‘The second group [apart from communal leaders] who play a very important role in inciting communal riots [in India], are the newspapers. The profession of Journalism, once considered extremely noble, has now become ignoble and dirty’.
This harsh critique on the role of mainstream media in inciting communal riots in India seems extremely contemporary. But these lines were written 93 years ago, by a then 19-year-old young man from Lahore, who would become immortalised in history as Shaheed Bhagat Singh. In his article, written in Punjabi and published in the Kirti Magazine in 1927, ‘Dharmvar Fasad Te unha de ilaj’ (‘Communal Riots and their Cure’), Bhagat Singh was scathing about the role of political leaders and newspapers in inciting communal violence.
– He espoused ‘class consciousness’ and ‘separation of religion from politics’ as the antidote to violence.
It is important to understand the times that Bhagat Singh lived in, to understand his views on the communal situation. Bhagat Singh was born on 28th September 1907 in Banga village in Lyallpur district of Punjab (in present-day Pakistan). This was just two years after the Partition of Bengal (1905) into Hindu and Muslim majority areas, on the orders of British Governor-General, Lord Curzon. This led to a large upsurge among middle-class Hindus against this decision and a counter-reaction from the Muslims. In fact, just two months after Bhagat Singh’s birth, the Punjab Muslim League was formed in November 1907, with the purpose of furthering Muslim interest. Two years later, in 1909, leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai, Lal Chand and Shadi Lal established the ‘Punjab Hindu Sabha’ which aimed to ‘safeguard the interests of the entire Hindu community’.
It would be realistic to say that communal riots are not a new phenomenon to India and have been happening throughout history. Even during the rare display of Hindu-Muslim unity during the revolt of 1857, a communal riot broke out near Delhi’s Jama Masjid area between the upper caste Hindu sepoys and the local Muslims over the killing of cows. This fact was attested by contemporary Delhi resident Zahir Delhvi in his memoirs ‘Dastaan-e-Ghadar’. However, with the advent of newspapers and political parties in the early 20th century, these communal flare-ups became larger and more ‘organised’, most often with sinister purpose.
Growing up in a nationalist family, Bhagat Singh threw himself into the freedom movement at a very young age. In 1919, by the time he was just 12 years old, the world was fast-changing around him. A large number of Punjabis had fought across the seas during World War I and returned back to Punjab with new ideas. The Bolshevik revolution had taken place in Russia and the ‘Young Turks’ had abolished the Caliphate in Turkey. Punjab was in the midst of political upheaval and the British repression had led to the gory Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 and the Nankana Sahib killings of 1921. Disillusioned with Mahatma Gandhi’s unilateral calling off of the non-cooperation movement in 1922, Bhagat Singh set out on his own path, as a revolutionary.
The mass mobilisation of Muslims as a part of the Khilafat movement (1918-1924), supported by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress-led to a counter-reaction among Hindus, with the establishment of the ‘Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha’ in 1921. Through the 1920s, the relationship between the Hindus and Muslims began to deteriorate and India was wracked by a series of communal riots. In 1923, India witnessed eleven communal riots, in 1924 there were eighteen communal riots, in 1925 there were sixteen communal riots, and in 1926 there were as many as thirty-five communal riots across India. In the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) alone, there were as many as 91 instances of communal riots between 1923 and 1927.
The Hindu Mahasabha suffered a jolt when following the Nagpur riots of 1923, a local leader KB Hedgewar quit. He would go on to establish a separate organisation in 1925, called ‘Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’ or the ‘RSS’. Two years later, in 1927, the Tablighi Jamaat , a zealous Muslim missionary group was formed to ‘defend Islam and the Muslims.’
