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Imagining the Indian Nationalist Movement: Revolutionary Metaphors in Imagery of the Freedom Struggle

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Recent interventions suggest that the history of India’s nationalist movement might be profitably reconstructed with reference to visual culture as a way of counteracting both dominant Congress teleologies and the colonial prejudices embedded in governmental records. This article furthers this hypothesis by undertaking a close examination of Desh Chintan, a rich nationalist image from the 1930s. Grounding Desh Chintan against a matrix of archival sources, banned literature, oral history interviews and other posters of the era presents a substantially different picture of the way in which the anti-colonial movement was conceived in the 1930s. This analysis suggests that there was a moment in the freedom struggle in which support for acts of retributive revolutionary violence were unproblematically maintained alongside genuine enthusiasm for the Gandhian program of non-violence.
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Imagining the Indian nationalist movement:
Revolutionary metaphors in imagery of the
freedom struggle
Kama Maclean
University of New South Wales, Australia
Original Publication Citation: Journal of Material Culture 2014, Vol. 19(1) 7–34 © The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and
permissions: DOI: 10.1177/1359183513502408
Recent interventions suggest that the history of India’s nationalist movement might be
profitably reconstructed with reference to visual culture as a way of counteracting both
dominant Congress teleologies and the colonial prejudices embedded in governmental
records. This article furthers this hypothesis by undertaking a close examination of Desh
Chintan, a rich nationalist image from the 1930s. Grounding Desh Chintan against a
matrix of archival sources, banned literature, oral history interviews and other posters of
the era presents a substantially different picture of the way in which the anti-colonial
movement was conceived in the 1930s. This analysis suggests that there was a moment in
the freedom struggle in which support for acts of retributive revolutionary violence were
unproblematically maintained alongside genuine enthusiasm for the Gandhian program of
Bhagat Singh, Bharat Mata, censorship, freedom struggle, Indian nationalism,
martyrdom, revolutionaries, visual culture
An elegantly dressed and auspiciously decorated woman sits, radiant against the
background of a dimly lit room (see Figure 1). A diamond fixed on her nose,
expensive, exquisitely crafted bangles of pearl and gold decorate her wrists, a
matching enamel pin gathers her brocade sari on her shoulder, a splash of sindur
and a bindi combine to suggest that she has achieved a state of married happiness.
But a deep sadness inhabits her eyes, which forlornly gaze beyond the frame. She
slumps, despondent, casting aside her spinning, indicative of a nationalist
sensibility, a commitment to making (but not actually wearing) khaddar, a coarse
Figure 1. Desh Chintan, Chitrashala Kanpur, 1933. Published by Shyam Sunder Lal
Agrawal, Cawnpore (hereafter Kanpur). (Author’s collection.)
and heavy fabric that never drapes as nicely as her sari. The poster’s title, Desh
Chintan, helpfully rendered in both Devanagari and English, reveals an additional
layer of meaning: she is worried about the nation, struggling under the weight of
colonial rule.
An Awadhi doha (couplet) inked in red at the base of the image extends an
invitation, which translates into English as:
Come, burn with the moth, don’t squirm in the fire’s wrath; For first burns the lamp, then
burns the moth.
The couplet draws our attention to background detail, which might otherwise have
been over- looked. A cluster of ordinary household moths hover around the flame
of a candle, their immolation imminent. One moth has already died, its wings
floating down to meet its incinerated body; three others hover dangerously close,
undeterred by the fate of their companion.
This is a poster of Bhagat Singh
Figure 2. Portrait of Bhagat Singh, taken by Ramnath Photographers, Delhi, in April
1929. This particularly clear version of the much-reproduced image is taken from a flyer
distributed by the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1929. Reproduced courtesy of the Supreme
Court of India Museum.
This intriguing image is an elaborate allegory designed to perpetuate the memory
of the revolutionary Bhagat Singh (Figure 2), who became established as the face
of violent anti-colonial nationalism in 1931 when he was hanged for his role in the
assassination of a British police officer in Lahore (Maclean, 2011: 1057). The
parable of the four moths (representing Jatindranath Das, Sukhdev and Rajguru,
who also died Das following a long hunger strike in prison and the latter two on
the gallows with Bhagat Singh) pro- vides an innocuous means of expressing
sympathy with the executed young men, who were framed by the colonial state as
‘terrorists’. Recent research on the visual culture of revolutionary politics has
emphasized the macabre element of their martyrdom, so often vividly illustrated
with reference to decapitated heroes proffering their bleeding heads to a quiescent
or sorrowful Bharat Mata, drawing on established conventions of sacrifice and
martyrology in Hindu and Sikh religions (Pinney, 2004; Ramaswamy, 2010: 224;
see Figure 3). In Desh Chintan, this dramatic narrative is inferred through the
subtle use of metaphor. Represented as rather commonplace household moths, the
revolutionary machismo that so threatened the colonial order is muted. The
revolutionaries are brought into a domestic space, into the meditations of the
downcast lady of the home, whose spinning seems, at this particular moment,
somewhat futile.
Below, I wish to unpack the various implications of Desh Chintan, in which my
debt to the path-breaking work of Christopher Pinney and Sumathi Ramaswamy
will be evi- dent. I will argue that by deploying an arthropodic metaphor, the artist
is skillfully draw- ing on a range of deeply embedded cultural associations
unappreciated by British censors, who by 1931 were alert to images and texts that
sought to construe ‘murderers as martyrs’, in their eyes committing a very specific
form of sedition by sympathy. I will trace the genealogy of the trope of the
revolutionary moth in 1930s material culture and political discourse before
exploring some further implications of the image. This will involve a brief
consideration of the Congress-Revolutionary dynamic long considered mutually
exclusive affiliations due to the differing attitudes towards violence and non-
violence maintained by each camp. Finally, I will consider the engagement of
women in revolutionary politics, a notion that spoils binaries constructed around
the non-violence of women, which implicitly outsources violent action to men.
The article will therefore ana- lyze the visual metaphors in Desh Chintan by
drawing on a combination of oral histories, visual culture, government records and
banned publications before offering some general observations about perceptions
of the nature of the freedom struggle in the 1930s.
India’s interwar years described by Mrinhalini Sinha as ‘a transitional moment’
(Sinha, 2006: 2324) were marked by the substantial escalation of anti-colonial
senti- ment, although organized nationalism, mediated through the Indian National
Congress, went through a series of fits and starts. The decision by the government
to extend war- time repression, in the form of the Rowlatt Acts, into peacetime
sparked concerted cam- paigns, which culminated in the Non-Cooperation
Movement, although to the alarm of his colleagues and supporters, Gandhi
suspended the movement when non-violence was breached in Chauri Chaura
(Amin, 1995). Gandhi was imprisoned and the Congress retreated from its
confrontation, mired in internal debates about policy and process. Subsequently,
the deputation of the all-white Simon Commission to India in 1928 to rule on
India’s readiness for further constitutional reform sparked nationwide agitations
organized by the Congress.
