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Politics and the Work of the Dead in Modern India

  • Chris Moffat (a1)

This article provides a framework for understanding the continuing political potential of the anticolonial dead in twenty-first-century India. It demonstrates how scholars might move beyond histories of reception to interrogate the force of inheritance in contemporary political life. Rather than the willful conjuring of the dead by the living, for a politics in the present, it considers the more provocative possibility that the dead might themselves conjure politics—calling the living to account, inciting them to action. To explicate the prospects for such an approach, the article traces the contested afterlives of martyred Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh (1907–1931), comparing three divergent political projects in which this iconic anticolonial hero is greeted as interlocutor in a struggle caught “halfway.” It is this temporal experience of “unfinished business”—of a revolution left incomplete, a freedom not yet perfected—that conditions Bhagat Singh's appearance as a contemporary in the political disputes of the present, whether they are on the Hindu nationalist right, the Maoist student left, or amidst the smoldering remains of Khalistani separatism in twenty-first-century Punjab. Exploring these three variant instances in which living communities affirm Bhagat Singh's stake in the struggles of the present, the article provides insight into the long-term legacies of revolutionary violence in India and the relationship between politics and the public life of history in the postcolonial world more generally.

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1 Gordon, Avery, “Some Thoughts on Futurity and Haunting,” borderlands 10, 2 (2011): 121 , 2; and Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis, 1997), 7; Fritzsche, Peter, “Specters of History: On Nostalgia, Exile, and Modernity,” American Historical Review 106, 5 (2001): 15871618 .

2 Gordon, “Some Thoughts,” 2.

3 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2008), 247.

4 LaCapra, Dominick, “Trauma, Absence, Loss,” Critical Inquiry 25, 4 (1999): 696727 ; Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, 1996).

5 Freeman, Elizabeth, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, 2010).

6 Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx, Kamuf, Peggy, trans. (London, 2006 [1994]); Sprinkler, Michael, ed., Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx (London, 1999); Mannathukkaren, Nissim, The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Spectres that Haunt Marxism (Pondicherry, 2006).

7 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 15.

8 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 139.

9 Scott, David, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton, 1999).

10 See Interventions 10, 1 (2008) issue entitled “Under which Flag? Revisiting James Connolly”; and Hill, Shannen L., Biko's Ghost: The Iconography of Black Consciousness (Minneapolis, 2015).

11 Ramaswamy, Sumathi, The Goddess and the Nation (Durham, 2010); Fenech, Louis E., Martyrdom in the Sikh Tradition (New Delhi, 2000).

12 On Bhagat Singh's life and context, see Maclean's, Kama important A Revolutionary History of Interwar India (London, 2015).

13 Moffat, Chris, “Bhagat Singh's Corpse,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 39, 3 (2016): 644–61.

14 Rancière, Jacques, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Rose, Julie, trans. (Minneapolis, 1999), esp. ch. 3.

15 Benveniste, Émile, Problems in General Linguistics, Meek, Mary Elizabeth, trans. (Miami, 1971), 197–98. I am indebted to a CSSH reviewer for this reference.

16 Garg, Mridula, Anitya: Halfway to Nowhere, Seghal, Seema and Paliwal, Krishna Dutt, trans. (Delhi, 2010), 68, 95.

17 Ibid., xii, “Author's Note.”

18 Ibid., 195.

19 Moffat, Chris, “Experiments in Political Truth,” Postcolonial Studies 16, 2 (2013): 185201 .

20 Garg, Anitya, xii, “Author's Note.”

21 On “context” versus “contextualization,” see Bauman, Richard and Briggs, Charles, “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1990): 5988 .

22 Rang de Basanti, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (URV Motion Pictures, 2006).

23 On the film's early reception, see Namrata Joshi, “My Yellow Icon,” Outlook, 20 Feb. 2006.

24 Srivastava, Neelam, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema: Violence, Patriotism and the National-Popular in Rang De Basanti,” Third Text 23, 6 (2009): 703–16, 713.

