Is Bhagat Singh relevant today?
On his 82nd Martyrdom day, Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s ideology contrasts with the trajectory of independent India’s growth.
We remember Bhagat Singh as a brave-heart, who killed Saunders to avenge Lala Lajpat Rai’s death and later dared the British by bombing the Assembly in 1929. His martyrdom is venerated, and rightly so. But we seldom ponder over his intellectual legacy- something which sets him apart from most other martyrs. He has left behind a legacy that everyone wants to appropriate, yet most fail to look beyond the romantic image of a young gun-toting nationalist. Perhaps the reason is that this is the image created in the official colonial records, an image we inherited and accepted as truth.
Colonial records told the common people that revolutionary activities were dastardly crimes, committed for the gratification of money and blood lust. In fact, this is clearly reflected in the contemporary consciousness, particularly of the youth, who visualise Bhagat Singh as someone who terrorised the British through his violent deeds.Today he is an icon. His daring spirit lauded; his posters sold on the pavements and his stickers dot windscreens. It may be heartening to see that he is still loved and venerated but the question is: do we have an understanding of his politics and ideas? Even his early faith in violence and terrorism was qualitatively different from the contemporary terrorist violence and he transcended that, to eventually espouse a revolutionary vision to transform independent India into a secular, socialist and an egalitarian society.
Bhagat Singh evokes boundless approbation from people who already have a surfeit of heroes, for reasons that are far from simple. When most senior leaders of the country had only one immediate goal — the attainment of freedom, Bhagat Singh, hardly out of his teens, had the prescience to look beyond the immediate. He was no ordinary revolutionary with a passion to die or kill for the cause of freedom. His vision was to establish a classless society and his short life was dedicated to the pursuit of this ideal.
However, most of his ideals remain elusive. Today, we have moved away from the commitments of Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary organisations – Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. What would Bhagat Singh look like today if he had been alive? In a world where Marxism and socialism look obsolete and discredited, Bhagat Singh’s passionate commitment to the above ideals would appear redundant. He was martyred much before independence in 1931, yet many of his comrades lived through the post independent India and continued with their struggle to bring in a political, social and economic order where every one (and not just the privileged few) would have an equal opportunity.
Bhagat Singh has left behind a significant intellectual legacy, which we need to engage with. Had he been alive and lived through independent India, he would have been disappointed with the way we built our new nation. For him Inquilab Zindabad was not merely an emotional war cry but was a lofty ideal to end class distinctions and which would give birth to a new state and a new social order. One of his last messages from prison on March 3rd, 1931 was quite explicit saying,”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 Indian”. A young man with this vision for his country would surely be disenchanted to see some paths on the trajectory of India’s progress.
On the societal front we are still trying to make sense and grapple with the issues of caste and religious discriminations. Bhagat Singh had definitive views on both casteism and communalism in the 1920s. In his journalistic writings and court statements, he mocked the political leadership for its hypocrisy in dealing with these crucial issues, expressing surprise that we are still debating who should be allowed into a temple and who should have access to the Vedas. “A dog can sit in our lap”, he wrote, “can walk around freely in our kitchen while mere touch of a human being will lead to a religious outrage”. He went on to say that “Malaviyaji, (Madan Mohan Malaviya) our great social reformer and sympathiser of untouchables, gets himself garlanded by a sweeper but bathes with his clothes on to cleanse himself of defilement… we worship animals but can’t sit with human beings”.
Bhagat Singh categorically said that we need to be inclusive without emphasising on shuddhi or recitation of the kalma. According to him, religion should not matter at all, and if otherwise, then it was a social evil. Such an unequivocal position on caste and untouchability is rare to find, even amongst radical social reformers today.
He was equally blunt on the issue of communalism and saw communal amity as an important part of his political programme. However, unlike the Congress, he did not believe in the appeasement of religious faiths or in raising slogans such as Allah-o-Akbar, Sat Sri Akal and Bande Mataram as a means of demonstrating secular faith. On the contrary, he raised two slogans, Inquilab Zindabad and Hindustan Zindabad, hailing the revolution and the country. Bhagat Singh was acutely conscious of the growing menace of communalism in the 1920s — the decade that saw the emergence of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh and the Tableeghi Jamaat. Today, both organisations are multi-pronged with several political and cultural fronts posing a serious threat to the socio-political fabric of the Indian society. Bhagat Singh questioned the policy of encouraging competing communalism, which ultimately led to the partition of the country in 1947. He thus stands out in bold relief as a modern national leader and thinker, emphasising the separation of religion from politics and state as true secularism.
Without undermining the achievements of our Republic over the last six decades, it can be observed that socio-political and economic disparities continue and have increased to a great extent. Bhagat Singh’s vision of social and political justice continues to be relevant and his ideals should inspire us to take the struggle forward.
Errata: An earlier version of the article erroneously mentioned his martyrdom day as his birth anniversary. It has been corrected.
S Irfan Habib is the author of “To Make the Deaf Hear - Ideology and programme of Bhagat Singh and his comrades”. He holds the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.