Figure 3. Swanantrata ki Bhent: Amar Shahid Yatindranath Das, Roop Kishore Kapoor,
1929. Coronation Press/Shyam Sunder Lal, Kanpur. (Author’s collection.)
At the same time, Indian youth radicalized in nationalist colleges and, dissatisfied
with the moderate means and ends of the Congress, began to mobilize. A number
of peripheral but significant organizations in Bengal and North India began to
orchestrate acts of political violence in an attempt to alter the political discourse of
both the govern- ment and the Congress. It was to neutralize this tendency that
Gandhi returned to active politics in December 1928 and a year later, in 1929,
assented to the call for complete independence (as opposed to dominion status)
and embarked upon civil disobedience (Gandhi, 1930; Maclean, 2013b). This
intermingling of violent and non-violent politics is suggested by Figure 3, which
shows Jawaharlal Nehru, elected as the President of the Congress in 1929,
presenting the head of Jatindranath Das to Bharat Mata. Surprisingly little
scholarship has been published on this interstice of politics previously thought of
as both separate and oppositional, partly due to a lack of evidence but also partly
due to the challenge that such a history might represent to received notions of the
conduct of the Indian nationalist movement (Maclean, 2012: 1566). Images of
Jawaharlal collaborating with the revolutionaries (Figure 3) defy us to ask these
South Asian studies have recently been invigorated by the visual turn, with the
inter- ventions of a number of scholars who have brought the tools of art history to
a broader stage (Brown, 2010; Jain, 2007; Mitter, (1992[1977]), drawing attention
to the impor- tance of visuality in the subcontinent. This has inspired a range of
anthropological reli- gious studies and political analyses (a necessarily cursory
listing of such works would include Kaur, 2003; Lutgendorf, 2007; Roy, 2003;
Uberoi, 1990). The discipline of his- tory has remained curiously resilient to this
possibility and, despite the involvement of historians in pioneering projects
(Freitag, 2003, 2007), using visual culture in history writing is still in its
explorative stages. Ramaswamy (2010: 296) for example, has appealed to scholars
to look beyond images as illustrations ‘and fight the urge to translate them into
recognisable certitudes of a (textual) history we already know’.
Chris Pinney’s (2004) suggestion that the history of India’s nationalist movement
might be profitably reconstructed with reference to visual culture as a way of
counter- acting both dominant Congress teleologies and the colonial prejudices
embedded in governmental records is extremely fruitful. While commenting that
‘it is too early to pronounce on Pinney’s specific hypotheses’, Partha Chatterjee
(2008: 331) is emphatic that the visual must constitute an ‘appropriate source for
the study of popular politics, especially in a country where most people do not
read’. While my earlier work argued for the injection of visuality in historical
inquiry (Maclean, 2011: 1053), in retrospect, this was too tentative. Here, I wish to
demonstrate how images can lead historical narratives by exploring a series of
images produced between 1929 and 1933, a time when political violence peaked
in British India and was subdued. It is therefore worth sketching below a brief
history of the activists who took to the path of violence in north India, the
revolutionaries rendered in Desh Chintan as moths inexorably drawn to the flame.
A short history of revolutionary politics in North India, 1928
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and Jatindranath Das were key members of the
Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), a secret organization that
aimed to undermine the British and work towards the establishment of socialism in
India. Based largely in North India and the Punjab, the vast majority of HSRA
members had taken part in Congress activities in their teenage years, but had
become disillusioned by Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence. Convinced that non-
violence alone was inad- equate to the task of opposing the Raj, from the mid-
1920s the revolutionaries became active in leftist organizations and radical youth
movements, such as the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, which formed the basis of their
clandestine anti-British operations. These ‘actions’, as they called their strategic
attacks on select public officials and targets, were carefully calculated and planned
with clear propaganda objectives in mind, which included undermining British
confidence in India by returning both the spectacular and the ordinary violence on
which colonialism was predicated (Saha, 2011; Sherman, 2010).
The first of these ‘actions’ took place in December 1928, although its genesis lay
in events connected to the Congress-led protests against the Simon Commission a
month earlier. Faced with a demonstration against the Simon Commission in
Lahore on 7 November, Mr Scott, the Superintendent of Police in Lahore, had
ordered a lathi (baton) charge against protestors, in the course of which the aged
Punjabi Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai was gravely injured. He died 10 days
later. In a condolence speech, Basanti Debi, the wife of the late Bengali
Congressman CR Das, issued a challenge: ‘I, a woman of India, ask the youth of
India: What are you going to do about it?’ (Chand, 1972: 44). The members of the
HSRA saw this as their opportunity to make a decisive impact. They began to plot
to avenge Rai’s death (Kapoor, 1974: 80).
On 17 December 1928, Bhagat Singh and Rajguru, the party’s Maharashtrian
marks- man, together gunned down a British police officer, JP Saunders, in Lahore
and as the pair made their escape, Chandrashekhar Azad fatally shot an Indian
constable, Channan Singh, who had tried to pursue them. Their intended target had
been Scott, but the HSRA member delegated to identify him, Jai Gopal, mistook
Saunders for Scott, and by the time the mistake was realized, it was too late.
However, as Saunders had been implicated in the lathi charge on Lala Lajpat Rai,
the HSRA was satisfied that they had achieved their objective, hanging posters
around Lahore to make their point clear: ‘Saunders is dead. Lalaji has been
avenged’. The HSRA dispersed, and Bhagat Singh, disguised as a married sahib,
boarded a train for Calcutta, where he made connections with Bengali
revolutionaries, including Jatindranath Das, who knew how to make bombs
(Verma, 1972: 74).
Bhagat Singh was arrested on 8 April 1929 along with his Bengali comrade, BK
Dutt, in New Delhi. The pair had thrown two low-intensity bombs, fired two shots
from a pistol, and scattered propaganda leaflets into the Legislative Assembly
(now the Lok Sabha), before offering themselves for arrest. Their aim was to
protest at the passing of twin bills, the subject of much debate and criticism in
nationalist circles, aimed at smoth- ering labor unrest and preventing members of
any communist party from coming to India. By throwing the bombs as the second
of these bills was introduced, the pair regis- tered their protest at the imperial
order; their primary aim, according to their leaflets, was ‘to make a loud noise’.
During a long drawn out trial, Bhagat Singh skillfully managed to turn Indian
media opinion in his favor. By May 1929, many HSRA members had been
incarcerated, and eventually most of the inner circle of the HSRA was sent to trial.
In the 23 months it took for the imperial justice system to send him to the gallows,
Bhagat Singh became a house- hold name, somewhat eclipsing his revolutionary
colleagues. When he was finally exe- cuted, a week prior to the annual meeting of
the Congress, on 23 March 1931, there was an outcry across India, leading to riots
in Kanpur protests and mass mourning proces- sions, and an unprecedented
outpouring of eulogy literature and posters, today evidenced by collections of
proscribed material in colonial archives (Shaw and Lloyd, 1985; Sidhu, 2007) and
in private collections.
Moth metaphors: The desire for fire
The most casual observer of moth behavior knows of its hapless nocturnal instinct
to navigate towards a light source, such as a flame, which more often than not
seals its destruction with an audible pop. The literary trope of a moth and a flame
is noted through- out Indian literature, from the earliest sources. It appears in the
Arthasastra (7.15.14) and in the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna describes the
annihilation of planets in Krishna’s Universal Form ‘like the moths that rush
frantically to the burning flame, and to their destruction’ (11.29). Other references
in the Mahabharata indicate that a moth-and- flame metaphor came to signal a
heroic but inevitable death, as a ‘warrior too boldly facing a superior adversary’
(Karttunen, 2003: 305). The moth’s suicidal attraction to the flame in Bartrihari’s
4th- to 5th-century Vairagyashataka (3.80) is construed as ‘deluded’, an inflection
which is embedded in the Sanskrit verb specifically invented for the flame-
attracted moth, shalabhayate, denoting a foolish action (Karttunen, 2003: 304).
Emphasis on the disorientation of the moth prevails in the Ramcharitmanas
(3.46b), as in the admonition, ‘The body of a young woman is like a lamp’s flame;
don’t let the mind be a moth.’ In these references, the word for moth is patanga,
the same as in Desh Chintan’s doha.
