In popular perception, the name of Ramprasad Bismil is associated with the famous patriotic song “sarfaroshi ki tammna”.
His name is also associated and etched into public memory with the famous Kakori Dacoity; an act of daredevilry which changed the course of revolutionary movement in North India. However, Bismil has also been subjected to a massive saffronisation campaign by the right-wing forces.
Today there are numerous cheap biographies and pocketbooks which present him as an icon of Hindutva politics. Far removed from reality, the Hindutva appropriation of Bismil has been successful because there are very few critical studies on him and his ideology. This is despite the fact that amongst all other revolutionary freedom fighters, Bismil authored a larger number of books and articles.
A brief life sketch
A brilliant poet of Urdu and Hindi, Bismil was born on June 11, 1897, in a lower-middle-class Brahmin family of Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Bismil’s ancestors belonged to the Bundelkhand region known equally for its conservative society and rebellious bandits.
Appalled by the social conservatism around him, Bismil became a very devout Arya Samaji at a very young age and was drawn into the anti-colonial struggle under the influence of his guru, Swami Somdev, who introduced him to the writings of the Italian patriot Mazzini and other nationalists. He attended the 1916 Lucknow Congress Session and came into touch with an underground anti-British revolutionary organisation known as the ‘Matrivedi’.
In the same year, he published a book America Ko Swadheenta Kaise Mili which advocated the need for political freedom for a nation to progress and armed struggle as the most viable means to achieve it. In 1918, he published a pamphlet ‘Deshvasiyon Ke Naam Sandesh‘ in which he appealed to all communities to fight together against the British Raj. The government arrested most of the Matrivedi revolutionaries but Bismil was able to escape.
In 1920, he started a publishing house known as Sushil Mala and published Bolshevikon Ki Kartoot (a novel based on the Russian revolutionary movement), a collection of poems known as Man Ki Lahar and Catherine, a biography of Russian socialist revolutionary, Catherine Breshkovsky. During the Non-Cooperation Movement, he produced another collection of poems titled Swadeshi Rang. Bismil wrote in a number of nationalist periodicals of the time like Aaj, Vartaman, Prabha using pseudonyms like Agyat etc.
After the failure of the Non-Cooperation movement, revolutionaries reorganised themselves as the Hindustan Republican Association greatly inspired by the socialist revolution in Russia and the peasant and the youth awakening in the Gandhian struggle and otherwise. They issued a pamphlet known as The Revolutionary declaring that they would continue their struggle till there was an end to ‘exploitation of man by man’.
On August 9, 1925, under the leadership of Bismil, they looted the government treasury by stopping a train at Kakori, near Lucknow to raise funds for procuring arms from Germany. Most HRA leaders were arrested subsequently and four of them were executed by the British in 1927, including Bismil. Before his execution, Bismil wrote his autobiography in the condemned cell which was smuggled out of the jail and published by Pratap Press.
Our exposition of Bismil’s ideology and worldview is mainly based on this autobiography which he wrote in his last moments. As the American literary critic Joseph T. Shipley wrote “autobiography proper is a connected narrative of the author’s life with stress laid on the introspections on the significance of his life against a wider background”.
Autobiographies contain those experiences, observations and events which play a significant role in shaping the life of the author. We believe that Bismil’s autobiography is a summation of his life and political journey and therefore can be used for analysing his ideological leanings.
Critique of communalism and advocacy for communal harmony
The question of communalism has been a prominent one in the history of anti-colonial struggle. The revolutionary movement too had to face this question in the context of increasing Hindu-Muslim tensions and frequent riots in the 1920s. In recent times in the wake of the anti-CAA protests, Ramprasad Bismil has been celebrated as the icon of Hindu-Muslim unity and representative of the syncretic culture of North India (Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeb) along with his friend and comrade Ashfaqullah Khan.
Ramprasad Bismil was a member of the Arya Samaj and took part in the shuddhi (religious conversion) programme of the organisation. He, like many others of his time, held deep suspicions about the Muslim community resulting from the intense communal atmosphere. It was his association with Ashfaqullah Khan which changed his ideas. In a section dedicated to Ashfaq in his autobiography, Bismil writes about his initial suspicion towards Muslims in general. Reflecting on his friendship with Ashfaqullah he writes,
“I was suspicious as to why a college going Muslim student wanted to talk to me [about revolutionary activities], I answered your questions with disregard…a few of my friends disliked you for being a Muslim…”
But as his anti-colonial activities and friendship with Ashfaqullah Khan progressed, Bismil gave up his communal biases and moved towards secularism, based on the principle of equal respect for all religions. Bismil wrote about this transformation as; “through your friendship… I am convinced that there was no difference between a Hindu and a Muslim”.
