by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram
March 23, 2023, marked the 92nd anniversary of the execution of the martyrs Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru by the British in Lahore. It is a day on which the people of India remember the sacrifices of these and many other martyrs who died so that their motherland could be free. We gratefully commemorate the heroism and sacrifice of these martyrs today. But, in the seventy-fifth year of formal independence, it is important that we reflect on what they died for, and whether their goals have been achieved.
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Millions of Indian people rallied against the British colonialists during the First War of Independence 1855 – 1858. They overcame all differences of religions and everything else to unite as one against the occupier. They valiantly fought not only to oust the hated colonialists from their beloved motherland, but to establish regimes where the people, not a handful of elites, would be sovereign and hold political power. At this time, the question that came to the fore was `who will decide as to who will rule India’. Unfortunately, this War ended in the defeat of the Indian patriots and led to the consolidation of British rule in India, which was brought directly under the British crown.
The First War of Independence made it clear to the British that opposition to their rule could not be wished away. So, they went about devising strategies to counter, diffuse and defeat this opposition. The British used the notorious policy of divide and rule, which they had earlier used and tested in Ireland, an island colony nearer to their own. They set about using every differentiation in Indian society – be it religion, region, language, ethnicity, caste, or anything else – to create schisms and lasting divisions and animosities among the people.
The British thought it would be expedient to allow the people to vent their grievances in a manner that would be harmless to their rule over the country. A retired civil servant helped to establish the first political party, the Indian National Congress, to act as such a ‘safety valve’. Due to the tacit patronage which it received from the elites of the country, and the covert backing of the colonialists themselves, this party grew popular among the masses who were thirsting for freedom.
Two trends were evident within the freedom movement that raged in India after the First War of Independence in 1857, all the way till the formal transfer of power in 1947. These two trends were also evident within the Congress Party itself from time to time.
The first trend was of seeking concessions and favours from the British rulers – for example, provincial assemblies, ‘home rule’ and the like. This trend was characterised by grovelling, petitioning the rulers in fawning language, aiding their efforts to go to war with other nations and other colonial or oppressive powers with manpower and materials, and so on.
The other trend was of noncompromising struggle with the colonialists. Numerous patriots right from Balwant Vasudev Phadke and Mangal Pandey belonged to this trend. This trend also found reflection within the Indian National Congress from time to time, though it was systematically and quite ruthlessly suppressed. The great martyrs Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru are among the most well-known patriots belonging to this trend.
In his writings Bhagat Singh clearly states that he was fighting for the cause of liberation of the people of India, and the British colonial set-up which was the primary cause for the oppression at that time. He had written clearly that his struggle for the complete and total liberation. What is quite prophetic is his statement on March 3, 1931, just 20 days before his judicial assassination “… the struggle in India would continue as 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…”
The path of noncompromising struggle with the colonialists would have led to smashing the colonial legacy – the bureaucracy, the police, the judiciary and legal system etc. However, in the event, it was the dominant trend – fostered by the Congress Party, which won out. In the year 1947 at the end of the Second World War, the British colonial power was weakened and holding on to India seemed untenable. The Mountbatten plan was put into action and the country was partitioned, the erstwhile princely states amalgamated, and the Union of India came into being, as well as the country of Pakistan. The British colonialists essentially transferred power to the rich moneybags and the political parties led by the Congress, who ran the government and executive at their behest.
Seventy-five years later, India today is a country with one of the world’s worst income and wealth disparities. It is a country that boasts on the one hand of several billionaires, and on the other of 80 crores of people who have to depend on the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana for some years, while school children have had to get their mid-day meals from the Prime Minister’s Poshan Shakti Nirman. It is a country which by most HDI indices ranks amongst the worst in the world, with rapidly sinking rankings in the world happiness index. Over 35 of the most polluted cities in the world are in India. We have some of the highest accident rates per kilometre. There is wide spread anarchy, with attacks on men and women, lynchings, and rapes, with practically no one being brought to book. Simultaneously there are a large number of undertrials, many political prisoners detained under a whole constellation of draconian laws such as the UAPA, NSA. Bail is routinely denied under the pretext of an individual being a terrorist or a threat to the `integrity and unity’ of the country. The harsh measures of the government, seen especially during the struggle against the undemocratic CAA and Farm Laws is a particularly poignant reminder of the arbitrariness and brutality of the governments. In other words, the colonial legacy, especially of oppression and exploitation, is alive and well in the country.
The people of India have a long and proud history of struggle. The question of sovereignty – in whose hands is it to decide as to who will rule over India – came to the fore during the First War of Independence of 1856-57. The great martyrs and patriots fondly visualised of and fervently fought for not only for the end of British rule but for true independence of the Indian people from exploitation and for the people to be true masters of their destiny. In contrast, in 1947 the country saw the power pass from the British to Indian ruling circles, in particular presided by the Indian National Congress in divided India and the Muslim League in Pakistan. These were parties which upheld the interest of the leading industrial houses, the Birlas and Tatas as well as the landed gentry. The political system which came into being following the formal independence of 1947 divested the people of political power and vested it firmly in the hands of the rich capitalists and zamindars.
It is clear that the transfer of power which took place in 1947 did not by any means satisfy the slate put forward by the martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru. They laid down their lives for the emancipation of the people of India. Not for the transferring of the control of the shackles that bound the Indian people from the hands of the British Crown to the hands of the Indian capitalists and zamindars. Thus, the struggle for which they laid down their lives is far from complete.
Hence if we are to really uphold the values which these great martyrs died for, we must continue (the struggle) as long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. We must oppose all injustice and all the draconian laws. We must oppose all the activities of the political parties of the rich that are designed to divest the people of political power. We must unite and fight for justice and true liberation! That is the call of the martyrs that we must renew and pledge to fight for.