For Bhagat Singh, Against Camus

Bhagat Singh

Even though known as a writer and a revolutionary, Bhagat Singh never produced any literary masterpiece, and the effect of his political intervention is today symbolic at best. 89 years from his death, If we wish to reinstate him, it cannot be for his socialist beliefs, to which he has contributed little that is original. His lone canonized act is the terror attack on the British-Indian parliament, which he carried out along with his comrade Batukeshwar Dutt, while the assassination of the police officer John Saunders is considered a minor event as well in the Congress-centric version of the history of Indian independence. In the absence of any public figures worth of comparison among socialists, Bhagat Singh rose to become a celebrated socialist as the leftist parties searched for an authentic history of their own.

However, against this official narrative, his whole life needs to be reimagined, the high point of which was not the parliament bombing - an act that is now written into official history as a sideshow to the Congress's activities - but rather the stunning essay titled Why I am an Atheist. If our literature professors were not so blinded by the supremacy of the white man over everyone else, they would have taught this text as a pinnacle of modernity, instead of glorifying racists like Albert Camus in modernity's name.

A comparison of Camus's famous novel The Stranger and Why I am an Atheist is well past due, and is even an obvious one. They are both texts that reflect the moral philosophy of their authors, and use one common horizon to define themselves - the condemnation by the machinery of justice. 

Meursault, the infamously apathetic Stranger and a French resident of French-ruled Algiers imagines himself to be judged by his society of white men (in reality, he is only judged in a court and by a priest) not for his collaboration in the inhumane abuse of a Moor lady and the resulting murder of an Arab man (her brother), but for not adhering to the social norms of the white man. The undercurrent - or, one may say, the "economic foundation" - of the novel is that the white man's unquestioned right to abuse and kill the Arabs as he pleases, driven by the "heat and sunshine", as Meursault describes it in the novel. Meursault thinks of the sun and the crucifix as equally absurd, equating his murder driven by the sun with the countless murders driven by the crucifix - Camus seems to believe this is in some way an absolution, rather than an indictment of the white man and his society, which finds the most absurd reasons to commit their crimes. The seeming indictment of religious symbolism is reversed in The Fall, a deeply honest work where Camus spills out the Christian beliefs and ideas that reappear even in his own rejection of Christianity. 

What remains then of Camus's attempt to describe the human condition? Camus cannot even access the Arab condition enough to give the Moor woman and the Arab man an ontological existence independent of the hatred and condescension of Meursault and his friend. It is as if they exist so that Meursault may be driven towards a crime; first, it is the Moor woman's sense of dignity that Meursault and his white friend find intolerable, and they hatch a plan to puncture it. When the plan fails and the woman retaliates, the friend resorts to physical abuse. The woman's brother, the nameless Arab man, is murdered by Meursault when he attempts to confront them.

An outside-view of the novel would show a different picture, that the institutions of judiciary and religion served to control the violence that such rabid "average" whites could unleash on colonial subjects. The judge sitting in the courtroom is a much more radically moral figure than the celebrated Meursault, and one can only imagine the added horror that nameless Arabs would have had to face if there were to be no such courtroom - not that the horrors committed by white colonizers have been tempered significantly by such institutions.

Fawning commentators go into fanatic details of Meursault's relationship with his mother, almost despatching the two Arab figures into oblivion (a crime equal to that of Meursault's), almost never delving into the unequal relationship between the Arabs and the Frenchmen. For Camus, and for his fans in literary criticism, Arabs do not have an existence, let alone any angst. Psychoanalytic obfuscations do not dare to go any further than the shoehorning of the story into a case of Oedipus complex. 

Postcolonial and feminist criticisms have introduced a wedge in the rosy history of western literature, but failed to dislodge The Stranger from its central position in the pantheon of existential literature. Nonetheless, a major intervention came in the form of Kamel Daoud's retelling of this story, titled The Meursault Investigations, which goes through the murder from the Arab family's perspective. Daoud notes how the white man controlled even the most basic epistemological acts including naming, and therefore controlled the reality which was constructed, against the Arab experience. He says, "Like everyone else, I barely noticed the Arab. Meursault’s crime was perfect because it was told in a language that was perfect."

It is not that Camus remained ignorant of colonial injustices, but rather that it took him his entire lifetime to begin to find a place for the Arabs in his works. In the words of Daoud, "If Camus gave Arabs both bodies and names in The First Man, it shows that the dream [of literature] led him to act on the duty of naming the Arab." 

While Camus was daydreaming thus in 1942, it had already been 11 years since the publication of Why I am an Atheist, a few months following Bhagat Singh's death on March 23, 1931. Camus is unlikely to have read the essay. In the brief account of his life which Bhagat Singh gives in the essay, the similarity with Meursault's life is evident. He commits a crime, is arrested, sent to jail, asked to conform first and then to reform his theological beliefs, and rejects both; we know that he also met the same fate as Meursault, hanged to death. 

Aged 22 at the time, Bhagat Singh also knew his fate when he was writing the essay, "We all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be! A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hope should I entertain? I know that will be the end when the rope is tightened round my neck and the rafters move from under my feet. To use more precise religious terminology, that will be the moment of utter annihilation."