25 For an early account, see Sengupta, Mitu, “Anna Hazare and the Idea of Gandhi,” Journal of Asian Studies 71, 3 (2012): 593601 .

26 Anna Hazare, speaking in Ralegan Siddhi prior to Hazare's December 2011 fast in Delhi. See “People Will Castigate Govt if Lokpal Bill Is not Brought before House: Anna,” Daily News & Analysis (DNA) India, 10 Dec. 2011.

27 Kala dhan is money stored in foreign banks for purposes of tax evasion.

28 “Anna Hazare Hungry for Another Fast,” DNA India, 9 June 2011. Also see Giri, Saroj, “The Anti-Corruption Movement and Its False Divides,” Economic & Political Weekly 46, 26/27 (25 June 2011): 1416 .

29 “People Will Castigate Govt.”

30 Anna Hazare () Twitter account, message posted 24 Mar. 2013, 9:38 IST.

31 “People Will Castigate Govt.”

32 “Anna Hazare Blames Politicians,”, 7 Apr. 2011,,prtpage-1.cms (last accessed Mar. 2016).

33 “Hazare Turns Down Z-Category Security,” Hindustan Times, 4 Sept. 2011.

34 “PC Told Lies on Many Occasions: Anna,” Outlook, 2 Sept. 2011, (last accessed Apr. 2016).

35 Shiv Visvanathan, “Op-Ed: Fading Memory of Nationalism,” Deccan Chronicle, 22 Apr. 2011.

36 “For Fasters, There Was Only Hunger to Succeed,” Times of India, 28 Aug. 2011.

37 “Baba Ramdev Rejects Centre's Appeal,” India Today, 3 June 2011, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

38 “For Team Anna, Left Is Right,” Hindustan Times, 22 Aug. 2011.

39 The BSKS publicizes their various campaigns and protests via social media. See their current Facebook account and Twitter account (last accessed Feb. 2017). Their blog has fallen out of use since 2013 but contains early press statements.

40 Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave (Princeton, 1999), 93.

41 The BSKS manifesto appeared on the organization's original (now-defunct) Facebook page, (accessed 16 Oct. 2011, screenshot with author).

42 “Three Attack Prashant Bhushan for Kashmir Remarks,” IBN Live, 12 Oct. 2011, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

43 On Indian nationalism's deep investment in Kashmir, see Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Territory of Desire (Minneapolis, 2009).

44 “Prashant Bhushan Tried to Break India, I Broke His Head,” Times of India, 13 Oct. 2011. Only one member, Inder Verma, seen in the Times Now video beating Bhushan, was arrested.

45 On the HSRA's relationship to anarchism, see Elam, J Daniel, “The ‘Arch-Priestess of Anarchy’ Visits Lahore,” Postcolonial Studies 16, 2 (2013): 140–53.

46 Interview with Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga and Vishnu Gupta, New Delhi, 14 Dec. 2011. Also see the Hindi edition of Tehelka, 31 Oct. 2011, for a profile of Bagga.

47 Sawhney, Simona, “Death in Three Scenes of Recitation,” Postcolonial Studies 16, 2 (2013): 202–15. This marks a significant departure from martyrdom's centrality to the formation of the patriotic male in late colonial India, as observed in Ramaswamy, Goddess.

48 These actions are traced out on the group's Facebook page, but also see: “Serial Offender Bagga Danced on Mirwaiz's Car,” Sunday Guardian, 16 Oct. 2011; “Protesting Group Tries to Burn Constitution at J&K House,” Pioneer, 26 Jan. 2012; “Kak's Film Screened amid Tight Security in Delhi,” Hindu, 17 Feb. 2012; “Right-Wing Activists Badger Geelani at Event in City,” Hindustan Times, 26 Mar. 2012; and “CD Row: Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi Quits Official Posts,” IBNLive, 23 Apr. 2012, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

