The Appropriation of Bhagat Singh

Mar 11, 2023

The author attempts to critically analyse how historical figures, Bhagat Singh in this case, have been instrumentalised by different political factions. He puts forth certain reasons as to why the Left in India have failed to recognise the potential of mobilising young people using icons like Bhagat Singh.

Navigating the streets of the “cow belt” one would observe a familiar sticker across many vehicles - the bust of Bhagat Singh. The execution of this young revolutionary in 1931 by our former colonial masters etched his name in history books, immortalizing him as the national youth icon transcending multiple generations. While his thoughts and opinions are still considered relevant in the current national politics, it is a blunder that his ideology has been so blatantly appropriated by right-wing nationalists through the post-colonial politics of India.  This article aims to analyze how left-wing parties in India failed to utilize their biggest resource, that is, the potential to weaponize Bhagat Singh’s ideology for their own political gain. After all, these doctrines still have immense relevance in Indian political spheres; as witnessed in car stickers and election slogans equally.


The political environment of India historically possessed a vibrance of political flavors- from the Communist Ghadar Party to the Hindu Mahasabha. Bhagat Singh was born in a politically active family based in colonial Punjab, witness to a myriad of political inflammations. From an early age, he was exposed to the mass movements for Independence, and figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, who had been successful in uniting a considerable section of the Indian population. The failures of these movements are said to have influenced the young Bhagat Singh, pushing him further toward the vast multitude of ideological options available in Punjab, including that of Communism.

As Fascism and Communism gained momentum as global movements in the 1920s, the youth-based freedom movements in India started getting influenced by these ideas. The definition of freedom itself changed for young revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, it was no longer just stealing power from colonial masters, but people controlling that power. This could be seen in the rechristening of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), a revolutionary organization of which Bhagat Singh was an integral part. It cannot be denied that our most iconic youth figure was a believer in Marxist ideology and was inspired by the Russian revolution of 1917.


Left-wing parties in India effectively failed to utilize a great weapon, that of Bhagat Singh’s socialist doctrines, to reach out to and establish a base amongst Indian youth. While parties like the Indian National Congress were able to center themselves around important figures, the Communist Party of India did not even consider referencing Bhagat Singh whose popularity was arguably comparable to that of Gandhi. Sensing an opportunity, right-wing outfits were quick to jump on this great opportunity. For decades now the memory of this youth icon has been maligned and slayed by organizations like the RSS. What is even more ironic is that there have been attempts to wrap the atheist Singh as a proponent of the Arya Samaj!

The Communist Party of India (the largest Left-Wing outfit in India) has been riddled with internal conflict that also divided the party into two parts, and party stability seems hard to achieve. One can also point towards their failures to understand that affiliations with foreign figures like Lenin and Marx won’t help them connect with the youth in India. While Bhagat Singh could’ve been a savior, the isolation of the party from the issues of the people seems to answer their considerable irrelevance in the northern half of the country. 


However, it would be incorrect to assume that the recognition of Bhagat Singh as a comrade by the Left-Wing parties would have been sufficient to establish them as a power in national politics today. The CPI(M) has seen its days of glory that saw them rule West Bengal and Kerala for decades, the latter of which they still do. But it cannot be denied that a pull of youth is still generated in the name of this great revolutionary. It can effectively be seen in the actions of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rode on the popularity of Ambedkar and Singh to capture Punjab in the recent historic state elections. 


What this article aimed to emphasize was the glaring errors of the Left ideology culture in India that had a boon in the name of Bhagat Singh. The appropriation of this youth icon is a taint to the memory of his sacrifice for the independence struggle. I view it as unfair to gobble up his identity for the sake of political gains, which should be a critical concern for the youth in India and the Left that strives to remain relevant.