Excerpt: Bhagat Singh’s Ideas on Dalit Empowerment Still Ring True

This is an excerpt from a new book by Dr Vikas Pathak, Deputy Political Editor, The Hindu, New Delhi.

4 min read
Image of Bhagat Singh and the cover of the book by Dr Vikas Pathak. 

(This is an excerpt from the just-released book 'Contesting Nationalisms: Hinduism, Secularism and Untouchability in Colonial Punjab (1880-1930)' by Vikas Pathak. Primus Books has published this book, which seeks to explore multiple visions of nationalism in India. Vikas Pathak is currently Deputy Political Editor, The Hindu, New Delhi)

In an article written in June 1928 in Kirti, Bhagat Singh dealt at length with the question of untouchability, taking a line radically different from that of Lajpat Rai or Shraddhanand.

He begins by comparing India unfavourably with Europe on this count, sarcastically stating that despite our much-talked about spirituality that made us worried about the soul and God we hesitated to treat humans as humans, while the ‘materialist’ West could.

He then poses the question as to how Indians could complain about not being treated with respect in foreign countries when they did not give rights to the untouchables in their own society.

He goes on to find even in communal competition between religions – of which he was a critic – one positive aspect: The desire to attract untouchables had forced communities to accommodate them.

There is a lot of choice. The Christians are enhancing their status silently. In any case, it is good that at least a curse on the country is becoming lighter because of these developments.
Bhagat Singh

In this, Bhagat Singh, in a rare departure from the extant discourse, tries to look at the issue from the eyes of the untouchables’ choices rather than from the prism of community strength.

Bhagat Singh’s Role in Igniting Dalit Consciousness

Bhagat Singh interestingly does acknowledge Lajpat Rai’s efforts while discussing the debate that ensued at a Hindu Mahasabha conference in Patna on whether untouchables had the right to wear the sacred thread and read the Vedas and Shastras. “Lalaji intervened and saved the honour of Hinduism by making them accept both the things,” he writes. He is however, not charitable to Madan Mohan Malaviya:

These days great social reformers like Malaviya ji are posing as saviours of the Untouchables. He would allow himself to be garlanded by a sweeper but feels polluted unless he has a bath with clothes on. What a fraud.
Bhagat Singh

Bhagat Singh also celebrates the autonomous Depressed Classes’ organisation. “The problem would not solve as long as the castes which are categorised as Untouchables do not organise themselves. I think their asking for equal rights on account of their having formed separate outfits… is an encouraging sign,” he contends.

I propose they should have their own representatives (in the legislatures) so that they can demand their rights. I say clearly, ‘rise, O brothers, the so-called Untouchables, the real servants of the people, rise. You were the real might of the army of Guru Govind Singh. Shivaji could do so much that his name shines even today only with your help.
Bhagat Singh

“ Your sacrifices are written in the letters of gold…. People, they say, understand power— that means organise, unite and challenge the whole world. Then nobody would deny you your rights. Don’t be fodder for others. Don’t look towards others for help.”

‘Beware of the Bureaucracy’

He, however, cautions the Untouchables not to fall prey to the colonial state or capitalists:

But beware of the bureaucracy. Don’t fall prey to their deceit. It does not want to help you. It wants to make you its pawns. In fact this bureaucracy and the capitalists are the cause of your slavery. Therefore, never join them. 
Bhagat Singh

Even in his approach to the Depressed Classes’ question, we find Bhagat Singh’s critique of religion registering its presence, as he suggests that the ‘karma theory’ is used to justify their continued subjugation. “Our Aryan forebears treated them unjustly… This could make them revolt, they feared, so they propounded the philosophy of punarjanma (rebirth). You are what you are because of the karmas (actions) of your previous birth.”

He also argues that the absence of dignity of labour that informed the caste system and untouchability was anti-development.

Bhagat Singh also calls for the full acceptance of the Untouchables without purification rituals: “We should make them part and parcel of our communities without asking them to take amrita (nectar), read Kalma or go for Shuddhi… It is not proper to indulge in a tug of war to draw them to our side without giving them rights in real life.”

While this was a rejection of the Depressed Classes’ upliftment as a means to bolster community numbers and not as an end in itself – something radical sections of untouchables also spoke out against – it was also perhaps an oblique rejection of the fact that purificatory or baptism ceremonies legitimised the previously existing untouchability regime even while pulling the individual out of it.

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