Modern Asian Studies

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Modern Asian Studies (2009), 43:649-681 Cambridge University Press
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Research Article

Bhagat Singh as ‘Satyagrahi’: The Limits to Non-violence in Late Colonial India1


a1 University of Virginia, Randall Hall, PO Box 400180, Charlottesville, VA 22904 Email:
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Among anti-colonial nationalists, Bhagat Singh and M.K. Gandhi are seen to exemplify absolutely contrasting strategies of resistance. Bhagat Singh is regarded as a violent revolutionary whereas Gandhi is the embodiment of non-violence. This paper argues that Bhagat Singh and his comrades became national heroes not after their murder of a police inspector in Lahore or after throwing bombs in the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi but during their practice of hunger strikes and non-violent civil disobedience within the walls of Lahore's prisons in 1929–30. In fact there was plenty in common in the strategies of resistance employed by both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. By labelling these revolutionaries ‘murderers’ and ‘terrorists’, the British sought to dismiss their non-violent demands for rights as ‘political prisoners’. The same labels were adopted by Gandhi and his followers. However, the quality of anti-colonial nationalism represented by Bhagat Singh was central to the resolution of many of the divisions that racked pre-partition Punjab.


1 The paper is part of a chapter of my doctoral dissertation ‘Between Homeland and Nation: The Politics of Punjabi Hindus, 1907–1947’, Tufts University, 2005. I am grateful to the Departments of History at Tufts University and the University of Virginia for funding during 2002–03 and the summer of 2006. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual meeting in San Francisco, the University of Virginia, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi and Delhi University. I am grateful to Neeladri Bhattacharya, Sugata Bose, Vinayak Chaturvedi, Ayesha Jalal and Majid Siddiqi for their comments on earlier drafts. I dedicate this paper to Meeto Malik.