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Living legends

RAJNI BAKSHI

With the release of the Bhagat Singh films, it seems that self-sacrifice and devotion to a political struggle are easier to admire in those who have been laid to rest in the pages of history. The films may reinforce the view that violent protest is somehow more valorous than non-violent action.


Bhagat Singh dreamt of an India where there would be justice and equality for all.

THERE are currently five new films on the life of Bhagat Singh. Two of these big-star films were released on June 7 to the accompaniment of much media coverage. At the same time, four activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan were on an indefinite fast, in Bhopal, to make a simple demand — no displacement without full rehabilitation.

As people all over India were watching different interpretations of Bhagat Singh's life, the NBA activists' fast was excruciatingly stretching beyond three weeks. Elsewhere, in Uttar Pradesh, another group of activists was spending four weeks on a Sadbhavna Padyatra, or peace march, towards Ayodhya. These are people who have politically grown-up on writings about and posters of Bhagat Singh as an inspiration for the struggle to build an egalitarian society based on communal harmony. In contrast to the hype about the films, these living manifestations of Bhagat Singh's inspiration went virtually unnoticed. This is not just because good old-fashioned nationalism is an unfailing rallying point. More importantly, it seems that self-sacrifice and dogged devotion to a political struggle are easier to admire in those who have already been laid to rest in the pages of history.

Here lies a tricky challenge for those who wish to communicate creatively about the values of humane struggles for justice today. An activist demands not merely our momentary attention, but our care and support. When such an activist also insists on using non-violent methods of protest, that challenge gets bigger. Ironically, for many people the Bhagat Singh films may reinforce the view that violent protest is somehow more valorous, while non-violent action is weak. Watching one of the Bhagat Singh films, some viewers were found booing the scenes where Mahatma Gandhi appears. Yet Bhagat Singh did not become a national figure by shooting a British officer and then quickly escaping. Even the act of dropping a harmless bomb into the well of Parliament House did not make him a household name. What made the difference is that this act was committed not to kill or hurt but as an attention-seeking means. Thus Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt made no attempt to escape. Instead they chose to stand trial and use the court proceedings as a means of broadcasting their revolutionary vision of a free India where there would be justice and equality for all. As a protest against inhuman jail conditions, Bhagat Singh and his comrades went on a hunger strike that lasted more than two months and led to the death of one of them, Jatin Das. This is what made them beloved in households across India and caused lakhs of people to sign petitions to save them from the gallows.

It is not surprising that five film producers should conclude that these legends can still draw and hold the audience of popular films. A dogged struggle against injustice has an almost eternal dramatic value. Does it not follow then, that if an audience is moved to tears by the celluloid representation of Bhagat Singh's two-month-long fast it may also relate with the suffering of a young Adivasi girl whose life is failing after almost a month of fasting.


Residents of the Narmada Valley demonstrating against the possible submergence of their homes caused by the Maan Dam, in Bhopal.

At the time of writing, in mid-June, Ramkuvar, a 22-year-old Adivasi girl and three others were in the fourth week of fasting in Bhopal. Accompanying them in a dharna under a tin shed were hundreds of people from the banks of the Narmada. Their homes will drown this monsoon due to submergence caused by the Maan Dam. The law clearly says that submergence cannot be allowed until all the people are rehabilitated. The government of Madhya Pradesh, having failed to meet its statutory obligations, is going ahead with submergence this year. Yet this dogged struggle gets cursory attention in the national media.

Similarly, hundreds of people have joined the Sadbhavna Padyatra since it started at Chitrakoot on May 27. This peace march is organised under the banner of the National Alliance of People's Movements and carries the message of unity and cooperation between Hindus and Muslims. Village after village, local people have made spontaneous gestures of support and solidarity with the peace march. In 1999, a similar group had organised a peace march from Pokhran to Sarnath — spreading awareness about the futility of war and particularly the horrors of nuclear weapons. Like the earlier march, the current one has got only fleeting coverage in the mass media.

After the horrific carnage in Gujarat, this padyatra carries an even more intense commitment and sense of urgency. It is scheduled to culminate in Ayodhya on June 22. Three activists of the Sadbhavna Padyatra have declared that they will then begin a fast unto death — an appeal to the leaders of communal organisations to withdraw their hate propaganda and death squads. At the time of writing, some supporters of this padyatra are pleading with the activists to give up the idea of a fast unto death.

The story of this contemporary idealism and intense commitment is not quite untold. But it needs far more intense attention. The revival of interest in Bhagat Singh's life will be truly meaningful if it can help to bring to light the living legends in the making.

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