Bhagat Singh is valorized for his martyrdom, and rightly so, but in the ensuing enthusiasm most of us forget, or consciously ignore his contributions as an intellectual and a thinker. He not only sacrificed his life, as many did before him and also after him, but he also had an idea of independent India. During the past few years, it has almost become a routine to appropriate Bhagat Singh as a nationalist icon, while not much is talked about his nationalist vision.
He is one nationalist hero who is venerated by many in Pakistan as well. It is possible because he stood for a non-sectarian and egalitarian world. He never espoused any divisive idea in his short life. And it is possible to make sense of his politics because he left behind a substantial written legacy to engage with.
Bhagat Singh was committed to Inquilab or revolution but it was not merely a political revolution he aimed at. He wanted a social revolution to break the age-old discriminatory practices. The slogan Inquilab Zindabad was not merely an emotional war cry for the revolutionaries but had a lofty ideal which was explained by the HSRA thus:
The Revolution will ring the death knell of capitalism and class distinction and privileges…It will give birth to a new state-a new social order.
Bhagat Singh was even more definitive in his statement in the court on June 6, 1929. He said: Revolution is not a culture of bomb and pistol. Our meaning of revolution is to change the present conditions, which are based on manifest injustice.
However, most of the eulogies have ignored this radical social programme of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, projecting them merely as passionate anti-colonialists and nationalists, which is not inaccurate, but incomplete. Bhagat Singh went to the gallows as a nationalist is not something exclusive to him alone, two others were hanged with him and many more were hanged before him as nationalists. He is different because he left behind an intellectual legacy, a huge collection of political and social writings on burning issues of even contemporary importance like caste, communalism, language, and politics. In his short life, Bhagat Singh had grown as an intellectual about whom his close comrade Jaidev Kapoor said that he regarded Karl Marx and Lenin as his political gurus and guides. He had unshakable faith in socialism.
Bhagat Singh not only set high standards as a great martyr, but he also left behind a rich legacy as a journalist who worked for Kirti, Arjun, and Pratap, well-known papers of their times. We know little about his vocation as a scribe and the issues he dealt with in his articles. These focused on the various aspects of the nationalist struggle, combating communalism, untouchability, students and politics, world brotherhood etc.
He did not merely wish to free India from colonial bondage but dreamt of independent India, which would be egalitarian and secular. This was reflected in his revolutionary activities as well as in his commitment as a sensitive journalist. I will refer briefly to both his vocations and intellectual commitments. We also need to know that Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader, who devoured anything new which was published on poverty, religion, society and global struggles against imperialism. He seriously debated and discussed what he read and also wrote extensively on issues of caste, communalism, and conditions of the working class and peasantry.
The profundity of his ideas on some of the above-mentioned issues is visible in his regular columns in Kirti, Pratap, and other papers. In an article on “Religion and our freedom struggle” published in Kirti in May 1928, Bhagat Singh grappled with the role of religion in politics, an issue that haunts us even today. He talked of Tolstoy’s division of religion into three parts: essentials of religion, philosophy of religion and rituals of religion. He concluded that if religion means blind faith by mixing rituals with philosophy than it should be blown away immediately but if we can combine essentials with some philosophy than religion may be a meaningful idea. He felt that ritualism of religions had divided us into touchable and untouchables and these narrow and divisive religions can’t bring about actual unity among people. For us freedom should not mean the mere end of British colonialism, our complete freedom implies living together happily without caste and religious barriers.
Bhagat Singh felt that journalism used to be a noble profession, which had now fallen from grace. There were riots at several places simply because the local press behaved irresponsibly and indulged in rabble-rousing through their articles. Not much seems to have changed since Bhagat Singh wrote these lines. He categorically spelled out the duties of journalists and then also accused them of dereliction of this duty. He wrote that “the real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness, and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism. Instead, their main objective seems to be spreading ignorance, preaching and propagating sectarianism and chauvinism, communalizing people’s minds leading to the destruction of our composite culture and shared heritage”.