Two of his verses read as follows,
“Hindu aur Musalman mil karke jo chahein so kar sakte hain
Ay charkha-kuhan hosiyar ho tu, purjosh hamare nale hain
(Hindu and Muslim together can do anything they want
O’ time beware of us as our determination is strong)”
“Muhammed par sab-kuch kurban, maut ke hon to hon mehman
Krishna ki murli ki sun taan chalo, ho sab milkar balidan
(Lay down everything to Mohammed, even if it means death
Follow Krishna’s flute, everyone should sacrifice together)”
Even though Bismil continued to be deeply influenced by Arya Samaj in his personal life and worldview, as far as politics was concerned he became ardently secular. From the early 1920s, the revolutionaries were poised against two other political formations in the United Provinces, namely the Hindu communalists and comparatively secular Swaraj Party. With the victory of the Hindu communalists in the municipal elections of 1925, communal tension had increased in the province which led to many riots.
Even though the HRA was critical of the constitutionalist method of struggle, Bismil filed his candidature for the Shahjahanpur district board on behalf of the Swaraj Party. Further, Bismil along with Ashfaqullah Khan undertook campaigns of communal harmony in riot-torn areas of Rohilkhand region. Bismil’s disdain for communal politics further manifests itself as he said that the British consciously utilised the Hindu-Muslim divide to consolidate their rule over India and he even advocated capital punishment for those involved in inciting communal violence.
Communal harmony was at the heart of Bismil’s ideology. Bismil in his autobiography repeatedly appeals for Hindus and Muslims to trust each other and hopes that the sacrifice by him and his comrades will act as a glue for both Hindu and Muslim communities to come together.
Critique of casteism and gender-based discrimination
Another important aspect which informed the revolutionary politics of Bismil was his views on caste and gender relations. Based on experiences of his own conservative social background and inspired by his bold grandmother who broke the traditional patriarchal boundaries and stepped out of the house to work and his mother who made a point to educate her daughters after much struggle, Bismil criticised the caste and gender-based exploitation which was justified in the name of upholding tradition.
In the opening pages of his autobiography Bismil writes “women of ‘high’ caste family…would not even dare stepping out of her house without an elbow-length veil stretched over the face. Veils were mandatory norm even for shudra women belonging to the lower caste. There were, however, distinct way of dressing of the women of different classes that one could recognize a shudra women even from a distance. These traditions were so widely accepted and inflexible that they have now become like some torturous tyranny”.
Further, he commented on how women of ‘low-caste’ families were ‘punished’ by upper-caste zamindars (landlords) for wearing ‘ornaments’; as only women of the upper caste were supposed to do so. He wrote “even though these zamindars are illiterate, they are consumed by their [fake] caste pride”.
There are several other everyday casteist practices which Bismil condemned in his autobiography. He also criticises the practice of ‘honour’ killing prevalent in the conservative feudal society of Bundelkhand. Bismil wrote that women and girls were hacked to death on mere suspicions of adultery or ‘in-appropriate behaviour’; that widows were put to death on mere suspicions of immoral behaviour even if she was pregnant.
In light of these observations, Bismil makes a very important remark about the meaning of ‘freedom’ which he discusses at length in his brief autobiography. Bismil asks a very pertinent question; “what right has a country to be free were almost six million ‘human beings’ are considered untouchable”? Bismil’s idea of freedom has a strong component of social justice. He calls for “making proper arrangements for educating the six million people who are considered ‘untouchables’; and they should be granted equal socio-economic rights”.
In what might seem far-fetched but incontrovertible argument, Bismil was able to break the Brahminical notions of purity-pollution exemplified in caste-based occupation. While criticising the ‘youth’ for getting embroiled in urban and western lifestyle, Bismil asks them to quit their low-paid jobs in urban areas and move back to villages and take up jobs of “carpenter, ironsmith, tailor, washer-man, cobbler, weaver, masonry and pottery etc.”
As Bismill notes that only the children of landlords and rich were able to afford English education, his appeal for the youth to return back to their villages and take up jobs, considered “impure” only indicates that he moved beyond the traditional notions of purity-pollution. Similarly, Bismil advocates measures to uplift womankind through education and also said that efforts be made to overthrow the patriarchal consciousness which “considers woman as worthless”.
Even though Bismil had much admiration for his grandmother and his mother, his views on women were not confined within the traditional patriarchal notions of ‘ideal family woman’. In fact, Bismil was very much inspired by another woman, the Russian Narodnik leader Catherine Breshkovsky – who abandoned her child and divorced her husband for the cause of Revolution. Bismil translated Catherine’s biography – The Little Grandmother of Russian Revolution – in Hindi, and cited several of her initiatives as a model for building a mass revolutionary movement in India in his writings.
Revolution and education
“The word ‘revolution’ in itself is frightful”, wrote Bismil in his autobiography. But why is it frightful? The word ‘revolution’ frightens its opponents because “governments are supported by the Landlords and the rich, and revolution will only mean that they [the rich and landlords] will be deprived of their power and leisure”. In his view, “the landlords and rich of India were biased towards British Government”.