In 1923, Bhagat Singh was a student at National College, Lahore when communal fires were flaring up across India. By 1926, he became a member of a revolutionary organization called the ‘Hindustan Republican Association’, along with others like Chandrashekhar Azad and Sukhdev Thapar. Bhagat Singh was a prolific writer and wrote articles and pamphlets on the problems of Punjab. He also wrote for Kirti, the journal of the Kirti Kisan Party ("Workers and Peasants Party") run by a Punjabi Communist Sohan Singh ‘Josh’ and in fact even served on its Editorial board.
It was while reacting to a bad communal riot in Lahore in May 1927, that Bhagat Singh wrote an article in Punjabi titled ‘Dharmvar Fasad Te unha de ilaj’ (‘Communal Riots and their Cure’), published in the June 1927 issue of the Kirti Magazine. It gives us a peek into the thoughts of this bright young man, who was just 19 at the time. Bhagat Singh writes –
“The condition of India has now become pitiable. The followers of one religion have become bitter enemies of the followers of the other religion. It is as if to belong to one particular religion is reason enough for becoming enemy of an another religion. If someone has any doubts about the seriousness of the situation, they should look at the recent riots of Lahore. How Muslims killed innocent Hindus and Sikhs who in turn have left no stone unturned to retaliate. These mutual killings have not been done to someone found guilty of some crime, but for the simple reason that someone was either Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. Just being a Hindu or a Sikh was a sufficient cause for being killed by Muslims, and likewise to be a Muslim was sufficient cause for him to be killed. In this situation, God alone can save India.
Today, India’s future seems extremely bleak and dark. These religions have damaged India (‘Beda Gark’) and one does not know when India will be freed from these communal riots. These riots have shamed India at the world stage and we have seen that in this deluge (of emotions), everyone gets swept away.”
Bhagat Singh was scathing about the fact that national political leaders preferred to remain mute witnesses to these riots. Worse, many tried to reap political benefits out of the violence. He writes –
‘It has been observed that, communal leaders and newspapers have played a role in instigating these riots. In these times of communal hatred, the leaders of India have decided to remain mum. The same leaders who claim to have taken the great responsibility of liberating the country, who harp about “common nationality” (‘Samaan Rashtriyata’) and who never tire of sloganeering about “Swaraj” (self-rule), have now decided to remain mum with their heads bowed down in shame. Some of them are even getting swayed by religious bigotry. There are very few leaders who sincerely think of the common good. And such is the rising wave of communal passions, that even they are not able to stem the tide. It appears that Indian political leadership has become completely bankrupt!
In an interesting parallel to the present times, Bhagat Singh blames the newspapers for flaming communal passions and decries the fall in the profession of journalism.
‘The other instrument of fomenting and inciting communal violence are the newspapers. The profession of Journalism, once considered extremely noble, has now become ignoble and dirty’. These people publish inflammatory stories in big bold headlines that provoke a constant feeling of hatred among communities. Infact, there are numerous examples where communal riots have broken out due to inflammatory articles in these newspapers. During these turbulent times, there are very few reporters who can boast of a balanced poise in their minds and hearts.
The duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of people of narrow sectarian ideas, and to eliminate communal feelings, and to bring about real rapprochement for advancing the cause of “common nationalism” but they have been doing exactly opposite, leading to the division in the objective of “common nationalism”. This is the very reason that makes me cry tears of blood when I think of present India and wonder “What will happen to India?”
Bhagat Singh felt that the biggest beneficiary of the riots was the British Raj. He felt that due to this, the British establishment had become even stronger. Interestingly, Bhagat Singh felt that the causes of communal violence were economic. While it is difficult for people today to digest the fact that Bhagat Singh was a ’Marxist’, the influence of Marxist ideas can clearly be seen in his writings
“The root cause of communal violence is economic. During the time of non-cooperation movement, leaders and reporters made huge sacrifices for the cause. When non-cooperation movement lost its steam, people lost trust in their leaders, as a result many of the present “communal leaders” became bankrupt (‘Dhandha Chaupat’). Whatever happens in the world, money can be traced as a cause for it. This is one of the three key principles of Marxian theories. The current rise of the “Tablighi” and “Shudhi” organizations can be attributed to this principle of Marx and this is the very reason why we have reached such a pathetic state.
