Give the revolutionaries their due

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India

Author- Kama Maclean

Editor- Penguin, Rs499

Through this book, Kama Maclean has written a moving story about the brave men and women who faced off against the British, and the influences they spread across India and among its opinion makers, writes RAJESH SINGH

In 1964 came the movie, Haqeeqat, based on the India-China war of 1962, with moving lyrics,‘Kar chale hum fida jaano-tan saathiyon’, delivered by a handful of top-notch singers. These words may well be applied to the brave hearts of three decades and more before the song became a national sentiment. They were soldiers of a different kind – without a uniform, without a military mandate to live and die for the nation, and with the ability to stay safe. These mad but blessed men blew it, brazenly defying the colonial power that ruled their nation, walking smilingly to the hangman’s noose and ending their lives in the prime of life. They were India’s first revolutionaries, heroes largely unsung in histories, official and unofficial, written in the decades since independence. Even British historians have chosen to ignore or minimize the contribution of these revolutionaries. It’s as if they never existed, or if they did, they had no relation to the larger story of the freedom struggle.

The fate that the martyr (and other) revolutionaries of the late 1920s and early 1930s met at the hands of later scholars rooted in the Gandhi-Nehru narrative is no different from that which went to people like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, although in another sense. way. Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Sukhdev and others have become footnotes in historical works and their sacrifices are deemed – albeit an act of courage – utterly unnecessary. To a large extent, this belief was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s stance on the subject. The Mahatma, whose concepts of “non-violence” often frustrated his closest aides such as Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had a gloomy view of the path of violence the revolutionaries had chosen to achieve Indian independence. It is a statement of the profound impact that the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary companions had on the country that even the Mahatma was forced to admit that Bhagat Singh “was not a coward”. And yet, the guardian of the conscience of Congress was right when Congress passed a resolution which, while hailing the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries as exemplary, also condemned the “murderous acts” of the brave executed.

In the eight plus decades since the era of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and their colleagues belonging to the Socialist Republican Army of Hindustan, most of the publications that have emerged through private efforts on their lives and their struggles have been either hagiographic or poorly documented, thus rendering them less useful for serious academic mention. Moreover, these efforts have focused on individuals and less or not at all on the larger canvas that revolutionaries have sought to redefine and their impact on “mainstream” political developments. In other words, it appeared that there were three streams of freedom struggle: one led by Mahatma Gandhi, another by Netaji Bose, and the third by “hotheads” like Bhagat Singh and Azad. . That the two processes can intentionally and unintentionally complement each other at the subterranean level has not occurred to most academics. It was here that Sydney-based South Asian studies scholar Kama Maclean did groundbreaking work with her book, A Revolutionary History of Interwar India. It is as much a moving story of the brave men and women who confronted British might in a way they saw fit as it is of the trends their fearlessness shaped and the influences they spread across the country and among its opinion makers.

In addition to focusing on nationally recognized revolutionary freedom fighters, the author draws attention to relatively lesser-known but equally important actors. She pays a deserved tribute to Durga Devi Vohra, for example. Durga bhabhi as she was popularly known was the wife of one of the revolutionaries who worked closely with Bhagat Singh and Azad and who himself was initially viewed with suspicion because the revolutionaries were unsure of his commitment to their cause. Maclean’s narrative also reflects the gender challenges we still face today. Few believed that Durga Devi Vohra, a woman, could contribute significantly to the revolutionary cause. Additionally, there were those in the movement who felt marriage fettered a revolutionary. And so, while the author notes that “women were active on the fringes of HSRA’s inner circle,” they were more the exception than the rule.

Durga Devi Vohra disrupted the pattern and played a stellar role. On some occasions, she provided the perfect disguise for Bhagat Singh, accompanying him with his child and giving the appearance of a happy family of three. Police personnel, always on the lookout for “uncluttered young people” ready to commit sedition, would thus be largely misled. Maclean informs that Durga Devi Vohra has carried out even bolder acts. She writes: ‘Few know that she was involved in a range of activities, and even led action, shooting a British policeman and his wife in October 1930.’ Indeed, such had been the brave feats of Durga Devi Vohra that she ended up sharing at least some popular public space with the greats of Bhagat Singh and Azad. Of course, the road was not smooth. The author says “Durga Devi paid the price for her politics”, with people in Lahore, where she was based, gossiping about her movement with the men and disparaging her behavior.

The role of women was expanding in other ways as well. Maclean cites a source who spoke of an HSRA member, while in police custody, deciding to become a government approver. When the HSRA member’s wife learned of the betrayal, she told her mother to let her know that she considered herself a widow. The mother, when visiting the HSRA man in jail, gave the message and added that she (the mother) also considered her son dead. This shook the man and he quickly retracted the statement to become approving.

The important contribution of women to the struggle of the revolutionaries and particularly to the HSRA led the organization to recalibrate its position. According to Maclean, “the HSRA has come to recognize ‘no artificial barriers between men and women’, with Bhagat Singh urging from prison the formation of a women’s committee whose main duty would be to ‘revolutionize women and select from among they are active women. members for direct service.

While the aim of the book, in the words of the author, is to “position the role of violence in the struggle for freedom… paying attention to a fusion of textual, oral, visual and other stories” unarchived,” what Maclean does as effectively is to demonstrate the impact that the “violent” revolutionary movement had on the more traditional “nonviolent” campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi and executed by Congress. Anti-imperialist sentiment among the masses may have been effectively harnessed by the campaign led by the Mahatma, but it was anchored in the public consciousness in the first place by the heroic deeds of HSRA members such as Azad and Bhagat Singh. One complemented the other, and yet, as the author points out, “historians have come to see violence and nonviolence as rival forms of political action, remaining patently reluctant when violence interfered with subsequent campaigns, such as the Quite India movement”. She hits the nail on the head by suggesting that it is “much more productive to see all these movements as part of a single formation of anti-colonial nationalism”.

In a sense, therefore, Maclean’s book is a major attempt not so much to rewrite the history of the country’s freedom struggle, but to rewrite it, placed alongside the history of a revolutionary movement that left no one spared.

Thelma J. Longworth