Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary thinking more relevant than ever : The Tribune India

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Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary thinking more relevant than ever

Bhagat Singh stood for an egalitarian, pluralist & rational India, a vision of the utmost urgency today.

Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary thinking more relevant than ever

Irony: By extolling Bhagat Singh only as a shaheed, we do injustice to his legacy. File photo



S Irfan Habib

Historian and author

BHAGAT Singh, whose martyrdom day falls tomorrow, emerged as a spark but left behind an everlasting brightness. He proved that it is not living a long life that matters, but leading a meaningful one. There is so much to dwell on when it comes to him and his ideas. In the 23 years of his life, he bequeathed a rich legacy of revolutionary inheritance that was never as relevant as it is today. Unfortunately, though we revere him as a martyr, we seldom care to look into his social and political vision. By extolling him only as a shaheed, we do injustice to the memory of one of our beloved revolutionary icons.

Bhagat Singh began writing early. He had the advantage of being born into a family of committed nationalists. In the first decade of the 20th century, his uncle Ajit Singh led a farmers’ protest movement in Punjab that was probably a first in India. He spent virtually the rest of his life in exile, mobilising support for India’s freedom in Europe and America. His other uncle, Swaran Singh, spent many years in prison and died young of tuberculosis. Bhagat Singh’s father, Kishan Singh, was a Congressman who remained in jail for several years. With this background, it was no surprise when Bhagat Singh’s first journalistic piece appeared in 1924 in a Hindi magazine, Matwala. The article was about ‘universal brotherhood’, a difficult subject to write on for any 17-year-old.

His revolutionary career of eight or nine years was eventful; it culminated in the dropping of bombs in the Central Assembly on April 8, 1929. He spent the next two years in prison, where he read voraciously and penned serious essays and statements. Among them was a profound essay, Why I am an Atheist. He also wrote an introduction to a book of poetry by a senior revolutionary, Lala Ram Saran Das, called The Dreamland. The last thing he wrote was an appeal, To Young Political Workers (February 2, 1931), a few weeks before he was martyred.

Our most apt tribute to Bhagat Singh would be to share and imbibe his revolutionary thinking. Among the three pieces mentioned above, I shall discuss his introduction to The Dreamland, and will do that precisely for two reasons — it is one of the less-discussed ones among his writings, and he made profound observations here as a political thinker. He began by conceding categorically that “I do not see eye to eye with my friend on all matters. He was aware of the fact that I differed from him on all vital points”. However, he decided to write because of Das’ seniority, probably because the latter was the “first revolutionary recruited formally in Punjab by a Bengali absconder in 1908” who later joined the Ghadar Party.

Das was sentenced to death in 1915, but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. What Bhagat Singh wrote later is significant in the context of a debate that goes on these days. He said in the introduction that “the psyche and mental struggle of the author at the time has left its indelible impression on the poetry, making it all the more beautiful and interesting. He had been struggling hard with depression before he decided to write”.

Bhagat Singh believed life imprisonment to be far harder than death. He wrote that “many of his (Das’) comrades had been let off on undertakings, and the temptation was very strong for everyone and for him too (to do the same)”. However, Das decided to write poetry instead, not letters of apology assuring the British Government of support after the release. Das kept that promise till the end.

The next thing that Bhagat Singh noticed in Das’ poetry was ‘the mentality of a revolutionary’. Das was a member of a revolutionary party that engaged in violent activities. But this by no means proves that “revolutionaries are bloodthirsty monsters, seeking pleasure in destruction”. And Bhagat Singh quoted lines from the book to emphasise his point:

If need be, outwardly be wild,

But in thy heart be always mild

Hiss if need be, but do not bite,

Love in thy heart and outside fight.

He himself wrote and spoke about violence emphatically. Explaining the meaning of revolution (inquilab), he wrote that “revolution did not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. It was not a cult of bomb and pistol. They may sometimes be mere means for its achievement.” He made it even more explicit in his statement before the court on June 6, 1929, when he said: “Revolution is not a culture of bomb and pistol. Our meaning of revolution is to change the present conditions, which are based on manifest injustice.”

On how Das dealt with the problem of conflicting religions, Bhagat Singh observed that the author “tries to reconcile them (with each other) just as all nationalists try to do”, but he was dismissive of the method used and found it lengthy and circuitous. He categorically said: “On my part, I would have dismissed it with one line by Karl Marx: Religion is the opiate of the masses.” He was convinced that religion was a tool in the hands of exploiters who kept the masses in constant fear of God for their interests. Unfortunately, this comment by Bhagat Singh is reflective of our state of affairs today, where religions have overwhelmed us and polarised the country.

Bhagat Singh was clear about the plan for the future that Das envisioned. He found it utopian, which was made obvious by the book’s title. Utopias play an important role in social progress, Bhagat Singh noted. He concluded the introduction with an appeal to the youth that they should read the book, but with a caveat: “Read it, criticise it, think over it and try to formulate your own ideas with its help.”

We need to venerate and emulate the revolutionary ideals Bhagat Singh left behind. He stood for an egalitarian, pluralist and rational India, a vision of the utmost urgency today.


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