Under the impression of my knowledge of Bhagat Singh (mostly from yesteryear CBSE history textbooks), I’d always regarded him as a ‘radical’ member of India’s freedom struggle against the British Raj. His portrayal in pop culture and extreme ideologies (by both the left and the right) — pasting his face on fundamentalist — campaigns only furthered the conviction.
But on the occasion of his 110th birth anniversary today, I chanced upon an iconoclastic essay titled ‘Why I am an atheist.’ The last time I was as surprised was upon discovering that Thomas Edison wasn’t the first person to invent the light bulb.
In what was one of his last writings from the jail before his execution, Bhagat Singh’s ideals, his life story, his principles couldn’t resonate more with the average liberal from even the current day and age. Don’t trust me? Read this.
Criticism of religion
In his essay, Bhagat Singh dispels the notion that vanity breeds atheism and challenged all religious beliefs with reason. “If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses,” he had said.
He even took a dig at the basic tenets of various religions from around the globe saying that they ‘differ on many fundamental questions, but each of them claims to be the only true religion.’
“This is the root of the evil. Instead of developing the ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle, – lethargic, idle, fanatical as we are – we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool.”
The Banga-born was particularly a staunch critic of the idea of an omnipotent entity overlooking everything that happens in the world. “Why does He not infuse humanistic sentiments into the minds of the Britishers so that they may willingly leave India,” he asked during his last days in the prison before his hanging in Lahore.
“I don’t think that by strengthening my belief in God and by offering prayers to Him every day, (this I consider to be the most degraded act on the part of man) I can bring improvement in my situation, nor can I further deteriorate it. I have read of many atheists facing all troubles boldly, so I am trying to stand like a man with the head high and erect to the last; even on the gallows.”
OPPOSITION of violence
Notably, he even questioned the role of armed struggle in the revolutionary movement. Bhagat Singh and his comrades, like the renowned historian Bipan Chandra wrote in India’s Struggle for Independence, “…made a major advance in broadening the scope and definition of revolution. Revolution was no longer associated with mere militancy or violence…it must go beyond and work for a new socialist order, it must ‘end exploitation of man by man’.”
Delhi University professor Apoorvanand even wrote in an article last year that “…Bhagat Singh was not impressed by the nationalist rhetoric of (Netaji Subhas Chandra) Bose and finds Nehru intellectually more challenging and satisfying”. He wrote that Singh had written in 1928 that “Panjabi youth should go with him [Nehru] to understand the real meaning of revolution.”
Inspired by global communists/socialists
In his writings, he also points out the importance of studying ideologies from modern thinkers in order to build on ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle.
A strong believer in the cause of socialism, he is also believed to be reading Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s biography until minutes before his execution. Here was a firebrand Leftist and an atheist who vociferously criticised the agendas of communal politics and capitalist economy.
Senior Congress leader and current Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor recently compared Bhagat Singh’s ideals with those of JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and drew the ire of the nationalist government that quoted false facts to counter the claim.
It might be wrong to compare the legend of one of the country’s bravest martyrs to anyone else but the revolutionary would definitely have been disappointed to see the current political climate in post-independence India. He certainly is my hero from today and a hero that India needs right now, more than ever.