Bhagwati Charan Vohra: Intellectual giant of Indian revolutionaries
Bhagwati Charan Vohra is one of the lesser known figures of the Bhagat Singh era of the Indian revolutionary movement. He was a chief pamphleteer and propagandist and among the movement’s most important ideologues. Although not as popular as Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, he co-authored three important ideological / organizational documents – the manifestos of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Republican Socialist Association of Hindustan and the most famous HSRA, “The philosophy of the Bomb“, which presents a debate between revolutionaries and Mahatma Gandhi.
Vohra was born on November 15, 1902 in Lahore to a well-to-do business family in Gujarat who were initially pro-British. He married Durga Devi, who then joined the revolutionary movement at a very young age. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre had a profound impact on teenage Vohra, who plunged into the anti-colonial movement. As a student of the National College of Lahore, he participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement started by Gandhi. Like many contemporaries, his revolutionary career began after the movement’s abrupt withdrawal after the Chauri-Chaura incident. The withdrawal was seen as a betrayal, especially by young students.
Disillusioned with Congress and Gandhi, Vohra embarked on an intellectual journey in which Marxist thought particularly impressed him, mainly due to the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He contacted the communist group of MN Roy in the Soviet Union and began to to smuggle and distribute “”Avant-garde“, the published Roy newspaper, and other Marxist works. However, by this time the Communists had just started to organize in India. Vohra was drawn to the underground revolutionary movement led by the Republican Association of Hindustan (HRA). He joined his unit in Punjab under Jaichandra Vidyalankar, who had taught Vohra at the National College.
Vohra, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev formed the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1926, an open mass front of the party, and were elected its propaganda secretary. According to Shiv Verma, Vohra had written several booklets, small leaflets and brochures addressed to Indian youth. One of his booklets, “Masses of IndiaWas very popular among the young people of the Punjab. Unfortunately, none of these documents have survived the ravages of time. A voracious reader, Vohra came into contact with and was influenced by anarchist philosophy. As his political ideas evolved, he produced a powerful mixture of anarchist and Marxist ideas which became a guideline for Indian revolutionaries in the late twenties. Vohra borrowed the concept of “Propaganda by deedPopularized by anarchist philosophers Johann Most and Emma Goldman and produced a very influential document justifying this concept in Indian conditions.
Critique of communitarianism and Gandhian ideas
The state of Indian politics in the 1920s was very similar to that of today. Community consciousness was mounting, riots plagued the country, the burgeoning Indian bourgeoisie and large landowners were in cahoots with the imperialist government, and the colonial state was ruthless to its opponents and detractors. Indian revolutionaries faced multiple challenges of grappling with communal politics and exposing the compromising character of the Indian National Congress while attacking the colonial state.
The Naujawan Bharat Sabha issued its manifesto written by Vohra and his comrades with these concerns in mind. In the document, they launch a scathing attack on community politics and community consciousness. A passage has a contemporary sound. Vohra writes: “…we Indians, what are we doing? A branch of peepal is cut and the religious feelings of Hindus are injured. A corner of a paper idol, tazia, idol-breaking Mohammedans is shattered, and ‘Allah’ becomes enraged, who can only be satisfied with the blood of Hindu infidels. One should attach more importance to man than to animals and yet, here in India, they are breaking their heads in the name of “sacred animals”. According to Vohra and the NBS, religious superstitions and fanaticism were an obstacle to the progress of human society because they limited “free thought”. “Reason has little in common with faith” and therefore “the thing that cannot endure free thought must perish,” he writes.
Vohra’s intellectual brilliance found expression in his most famous document, “The philosophy of the Bomb“, Co-authored with Yashpal, in response to Gandhi’s article,”The cult of the bombA critique of revolutionaries after bombing Viceroy Irwin’s train on December 23, 1929. In this brilliant six-page response, the revolutionaries attacked the compromising policies of Congress and questioned the philosophical foundations of non-violence. They write: “… although it is true that the average leader limits his tours to places where only the postal train can land him in a practical way, while Gandhi has extended his tour limit to where a car can take him, the practice of only staying with the richest. people in the places visited… prevents him from claiming to know the minds of the masses. Largely ignored by Indian academics, this document is often cited by Western scholars on “modern terrorism”. Inspired by Western imperialist ideas, they see Indian revolutionaries as forerunners of modern day terrorists, completely ignoring the terrorist nature of the colonial regime itself.
Vohra, however, distinguishes the violence of the oppressor from that of the oppressed, giving a nuanced understanding of this complex ethical issue. According to him, the colonial subject, living under economic, social, political and cultural oppression, tends to lose self-confidence and identity. The constant symbolic and physical violence of the oppressor creates severe anxiety and fear in the affected population. Revolutionary violence, according to Vohra, “… instills fear in the hearts of the oppressors, it brings hopes of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses, it gives courage and self-confidence to the hesitant, it breaks the spell of superiority of the ruling class and elevates the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world ”.
Vohra anticipated the famous Marxist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who wrote about the emancipatory role of revolutionary violence for race or prone people in his famous book, The Damned of the Earth. For Vohra, the revolution meant not only the overthrow of the British, but also the elimination of the capitalist class and Indian landowners who exploited the Indian masses in alliance with the British colonial state. For him, the revolution would mean “more than a change of masters” because it would lead to “the birth of a new order of things, of a new state”. This meant a total transformation of the economic and political spheres as well as of the socio-cultural and psychological fields. The HSRA manifesto also made similar arguments.
Vohra led a stoic life and embodied the motto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, “Service, Suffering, Sacrifice”. He was always eager to donate the money or other resources he had available to the cause. Remembering his comrade, Bejoy Kumar Sinha wrote that Vohra often used to say: “I want to die in a place and in a way that no one knows and does not shed tears”. In a cruel tragedy, the story answered his desire. He died on May 28, 1930 while testing a bomb near the Ravi River. He was hastily buried by crying comrades and, over the years, faded from the memory of the nation.
Harshvardhan and Prabal Saran Agarwal are doctoral students at JNU. Opinions are personal.