In the June 1928 issue of the Kirti, Bhagat Singh wrote two articles titled Achoot ka Sawaal (On Untouchability) and Sampradayik Dange aur unka Ilaj (Communal riots and their solutions). What Bhagat Singh wrote in 1928 looks relevant even today, which unfortunately proves how precious little has been done to resolve these questions. In the first piece, Bhagat Singh starts by saying that “our country is unique where six crore citizens are called untouchables and their mere touch defiles the upper castes. Gods get enraged if they enter the temples. It is shameful that such things are being practiced in the twentieth century. We claim to be a spiritual country but hesitate to accept equality of all human beings while materialist Europe is talking of revolution for centuries. However, we are still debating whether the untouchable is entitled to the sacred thread or can he read the Vedas or not. We are chagrined about discrimination against Indians in foreign lands, and whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India. Given our conduct, Bhagat Singh wondered, do we really have any right to complain about such matters?”
Bhagat Singh institutionalized his thinking when he founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1926 in Lahore, which was also a public platform for the otherwise secret group of revolutionaries. He saw to it that the Sabha remains above petty religious politics of the times. It is all the more important because the 1920s saw the emergence of the RSS, which exacerbated the intense communal polarisation. But here was a group of young men who were thinking differently. They asked the member before enrolment “to sign a pledge that he would place the interests of his country above those of his community”. Even Lala Lajpat Rai, the eminent pillar of extremist nationalism in India could not escape from the scathing criticism of the Sabha when he joined hands with the Hindu Mahasabha leaders. Rai was dubbed as a traitor by Kedar Nath Sehgal in a pamphlet “An Appeal to Young Punjab” while Lajpat Rai responded by calling Bhagat Singh a Russian agent who wanted to make him into a Lenin.
Bhagat Singh questioned the policy of encouraging competing communalisms, which ultimately led to the partition of the country in 1947. He stands out in bold relief as a modern national leader and thinker emphasizing the separation of religion from politics and state as true secularism.
Bhagat Singh matured as a political thinker while in prison during the two years he spent there before he was hanged on March 23, 1931. His prison diary clearly reveals the trajectory of his political evolution. It brings into light his reading habits and the wide range of the selection of authors including Marx, Engels, Bertrand Russell, T. Paine, Upton Sinclair, V I Lenin, William Wordsworth, Tennyson, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Bukharin, Trotsky, among others. One of the most profound articles by him called ‘Why I am an Atheist’ was written while he was in jail. The article was tinged with a strong rebuttal of blind faith and zealous defense of reason. Before dealing with his own views about religion, Bhagat Singh first deals with the religiosity of his predecessors. He points out that in the absence of a scientific understanding of their own political activity; they needed irrational religious beliefs and mysticism to sustain them spiritually, to fight against personal temptation, to overcome depression, to be able to sacrifice their physical comforts, and even life. For this, a person requires deep sources of inspiration. This requirement was, in the case of early revolutionaries, met by mysticism and religion.
He made clear that the revolutionaries now need no religious inspiration as they have an advanced revolutionary ideology, based on reason instead of blind faith. About God, Bhagat Singh writes:
He (God) was to serve as a father, mother, sister and brother, friend and helper…so that when man be in great distress having been betrayed and deserted by all friends, he may find consolation in the idea that an ever true friend was still there to help him, to support him and that He was Almighty and could do anything. Really that was useful to society in the primitive age. The idea of God is helpful to man in distress.
Bhagat Singh was convinced that religion is a tool in the hands of exploiters who keep the masses in constant fear of God for their own interests. The revolutionaries of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) realized that all moral ideals and religions were useless for an empty stomach and for him only food was God.
This scientific approach of the HSRA leaders matured with the passage of time. The majority of them came close to the ideals of socialism or even communism, which believed in mass action instead of individual acts of terrorism.
We should remember Bhagat Singh with pride and reflect on the alternative framework of governance he had in mind where social and economic justice — and not terrorism or violence – would be supreme. Many of us may not find his commitment to socialism very attractive in the changing era of globalization, yet his concern for the socio-economically deprived sections still commands attention. Moreover, his passionate desire to rise above narrow caste and religious considerations were never as crucial as it is today.