It is in Persian literature that the idiom became somewhat romanticized, inferring a
perfect union that has transcended mundane existence. References to the moth and
flame in Persian dates at least to CE 922, in the Kitab at Tawasin of the martyred
mystic al- Hallaj. In the Kitab at Tawasin, the emphasis of the mothflame
interaction is on fana, the perfect union with the self and god through dissolution
by entering the flame, the moth becomes the flame. In her work on classical
Sufism, Annemarie Schimmel (1975: 70) describes the moth metaphor as a
favorite allegory of Persian poets ‘to express the fate of the true lover’, who
renounces his selfhood but rises to a higher level of con- sciousness in union. In
Persian literature, the word most often used for moth is parwana, and the flame,
shama; thus, the compound shama-parwana evokes their inevitable cou- pling and
unity. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a 20th-century poet, drawing on the precedent set by
Hafiz (c. 14th century), construed the mothflame dynamic as dialogic, in which
both entities sacrifice something for the consuming flame is often stunted when
the moth enters it inferring, according to Bell and Gamard (2004: 34), the love
between God and humankind:
Moth: ‘I gave you my life. Flame: ‘I allowed you to kiss me.
The shama-parwana’s association with the executed Sufi al-Hallaj seems to have
set an important precedent in associating the metaphor with martyrdom. Passages
in the Sikh text, the Adi Granth, play on the moth and flame motif with reference
to the martyrdom of Guru Arjan in 1606, whose heroic death is described as a
conscious merging into the divine light, ‘like a moth’, attracted and extinguished
by a candle’s flame (Fenech, 2001: 24), although the word patanga is used in this
context. The moth and flame trope travels across a number of subcontinental
religious and cultural registers, and would have been recognizable to a broad
audience in the early 20th century with slightly different inflections, which, when
drawn together, articulate the irresistible determination of the revolutionaries to
sacrifice their own lives in the pursuit of a larger goal.
Revolutionaries as moths
In Desh Chintan, if it were not for the caption and the couplet, the image would be
much more difficult to ground as a revolutionary poster. Desh Chintan, I would
like to suggest, was the culmination of a series of allusions to the arthropodic
metaphor; when read out of sequence, the metaphor is admittedly difficult to
discern. This resonates with James C Scott’s (1990: 19) identification of a ‘partly
sanitized, ambiguous, and coded version of the hidden transcript of resistance’,
which is made strategically dense through the use of codes, metaphors, and so on.
Earlier images depicting the revolutionaries as moths might have been interpreted,
particularly by the British eye, as relatively benign angels, drifting up to heaven
(Figures 5 and 7). Yet such a mistake would not have been made by anyone
sensitive to Indic literary tropes such as shama-pawana and patanga, or alert to
the potency of martyrology in South Asia. Desh Chintan is an artwork of
Descriptions of the revolutionaries as moths can be traced to their hunger strike
campaign in jail in 1929, in protest at racial discrimination between British and
Indian prisoners, a campaign that undoubtedly led to the popularization of the
revolutionaries (Nair, 2009; Sherman, 2008). Beginning on 15 June, 17 convicts
and prisoners under trial in jails across Punjab and Delhi embarked on a
coordinated hunger strike, which was closely reported in the Indian press. The first
reference to the revolutionaries as moths, dangerously orienting themselves
towards death, appears to have come from sympathizers within the Punjab
Congress. Colonial intelligence agents spied a poster erected by the Amritsar City
Congress Committee advertising a meeting to be held in Jallianwala Bagh on 30
June 1929 ‘to congratulate the pious determination of Bhagat Singh and Dutt, the
moths who sacrifice themselves in the lamp of revolution for the interest of the
others’. The organizer of this meeting was Saifuddin Kitchlew, the Amritsar
Congress leader, who personally knew Bhagat Singh through his Congressman
father, Kishen Singh (Lal, 1976: 16). While Bhagat Singh and Dutt both survived
their hunger strikes, they received special attention as they had already established
some notoriety in the press following their surrender to police on 8 April, which
was fol- lowed by a carefully constructed media campaign around their portraits
(Maclean, 2011: 1063). However, by 13 September the Bengali HSRA member
Jatindranath Das had died after 63 days without nourishment, creating a major
impact on nationalist politics, as indicated on the first page of Lahore’s pro-
Congress English-language newspaper, the Tribune (Figure 4).
Figure 4. A photograph of the body of Jatindranath Das, in Borstal Jail. From the front
cover of The Tribune, 15 September 1929. Reproduced courtesy of the Supreme Court of
India Museum.
The moment of Jatindranath Das’s painful death was imagined by an anonymous
art- ist, in which moths bearing the likenesses of Bhagat Singh, BK Dutt, Rajguru
and Sukhdev hover around Das, who is nursed tenderly by Bharat Mata (Figure 5).
Expelling his last breath, his mortal body (based on the photograph from the
Tribune, Figure 4) propels his heavenly form (based on a studio portrait taken
before his imprisonment, Figure 6) upwards, assisted by winged celestials,
towards a paradise inhabited by nationalists. Welcoming Das to this heavenly
abode is the Congress ‘extremist’ triad Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and
Bipin Chandra Pal; as well as Dadabhai Narorji, a conservative who at the end of
his career favored home rule; and Krishna, who stands in readiness to garland the
new arrival.
[Image not reproduced here, due to copyright restrictions]
Figure 5. ‘Kedarnath Seghal, Jatindranath Das, Ch. Sher Jang, B. K. Dutt.’ Krishna
Printing House, Lahore. Jatindranath Das is elevated to a heaven, where he is received by
CR Das, Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Dadabhai Naoroji. Artist unknown, c. 1929. Kulbir
Singh Collection, NMML Album 808, 36516. Reproduced courtesy of NMML (Nehru
Memorial Museum and Library). (I am grateful to Christopher Pinney for alerting me to
this image.)
Figure 6. Jatindranath Das. Photograph reproduced by Shyam Sunder Lal, Kanpur, c.
1930–1931. (Author’s collection.)
Bringing the revolutionaries into the same frame as extremist Congressmen who
favored independence at the earliest is highly significant, as in 1929 the ultimate
aim of the Congress was under dispute. Dominion status was favored by party
elders from the Mahatma to Motilal Nehru, as opposed to complete independence
(purna swaraj), which was pressed upon the party by a younger generation of
activists, represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. These
differences threatened to split the Congress as decisively as had the moderate-
extremist divide of the first decade of the century (Brown, 2004[1977]: 135).
Das’s death, writes Gyan Pandey (2002: 78), generated a wave of nationalist
fervor that served to ‘strengthen the hands of the younger Nehru and the Congress
“Left” ... and helped them carry the party into a more militant stance’, which led to
the change in Congress’s creed to purna swaraj, at the Lahore Congress in
December 1929.
Figure 7. Dukhi Mata, Prabhu Dayal, 1931. Bhargava Press, Allahabad/Shyam Sunder
Lal, Kanpur. (Author’s collection.)
Jatindranath Das’s demise, and the extraordinary public reaction to it hartals
(strikes), the resignations of two Congressmen from the Punjabi legislature, mass
condolence meet- ings, a coordinated funeral procession that began in Lahore and
ended in Calcutta, showers of petals and coins on his body, and Motilal Nehru’s
adjournment of the Legislative Assembly in protest foreshadowed the public
response to the triple executions of March 1931. The British authorities, in the
intervening months, had learned much about the ways in which martyrs were
made, although they were unwilling to preclude the inevitable pro- cess by
adjusting the death sentences to life imprisonment. The cult of martyrdom, com-
plained analysts in the Home Department, was self-perpetuating; it had led to a
dramatic rise in the number of youths ‘prepared to commit outrages in
circumstances which must almost inevitably result in their death or capture’ (DIB
Report, 30 July 1931, IOR, L/PJ/12/390: 78).
