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18956“The ultimate goal of Anarchism is complete independence, according to which no one will be obsessed with God or religion, nor will anybody be crazy for money or other worldly desires. There will be no chains on the body or control by the state. This means that they want to eliminate: the Church, God and Religion; the state; Private property.”

Bhagat Singh

I have been reading Anarchy’s Cossack which is a biography of Nestor Makhno’s life – if that is intentional, I am not sure, but it definitively reads as one. At any rate, it is a great read, especially because the actual historical accounts of how the Makhnovischina developed and its relationships with the Bolsheviks, the White Army, the German occupiers and the Ukrainian peasantry are masterly woven in in-depth explanations of the political and historical situation of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia.

At the same time, I have been getting more acquainted with the life and thought of that great Indian revolutionary – Bhagat Singh. I also watch the pretty good Bollywood movie called The Legend of Bhagat Singh. The movie, from the little I know about the life of Singh, is accurate almost in its entirety – although through a different lens than you or I would look at it.

Skirda’s book on Makhno and “The Legend” movie both share a very partisan admiration for their protagonists. In both the book and the movie, Makhno and Singh are shown in their best light – as committed, heroic revolutionaries fighting for the freedom of their people.It is the definition of their heroism that is distinctive, however. Skirda goes through great lengths to show the level of commitment of Batko to his anarchist ideals – shown mainly through the way he carry himself on the social, political and military affair of Free Ukraine. On the other hand, “The Legend” makes no mention whatsoever about “Saheed” Singh’s anarchist politics, and only some loose mentions to socialism. Bhagat Singh is cast as a patriot of socialistic leanings – when he was an anarchist, with heavy Marxist and nationalist sympathies.


"Batko" Nestor Makhno

That is understandable. To try to explain anarchism would detract from the flow of the story. His socialist leanings actually come to fore in crucial moments of the story, and they generally relate to other people. The first mention is, indeed, the most powerful one. This happens when, after meeting Rajguru for the first time, Singh asks him the question he was asked when he joined the party, then knows as Hindustan Republican Association:

“Do you know the aim of our party?”

– “Freedom!”

Rajguru answers is rebuked at the next scene, in which Singh addresses the HRA:

– “Freedom isn’t our aim.”

– “What are you saying, Bhagat?”

"Saheed" Bhagat Singh

"Saheed" Bhagat Singh

Sukhdev’s confused question leads to Bhagat’s monologue:

– “What is this freedom? A transfer of power from the British to a handful of rich and powerful Indians? Will that make any difference in the life of the common man? To the labourer… to the poor man? Will this freedom give them their rights? No! Comrades, freedom is just the first step. The aim is to build a nation. A nation that guarantees equal rights to all in society. A society that doesn’t discriminate in the grounds of religion. A nation that does not tolerate the exploitation of man by man…It isn’t easy to keep united a country that has so many religions, castes, cultures and languages.  Unless we understand that task now, unless we struggle for it now – India will still get freedom, but it will degenerate into a corrupt, exploitative and communalised society. Comrades, our aim is a socialist society. Our party’s aim should clearly reflect that. I’m proposing that the Hindustan Republican Association be renamed as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.”

Singh’s proposal was accepted, and the HRA was then renamed the HSRA.

The movie also downplays Singh’s atheism – and some people have objected to that. However it also downplays Chandrashekar Azad’s fervorous Brahmanism – it barely touches in religion at all, except for Singh’s statement of not believing in God when facing the gallows. The movie has a clear political agenda, and part of it is to counteract the influence of the right-wing Hindu nationalist groups that were an immense influence in Indian society. To start talking to much about specific beliefs would act counter to that.

The movie portraits somewhat accurately Bhagat Singh willingness to die, his devotion to the ideal of being a Saheed – a martyr to the cause. It does glorify this trait of Singh, which I don’t like. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev all died hanged at the extremelly early age of 23. Is it possible that they could had offset Gandhi’s influence in the movement for the liberation of India and saved many Indians from death and suffering under the prolonged British Raj? Could the HSRA have becomed a stronger influence in India, and lead the Indian nationalist movement in a more socialist, liberatory, non-sectarian direction, a direction that could have prevented the bloodbath that preceded the creation of Pakistan?

Scene from the trial

Scene from the trial

Anarchy’s Cossack paints the Bolsheviks, not the Whites, as the main antagonists to the Makhnovischina – with reason, with their politicking, trickery and lies, to try and destroy the freedom bloodily conquered by the Ukranian peasantry. The terrible actions of Moscow under Lenin and Trotsky – their authoritarianism, their distrust for the intelligence of the workers and peasants and their Machiavellian vision of how to conduct the revolutionary process – are all laid bare, just like the heroism and devotion to real popular democratic power of Insurgent Ukraine, and will unfortunately go unheard apart from a small minority. Because Anarchy’s Cossack is essentially, a book for anarchists or sympathizers.

The Legend, on the other hand, only hints slightly at the antagonism between Singh and the HSRA and that other icon of India’s history – Mahatma Gandhi. It shows Gandhi as confused, opportunistic and morally dubious – and I am not just letting my own perceptions of the Mahatma color my views. It implies that Gandhi was in a position to save Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru’s lives, but that he let his own dislike and envy of Singh to mar his devotion to non-violence by not objecting much to the hanging of the three young men. There is a lot of historical debate around that, but it is a little refreshing to see someone else objecting to the complete idolatry of the Mahatma.