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A Rebel, An Icon, An Enigma

S. Irfan Habib

By Malwinder Jit Singh Waraich
Publication Division, 2008, pp. 206, Rs. 150.00

By Chaman Lal
Leftword, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 191, Rs. 350.00


Bhagat Singh is surely one of the most acclaimed nationalist figures in contemporary India. He is also a youth icon, rated next to Mahatma Gandhi in a survey conducted recently among the youth from all over India. We can see that visually as well: one merely has to look at the windscreens of several vehicles, at least in North India, pasted with stickers of an imaginary Sikh figure alluding to Bhagat Singh. However, we do not go beyond idolizing him as a heroic figure, who bravely sacrificed his life for the cause of our freedom. No doubt a very noble cause, yet he was not alone to die for the country. Besides the many who were martyred before him, two others were hanged with him, but we do not idolize Sukhdev and Rajguru in the same way. So there is something different about Bhagat Singh, which we should ponder about. One of the books under review, The Jail Notebook, directly answers the above question and helps understand the difference between Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Waraich seems to be passionately involved with Bhagat Singh and his family. Hence the book is based not only on available records but relies heavily on interactions with Bhagat Singh’s family and friends. The books complement each other: the one by Waraich is biographical, hinting at the trajectory of Singh’s intellectual evolution while the second book reflects the maturing of Bhagat Singh as an intellectual, reflected in his Jail Notebook. The latter has an introduction by Chaman Lal. Though not a professional historian, Chaman Lal is known for popularizing the revolutionary legacy left behind by Bhagat Singh and his comrades.   Malwinder Jit Singh Waraich begins by tracing the roots of Bhagat Singh’s family focusing on their social and political commitments. Despite being Sikh, the family was under heavy Arya Samaj influence. Hence the young Bhagat was brought up and instilled with Arya Samaj values. He imbibed an abhorrence for untouchability and divisive caste prejudices because of this early influence. This further matured after Bhagat Singh was exposed to Marxist and other socialist and scientific philosophies. The following chapters of the book deal with Bhagat Singh joining the Hindustan Republican Association in 1923/24, the founding of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, the Assembly Bomb Explosion, the hunger strikes in jail, the ensuing trial and the final martyrdom. Interestingly, most of the chapters are written through ...

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