It is evident from the HSRA’s strategy of taking studio portraits of all of its inner
circle members that they clearly understood the importance of images in
nationalist communi- cation. The effective circulation of these photographs
through a range of visual media newspapers, handbills, posters and even badges
was pivotal in securing a place for the revolutionaries in public consciousness,
inspiring others to make similar sacrifices.
Imperial statistics bear this out. From early 1929 to the end of 1931, ‘anarchist
crimes’ against the government escalated, an astounding fact given that after May
1929 the majority of the perpetrators of the Lahore Conspiracy Case were safely
behind bars. In Punjab alone, there were three ‘crimes of a terrorist nature’ in
1929, which rose to 17 in 1930 and nine in the first eight months of 1931. Other
figures indicate that the police were unable to keep abreast of assaults on British
targets and officials: according to another reckoning, in 1930 there were 19
‘violent outrages’ involving bombs in Punjab, but only 10 of these led to arrests.
Many of these attacks were staged with reference to, or inspired by, images of
Bhagat Singh and his colleagues. To recount one example, VB Gogate (1970: 2)
recalled that in 1929 images of the Lahore Conspiracy Case accused had been
circulating widely among students at Fergusson College in Pune. This inspired
him to shoot the acting Governor of Bombay, John Ernest Buttery Hotson, on 22
July 1931, in protest at the shooting of satyagrahis in Sholapur (Hotson survived,
and so Gogate lived to tell his tale). Even more interesting for historians of the
image was his recollection that on the day of the intended assassination:
I had also kept in my pocket the photograph of Sir Ernest Hotson. I had read the stories of
revolutionaries and I found that some revolutionaries made a mistake between the
Europeans. They could not identify them correctly because, for us Indians, all Europeans
are practically alike. I thought to myself that I should not commit such a mistake, and
therefore, I had kept a photograph of Sir Ernest Hotson in my pocket. (p. 5)
Such a vignette would suggest that youths such as Gogate were not only inspired
by photographs and eulogies of martyrs just as the government suspected, but
more impor- tantly, that they followed the details of the trial in the press so closely
that they had learned not to repeat the error of misidentification. A table compiled
in 1931 of ‘persons convicted or accused in recent terrorist conspiracy cases’
showed that many of them had ‘imbibed revolutionary ideas from the reading of
newspapers’, a testament to the potency of the press (‘Statements of persons
convicted or accused in recent terrorist conspiracy cases’, IOR, L/PJ/12/400: 75).
In the lead-up to and aftermath of the executions of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and
Sukhdev, the moth motif was invoked across a range of vocal, visual and written
materi- als, situating their impending deaths within an established discourse of
martyrdom. While the moth metaphor was by no means a dominant mode of
invoking Bhagat Singh and his comrades, it was a recurrent one. Just prior to the
executions, in early March, an Urdu leaflet, ‘Blood for Blood’, issued by the
Punjab Avenging Party, was found at print- ing presses in Amritsar and Lahore,
goading its readers to retaliation:
Intrepid youths of India, are you not ashamed to learn unmoved of daily oppressions? Are
you not moved at the sight of the moths of Indian freedom being done to death? Are you
wholly devoid of feelings of patriotism? Cannot your sense of honour be aroused at the
sight of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru ascending the gallows? (Intelligence Report,
March 12, 1931, IOR: L/PJ/12/390, p. 34)
Following the executions, the Hindi-language Abhyudaya produced a special
Bhagat Singh edition, which included a lengthy meditation on Bhagat Singh as
azadi ka par- wana, the moth of independence, who had through his sacrifice
merged with the fire of independence (azadi ki dip-shikha). (Abyudaya, May 8,
1931, p. 12)
This interpretation was reflected in political posters that were circulated at the
time, some in the form of newspaper inserts, others as commodities sold in the
bazaar. Prabhu Dayal, a prolific artist who worked across a range of nationalist
topics, produced Dukhi Mata in 1931 (Figure 7). A desolate mother recognizable
by her chains as Bharat Mata mourns the deaths of the revolutionaries, who drift
upwards in moth avatars toward deliv- erance. This image contains many of the
elements that are only inferred in Desh Chintan.
In Dukhi Mata, the flame is identified as the fire of swadhinta freedom
inferring that the moth-revolutionaries have merged with and become consumed
by the larger anti- colonial movement. Four revolutionaries have died already, and
two moths bearing the likenesses of BK Dutt and Hari Kishen, a member of the
HSRA who was executed in June 1931 for attempting to assassinate the Governor
of Punjab lie at the base of the flame, as though preparing to follow their
companions. The scene is mourned by Mother India and blessed by Krishna, who
hovers over a backlit skyline, revealing a mosque. Thus, the image attempts to
invoke a composite culture of religious and political sym- bols, inferring a secular
ethos that was an important element of HSRA ideology.
Desh Chintan, then, might be seen as a re-interpretation of Dukhi Mata in which
the most obvious referents the instantly recognizable hat-wearing Bhagat Singh
and a chained and mourning Mother India have been reduced to an innocent
cluster of moths fluttering in the background of an image whose focus is an
innocuous, beautiful but miserable woman. In this reading of the image, the onus
of consoling the heroine of the picture, an uncredited Bharat Mata, falls upon the
viewer. Reminiscent of Basanti Devi whose ‘I, a woman of India, ask the youth
of India: What are you going to do about it?’ spurred the HSRA to assassinate
Saunders in 1928 a distinctly gendered form of action is required to protect and
console Mother India. This particular interpre- tation is strengthened by Sumathi
Ramaswamy’s observation that with the exception of Bharat Mata, women were
largely ‘invisibilized’ in political images (Ramaswamy, 2010: 238). Additionally,
Ramaswamy has emphasized the recurrence of cartographic representations in
posters of the period as a way of visualizing the nation. Yet in Desh Chintan (as
indeed in all of the images shown here from the Kanpur press), the territo- rial
map is curiously absent, although Bharat Mata accompanies the moths, personify-
ing the nation.
Figure 8. Sardar Bhagat Singh, Roop Kishore Kapoor, c. 1931. Published by Shyam
Sunder Lal, Kanpur. (Author’s collection.)
A further indication of the caution with which Desh Chintan is composed is evi-
dent in the signature of the picture, a pseudonym, ‘Chitrashala Kanpur’. This, as
well as the style of the painting, indicates that the artist was Roop Kishore Kapoor.
Based on his research in Kanpur, Christopher Pinney (2004: 128, 2009: 50) has
revealed that Kapoor was active in the Congress, but also something of a
revolutionary, who was arrested for producing his pictures of Bhagat Singh (such
as Figure 8), serving time in jail. Pinney also notes that the proscribed images
section of the India Office Library holds more images by Kapoor than any other
named artist (Pinney, 2009: 52). The bulk of Kapoor’s work features revolutionary
subjects, presumably reflecting his political orientation, and much of his work
betrays a close knowledge of revolution- ary affairs. From his other work,
particularly his photomontage Azad Mandir (repro- duced in Pinney, 2004: 130), it
is apparent that he was able to access the revolutionaries’ collection of portraits.
