Revolutionary ideas that live on
History & Classics  
The Hindu

Bhagat Singh’s intellectual bequest should be a beacon of light to build a new India


Bhagat Singh went to the gallows, along with two of his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, on March 23, 1931. Bhagat Singh stands out in bold relief as someone who, at a young age, defined nation and nationalism for us. He had an alternative framework of governance, which is strongly reflected in the corpus of writings that he has left behind. Sadly, we hardly care to revisit this serious intellectual inheritance and only venerate him as a martyr. This veneration is laudable but incomplete.
Incisive commentary
Singh was barely 17 when he published his first article, in 1924, in Matwala, a Hindi magazine from Calcutta. The subject was ‘Universal Brotherhood’, which was not a very easy issue to write on at such a young age. He imagined a world where “all of us being one and none is the other. It will really be a comforting time when the world will have no strangers.” All those who are busy “othering” and creating strangers out of their own fellow citizens need to grapple with Bhagat Singh’s views, instead of merely glorifying him as a martyr. He emphatically exclaimed that “as long as words like black and white, civilized and uncivilized, ruler and the ruled, rich and poor, touchable and untouchable, etc., are in vogue there was no scope for universal brotherhood”. He went on to say, “We will have to campaign for equality and equity. Will have to punish those who oppose the creation of such a world.” Among the heroes of our freedom struggle, he was perhaps the only one who had this vision at such a young age.
His strongest critique was of untouchability and communalism, which continue to torment us as a nation. He was fiercely frank and bold enough to critically comment on the politics of senior leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai and express his differences. He was also conscious of the international revolutionary struggles and ideologies, which is evident in a series of articles he wrote on ‘Anarchism’.
In 1928, he wrote, “Our country is in a really bad shape; here the strangest questions are asked but the foremost among them concerns the untouchables... For instance, would contact with an untouchable mean defilement of an upper caste? Would the Gods in the temples not get angry by the entry of untouchables there? Would the drinking water of a well not get polluted if untouchables drew their water from the same well? That these questions are being asked in the twentieth century, is a matter which makes us hang our heads in shame.” He was aghast that we claimed to be a spiritual country, yet discriminated against fellow human beings while the materialist West had done away with such inhuman obscenities long ago.


Inclusiveness came first
The decade of the 1920s saw a rise in communal politics, from both Hindu and Muslim groups. However, Bhagat Singh steadfastly remained committed to the idea of a plural and inclusive India. He founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Lahore in 1926, whose manifesto said, “Religious superstitions and bigotry are a great hindrance in our progress. They have proved an obstacle in our way and we must do away with them. ‘The thing that cannot bear free thought must perish’.”
In 1928, Bhagat Singh was acutely conscious of the divisiveness of mixing religion with politics and he wrote, “If religion is separated from politics, then all of us can jointly initiate political activities, even though in matters of religion we might have many differences with each other. We feel that the true well-wishers of India would follow these principles and save India from the suicidal path it is on at present.” None cared to listen to this voice of sanity then. Even now, many of us continue to peddle religion to promote political prospects.
Bhagat Singh expressed his disenchantment with the politics of Lala Lajpat Rai, whom he and other youth otherwise venerated. He was not even remotely close to the political stature of Lalaji yet he had the courage and the conviction to publicly disagree with him. Not many can do such a thing now. Bhagat Singh referred to Lalaji’s growing proximity to the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal forces during the 1920s, and the older reader reacted to this in his speeches when some youth joined Bhagat Singh in expressing their concern.
Singh was aware of international revolutionary struggles as well. His three-part article on anarchism (1928), appeared before he authored his masterly essay, ‘Why I am an Atheist’. Thus we can see here the evolution of his ideas on politics, society, religion and even faith in god. While writing on anarchism, Bhagat Singh observed: “Our retrogressive thinking is destroying us. We keep ourselves entangled in futile discussions about God and heaven, and remain busy in talking about the soul and God. We are quick to dub Europe as capitalist and don’t think about their great ideas or pay any attention to them. We love divinity and remain aloof from the world.” This is what an anarchist stood for, Singh reaffirmed; he was not a blood-thirsty young man who believed in the bomb and the pistol, as the colonial government labelled all revolutionaries.
Today, we need to remember his revolutionary ideas. Mere valorisation of his nationalism and ultimate sacrifice is true but sadly incomplete. In these rancorous times, his intellectual bequest should be a beacon to build a new India.
S. Irfan Habib is a historian who recently edited ‘Inquilab: Bhagat Singh on Religion and Revolution’



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