49 Christiane Brosius, Empowering Visions: The Politics of Representation in Hindu Nationalism (London, 2005), 273.

50 Ibid., 81, 303 n61.

51 Sitaram Yechury, “Op-Ed: An Exercise in Sheer Duplicity,” Hindustan Times, 24 Mar. 2014.

52 Harald Fischer-Tiné, Shyamji Krishnavarma: Sanskrit, Sociology and Anti-Imperialism (Delhi, 2014). Also consider Modi's advances toward Vallabhbhai Patel: Shruti Kapila, “Why Narendra Modi Is Claiming Sardar Patel's Legacy,” Economic Times, 3 Nov. 2013.

53 Saroj Giri, “Pehele AAP, pehele AAP, phir Modi,” Sanhati, 10 Dec. 2013, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

54 Faisal Devji, The Impossible Indian (London, 2012).

55 Mazzarella, William, “Branding the Mahatma: The Untimely Provocation of Gandhian Publicity,” Cultural Anthropology 25, 1 (2010): 139 .

56 Pinney, Christopher, “The Body and the Bomb: Technologies of Modernity in Colonial India,” in Davis, Richard, ed., Picturing the Nation: Iconographies of Modern India (New Delhi, 2007), 5165 , 64.

57 Inklab, directed by Gaurav Chhabra (Independent Release, 2011).

58 See the Facebook page (last accessed Mar. 2016). The film is available online: see “Inklab,” posted by user “humlog” on YouTube, 7 Apr. 2012, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

59 The dialogue cited maintains the English subtitles provided by Chhabra.

60 See “About” section at (last accessed Mar. 2016).

61 “Film on Bhagat Singh Dropped from IFFI,” Hindu, 26 Nov. 2011.

62 Interview with Gaurav Chhabra, Chandigarh, 27 Mar. 2012.

63 See Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph's classic In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State (Chicago, 1987), ch. 11; also, Rashid Syed Ali, Cultures of Student Politics (Delhi, 1997).

64 Rudolph and Rudolph, Pursuit of Lakshmi, 302. Nav Nirman and Jayaprakash Narayan's mobilization of students in Bihar the same year are described as “exceptions rather than the norm.” For more recent insight into student politics in India, see Jeffrey, Craig, Timepass: Youth, Class and the Politics of Waiting in India (Stanford, 2010).

65 Rudolph and Rudolph, Pursuit of Lakshmi, 291.

66 See Menon, Nivedita and Nigam, Aditya, Power and Contestation: India since 1989 (Hyderabad, 2009). The Mandal Commission's recommendations for 27 percent reservations in educational institutions and public employment for “Other Backward Classes”—who constituted close to 60 percent of the population but occupied only 4 percent of government jobs—were fiercely contested both by India's Nehruvian elite and the Hindu right when implemented by Prime Minister VP Singh in 1990.

67 “Bhagat Singh and His Relevance Today!” AISA Official Website, posted 24 Mar. 2012 at (last accessed 30 Mar. 2012; no longer online, pdf with author).

68 Interview with Sucheta De and Vismay Basu (AISA), New Delhi, 2 Apr. 2012.

69 “Bhagat Singh and His Relevance Today!”

70 Sandhu, Avtar Singh (Paash), “Bhagat Singh ka Arth,” in Lal, Chaman, ed., Vartaman ke Rubaru: Paash (New Delhi, 2000), 1718 .

71 Interview with Sucheta De and Vismay Basu (AISA), New Delhi, 2 Feb. 2012.

72 Pattnaik, SK, Student Politics and Voting Behaviour: A Case Study of Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi, 1982).

73 See the detailed accounts in Praveen Donthi, “From Shadows to the Stars: The Defiant Politics of Rohith Vemula and the Ambedkar Students Association”; and Arundhati Roy, “My Seditious Heart,” both in Caravan [magazine] (May 2016). See also Rao, Anupama, “Editorial,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 36, 1 (2016): 222–24.