The images Kapoor drew on had not all been strategically released to the press in
the manner of the now iconic ones of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt (Maclean, 2011:
1027). Once the investigators of the Lahore Conspiracy Case realized that these
images were taken ‘for the express purpose of publication’ and grasped the risk to
the identification of suspects in court if photographs were freely circulated in the
press, the circulation of revolutionary portraits was pushed into underground
There are several other indications that Roop Kishore Kapoor moved in the same
circles as Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary colleagues in Kanpur. Bhagat Singh
was based in Kanpur from late 1924 until 1925, working with the well- known
trade unionist and Congress leader Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi for his news- paper,
Pratap. It was Vidyarthi who introduced Bhagat Singh to Chandra Shekhar Azad,
who was to become the leader of the HSRA (Bhargava, 1988: 44; Sanyal, 1931).
Vidyarthi’s offices became a base for revolutionaries to work on their pub- lication
endeavors, and he assisted them in the compilation of the popular publica- tion,
Chand ka Phansi Ank (Chand’s special issue on hanging; Kumar, 2008; Verma,
1972: 1723).
BK Dutt grew up and was educated in Kanpur and was also frequently represented
by Kapoor, and not only as Bhagat Singh’s associate, as was common visual
practice following the dual release of their photographs to the media after the
assembly bomb- ing (Figures 3, 5 and 7). Figure 9 depicts BK Dutt alone,
shackled and locked in the Andamans, minded by three guards, serving out his
sentence of transportation for life. A tag around his neck clearly specifies a prison
identification number 2110404 and empty bowls beside him serve as a
reminder of his hunger strike. It is the title, The Caged Lion of India, that imbues
Dutt, about whom relatively little was publicly known, with a particular
personality and heroism, a reminder of his years of struggle in jail. This image,
then, might be read as a sensitive reminder of the revolutionary that survived, by
someone acquainted with him who could well imagine his struggle. The styling of
him as Bharat ka Singh seems to be a play on the name of his famous friend,
Bhagat Singh.
Another image by Kapoor (Figure 10) is unusual for its departure from the
convention of the time of closely replicating revolutionary portraits in poster art;
in Figures 29, the likenesses (and thus the recognition) of the revolutionaries
depicted rely on a familiarity with their studio portraits. In Hanging, in order to
position Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh in such a fashion that they are able to
solemnly witness Rajguru’s execution before their own, he depicts them in profile.
Realizing that this will make their identification difficult, the press has named
each of the revolutionaries. This image differs substantially from many others
made of the hanging scene at the time, which almost invariably imagined that all
three were hanged simultaneously and side by side, and that Bhagat Singh had
Figure 9. Bharat ka Singh Pinjare main (The Lion of India in a Cage), Roop Kishore
Kapoor, c. 1931. Shyam Sundar Lal, Kanpur. (Author’s collection.)
his hat until the end. The profile shot reveals mundane but significant detail for
example, that Bhagat Singh was taller than his friends (Vohra, 1972: 16)
indicative, as is the rep- resentation showing that they were not hanged
simultaneously, of facts not widely known outside revolutionary circles.
Figure 10. Hanging, Roop Kishore Kapoor, c. 1931. Published by Shyam Sunder Lal,
Kanpur. (Author’s collection.)
Other images by Kapoor are indicative of his engagement in leftist politics in
Kanpur. In the immediate aftermath of Bhagat Singh’s execution, communal
rioting broke out after Congress workers tried to enforce a hartal on Muslim
shopkeepers in Kanpur. In the ensuing violence, approximately 300 people died,
including Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, who threw himself into the heart of the
conflict in an attempt to make peace. Roop Kishore Kapoor produced a powerful
poster inVidyarthi’s honor, mourning a man who was celebrated for his
commitment to HinduMuslim unity (Figure 11). Vidyarthi’s death hit the
Congress hard, as he had been a major figure in the United Provinces organization
and was widely respected, including by the revolutionaries, with whom he
maintained many close friendships (Jain, 1987: 5; Sahai, 1975: 2225; Verma,
1972: 23; ‘Warrior’, 1986: 45).
Figure 11. Ganesh Shakhar Vidyarthi: Self-Sacrifice in Mitigating the Riot of Cawnpore,
Roop Kishore Kapoor, c. 1931. Shyam Sunder Lal, Kanpur. (Author’s collection.)
Kapoor’s penchant for representing revolutionaries is suggestive of more than a
dis- tant admiration or an ideological concurrence. While this cannot be
established by other means than the sheer volume of and detail in his depictions of
HSRA members, it is likely that he was acquainted with his subjects. If we are to
take images seriously as primary sources, it is difficult to escape this conclusion.
Eulogy as incitement
The necessity for the artist’s careful use of allegory, what Pinney (2009: 54) has
described as ‘slippery metaphor’, is to be found in a consideration of the
redefinition of sedition in the aftermath of the executions of the revolutionaries on
23 March 1931. Controls on the freedom of the press were instituted at different
times at peak moments of the freedom struggle. As the civil disobedience
movement escalated, a press ordinance was promul- gated on 27 April 1930,
allowing for a wider interpretation of what constituted ‘seditious material’
(Barrier, 1974: 114); it was lifted on 5 March 1931 as one of the terms of the
GandhiIrwin Pact. As a result, there was technically no restraint on the press in
the months immediately following the executions, a situation which the nationalist
media took full advantage of.
The response in the nationalist press to the executions was so overwhelming that
the Home Department began to compile a ‘Bhagat Singh Celebration File’,
consisting of eulogies and biographies, many of which incorporated narratives of
revolutionary inno- cence and colonial perfidy. Eulogy literature, contended the
Home Department, consti- tuted a novel and subtle ‘form of incitement to terrorist
crime’. This ‘epidemic’ of literature, according to one analyst, ‘is very serious, for
it gets youth thinking on terrorist lines and this widens the field for terrorist
recruitment to huge dimensions. It also incites persons unconnected with terrorist
organizations to commit crimes on their own’ (memo from Bamford, 16 April
1931, NAI, HP 4/22/1931). Images did not escape their atten- tion, with
government censors adding images of the executed trio to their lists of banned
material on a fortnightly basis.
At the end of April 1931, the government of Punjab delivered a file of eulogy
litera- ture 20 articles and 7 images to the Home Department, hoping to
demonstrate ‘how seriously the tone of the press had deteriorated’ since the repeal
of the press ordinance. Many speeches and gestures of support were traceable to
‘public bodies’, most notably the Punjabi Congress. Feeling particularly
vulnerable after carrying out the death sen- tences, the Punjab government urged
that the Home Department institute a fresh press ordinance. The Secretary of the
Home Department, Mr Emerson, initially rejected the request, reasoning that the
situation was exceptional and that the excitement was bound to recede.
It did not. In August 1931, the Home Department counted four attacks on British
officials, two of them fatal, and Emerson now conceded that ‘of the various factors
which assist the terrorist movement, the most powerful single factor is the
encourage- ment given by a considerable portion of the Press’ (NAI, Home
Political, 4/36 Part 1, 29 August 1931). An Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Bill
was debated in the legisla- tive assembly, and while its first incarnation was
overwhelmingly voted down, subse- quent amendments saw the bill passed and
enacted in September 1931. This made it unlawful for any ‘newspaper, book or
other document containing any words, signs or visible representations’ to: incite or
encourage, or tend to incite or to encourage, the commission of any offence of
murder or any cognizable offence involving violence, or directly or indirectly
express approval or admiration of any such offence, or of any person, real or
fictitious, who has committed or is alleged or represented to have committed any
such offence. (Legislative Assembly Debates, Vol. V, No. 1, September 7, 1931)
Thus the eulogizing of revolutionaries in word or image became illegal.
A picture of patriotism
Desh Chintan is dated 1933 in the lower left-hand corner. Presumably, it was
produced not long after Roop Kishore Kapoor was released from prison. The
subtlety of the image speaks of a desire to perpetuate the memory of revolutionary
sacrifices, coupled with a very pragmatic inclination to avoid re-arrest, by
invoking earlier images such as Dukhi Mata, as well as nationalist rhetoric which
made occasional allusions to moth metaphors. There are two other inferences in
the image worthy of analysis. One is the bringing together of revolutionary and
Congress methods into the same frame represented by the juxtaposition of the
spinning apparatus, synonymous with Gandhian methods (Brown, 2010), and the
immolating moths. As Pinney (2004: 117) has suggested (and as Ganesh Shankar
Vidyarthi exemplifies), this is indicative of forgotten or clandestine interactions
between Congress and revolutionary circles (Pinney, 2004: 117), which historians
are now beginning to reveal (Habib, 2007; Maclean, 2013b; Mittal and Habib,
1982). It is also suggestive of more general sympathies in nationalist-minded
circles, which saw no conflict in simultaneously supporting the Gandhian platform
of non-violence and honor- ing Bhagat Singh. As the Bhavishya editorialized in
August 1931:
If to-day the country worships Bhagat Singh, it is not for his mistakes, but for his
unflinching patriotism, which if not greater, was not less than that of Gandhiji. To-day
the life of Bhagat Singh presents itself before the country as an emblem of genuine
patriotism and sacrifice. To-day the memory of Bhagat Singh does not prompt anyone
towards the path of violence; it evokes in the heart of men the pure spirit of asceticism.
For this reason the worship of Bhagat Singh is the worship of the nation. To-day Bhagat
Singh is before the country not in the form of the evils of violence, but as a pure
embodiment of patriotism.
This precise sentiment is reflected across many oral history interviews. While one
Congressman attributed his popularity to a particularly Punjabi penchant for
violence ‘it may be owing to our weakness, but as Punjabis, we praised our
revolutionaries ... even though we honestly believed in Gandhism’ (Narain, 1971:
66) this does not begin to explain the extent to which he was revered after his
death across much of India, let alone Punjab. As Durga Das, an eminent Delhi-
based journalist who reported on the negotiations of the GandhiIrwin Pact,
reflected when asked by the historian BR Nanda (see D Das, 1969: 49):
Nanda: Was there any inconsistency in the Indian opinion? On the one hand it accepted
leadership of Gandhi, it accepted non-violence, on the other hand it had such passionate
admiration for Bhagat Singh, because I lived through that experience myself. Das: There
is no contradiction. The simple reason is this: There are two different emotions, one is the
emotion of reverence for a holy man, a Messiah, a leader, a great man and a great
Mahatma, that represented one compartment, the other was admiration for a hero, who
had sacrificed himself for the country.
Nanda: May I say that showed some kind of split personality in the nation also where
there are two separate compartments on such a crucial issues, violence and non-violence
... Das: No, they were judging by only one yardstick, namely patriotism. They were not
assessing violence or non-violence. They thought of Bhagat Singh as a man patriotically
prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause of the nation. They took him as a hero, a
martyr for the cause of the freedom for which Gandhi too was fighting.
Such an interpretation, of there being one movement for independence regardless
of formal disputes about the means, comes across strongly in a range of materials
from the 1930s. It is also apparent that the government of India experienced and
responded to the combined pressures from the advocates of non-violence and the
revolutionaries, fre- quently maintaining that the civil disobedience movement
created the anarchy in which the revolutionaries flourished.
Ao, patangini ... (Come, lady moth...)
Another implication of Desh Chintan regards the subjectivity of women in the
nationalist struggle. Partha Chatterjee has famously theorized that the ‘women’s
question’ in the nation- alist imagination was resolved by enshrining it in an ‘inner
domain of sovereignty’, repre- sented by the ghar (home), in which we find the
heroine of our poster (Chatterjee, 1993: 117120). The translation of the Awadhi
poem into functional English unwittingly strips away a gendered inflection that
imbues this dense image with yet another layer of meaning. By using a feminine
form for moth, patangini, which clumsily translates as ‘lady moth’ (a distinction
rarely made in English), the poet urges the heroine of the picture to make greater
sacrifices than lingering in the home, spinning. The flame (of swadhinta, freedom)
is already burning, so why not burn with it? Viewed through this lens, the image is
a delicate incite- ment, encouraging the respectable lady of the home to leave her
refuge and plunge into the outside world of the national struggle, even if this
involves giving up the life she has known, or indeed, her life (sang jalen jalat na
more ang is translatable as ‘join the fire without flinching’). This would suggest
that she is being urged into revolutionary activities.
The early 1930s saw women begin to take part in active politics in considerable
num- bers; of more than 80,000 persons arrested in the Salt Satyagraha (‘Salt
March’) of 1930, 18,000 were women (Basu, 1995: 102). By 1933, women were
also lending their support to revolutionary organizations across India, secretly
taking up supporting roles but also, in small but significant numbers, resorting to
violence themselves (Forbes, 1997: 112128). The first and perhaps most
notorious of these was Durga Devi Vohra, the widow of HSRA operative
Bhagwati Charan (who died in 1930 while testing a bomb). Today, Vohra, better
known as ‘Durga Bhabhi’, is renowned for her role in assisting Bhagat Singh’s
escape from Lahore, following the Saunders murder in December 1928, by posing
as his wife. It is not widely known that she took up arms herself, opening fire on a
police officer and his wife in Bombay in October 1930, an attack subsequently
known to British officialdom as the Lamington Road Outrage (Maclean, 2013a).
This incident was entered into the annals of anti-imperialism in India as ‘the first
instance in which a woman figured prominently in a terrorist outrage’ (Note on
Terrorism’, 1932, IOR, L/PJ/12/404: 106).
While by 1933 Vohra had surrendered, many other women willfully perpetrated
violence against British targets (Bandopadhyay, 1991; Bose, 1996; Forbes, 1997),
challenging notions of imperial masculinity even as they took advantage of
presump- tions that women were incapable of acts of violence to slide beneath the
police radar. In Bengal, Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhury shot and killed a
British magistrate on 14 December 1931; Bina Das made an attempt on the life of
the governor of Bengal at a university convocation on 6 February 1932; and on 24
September of the same year, Pritilata Waddedar, who had already been implicated
in the murder of Captain E Cameron, led an attack on a European club, in which a
Mrs Sullivan was killed and eight others injured. In a final act of defiance,
Waddedar then committed suicide, depriving the British of the triumph of her
capture. Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhury were disappointed to be sentenced to
transportation their aim had been to ‘become the first women martyrs’; still, their
arrival in jail created such enthusiasm that they had to be separated from other
political prisoners to protect them from the ‘contamina- tion’ of revolutionary zeal
(S Das, 1969: 11). British intelligence networks struggled to understand the
phenomenon of women joining the revolutionary movement, reasoning that it was
an undesirable outcome of the growing trend towards co-education.
The particular usefulness from a revolutionary standpoint of women in
coordinat- ing actions against British targets was that they were able to take
advantage of liberties afforded to them as ‘harmless women’ to infiltrate the
increasingly fearful police state. Indeed, many revolutionary organizations,
including the HSRA, were initially reluctant to extend opportunities for ‘actions’
to women, due to a spectrum of anxieties, from fears of undermining the
movement’s focus to exposing the women to police abuse in the event of capture.
These fears were gradually overcome as women such as Durga Devi Vohra proved
their mettle, and other women began to take part in actions, in gunrunning and
other supplementary activities, particularly as the movement began to be eroded
by arrests and accidental deaths of the leadership (Gupta, 1969: 6465).
