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Dirty Hands: The tale of Bhagat Singh.

February 3, 2011

Look at the picture above. His name is Shaheed Bhagat Singh. ‘Shaheed’ is a hindi title given to a person who is a martyr. Shaheed Bhagat Singh was one of the most prolific freedom fighters in the Indian Independence struggle. He was also the most radical of them, using every form of action that Mahatma Gandhi condemned. He murdered a British officer who went by the name of J.P. Saunders in revolt of the Simon Commission. He also threw a bomb in a democratic assembly in opposition to a bill which became an act called the Defence of India Act. Furthermore, when he was convicted of and sentenced to life imprisonment and then death for the crimes he had committed, he made the courtroom and jailhouse his way of reaching out. He created havoc for the British officers in the jail, humiliated the court and led a major 67 day hunger strike in protest in the jail. Yet, he is identified among the greatest of Indian revolutionaries and is held in as high regard as Gandhi and other proponents of non-violence. Now the question here is that why is this so?

I turn to Michael Walzer to explain this. Walzer talks about Camus’ book The Just Assassins and according to me the revolutionary is just like the assassins. Walzer writes ‘The heroes are innocent criminals, just assassins, because having killed they are prepared to die – and will die’. The heroes here are Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his compatriots who rise up and force justice out of an unjust and suppressant regime. The revolutionaries have dirty hands, but these dirty hands are washed free once they get the ultimate sentence of death. In Walzers words, “On  the scaffold they wash their hands clean and , unlike the suffering servant, they die happy”. Thus, the revolutionary is the figure who has dirty hands but for a cause that is greater than himself. Thus when he dies for his cause, the very act of dying for it makes him greater than the regime that has condemned him. A modern parallell of this is the man who let himself on fire in the Middle East in protest.

So, in conclusion, Bhagat Singh went on to fuel the  socialist movement in India in the 1940’s  and was the main reason behind a massive uprising from the youth. So was he a martyr? Yes. Did he have dirty hands? Yes. Was he a just assassin? Yes.

Inquilab Zindabad! [Hindi for ‘long live the revolution]

7 Comments
  1. BrianFisher permalink
    February 4, 2011 2:38 PM

    I completely agree with your portrayal of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his heroic status. These individuals that decide to give up their life for a greater cause emphatically demonstrate the characteristics of a hero. However, I do not necessarily believe that these individuals have to essentially die to become greater than the regimes that condemn the prisoner. While this may propel these individuals’ commitment towards the cause, the fact that they are improving and changing the social structure around them should be enough evidence alone to consider this person a revolutionary hero. Additionally, I whole-heartily believe that some people may need to get their “hands dirty” in order to efficiently promote their cause. However, in the case of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, I personally believe that he might have killed one too many innocent lives to promote his cause. While I understand his radical behavior was deemed necessary in his mind, no one should put their own life or belief ahead of others. Murder is never righteous or just.

    • willscheffer permalink
      February 7, 2011 4:39 PM

      I like this blog post because, unlike the commenter above, i think that it presents both sides of the case while leaving us to come to our own conclusions, which i will now. Bhagat Singh certainly was a revolutionary as the article implies, however he certainly was not the type of revolutionary the world needs. Although i am hesitant to make the comparison, it is true that in the modern day Singh would most certainly be labeled a terrorist. The reason for this, however, does not go against any belief that individuals should fight for what they believe is right. The reason Singh should be considered a terrorist is because he used violence to accomplish his goals. As an American, sometimes it is hard to label modern day violent revolutionaries as terrorists considering the origins of our own country. However, how can someone who lived during the life of Ghandi not be held accountable for choosing violence over peace? The commenter above states, “I personally believe that he might have killed one too many innocent lives to promote his cause.” I personally believe that statement is absurd. Viewpoints that marginalize human life in that way have no place in a peaceful united world, and this is exemplified by the fact that no one outside of india has heard of Bhagat Signh while everybody knows and respects Ghandi.

    • Ish Singh permalink
      March 31, 2011 2:30 AM

      Well, let me start by putting a scenario in front of you:

      Some foreign nation’s (Girgistan lets say) army comes over to America and is now ruling America. One of the armed force officers from Girgistan named XYZ orders attack and use of lethal force on peaceful protestors and ends up killing several of them including the main leader. A young kid named Joe Smith from America wants to avenge the death of this leader and also send message to the the Girgistan’s government that American’s do not approve of Girgistan’s forecful occupation of America. He sets out to kill the officer who authorized the use of lethal force against unarmed peaceful civilian protestors. He makes sure that no other innocent by stander is around and takes a shot at the culprit officer. Later he finds out that the officer he shot was a different person.

