Bhagat Singh: A Revolutionary Thinker And Not Just A Martyr
Bhagat Singh believed newspapers must eradicate communal feelings.
Bhagat Singh had been valorised 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 a vision 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. Bhagat Singh was not just a patriot, with a passionate commitment to his nation, he was a visionary, with a pluralist and egalitarian perception of independent India.
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.
Bhagat Singh 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.
Before I share with you some of his journalistic writings about India of his dreams, let me point out that Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader, who read anything new which was published on poverty, religion, society and global struggle 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 issues mentioned above 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 needs to be invoked even today to bring about changes he yearned for. Expressing his anguish in the second article, he held some of the political leaders and the press responsible for inciting communalism. He believed that “there were a few sincere leaders, but their voice is easily swept away by the rising wave of communalism. In terms of political leadership, India had gone totally bankrupt”.
Bhagat Singh felt that journalism used to be a noble profession, which had now fallen from grace. Now they give bold and sensational headlines to incite people to kill each other in the name of religion. 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 spelt 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, communalising 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, “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 practised 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 since centuries. They had proclaimed equality during the American and French revolutions. However, we are still debating whether the untouchable is entitled for 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?”
He also seriously engaged with the possible solutions to this malaise. The first decision for all of us should be “that we start believing that we all are born equal and our vocation, as well, need not divide us. If someone is born in a sweeper’s family that does not mean that he/she has to continue in the family profession cleaning shit all his life, with no right to participate in any developmental work”.
For him, this discrimination was directly responsible for conversions, which was a burning issue even in the 1920s. Despite his anti-colonialist fervour, he did not just condemn the missionaries nor did he instigate Hindus to kill and burn all those who had accepted the new faith. He wrote self-critically “If you treat them worse than animals then they will surely join other religions where they will get more rights and will be treated like human beings. In this situation, it will be futile to accuse Christianity and Islam of harming Hinduism”. Bhagat Singh was convinced that “no one would be forced or tempted to change faith if the age-old inequalities are removed and we sincerely start believing that we are all equal and none is different either due to birth or vocation.”
Bhagat Singh institutionalised 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 and the tableeghi jamaat, leading to 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 and his Sabha regarded communal amity as central to their political agenda, but like the Congress, it did not believe either in the appeasement of all religions or in raising such slogans as Allah o Akbar, Sat Sri Akal and Bande Mataram to prove their secularism. On the contrary, they raised just two slogans, Inquilab Zindabad and Hindustan Zindabad, hailing the revolution and the country. 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 emphasising the separation of religion from politics and state as true secularism. 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. His commitment to socialism may not appear very attractive in the changing era of globalisation, 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.
Thus, Bhagat Singh and his comrades have not left behind an easy legacy, which can simply be ceremoniously commemorated by anyone. They have bequeathed us an unfinished task of nation-building, where no caste, class or religious barriers will ever exist.
S Irfan Habib was formerly Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi