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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 124-132

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Reflections and Reports

Powerlessness Grows Out of the Barrel of a Gun

Vijay Prashad

I heard about 9/11 from my sister-in-law, who called and said that something terrible had just happened. Without cable television and with only intermittent Web gazing during the morning, I may have spent the day in beautiful Northampton, Massachusetts, oblivious to the clash of fundamentalisms, to another episode of McJihad. 1 But the contradictions intervened, and I sat down and wrote a brief piece called "Nothing Good Comes from Terror."

The short note, which went out on the Internet from ZNET that evening, ended with the following words:

The attacks must be condemned without reservation. But we must be certain to recognize that these are probably the work of frustrated and alienated human beings hemmed in by forces that are anonymous and that could only be embodied by these structures. The people who work in them became the "collateral damage" that we hear so much about when our cruise missiles strike the Third World. Those who died are martyrs of this government's insane policies, as well as martyrs of the insanity of neoliberal globalization.

Even as I typed those words, I was thinking of one of my favorite figures from our past, the great Bhagat Singh. 2 Born in 1907 to a prosperous family in Lyallpur, western Punjab, Bhagat Singh was swept up in the anticolonial fervor of his days. Inspired by his freedom fighter uncle, Sardar Ajit Singh, Bhagat Singh joined his fellow students as they threw their bodies on the line to force British imperialism to [End Page 124] flee the subcontinent. When Punjabi revolutionary peasants formed the Ghadar Party in San Francisco in 1913, they sent a message across the subcontinental diaspora that the masses of Indians were ready to be organized for militant action. The voluble Congress Party (formed in 1885) had not done its duty, and it was in the diaspora—in the United States with the Ghadarites and in South Africa with the miners and cane workers mobilized alongside M. K. Gandhi—that the fiery spirit of mass organization of Indians took hold. The Ghadarites and Gandhi imported this spirit back into the subcontinent and seized the patriotic energy of people like Bhagat Singh.

In September 1928, Bhagat Singh, only twenty-one and already a veteran militant, became the secretary of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) whose goal was nothing less than the creation of a socialist republic of India. The next month, the liberal wing of British imperialism sent the Simon Commission to condescendingly ascertain the views of the people, so the HSRA decided to boycott it, but also to protest its presence. At a major demonstration joined by patriotic forces of all kinds in Lahore, Punjab, on October 30, 1928, the imperialist police smashed the protesters and killed the Lion of Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai, who had just returned to India from his sojourn in New York City. Vengeance for this murder came when Bhagat Singh and his group assassinated an important police official, John Poyantz Saunders, in late 1928. Then, the next year, as the British government tried to curtail civil liberties and workers' rights through legislative action, the HSRA decided to conduct a terrorist act on the legislature. On April 8, as the president of the legislature announced that the bills against civil action had been passed, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw one bomb each and countless leaflets into the well of the chamber; loud noises, they wrote in a leaflet, are needed to make the deaf hear their cries. The police arrested Bhagat Singh, sentenced him to die, and finally executed him on March 23, 1931.

A young man born in the midst of desperate oppression, turned, like many in his generation, to an impatient strategy to resolve the nation's problems. In December 1928, Bhagat Singh met the veteran Ghadar Party member and later communist leader Sohan Singh Josh. Josh worried that Bhagat Singh's group would go the way of many...


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pp. 124-132
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Archived 2004
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