In the latter half of the year 1928, a group of young people— all in their early twenties, assembled at the ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi to transform an anti-colonial political organisation into a revolutionary socialist organisation, changing Hindustan Republic Association/Army into Hindustan Socialist Republic Association/Army (HSRA).
The Commander-in-Chief of the young Marxists which included Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Bhagwati Charan Vohra amongst others, was another young man who was unable to attend the first meeting but nevertheless got voted to the position. His name was Chandrashekhar Azad.
HSRA took up the Marxist lens to analyse the British colonial rule and declared that the struggle for freedom for the masses must move beyond the English colonial rule to attack capitalism and imperialism to bring to an end all exploitation.
In a 1929 essay, Vohra with inputs from Azad wrote, ‘The revolution will ring the death knell of capitalism and class distinctions and privileges. It will bring joy and prosperity to the starving millions who are seathing today under the terrible yoke of both foreign and Indian exploitation. It will bring the nation into its own. It will give birth to a new state a new social order.’
The group argued for a transformation of the social order and not just a shallow transfer of political power between oppressive ruling classes.
However, post-independence and particularly in recent years the revolutionary legacies of the Communist leaders of HSRA particularly Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad have been aggressively co-opted by the Hindu right in the country.
Deliberate Misinterpretation of Azad’s Revolutionary Politics
A week ago, on the birth anniversary of Chandrashekhar Azad, various right-wing groups employed a picture of Azad in which he is seen twirling his mustache and wearing a janeu. The groups did so with an aim to invoke Brahmin caste pride and in a way celebrate the violence that continues to play out in the name of caste—a display of deliberate disregard for Azad’s politics.
Even though Azad was born in a poor family belonging to the historically oppressive Brahmin caste, his own politics resisted every form of discrimination against his fellow humans and in fact, his and the Hindu right (pre and post-1947)’s politics continue to occupy diametrical opposite spaces on the political spectrum.
Azad, similar to his other comrades in HSRA chose to be an atheist and did not wear any religious or caste markers. The picture that gets used in the right-wing propaganda remains one of the few pictures of Azad and was taken by Rudranarayan, a sympathiser of the HSRA when the former was in hiding in Jhansi, Kama Maclean, a Professor of South Asian History at the University of Heidelberg writes in her book A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text (2015).
The book attributes the picture to the year 1930 during which he was living as a mendicant and the janeu was probably a part of his disguise. In his lifespan of fewer than 25 years, Azad had to go underground several times. Prior to 1930, he was in hiding in 1925 as well after participating in the Kakori Dacoity.
In fact, it was in the aftermath of the dacoity and the subsequent arrests of the leaders of HRA including Ashfaqualla Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil that Azad reorganised forces and together with other revolutionaries bringing a Marxist perspective to the freedom struggle which recognised the necessity of armed rebellion for a revolution.
Revolutionary Violence and not Romantic Nationalism
At this point, it is pertinent to note that Azad and his comrades did not advocate for violence unconditionally rather they carefully differentiated between the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed where only the latter was revolutionary and hence necessary.
Written in the year 1929, the essay The Philosophy of Bomb was a scathing response by the Communist revolutionaries of HSRA to Gandhi’s essay ‘The Cult of Bomb’ which the latter wrote in his usual tone of appeasement towards the English colonisers following a bomb blast under the Viceroy Irwin’s special train that year, from which Irwin, however, escaped.
‘It shatters the spell of the superiority of the ruling class and raises the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world,’ explaining revolutionary violence categorised as terrorism by the ruling political class, Vohra wrote in the essay.
Unlike his comrade-in-arms Bhagat Singh, Azad did not leave behind his political ideologies and social vision in writing and so apart from the party documents that Azad used to sign as ‘Balraj’, we are left with an essay that Bhagwati C Vohra wrote in consultation with Azad, to study and interpret and use it against the Hindu right’s invisiblisation of the conscious and life-threatening political choices he made.
The politics of RSS-BJP and their other sister organisations never stood anywhere remotely close to the socio-political and economic change Azad envisioned or fought endlessly for. The right-wing propaganda is to identify his figure with their narrative of hypermasculine Hindu nationalism whose vicious everydayness can be seen in Hindu mobs lynching people from the Muslim community and forcing people to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.
The Marxist revolutionaries of HSRA were right in their understanding of the underlying failure and the discriminatory tendencies of struggles undertaken with the final aim of creating a nation-state. As opposed to the Hindu rights fast-growing agenda of the establishment of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, HSRA was an organisation demanding a socialist society. Azad’s struggle urged the masses to consider the immediate necessity to overthrow the British Raj but without falling into the trap of romantic nationalism.
Azad’s revolutionary activities were based on a political understanding that went beyond the glorification of the nation-state and engaged with the larger question of exploitation which, as he and his comrades explained could only be brought to end by mass military action and as Vohra wrote ‘will establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and will for ever banish social parasites from the seat of political power.’
The Hindu right through this kind of saffronisation of the iconography of Azad not only aims at an utter misrepresentation of Azad’s conscious political choices to drive its communal and Brahmanic narratives but also carve out space for itself in the history of Indian freedom struggle.
Also read: Batukeshwar Dutt: A Forgotten Revolutionary
This is reason enough for those of us who are organising and working towards a Communist society where we will be free from the whims and commands of capital to challenge this co-option by the right-wing and also to establish that the revolutionary political weapon of Communism guided a section of freedom fighters even before India as a nation came to existence.
Author’s note: This article is limited in scope as it explores only certain aspects of Azad’s politics and the revolutionary activities of HSRA.