For Bismil, revolution not only meant a change in the socio-economic order, but also a change in consciousness; “human society is a product of collective activity, which shapes their worldview, if there is a threat to this worldview, humans resist it” and that is why the word ‘revolution’ in itself is frightening even for the common masses.
Reflecting on the ‘failure’ of Indian revolutionary movement to ignite a social revolution, Bismil said:
“There is no doubt that Indian society lacks the adequate social, religious and political conditions necessary to support revolutionary movement”.
The basis of this unfavourable situation according to Bismil was a lack of education among Indian masses. It was the task of revolutionary organisation to undertake a massive education programme to empower the people so that they could develop critical thinking towards the policies of the government, could identify their real interests, could decide whether to, or not to remove the present [Colonial] government and could decide on the method to remove the government. For Bismil education was the precondition for revolution.
Criticising the romanticism of youth to join the revolutionary party for their love of brandishing guns, Bismil emphasised that the task of the revolutionary party should be to “organize peasants and workers in order to resist their exploitation at the hands of landlords and rich [capitalists]”.
The revolutionaries, in Bismil’s view should aim to “organize peasants in village level committees and educate them to move beyond fatalism and become industrious. They should aim to organize the factory, mine, rail and shipyard workers in [trade] unions so that they can develop [class] consciousness and fight against their exploitation at the hand of owners [capitalists]”.
Bismil was greatly inspired by the activities of Catherine Breshkovsky in Russia, as he cites her example while proposing integration of revolutionary youth with the everyday life of villagers and organize them.
Bismil also differentiated between bourgeois democracy and socialist democracy. While commenting on the class based nature of Governments, Bismil cites the example of American and French revolution where “republican form of government was established after the overthrow of monarchy […] but after the revolutions the rich people were able to establish their hegemony over government as they extend their control over newspapers, industries and mines […] which leads to severe exploitation of the working class”.
In the end, this process according to Bismil leads to the “replacement of monarchy with rule of capital”. Bismil’s admiration for the Bolshevik Revolution comes out from this very development of capitalism after the overthrow of monarchy in other revolutions. He wrote “the Russian revolutionaries were aware about this, therefore, first they fought against the monarchical state and established republican democracy, as the rich and affluent started to assert their rule, [Russian revolutionaries] fought them too and established real democracy”.
This was a remarkable change in his ideology from glorifying the American Revolution in 1916, he had now moved towards making a critical reassessment of the same, representing a shift in the ideological development of Indian revolutionaries.
Bismil was undoubtedly impressed by socialist ideas, but his understanding of socialism was not based on a dialectical materialist perspective. His ideas of socialism and communism were influenced from his deeply held spiritual and religious views. For Bismil, the egalitarian ideals of communism were in perfect synchrony with his spiritual ideals; and therefore he went as far as proclaiming that “at every place communist societies should be established […] it is a religious right of the Hindus to preach communism, to deprive it of which is to cause injury to Hinduism” in a handwritten article confiscated by the police during his arrest.
More recently, apologists of V.D. Savarkar and the broader Hindutva circle have tried to invoke the so-called mercy petition of Ramprasad Bismil to the British to absolve Savarkar from any charges of bootlicking the British government, calling himself the ‘prodigal son’ of British Empire.
Bismil did indeed filed a mercy appeal to the Privy Council, but as he writes in his autobiography “politics is a game of chess, and sometimes in chess you have to sacrifice your pawns…I knew that we were going to be sentenced for death but we only wanted to expose the Government which claimed that those revolutionaries who repented will be forgiven…the fate of our appeal only exposes the British Government’s double speak”.
In his autobiography, Bismil recounts four different chances where he could have escaped after being arrested, all the four opportunities resulting from the laziness and unprofessional attitude of police personnel, but Bismil interpreted their laziness and unprofessional attitude as ‘trust’ and decided not to take undue advantage and betray those who had shown trust in him (and he did not run away!).
In direct contradiction to Bismil, Savarkar, after being released not only proved himself to be the “prodigal son” of Empire, but also started spreading communal venom in Indian society; something which directly went against Bismil’s last message to his countrymen. From 1937, he led the same Hindu Mahasabha against whose communal politics Bismil and Ashfaq had campaigned in the 1920s. In this way, Savarkar betrayed Bismil too.
Ramprasad Bismil occupies a very unique place in the history of Indian revolutionary movement. He was the embodiment of transitory phase through which the revolutionary movement was passing after the abrupt withdrawal of non-corporation movement.
We can delineate at least three different – yet related – strands of these transitions. First, a move from anti-British nationalism to socialism, second, from secret underground militant activity towards mass politics and third, from religion-inspired activism to secularism and finally militant atheism as represented by Bhagat Singh.
Harshvardhan Tripathy is a research scholar at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU and Prabal Saran Agarwal is a research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.