He goes on to speak of the sad state of the masses in India, which enables anyone to ‘buy’ rioters for their own gain. Bhagat Singh feels that the economic improvement of the masses is the only way to stop riots. He tries to channelize the anger against the British Raj, by stating that the only way to improve the lives of Indians is to get rid of the colonial rule -
‘So, if there is any solution to communal riots, it can only be achieved through improvement of economic condition in India. The truth is that the economic condition of a common man in India is so bad that anyone can give a quarter of a rupee (‘Chavanni’) to someone to offend a third person. A person struggling through hunger and suffering often keeps all his principles aside. Why wouldn’t he, when the only option is to do or die? But right now, changes in economic condition are extremely difficult because of the Colonial government that is indifferent in improving the lives of people. This is the very reason why people should do everything they can to get rid of this government.’
Like other Marxists and Socialists, Bhagat Singh too felt that ‘class consciousness’ among the poor and the fight against the capitalists was the way ahead. He even gave an example of what happened in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution.
“To prevent people from fighting each other, “class consciousness” is the need of the day. It must be very clearly explained to the workers and farmers that their real enemies are the capitalists. And so you must not fall for their tricks. It is in your best interest that you set aside your differences based on colour, creed, race, religion, regionalism and try to take over the reins of power. In trying, You have nothing to lose, and perhaps one day even be able to break the shackles of poverty and be economically free.
Those who know the history of Russia, know there was a similar situation there during the rule of the Tsar, with one community fighting the other. But the day Bolsheviks came into power, the whole situation changed. Since then there have been no reports of riots from Russia. Now, every person is considered a ‘human being’ beyond their religious identities. Bad economic condition of the Russians during the Tsarist rule was the root cause of these riots. With the improvement in economic conditions and the rise of ‘class consciousness’ among Russians, there have been no riots in Russia.”
Among the doom and gloom of reports coming from across India, Bhagat Singh saw a ray of hope that young Indians were crafting their identities beyond caste and religion. He saw the martyrs of the failed Ghadar revolt of 1914-15 as heroes to be emulated and also staunchly advocated the separation of religion and politics as the only way forward. By the end of his article, he seemed quite optimistic of the future, in contrast to the gloomy beginning -
“The good news is that the youth of India are now abandoning those religions which preach hatred and communal violence. They have become so open in their outlook that they don’t look at people as Hindus, Muslims or Sikh but first as a human beings and then as Indians. With the rise of these new ideas, I see hope for the future of India. Indians should not get despondent at the news of these riots, but they should seek to build a tolerant environment in which such riots can never take place.
The martyrs of 1914-15 separated religion from politics. They understood that religion is the personal matter of an individual which needed no interference from other. They all agreed that religion should not be mixed with politics because it does not allow people to work together for a common cause. This was the reason why during the revolution called by ‘Gadar Party’, people remained united and Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims together went on the gallows.
Today, there is a new breed of politicians who have entered the fight for India’s freedom, who want to separate religion from politics. This is a beautiful way to cure the malaise of communal violence.
Even though we have different religious beliefs, if we separate religion from politics we all can stand together for the national cause.
We hope that the true wellwishers (‘Hamdard’) of India will think over our proposed solutions and will save India from the current path of self-destruction.”
Just four years after this article was published, Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British on 23 March 1931. He was just 23 years old. After his death, Bhagat Singh became a hero to millions of Indians, who sadly never read or followed any of his beliefs.
It has been 89 years since his death, but it seems nothing has changed. Millions of Indians continue to live in abject poverty even as communal fires burn and politicians play up differences, for their own gains. The media, much larger and in your face today than ever before - seems even more irresponsible, often fanning hatred and sometimes even instigating conflict.
It is important to reflect and change. Is this the India we want? Is this the India that so many people including Bhagat Singh, have given up their life for?