74 “Interview: Kanhaiya Kumar on the ‘Natural Alliance’ of Ambedkarites and Leftists,” Wire (5 Mar. 2016), (last accessed June 2016).

75 See the group's Facebook page, (last accessed June 2016).

76 See “Ambedkarite vs Left Debate: a Bahujan Perspective,” Ambedkar Reading Group Blog, posted 31 May 2016, (accessed February 2017).

77 Interview with Anirban Bhattacharya and Reyazul Haque, Delhi, 10 June 2016.

78 The SFI Delhi State was controversially dissolved by the CPI-M in July 2012 for being, among other things, “too political”; that is, not properly towing the party line. See Aditya Nigam's post, “CPI-M's ‘July Crisis’ and Challenges for Rebuilding the Left,” Kafila, posted 11 July 2012, (last accessed Mar. 2016). See also the SFI Kerala site (last accessed Mar. 2016).

79 Interview with Roshan Kishore, New Delhi, 24 Apr. 2012.

80 Sadda Haq, directed by Mandeep Benipal (OXL Films, 2013). The states were Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, and Uttarkhand.

81 On this period, see Pettigrew, Joyce J. M., The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerrilla Violence (London, 1995).

82 “On Release Eve, Punjab Bans ‘Sadda Haq,’” Times of India, 5 Apr. 2013.

83 For English press coverage, see Hartosh Singh Bal's essay, “The Shattered Dome,” Caravan [magazine] (May 2014); and Revati Laul, “The After-Life of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale,” Yahoo News India, posted 2 June 2014, (last accessed Mar. 2016). On the Delhi riots, see photographer Gauri Gill's pamphlet “1984,” released in April 2013, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

84 On the “presumed masculinity” of the Sikh subject, see Axel, Brian K, The Nation's Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh “Diaspora” (Durham, 2001); and Das, Veena, “Crisis and Representation: Rumor and the Circulation of Hate,” in Roth, Michael S. and Salas, Charles G., eds., Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century (Issues & Debates) (Los Angeles, 2001), 3762 .

85 I am grateful to Virinder Kalra for discussion on the significance of the baghi. See: “Baghi | Jazzy B | Fully Music Video | Sadda Haq,” posted by user “Jazzy B” on YouTube, 24 Mar. 2013, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

86 Singh, Pritam and Purewal, Navtej K, “The Resurgence of Bhindranwale's Image in Contemporary Punjab,” Contemporary South Asia 21, 2 (2013): 133–47.

87 Bittu is the grandson of assassinated Chief Minister Beant Singh. “Jazzy B in Yet Another Row,” Times of India, 4 Apr. 2013.

88 Axel, Nation's Tortured Body; “Pro-Khalistani Group Distributes “Sadda Haq” in Canada,” Indian Express, 12 Apr. 2013.

89 Louis E. Fenech charts a similar process with famous gunman Udham Singh, whose “individual identity was … clearly subsumed and reshaped by the discourse of martyrdom”; Contested Nationalisms; Negotiated Terrains: The Way Sikhs Remember Udham Singh ‘Shahid’ (1899–1940),” Modern Asian Studies 36, 4 (2002): 827–70, 855.

90 On authorization as a function of tradition, see Scott, David, “On the Very Idea of a Radical Black Tradition,” Small Axe 17, 1 (2013): 16 ; and Asad, Talal, “Anthropology and the Analysis of Ideology,” Man 14, 4 (1979): 607–27.

91 Pettigrew, Joyce suggests, “There has never been in Punjab a period of peace long enough to allow a forgetfulness of the contingent”; Robber Noblemen: A Study of the Political System of the Sikh Jats (London, 1975), 32. On the trope of “frontier” identity in Punjabi literature, see Gaur, I. D., Martyr as Bridegroom: A Folk Representation of Bhagat Singh (London, 2008), 2425 .

