Congress, BJP & AAP Appropriate Bhagat Singh Without Understanding Him
Most do not wish to look beyond the romantic image of a gun-toting young nationalist.
Bhagat Singh was martyred on 23 March 1931. He was undoubtedly one of the most venerated figures of the Indian freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh has left behind a legacy that everyone wants to appropriate, yet most do not wish to look beyond the romantic image of a gun-toting young nationalist. It all began with the Congress, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the latest in line is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The Delhi government even wants to inculcate nationalism in schools by invoking the image of Bhagat Singh. Bhagwant Mann decided to take his chief ministerial oath in Khatkar Kalan, the ancestral village of Bhagat Singh’s family.
It is gratifying to see that Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and nationalism inspires us all, across political affiliations. His daring exploits and the courage to die for the freedom of our country have been a source of this veneration. Perhaps the reason is that this is the image that was created in the official colonial records, an image we inherited and conveniently accepted as the truth. The colonial government did not see Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary thinker with a mature framework for an independent India in the future.
Can Today's Politics Meet Bhagat Singh's Standards?
Most of our political parties evoke this romantic image of Bhagat Singh and limit his legacy to mere nationalism. In fact, this is clearly reflected in the contemporary consciousness, particularly in the way these political formations extol him, visualising Bhagat Singh as someone who terrorised the British through his violent deeds. His daring spirit is lauded, turning him into an icon. His posters are sold on pavements, stickers with his photo dot cars’ windscreens.
It may be heartening to see that Bhagat Singh is still loved and venerated, but the question we need to ask is, do we have any clue about his politics and ideas? Even his nationalism was qualitatively different from the exclusivist nationalism being espoused today.
Political parties today also need to know Bhagat Singh’s views about the political leadership of the 1920s and the 1930s, some of which had turned communal. It is indeed a challenging task for leaders across political parties to cope with the standards he had set. He wrote in 1928, “Today, the leaders in India have come to that blind end where it is better to keep quiet. The same leaders who had wielded the responsibility of liberating the country and those who were crying out ‘common nationality’ have remained hidden with their heads between their knees … The leaders of India have become politically bankrupt.”
All those who invoke Bhagat Singh today need to go beyond the convenience of martyrdom and nationalism and comprehend the socialist and pluralist vision he had left behind.
Several political parties today raise the slogan Inquilab Zindabad, which was used and popularised by Bhagat Singh. They also need to know what Singh meant by inquilab (revolution); for him, it was not merely a political revolution. He wanted a social revolution to break age-old discriminatory practices such as untouchability, communalism and gender discrimination. However, most eulogies, particularly those coming from political parties, have ignored his social programme, projecting him merely as a passionate anti-colonialist and nationalist, which is not only inaccurate but also incomplete.
What 'Aazadi' Meant for Him
Bhagat Singh was not the only one who went to the gallows for India’s freedom. However, he is among those few young men who left behind an intellectual legacy to ponder about. His huge collection of writings on issues such as caste, communalism, language and politics, are relevant even today.
I do not care about the colour of his turban – yellow or white – though it is surely an unnecessary distortion of history. All those who talk about Bhagat Singh should be serious about the inheritance of ideas. Singh left behind a corpus of political writings, underlining his vision for an independent India.
He envisioned an India where the 98 per cent would rule instead of the elite 2 per cent. His aazadi (freedom) was not limited to the expelling of the British. Instead, he desired aazadi from poverty, aazadi from untouchability, aazadi from communal strife, and aazadi from every form of discrimination and exploitation. Just 20 days before his hanging, Singh released an explicit message to the youth:
“…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”
We all venerate Bhagat Singh as a nationalist but seldom care to ponder that religion for him was irrelevant. This is particularly relevant to remind all those pseudo-nationalists who associate religion with nationalism. They also claim that Bhagat Singh venerated Savarkar, which is also historically fallacious. He only referred once to his book on 1857, but had no clue about Savarkar’s politics later, which is not surprising as Bhagat Singh’s life and politics had taken a serious turn after the mid-1920s. In any case, Savarkar himself did not even issue a statement on his martyrdom, which is no surprise for me at least, as they stood apart politically.
The Idea of Progressive Nationalism
Bhagat Singh expressed his views about religion and its role in our lives very explicitly in his seminal essay ‘Why I am an Atheist’, which was not merely a harangue against God but much more than that. This essay categorically reveals Bhagat Singh’s commitment to rationalism and critical thinking. He was not a jingoist who believed in a blind, flag-waving nationalism. His nationalism was forward-looking and not regressive where there is no scope for criticism, disbelief and capacity to question everything of the old faith.
He was uncompromising on this when he said that “mere faith and blind faith is dangerous: it dulls the brain and makes a man reactionary”. He added, “A man who claims to be a realist has to challenge the whole of the ancient faith. If it does not stand the onslaught of reason, it crumbles down.” That clearly means that neither silencing rationalists nor defending obnoxious religious practices can be nationalism. This essay was not just a harangue against God, but it also unconsciously laid down the framework for the youth as well as the idea of progressive nationalism.
He shared Dr Ambedkar’s vision who once said:
“I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty, whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians.”
Bhagat Singh stood for an inclusive nationalism, which is not just politically inclusive, but socially and economically inclusive as well.
I have briefly referred to Bhagat Singh’s vision, particularly his idea of nationalism and his thoughts on the role of religion in our lives. All those political leaders and parties who invoke him day in and day out must care to imbibe or at least ponder about his revolutionary intellectual legacy. He bequeathed us the difficult task of building a composite India, where there is no place for caste, class or religion-based discriminations.
(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.)
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