The executions of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru provided the impetus for
an unprecedented number of women to take to the streets, leaving their homes to
take part in mourning processions. A report from the North-Western Frontier
remarked that on 24 March, ‘large processions of men and (a novel feature for
Peshawar) of women marched from cantonments into the city’ in protest at the
hangings (fortnightly report for the second half of March 1931, North-Western
Frontier Provinces, NAI, F/18/3/1931). The Tribune marveled at the crowds of
‘lady mourners’ who moved about Lahore, where a young Manmohini Zutchi,
unwilling to defer to Gandhi’s request that the procession be silent, organized a
separate procession of some 6000 defiant mourners (Zutchi, 1994: 91).
Imagining and imaging swadhinta!
In this article, I have demonstrated some of the ways in which Desh Chintan might
have been read in the 1930s, underscoring how this evocative picture conveyed
different messages to different audiences. Indeed, it might be argued that the meta-
narrative of this particular frame emphasizes the power of the visual. Our heroine
gazes into the distance, imagining swadhinta; the moths behind her, bent on
annihilation, are the catalyst for her thoughts. As a woman of some privilege, she
has acquired the discursive constellation of knowledge that grounds the moth-and-
flame metaphor in martyrology. However, she has not experienced the deprivation
that gave khadi its resonance in the public sphere, from which she seems so
disconnected. For this grihalakshmi (goddess of the home), the les- sons of
swadeshi (the movement advocating the boycott of British goods in favour of
Indian) have remained abstract, giving her insufficient reason to renounce her
beautiful raiment for the awkward and dowdy (but theoretically liberating) khadi.
The idea of khadi has dutifully moved her to spin, but not to wear. By contrast, the
spectacle of the immolating moths has had a more immediate effect, to the point
where more drastic action has suddenly become thinkable. This particular
interpretation is sealed with the entreaty of the text. This is not to ignore the ways
in which khadi was visually consti- tuted, as has been vividly demonstrated by
Lisa Trivedi (2007), but to suggest that images by activists such as Roop Kishore
Kapoor might be read as a response to the prevalence of swadeshi in the visual
landscape of the nation. Such an intervention draws attention to the presence of the
revolutionaries on the political spectrum, their violent sacrifice throwing the
Gandhian program into stark relief. Seen through this lens, the violence and the
non-violence movement are inseparable.
Desh Chintan shrouds a range of meanings, the keys to which are held across a
dense range of literary, cultural and historical frames, some of which (if we wish
to read our sad heroine as Bharat Mata) may cancel out others (as a lady-moth,
prepar- ing to throw herself into the fire of revolutionary activity). The messages
encoded are deliberately diaphanous. Crucially, the intertextual and polysemic
nature of the image imbues it with the possibility of denial, should it be discovered
by a zealous censor Sir, this is not a poster of Bhagat Singh, this is merely a lady
at her spinning. The journey of the moth-and-flame metaphor as it traverses across
literary, poetic, reli- gious (a melange of Hindu, Sufi, Bhakti and Sikh),
philosophical and political regis- ters is so convoluted that no single meaning can
be fixed for long enough for a prosecution to be applied. But for anyone closely
observing the travails of the revolu- tionaries through the courts and to the gallows
in 1931, the image is a recognizable, if abstract, culmination of its predecessors
(Figures 5 and 7), rooted in political dis- courses and, finally, embedded in a
martyrology that transcended religious affiliations of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh.
This secularism was a crucial element of the HSRA’s socialist critique. The image
is a component of a rich archive that reveals something of the closeness of
revolutionary networks in Kanpur and an overlap with the organized Congress
movement, which dec- ades of historiography (influenced by slightly later notions
of the oppositionality of vio- lence and non-violence) has presumed did not
happen. A much more fluid picture of a larger patriotic movement is evidenced in
the image, as indeed in other documents of the period, as I have briefly
demonstrated. These messages are all inferred, as the censorship regime of the
period drowned out the capacity to communicate them easily; having served time
already for his representational art, Roop Kishore Kapoor had both personal and
political reasons to conceal his politics behind inspired camouflage.
This paper was first presented at La Trobe University’s Festival of Ideas, ‘Word, Image
Action: Popular Print and Visual Culture’, on 9 June, 2011. I am grateful to the festival
organisers, and to those who took part in the panel and commented on this paper,
particularly Philip Lutgendorf, Chris Pinney, Ira Raja, Jim Masselos, Assa Doron, Greg
Bailey, and Peter Friedlander.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public,
commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
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Author biography
Kama Maclean is Associate Professor of South Asian and World History at the
University of New South Wales. Over the past 10 years, she has worked across a range of
topics related to North India, including postcolonialism, nationalist mobilization, the
politics of pilgrimage, theories of social communication and intercolonial histories. This
work has drawn on a range of research methodologies and disciplines, from political
science, history, anthropology and visual culture studies and has been published in a
range of international journals, most recently the Journal of Asian Studies (2011) and
Modern Asian Studies (2012). Maclean’s book, Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela
in Allahabad (2008, Oxford University Press) was awarded an Honourable Mention in
the Kentish Anand Coomaraswamy Prize. She is the editor of South Asia: Journal of
South Asian Studies.
... These underscore the extraordinary grasp the HSRA had on the role of visuality in political communication, particularly in the strategic deployment of portraiture to illustrate their politics; reading these images is therefore an important angle of analysis. 12 Simultaneously, recent academic conversations in the fields of literary study have not only offered new protocols for reading anticolonial texts as literature, they have illuminated the ways in which these anticolonial thinkers could be put into provocative conversation with ethical and political philosophy. 13 On one hand, we hope to open up discussion about new resources leading the reconceptualization of the historiography of Indian nationalism, by complicating tendencies towards simple teleological narratives of the proverbial march to independence. ...
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This essay maps out the discursive and political trajectories of the ‘revolutionary’ in Indian historical and literary worlds. Focusing on the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and related interwar Indian anticolonial agitators, this essay reflects on the lineages, breadth, and productivity of the term. By tracing the figure of the revolutionary, we show that its genealogy reflects a wide range of political allegiances, ethical concerns, and aesthetic protocols. ‘Revolutionary’ not only suggests Marxist roots, but also reveals anarchistic, nationalistic, reformist, and socialist beliefs. Moreover, in our analysis, ‘revolutionary’ often escapes the grasp of the merely political: its use in popular discourse also suggests debates about violence, modernism, propaganda, cosmopolitanism, and utopianism. Consequently, we argue for the importance of historical context for understanding revolutionary thought, which is sensitive to an active rejection of rigid political categories or spectra.
... Singh himself committed several acts of violence in India, for which he was executed in 1931. He and his executed fellows were widely celebrated as martyrs who, like moths, sacrificed their lives for India's independence (Maclean 2014). ...
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Nuclear rivalry, as well as terrorism and the war against terror, exemplify the dangerous escalation of violence that is threatening our world. Gandhi’s militant nonviolence offers a possible alternative that avoids a complacent indifference toward injustice as well as the imitation of violence that leads to its escalation. The French-American cultural anthropologist René Girard discovered mimetic rivalries as one of the main roots of human conflicts, and also highlighted the contagious nature of violence. This article shows that Gandhi shares these basic insights of Girard’s anthropology, which increases the plausibility of his plea for nonviolence. Reading Gandhi with Girard also complements Girard’s mimetic theory by offering an active practice of nonviolence as a response to violent threats, and by broadening the scope of its religious outreach. Gandhi’s reading of the Sermon on Mount not only renounces violence and retaliation like Girard but also underlines the need to actively break with evil. Both Gandhi and Girard also address the religious preconditions of nonviolent action by underlining the need to prefer godly over worldly pursuits, and to overcome the fear of death by God’s grace. This congruence shows that Girard’s anthropology is valid beyond its usual affinity with Judaism and Christianity.
