Book Review

Shahid Bhagat Singh’s Jail Notebook

C.N. Subramaniam

Shahid-i-Azam Ki Jel Notebook (Translation: Vishwanath Mishra, Edited: Satyam Verma)
Parikalpana Prakashan: First Edition – 1999, Third edition – 2002. 199 pages.
Paperback Rs. 50/ Hardbound Rs. 100/

The transition of Indian revolutionaries to Marxism and Communism was a complex and often painful process which required a combination of both revolutionary action and relentless study and theoretical work. One of the many braiding streams that went in to form the Indian communist movement was that of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association of which Shahid Bhagat Singh was the tallest figure. For decades Bhagat Singh had become the symbol of supreme sacrifice for the freedom of the country and reduced to being a bourgeois nationalist. It was in the last three decades of the previous century that his strong socialist orientation and his role as one of the early socialist ideologues began to emerge. The rethinking began with the publication of his militant atheist pamphlet, ‘Why I am an Atheist?’ and memoirs of several comrades of Bhagat Singh. The present book adds to the corpus of such literature and helps us in understanding better the intellectual ferment that took place with the combination of revolutionary nationalism and the inspiring experience of the Russian Revolution.

The original notebook contained notes in English taken from books and articles read by Bhagat Singh in prison during 1929-31. The present publication gives an annotated translation of the book in Hindi with an elaborate introduction to the manuscripts of the notebook (two copies of it are known to exist), its discovery, study by various authors and eventual publication. It also has one of the earliest scholarly notices of the notebook by the late Soviet scholar, L.V. Mitrokhin, published in 1981. It has two appendices, a long and useful essay on the intellectual evolution of the revolutionary movement by Shiv Verma, a comrade of Bhagat Singh, and a letter by Bhagat Singh requisitioning a list of books he wanted to read in the prison. Special mention must be made of the excellent and painstaking annotation, for it must have been rather difficult to trace the various books which are referred to in the notebook. On the whole it is a competently brought out book which matches professional standards. Special care has been taken to make it useful to radical students of the present generation who may not have the necessary background to understand the significance of the entries in the notebook.

The notebook mostly consists of quotations from the books read by Bhagat Singh, noted without comments. As such it is not possible to know exactly what he thought of the ideas contained in the quotations. However, it is possible to get an idea of the trend of his thinking and the issues that interested him by looking at the kind of books he read and the passages he found noteworthy. Indeed it would have been useful had the editors included an index of books and authors referred to in the notebook.

When we look at the contents of the notebooks we are impressed by the range of books read – he must have been a voracious reader. And he apparently read with a purpose not just to keep himself occupied. While there are quotes from stray literature and poetry, most of the notebook is focused on definite themes and it seems that he was keenly studying radical western critical tradition and trying to assimilate its diverse strands with an open mind. Indeed it is striking that there is absolutely nothing in the notebook from Indian tradition, whether pre-modern or modern. There is one quote from Bipin Chandra Pal on fighting to get freedom rather than getting it as an imperial gift and the inherent contradiction between the idea of independence and dominion status within British empire. The other reference is to Rabindranath Tagore’s criticism of western consumerism. A third quotation from Hindu Padshahi, refers to the Maratha guru, Ramdas’ entreaty to resist forcible conversion and fight to destroy the very agencies that seek to convert forcibly. Bhagat Singh in the last years of his life seemed to have deliberately made a break with Indian tradition, Brahmanic or otherwise and looked to radical leftist and especially socialist and communist tradition for inspiration and understanding. Of course we cannot be conclusive on this point as we do not know if this was the only notebook he kept. 

It is believed that initially he was inspired by the anarchism of Bakunin and the list of books he had asked for in July 1930 included Prince Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’. Nevertheless the notebooks have little on anarchist thought or its critique.

A theme to which he returned time and again in his notebook was religion and ethics (including philanthropy) and their use against democratic movements. (pp. 46, 51,53,57, 61-2, 70-1, 79) He drew upon the critique of religion from a number of traditions, Russell, Marx, Gorky, Ingersoll, Tom Paine, Rousseau, Grele, Upton Sinclair etc. This interest in the critique of religion was also expressed in his now famous pamphlet, ‘Why I am an Atheist?’ This consistent and open pursuit of militant atheism is in sharp contrast to the extensive use of religion being made by the bourgeois nationalist movement headed by the Congress and also sections of the revolutionary terrorist movement mainly in Bengal. Bhagat Singh seems to have been specially interested in how religion dulls radical consciousness and how it is used by the ruling classes to reinforce their authority. 

The principal theme of the notebook is however, radical bourgeois and Marxist-Leninist theories of the state and revolution. Interestingly enough Bhagat Singh doesn’t seem to have spent much time studying Marxist political economy though there are occasional notes on statistics relating to social differentiation and the productivity of modern industry and finance capital. There are a couple of quotations from Marx’s ‘Capital’ especially from the opening chapter on value, but he does not seem to have spent time over the book. Perhaps it was not available to him and was read only as a quotation in another book.

One of the first books to be studied in this notebook is Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family’. This is followed closely by a reading of Tom Paine, Ibsen, Spencer, Jefferson and other bourgeois radicals on state and liberty. Before long he returns to study Leninist theory and practice relating to state and revolution. There are long quotes from Lenin and Engels on proletarian hegemony and especially from Lenin’s polemic with Kautsky. Then he goes on to study Trotsky’s ‘Lessons of October’. The principal theme that engages him in this book is the importance of revolutionary conjuncture and the need to grasp it and use it firmly. (Interestingly he does not seem to be aware of the great debate raging in the Soviet Union between Trotsky and Stalin.) He returns to Lenin again on the question of the break between social democracy and communism, between the Second International and the communists.

Besides Marxist and radical bourgeois classics Bhagat Singh made systematic study of textbooks on law and the history of political thought from the Greeks to the Soviet experience. It is not clear which textbooks he used for this purpose. However from the very beginning his study of law seeks to outline its use by ruling classes to consolidate their power over the society. He seeks to distinguish between the concept of law and justice and right. He then moves on to the themes of crime and punishment and a critique of prevalent notions of punishment. The study of law is shortly followed by a long study of the history of political theory especially relating to state. He begins with the classical Greco-Roman theories and moves on the medieval theories of kinship and state and eventually to the radical bourgeois critique of the medieval theories. The section on social contract is fairly detailed as is the section on the importance of the French Revolution for political theory. He seems to have been keenly interested in the French Revolution and made detailed notes about it. This section on the study of political theory and state concludes with the notes on the Soviet Revolution. There is a long break in the notebook after this and it ends with notes on Indian situation, especially from Valentine Chirol’s ‘Indian Unrest’ and ‘India Old and New’. 

One may conclude by saying that the notebook shows the intellectual journey of Bhagat Singh from being a mere revolutionary nationalist to a communist. It is obvious that his primary area of interest remained the state and the approach of radical movements towards it. Significantly he was yet unaware of the Comintern debates on the colonial and national questions and his study was confined to the issues relating to metropolitan state and revolutionary movements. His overall preoccupation with the question of state and relative neglect of political economy indicates that he had not entirely broken with the framework of anarchist thinking and continued to treat the state in isolation from economic and social structures.

Even as we finished reviewing the above notebook, we received a couple of new publications based on Bhagat Singh’s writings. One of these, published by the All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Inquilabi Navjavan Sabha is essentially a selection from an earlier authoritative publication of Bhagat Singh’s works edited by Jagmohan Singh and Chaman Lal (Shahid i Azam Bhagat Singh Vichar Aur Sangharsh, Patna, 2003, 159 pages. Rs. 40.00). This edition is reasonably priced and is likely to be accessible to more people even though set in smaller font. It contains the essential Bhagat Singh readings and will be of great use in mobilising the youth towards radical causes. It also contains an introduction by Vinod Mishra. A substantial part of the five page introduction is devoted to Bhagat Singh’s transition from Anarchism to Marxism. He points out the strong influence of the former in the early writings and political action of Bhagat Singh while underlining the gradual shift towards Marxism. This shift he sees in Bhagat Singh’s famous materialist analysis and rejection of religion and theism and in his leanings towards the workers’ and peasants’ movement and his definition of revolution. While it is true that these pronouncements indicate a definite shift away from anarchism, in the absence of a study of political economy it could not become a decisive shift towards Marxism.

As we conclude one would like to make a remark on the language of these books. In an effort to make the writings of Bhagat Singh accessible to the Hindi readers of today the translators and editors tend to use a sanskritised variety of Hindi. It should be noted that the language used by Bhagat Singh himself would be very different, with a strong influence of Persian and Urdu. Since it is seldom pointed out that most of these writings may be translations from English or Punjabi, readers may not get an idea of the cultural diversity that went into shaping a Bhagat Singh.

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