Today is the death anniversary of the respected freedom fighters Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and Roshan Singh. On 19 December 1927, the three co-conspirators of the Kakori train robbery were hanged. Rajendra Nath Lahiri was hanged two days earlier.
Ram Prasad wrote under the pen names - Ram, Agyat and Bismil - but for some reason, he became famous by the ‘Bismil’. He wrote several poems in Hindi and Urdu, the most famous of them being, ‘sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab humare dil me hai”.
Ram Prasad was associated with Arya Samaj where he got inspiration from Satyarth Prakash by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. As an 18 year old boy, Bismil was a regular at the Arya Samaj temple in Shahjahanpur, and followed the political events closely.
Ram Prasad formed a revolutionary organisation called Matrivedi (Altar of Motherland), and later on, Hindustan Republican Association, along with others.
The HRA, keeping with the trend of the time, increasingly became socialist, and became HSRA - Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. It spoke of a revolution involving mass struggle to establish "the dictatorship of the proletariat".
Marxism was an attractive ideology for the colonised people at the time - it challenged imperialism, yet coming from the West, unlike indigenous thought, it didn’t threaten the Eurocentric assumptions of the time.
The communist freedom fighters, therefore, could leapfrog into “modern world politics”, leaving behind their uncivilised culture. The communist and imperialist thought hold a common assumption - that the colonised countries were indeed uncivilised before the foreign invasion, and foreign rule was a boon - a necessary stop in the march towards the communist utopia.
If not for communism, Mao would have been an 'oriental despot' and his violent take-over of China would have been an evidence of barbarity of the uncivilised orient.
Today, both Iran and China have authoritarian government, both persecute religious minorities, but the cloak of ‘communism’ saves China from the same reputation as the former. Former is seen as an anachronism that belongs in the dustbin of the history, while latter is seen by many scholars as futuristic.
Unfortunately, the young freedom fighters like Bismil were martyred before they could witness what course Marxism takes in India.
Bismil and Savarkar
An interesting fact is that just like Savarkar, who is mocked by many including the Congress party for writing a mercy petition to the British, Bismil along with other accused in the Kakori case, also wrote mercy petitions and apologised to the British.
The key question is, if we have decided to disqualify freedom fighters on the basis that they wrote mercy petitions, who will remain?
What about countless students who participated in mass movements, were suspended from universities and after Gandhi called off the movement, formally apologised and were readmitted?
What about millions of government employees who left their job during the Civil Disobedience movement, carried out protests, suffered jail time and lathi charges but ultimately wrote mercy petition after the movement fizzled out and were reinstated into Raj's services?
What about the mercy petitions to Lord Canning by participants of 1857 sepoy mutiny who failed in their goal but continued to inspire future struggles?
In fact, a whole generation of nationalists - the Moderates - pledged loyalty to the British rule, denounced any “unconstitutional” methods of protest, and believed in its providence. Are Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, disqualified too?
There are some like Bismil and Savarkar who wrote mercy petitions when they were in jail. Savarkar was subjected to inhumane torture in the Kala Pani. Then, there are others who sided with the British when they weren’t in jail.
If conciliation with foreign ruler gives a permanent stamp of anti-nationalism, then most of our national leaders, including Gandhi and Tagore, are both anti-nationals because at one point or the other, they did shake hands with British.
Romesh Chandra Dutt, Gopal Krishna Ghokhle, C R Das, Jawaharlal Nehru, B R Ambedkar at one point or the other were in British service or participated in British institutions. British certainly weren't paying them salaries to dismantle the Raj, so are these all anti-national?
Let’s not commit the fallacy of judging the past from the comforts of the present.
In his letter, Bismil writes how he had apologised and before filing an appeal, sent an application to the Governor saying ‘I have not taken part in any secret conspiracies nor will I have any links with these’. This application was mentioned in his mercy petition also.
Bismil also says that while accused of other crimes like communal riots had their sentences remitted by British, they were not spared. He says that they had been sentenced to death due to vengeance only.
“No revolt was going to take place by our being remaining alive. Till now such strong appeals were never made for revolutionaries in India. But what has the government got to do with it? It is proud of its power.”
“I had even told the government that till it is not ready to trust me, it can keep me in jail or exile to some other country and not allow me to return to India. But what was the government to do?”
Bismil and others filed appeals and wrote mercy petitions to the Governor, the Viceroy, as well as the privy Council. They were all rejected.
He himself explains why he wrote the petitions:
“Now the question will arise that knowing everything beforehand, why did I send an apology, a mercy petition, and appeal after appeal? The only reason seems to me is that politics is a game of chess.”
“..To expose the chinks in government declarations, I did all these things. I gave an apology too, sent appeals also, but what was to happen? The reality is that the oppressor kills and does not allow to even cry!”
It is up to us whether we choose to focus on Bismil’s mercy petitions, or the rest of his life. From his letter, two things stand out, one, his insistence on Hindu-Muslim unity, and that both Hindus and Muslims should consider Congress their representative:
“Government had mentioned that Sh. Ashfaqullah Khan is the right-hand man of Ram Prasad. If a devoted Muslim like Ashfaq could be right-hand man of Arya Samaji like Ram Prasad in the revolutionary movement, then why can’t other Hindus and Muslims unite forgetting their petty interests?”
Second can be interpreted as a warning to the youth against self-proclaimed revolutionaries:
“One reason for making an appeal was to get the execution date postponed and see the strength of youth and countrymen’s help! I was really disappointed in this. I had thought of breaking out of the jail, if it had happened, other three’s death sentence would also had been remitted.”
“If the government had not done it, I would have got it done. I knew its methods very well. I tried my best to break out of jail, but got no help from the outside. No youth turned up to help me.”
“Revolutionaries lack courage and people don’t have sympathy for them yet and they have regionalism among them a lot. They don’t trust each other fully, so because of this, their desires remained suppressed.”
“I was offered rupees five thousand and promised to be sent to England for doing Bar at law, just on verbal assurance; but I treated it as a deep sin and paid no attention to it. But regrettably many trusted and self-sacrificial considered comrades deceived the party for their personal comforts and behaved treacherously with us".
Even today, many comrades - who wield disproportionate voice in India - are ready to jump hoops for an entry into the international club of elites, and act as a mouthpiece for the financiers of their plane-tickets to conferences on poverty and hunger in exotic locations.