This book round table discusses two recent monographs on political violence and revolutionary terrorism in late colonial India, Kama Maclean’s A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text (2015) and Durba Ghosh’s Gentlemanly Terrorists: Political Violence and the Colonial State in India, 1919–1947 (2017). Maclean’s A Revolutionary History of Interwar India uncovers how revolutionaries in Punjab and northern India reshaped the goals and tactics of the Indian independence movement, especially the policy of nonviolence. Ghosh’s Gentlemanly Terrorists explores the relationship of political violence in Bengal to the development of the modern nation-state in India. Both Ghosh and Maclean rethink the conventional narrative of the Indian freedom struggle and connect local developments in South Asia to global trends in anticolonial resistance and to larger conversations about the relationship between democracy and surveillance. In the five review essays, Daniel Elam, Rishad Choudhury, Mou Banerjee, Rohit De, and Michael Silvestri assess the impact of these two monographs on South Asian history, legal studies, histories of religion, studies of anticolonial movements, and British imperial historiography. In their responses, Maclean and Ghosh assess the challenges of writing histories of revolutionaries in the present in relation to the anticipated futures of the revolutionaries themselves.
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The theme of nationalism in the works of Premchand, the pre-eminent Urdu–Hindi writer of the 1920s and 1930s, not only serves as an organising principle but also constitutes a protean and contentious field of study, which has resulted in conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, his nationalist narratives are categorically denounced for their apparent lack of radicalism, while on the other hand, they are unequivocally valorised for their so-called subversive content. Both these diametrically opposed schools of criticism, however, share a common lacuna, that is, both of them tend to conflate the writer’s nationalist narratives with his peasant discourse, thereby precluding the possibility of different themes yielding different interpretations. This article examines the theme of nationalism in Premchand’s works, in general, and the question of civil resistance in particular, in order to demonstrate how the writer’s politics of representation in his nationalist writings differs from the one that we find in his peasant narratives. It argues that as opposed to the authorial valorisation of the fictive peasant’s conformity to the exploitative status quo, civil resistance in Premchand’s nationalist narratives is not only necessary and desirable but also synonymous with dharma (moral duty) itself.
Cambridge Core - South Asian Government, Politics and Policy - India's Revolutionary Inheritance - by Chris Moffat
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A growing body of academic literature on political violence in British India has begun to correct the presumption that the anti-colonial struggle was predominantly non-violent. Yet such studies tend to overwhelmingly focus on the struggle of revolutionaries—largely defined as activists who coordinated attacks, predominantly assassinations, against British targets. Surprisingly, the effect of political violence on expatriate Britons in India has scarcely been acknowledged, even in social histories of the British Raj. This chapter accounts for this historiographical omission and argues that attacks against Britons and British interests were confronting—indeed, devastating—critiques of British rule in India. Britons endeavoured to counter these challenges to their legitimacy with a fortitude that was an essential element of the imperial habitus. This chapter focuses on the expatriate response to the rise of political violence in India, which began to shake long-held notions of sovereignty, prestige and the right to rule.
Social movements and the messages they wish to spread are essentially visual phenomena. Although this is both an obvious and momentous assertion, social movement research has been hesitant to integrate visual data. Until lately, most insights into the use of images in social movements originated from historical and media studies. This contribution presents the recent surge in literature devoted to the visual analysis of social movements. It focuses on activists' practices of image production and distribution under certain media-historic constellations. In this perspective, the current opportunities to create and spread images of dissent are contrasted with previous appropriations of technical possibilities from early print to electronic media. In times of mobile devices combined with social network sites, scholars of movement images are confronted with profound changes in the ways images contribute to the emergence and dynamics of social movements. Thus, we argue for a media-sensitive analysis of images in social movements.
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This book draws on new evidence to deliver a fresh perspective on the ambitions, ideologies and practices of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association or Army (HSRA), the revolutionary party formed by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, inspired by transnational anti-imperial dissent. The book offers an account of the activities of the north Indian revolutionaries who advocated the use of political violence against the British; and considers the impact of their actions on the mainstream nationalism of the Indian National Congress. The book contends that the presence of these revolutionaries on the political landscape during this crucial interwar period pressured Congress politics and tested the policy of non-violence. The book makes methodological contributions, analyzing images, memoirs, oral history accounts and rumours alongside colonial archives and recently declassified government files, to elaborate on the complex relationships between the Congress and the HSRA, which are far less antagonistic than is frequently imagined.
In Clothing Gandhi's Nation, Lisa Trivedi explores the making of one of modern India's most enduring political symbols, khadi: a homespun, home-woven cloth. The image of Mohandas K. Gandhi clothed simply in a loincloth and plying a spinning wheel is familiar around the world, as is the sight of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other political leaders dressed in "Gandhi caps" and khadi shirts. Less widely understood is how these images associate the wearers with the swadeshi movement - which advocated the exclusive consumption of indigenous goods to establish India's autonomy from Great Britain - or how khadi was used to create a visual expression of national identity after Independence. Trivedi brings together social history and the study of visual culture to account for khadi as both symbol and commodity. Written in a clear narrative style, the book provides a cultural history of important and distinctive aspects of modern Indian history.
This book offers a comprehensive introduction to one of the most beloved and widely worshiped of Hindu deities: the "monkey-god" Hanuman. It details the historical expansion of Hanuman's religious status beyond his role as helper to Rama and Sita, the divine hero and heroine of the ancient Ramayana storytelling tradition. Additionally, it surveys contemporary popular literature and folklore through which Hanuman's mythological biography is celebrated, and describes a range of religious sites and practices that highlight different aspects of his persona. Emphasizing Hanuman's role as a "liminal" deity who combines animal, human, and divine qualities, and as a "middle-class" god within the Hindu pantheon, the book argues that such mediatory status has made Hanuman especially appealing to upwardly-mobile social groups as well as to Hindus of many sectarian persuasions.
Gandhi's use of the spinning wheel was one of the most significant unifying elements of the nationalist movement in India. Spinning was seen as an economic and political activity that could bring together the diverse population of South Asia, and allow the formerly elite nationalist movement to connect to the broader Indian population. This book looks at the politics of spinning both as a visual symbol and as a symbolic practice. It traces the genealogy of spinning from its early colonial manifestations in Company painting to its appropriation by the anti-colonial movement. This complex of visual imagery and performative ritual had the potential to overcome labour, gender, and religious divisions and thereby produce an accessible and effective symbol for the Gandhian anti-colonial movement. By thoroughly examining all aspects of this symbol's deployment, this book unpacks the politics of the spinning wheel and provides a model for the analysis of political symbols elsewhere. It also probes the successes of India's particular anti-colonial movement, making an invaluable contribution to studies in social and cultural history, as well as South Asian Studies.
Popular Sikh histories of today are united in their claim that the execution in 1606 of the fifth Sikh Master, Guru Arjan, has always been understood as an heroic martyrdom. Yet the fact that this event is not mentioned either in the Bachitar Natak, the first Sikh text to allocate privileged space to martyrdom, nor in subsequent eighteenth-century Khalsa Sikh literature of the gur-bilas genre, makes such a claim very difficult to sustain. This paper turns a critical eye towards these sources and speculates as to how Sikhs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in fact understood Guru Arjan's demise.