the British in 1915 at 19 for participating in the freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh kept a photograph of Sarabha in his pocket and made a point of garlanding it during organisation meetings.

Chaman Lal, a retired professor who has authored multiple books on the subject, believes Bhagat Singh’s “greatness” lay in his being a thinker and organiser as well as a revolutionary. He courted arrest after throwing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly and used court appearances, newspapers and every opportunity he got to argue his cause. He read hundreds of books and maintained notes on what he read—Wordsworth to Marx, Thomas Paine to Omar Khayyam, Plato to Gandhi, until they took him off to the gallows.

Bhagat Singh also wrote extensively about the state of the nation, imperialism, exploitation through capitalism, and religious faith. He forbade his parents from petitioning for mercy on his behalf. He went to the gallows with the cry of “Inquilab Zindabad” on his lips.

His family owned enough land for them to be comfortable. True, the country was under British control and Indians were second class people. Still, there was more to gain by finishing his studies and securing a comfortable position from where he could take on institutional racism. It is worth asking: how did a boy born into relative privilege end up on the gallows?

Read the full essay in Fountain Ink magazine

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