92 The most direct treatment remains the documentary In Memory of Friends, directed by Anand Patwardhan (Independent Release, 1990).

93 This alignment with a history of honorable death was evident in the immediate wake of his execution; see Ramaswamy, Goddess.

94 Gaur, Martyr, 165.

95 Fenech, “Contested Nationalisms,” 8. See also Fenech, Martyrdom.

96 Gaur, Martyr, 26.

97 Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants (Philadelphia, 1996), esp. ch. 8. See also Bal, “Shattered Dome.”

98 National newspapers carried abridged versions of the letter in July 1990, with only the Chandigarh-daily Tribune publishing the full version on 28 July after one of its correspondents received threats of violence. See the Press Council of India's report on militancy in Punjab and Kashmir: Crisis and Credibility: Lancer Paper 4 (New Delhi, 1991), esp. 22.

99 “Text of Bhai Sukha and Bhai Jinda's Letter to the President of India,”, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

100 Ibid. Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh were eighteenth-century figures revered for killing the pro-Mughal kotwal of Amritsar, Massa Rangar, loathed for his disregard for Sikh customs. Wazida refers to the infamous Nawab of Sirhind at the time of Guru Gobind Singh, while Lakhpat Rai was the diwan in Mughal Lahore notorious for massacring Sikhs in the 1740s. Julio Rebeiro was director general of the Punjab police during Sukha and Jinda's time and responsible for brutal crackdowns on Sikh militants. Dawyer is likely a misspelling of O'Dwyer, the Punjab lieutenant-governor assassinated by Udham Singh, but it also echoes Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who ordered the shooting at Jallianwala Bagh and died of natural causes in England in 1927.

101 Singh, BhagatOn the Slogan of Long Live Revolution,” in Varma, Shiv, ed., Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh (Kanpur, 1996).

102 “Jinda, Sukha to Hang,” Times of India, 22 Oct. 1989.

103 See “Videos” on Jazzy B Official Website, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

104 Mooney, Nicola, “Dancing in Diasporic Space: Bhangra, Caste, and Gender among Jat Sikhs,” in Hawley, Michael, ed., Sikh Diaspora: Theory, Agency, and Experience (Leiden, 2013), 279318 , 310.

105 Ibid. On bhangra’s global career, see Kalra, Virinder S, “ Vilayeti Rhythms,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, 3 (2000): 80102 . For Jazzy B's context in contemporary Punjab, see Isha Singh Sawhney, “Swagga like Us: The Unstoppable Boys of Punjabi Pop,” Caravan [magazine] (Nov. 2013).

106 See “Main Fan Bhagat Singh Da—Diljit Dosanjh—Bikkar Bai Sentimental Official Full Video,” posted by user “Sony Music India” on YouTube, 22 Mar. 2013, (last accessed Mar. 2016). Yo Yo Honey Singh was featured on Nishawn Bhullar's album The Folkstar (2010), contributing to the song “Bhagat Singh.” When Honey Singh has been criticized in the press for references to sexual violence in his songs, he often refers to his admiration for Bhagat Singh, as if to prove his credibility. For instance: “Honey Singh: Do You Know I've Sung a Song about Bhagat Singh?” Parda Phhash, 2 Jan. 2013, (last accessed Mar. 2016).

107 Zulm is conventionally understood as “oppression directed against an entire people and so intense it has to be resisted.” See Joyce Pettigrew, Sikhs of the Punjab, 10.

108 Roy, Arundhati, ed., 13 December: A Reader (Delhi, 2006).

109 Firdous Syed, “Afzal Guru's Hanging Has Widened Gulf between Delhi and Kashmir,” DNA India, 20 Feb. 2013.

110 “Kashmiri Students Protest in Delhi Against Guru's Hanging,” Kashmir Media Service, 23 Feb. 2012,'s-hanging.html (last accessed Apr. 2016).

111 “Gun an Option for Kashmir Solution: Syed Ali Geelani,” Times of India, 12 Nov. 2013.

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