(This story was originally published on 28 September 2021. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the martyrdom day of Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.)
India’s most venerated revolutionary icon was born on 28 September, 1907. Bhagat Singh evokes respect among many across the region because he always vouched for human dignity and rights beyond sectarian divide. He castigated all those who floundered on these basic values, as is evident from the fairly huge corpus of writings he bequeathed to us.
I began with these strong words because many of us see him merely as a martyr and a nationalist. It is a convenient option for those who simply want to use his nationalist appeal for political mobilisation. For me, it is an incomplete veneration of the young revolutionary thinker. He was born in a family that was committed to progressive values along with anti-imperialist nationalism. Mere selective remembrance of Bhagat Singh is a blatant injustice not only with his revolutionary intellectual legacy but also with his family’s revolutionary ethos that he inherited and took forward.
He Was More Than Just a Nationalist
In this context, marking Bhagat Singh’s 114th anniversary, I would like to focus on his prison life that helped him to mature as a political thinker through extensive reading and thinking. He spent almost two years in prison in Lahore till he was martyred on 23 March, 1931. Being a voracious reader from his teenage years, he took this passion to the next level during this prison confinement.
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 Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Upton Sinclair, V. I Lenin, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, among others. We wonder how Bhagat Singh could write on complex political and social issues as a young man and the answer is his tenacity to read as much as he could.
He did not have a stable and normal life like any other young person, he was on the radar of the colonial intelligence and police from his short college life. Despite this, he never lost an opportunity to procure a book he wanted to read. Even in prison, most of his requests to his friends like Jaidev Gupta were about books, which were procured from Dwarkadas Library or Ramkrishna & sons booksellers in Lahore.
His Views on Religion
One of the most profound articles by him titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’ was written while he was in jail. The article was tinged with a strong rebuttal of blind faith and a zealous defence 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 a society in the primitive age. The idea of God is helpful to man in distress. (Prison Diary of Bhagat Singh)
'My Atheism Is Not of Recent Origin'
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.
He further wrote that “All religions and creeds are the props of tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes”. He agreed with Bertrand Russell that religion is “a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race”.
The revolutionaries of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) realised that all moral ideals and religions were useless for an empty stomach, and for him only food was God.
He aptly quoted Horace Greeley in his prison diary: “Morality and religion are but words to him who fishes in gutters for the means of sustaining life, and crouches behind barrels in the street for shelter from the cutting blasts of a winter night.”
Bhagat Singh made his own atheism quite explicitly clear when he wrote that “My atheism is not of so recent origin. I had stopped believing in God when I was an obscure young man, of whose existence my … friends were not even aware.”
In any case, this essay by Bhagat Singh is not just an engagement with the idea of God alone, he also talks about critical and independent thinking, where even blind faith in any leader, referring to Mahatma Gandhi in his case, is irrational and not worth pursuing.
He said you will be called names if “You go and oppose the prevailing faith, you go and criticize a hero, a great man, who is generally believed to be above criticism because he is thought to be infallible…” These are the views of our revolutionary icon which may teach us many lessons even today. For me, such revolutionary thinkers are not dead, they can come alive if we care to follow the ideals they had left behind. Bhagat Singh continued the argument: “This is due to mental stagnation. Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary.” For him, blind adherence towards any individual or ideology was problematic. He said, “This mentality does not lead towards progress. It is rather too obviously, reactionary.”
Read, Criticise, Think
Bhagat Singh, in this seminal essay, makes his idea of progress categorically clear. It was mainly dependent on the questioning attitude and not simply on blind acceptance. He argued that “Any man who stands for progress has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith … If after considerable reasoning one is led to believe in any theory or philosophy, his faith is welcomed.” He was conscious of the fact that despite all this, one may lead to a wrong understanding. But he had an answer for this as well — he continued, “His reasoning can be mistaken, wrong, misled and sometimes fallacious. But he is liable to correction because reason is the guiding star of his life … mere faith and blind faith is dangerous; it dulls the brain, and makes a man reactionary.”
In prison, Bhagat Singh also wrote an introduction to a poetical work of a Ghadr revolutionary, Lala Ram Saran Das, called The Dreamland. I will not discuss it here in detail but only use the concluding lines of Bhagat Singh, which end with the spirit of Why I am an Atheist. He says, “I strongly recommend this book to young men in particular, but with a warning. Please do not read it to follow blindly and take for granted what is written in it. Read it, criticise it, think over it, and formulate your own ideas with its help.”
There is much more that is relevant for us in his prison writings and in his journalistic columns on vital issues of even contemporary relevance. However, it all depends on what we decide to do with his intellectual legacy, on whether we read and ponder or conveniently ignore it, which most of us have done all these years. These prison writings are a few of the last documents he wrote, so they may be seen as his own vision of an independent India that he himself could not see. Our best tribute to him on his birthday will be to go back to this vision.
(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)