      Later, he finds out that Girgistan army is sending bunch loads of Gold that belongs to America via train to somewhere to be sent off to Girgistan. He decides to attack the train to take the gold back and return back to the original owner.

      Then he goes and throws a smoke bomb without hurting anyone in the Girgistan’s ruling congress inside America to let them know that their laws are unjust for Americans and they should leave America.

      For doing this, he is caught and given a death sentence, without ever arresting or charging the original officer who ordered the killing of several hundered innocent civilians. In the jail he finds out that even in jail he finds out that Americans are treated very badly by the Girgistanians and goes on a hunger strike. And finally he is hanged which he happily accepts as a freedom fighter for his nation.

      Hopefully, this will help you see the truth (or at-least another side) of the story behind Bhaghat Singh. It is so easy for someone sitting in his comfortable chair to write and label a freedom fighter as a terrorist or murderer without doing proper research.

  2. ankitchowdhary274 permalink
    February 7, 2011 5:10 PM

    I feel that I have to clarify a historical point here that may clear out the image fo Bhagat Singh. Due to my nationality I may not be able to give a neutral stance on Bhagat Singh, as I have grown up seeing him as a hero to the cause of Indian Independence.

    When I said that Bhagat Singh bombed the assembly, he did not kill anybody. He threw a harmless smoke bomb in the middle of the proceeding to state a point against unjust laws. He was implicated in that situation for unlawfully disrupting parliament and not for murder.

    • willscheffer permalink
      February 13, 2011 12:59 PM

      haha ok that sort of changes everything.

  3. Bobby Marshall permalink
    February 7, 2011 6:14 PM

    I think this is a great post because as someone pointed out above, Bhagat Signh poses an interesting conflict. Bhagat Signh was an individual that committed what some might consider crimes or unjust acts but they were done for the greater good. This is a conflict that i have seen coming up in many posts on this blog which is something i think i’d like to address. I think a very interesting point and one of the most well-known statements of all-time is that “history is written by the victors.” In this sense, if India had not achieved peace would Bhagat Signh been seen as a terrorist or a radical? I honestly think so. Not because i disagree with what Bhagat Signh did, but that one must take into account that one’s actions, whether morally just or unjust, is almost somewhat completely based on what happened to their cause and if in the end they were successful. I think this ties well into the video shown in class, “Fog of War.” Similar to Bhagat Signh, McNamera helped with situations that in the end caused many innocent people to die, but to him in the end it came down to the number of “us vs them.” I find it even more interesting that McNamera admits during the documentary if the US had lost, he most likely would have been held accountable for war crimes. Not to make a completely radical point, but in my mind this statement and this discussion of Bhagat Signh, whether his acts were just or not, brings to mind the Nuremberg trails. I feel like this is a perfect example of how history is written by the victors. Of course there is nothing just or right or even morally acceptable about what the Nazi’s held on trial at Nuremberg did, but if Germany had not invaded Russia and somehow had won world war two, those generals and soldiers would probably have been considered hero’s or at least iconic. I’m not trying to say that anyone’s actions can be justified by the situation or who won, but one should take into consideration when assessing one’s actions, like those of Bhagat Signh, the situation of which they occurred and how the actions affected the end and what was the end.

  4. Anthony Sinishtaj permalink
    February 13, 2011 5:12 PM

    Singh was a terrorist to the British, but a hero to the Indians. For Indians, he helped overthrow a government who oppressed them. It is the same way as the American Revolutionaries. We call them revolutionaries, but they were terrorists in British eyes. They killed British soldiers, destroyed British property (Boston Tea Party), and tried to uphaul the British system. This is even contradictory to the American belief that private property and life should be protected. However, the Americans understood that in order to overthrow British rule that they saw as tyrannical, they had to get their hands dirty. Although people say murder can never be justified; this is simply not the case. If this were the case, we would bend our will to whatever little wind of fortune blows towards us. We would not have America, or Britain for that matter. The status quo would be kept forever. Without revolutionaries, new governmental systems such as democracy, which many pacifists are in favor of, would never have been born. And people in India didn’t think that Gandhi’s non-violent protests were working, which is why some resorted to violence. It’s all hindsight to say that they should have been non-violent, since we now know the outcome. If non-violence always worked, there would be no reason for violent demonstrations.

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