Beyond this bare framework, Bhagat Singh is a totally different human compared to Meursault. Whereas Meursault stands for the mindless violence of the white man who then blames it on such ridiculous things as the tropic climate, Bhagat Singh is propelled by the thrust of modernity to unite a people being ruled by exploiters, and subsequently the whole world, creating a new society out of the union, in a total rejection of the old societies built on barbarism. His morality is moulded by this dream, and gives birth to his atheistic convictions even as his socialist contemporaries indulged in "mysticism".

He writes about the British, who he says, "offered to release me on condition that I gave a statement on the activities of the Revolutionary Party. In this way I would be set free and even rewarded and I would not be produced as an approver in the court."

"I could not help laughing at their proposals", he continues. "It was all humbug. People who have ideas like ours do not throw bombs at their own innocent people." 

Bhagat Singh and Meursault stand in Stark contrast in this passage, "I was completely innocent, but I believed that the police had sufficient power to do it if they desired it to be so. The same day some police officers persuaded me to offer my prayers to God two times regularly. I was an atheist. I thought that I would settle it to myself whether I could brag only in days of peace and happiness that I was an atheist, or in those hard times I could be steadfast in my convictions. After a long debate with myself, I reached the conclusion that I could not even pretend to be a believer nor could I offer my prayers to God. No, I never did it."

Unlike the systematically inflated fantasies of Camus, which finds no place for Algerians under the label of "humanity" but is celebrated as a kind of universal humanity nevertheless, Bhagat Singh truly attempted to live a radical humanity. It is here that he must be relodged, a place where he has been nearly kept away by a focus on his political activity - a much more ambiguous field, since in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, the "Hindustan" today seems like having an equal or bigger role than the "Socialist", the name of the organization having been HRA, without the "Socialism", for quite some time. The nationalist tendency of the HSRA has persisted in retellings of history, up to the cooption of Bhagat Singh by the right wing.

It is not that his modernity did not produce political effects at all. But much of the effects remained latent and his actual political activities were often misdirected, something he did not get a chance to set right because of his early death. Even though born as a Sikh Jat, he took the original Sikh spirit of anti-casteism into his Socialism, which was hitherto missing from the socialist arsenal assembled by predominantly religious upper castes. But it was a mark of the grave imperfection of his worldview that he had to commit his act of revenge for a lathi charge by the British police on Lajpat Rai - an Arya Samaji whose philosophy was at odds with that of Singh's - which led to the death Rai, on November 17, 1928. As opposed to textbook history, the episode is ambiguous in terms of morality; Lajpat Rai was protesting against the Simon Commission, which was being boycotted by a Congress-led section of nationalists for a lack of Indian representation - in effect, upper caste representation. Taking an alternate stand, Dr Ambedkar and Dr P G Solanki testified in front of the Commission as representatives of the depressed classes.

What followed the protests and death of Rai, already an unnecessary escalation, was quite farcical. Singh and his comrades at Hindustan Socialist Republican Army vowed revenge for Rai's life; on 17 December 1928, they mistook John Saunders, a British police officer on probation, for James Scott, the police superintendent who ordered the lathi charge, and killed him. When they realized their mistake, they quickly changed track and announced that Saunders was indeed their target. They went underground for months after the police launched a hunt for them, resurfaced with a non-lethal bombing of the British-Indian parliament on 8 April 1929 which injured seven Members of Parliament, and hurled pages of socialist literature inside to make their statement clear.

Bhagat Singh's alliance with the opposition to the Simon Commission has to be reconsidered today, but the standard for reconsideration is his own ethical model. To be precise, he has to be "corrected" through the lens that he himself provided - the lens of modernity which he could not polish enough during his life to come at a more nuanced relationship to the British Raj. He never arrived at a total understanding of the situation of colonial India, got caught in a struggle, which concealed vested interests, against the Simon Commission, and remained a rejectionist of the British state till the end. What we cannot reject is that there is a dissonance between Bhagat Singh the revolutionary and Bhagat Singh the thinker.

We have to reorder the life of Singh in our imagination. Bhagat Singh is important not because he shot a wrongly identified police officer, orchestrated a bomb blast, or paid tributes to Lenin. Those are rather insignificant particulars, or even instances of the socialist strand collapsing into adventurism in its immaturity, in the hands of young, hot-blooded leaders who could not develop an effective strategy. Singh is important because he embodies an egalitarian current in the subcontinent which was ahead of much of the celebrated Western thought of its time, a current which peaked prematurely in Why I am an Atheist. The egalitarian current, identifiable in the strong commitment to reason and equality, could have led to his transformation into a towering socialist leader, had he not met his death at 24.

Socialism has far more significant figures than Bhagat Singh to rely on, but literary humanism does not. That is a domain in which the Camuses continue to hold the reins, when it should have been the Bhagat Singhs.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of any organisation including, but not limited to, Bodhi Commons.


Arjun is a student pursuing MA Mass Communication in AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.