Bhagat Singh, hanged at the age of 23 on this day in 1931, adored Nehru and Netaji

90th death anniversary of Bhagat Singh, martyr, socialist and atheist, falls on March 23. He founded Naujawan Bharat Sabha at the age of 19 and wrote ‘Why I am an atheist’ in prison and when he was 22

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@IndiaHistorypic
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@IndiaHistorypic

Praveen Davar

He was one of the tallest revolutionary freedom fighters who sacrificed his life at the young age of 23. Many other revolutionaries died even younger. But Bhagat Singh was different. He was not only a martyr, but also a political and social visionary.

In the introduction to his book Inquilab, a collection of Bhagat Singh's views on religion and revolution, historian S. Irfan Habib explains why this is so: "We do great injustice to his memory when we extol him only as a martyr. Bhagat Singh left behind a corpus of political writings underlining his vision for an independent India."

Bhagat Singh lived a very short life of but with an advantage which was the privilege of a very few. He was born in a family of diehard nationalists. His father's younger brother, Ajit Singh, who spent most of his life in exile, was a crusader against imperialism; another uncle Swaran Singh underwent many years in prison defying the British authorities; his father Kishan Singh was an active Congressman who participated in the Non-cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements, and swore by the Mahatma's ideology and the objectives of the Indian National Congress.

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@kunalthakur_vit
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@kunalthakur_vit
Pistol Used by Bhagat Singh In Assassination of John Saunders

With this kind of a political background Bhagat Singh matured early as a great patriot and revolutionary thinker. Right from his teens he spent a great deal of time in reading and writing. When he was only seventeen years old he wrote an article on 'Universal Brotherhood' in which he says: "Vishvbandhuta ! For me the greatest meaning of the word is equality and nothing else. How lofty is this thought...We will have to campaign for equality and equity. We will have to punish those who oppose the creation of such a world."

In 1926, at the age of 19, Bhagat Singh founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, an organization of a secret group of young revolutionaries. The RSS had been founded in 1925, and the Muslim League two decades earlier. Despite the far-reaching positive impact on Hindu - Muslim relations by the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movements, polarization between the two communities was once again on the rise. It is to the credit of this young revolutionary in such times that he took a completely secular approach.

The members of the Sabha were asked to sign a pledge that they will ' place the interest of their country above that of their community.' A part of its manifesto read: "Religious superstitions and bigotry are a great hindrance in our progress. They have proved an obstacle in our way and we must do away with them. The thing that cannot bear free thought must perish."

Bhagat Singh wrote regularly for Kirti, a journal founded by a communist leader, Sohan Singh Josh who influenced Bhagat Singh move away from anarchism to socialism, a creed which two most popular leaders of the youth in the freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, were propagating from the platforms of the Indian National Congress. Their charisma and popularity amongst the youth influenced Bhagat Singh and the other revolutionaries too.

1928 was an eventful year in the history of the independence movement. It was the year of Simon Commission, Bardoli Satyagrah and presentation of Nehru Report prepared by Motilal Nehru who presided over the 43rd session of the Congress held at Kolkata in December 1928. In a column written for Kirti in July, 1928, Bhagat Singh talks of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose in glowing terms:

"Many new leaders with modern thoughts are emerging...The most important young leaders in the present scenario are Bengal's Subhas Chandra Bose and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. These two leaders are making their presence felt and are participating in the movements of the youth in a big way. Both are wise and true patriots. Still there are considerable differences between the views of these two leaders. One is called the worshipper of ancient Indian culture while the other is called a staunch disciple of the West."

He goes on to explain the differences and exhorts the youth to understand the true meaning of Inquilab :

"Subhas favours complete independence because he says that the English are from the West and we are from the East. Nehru says that we have to change the entire social system by establishing our government. For that it is important to obtain complete independence, Subhas sympathises with the workers and he wants to improve their situation. Nehru wants to change the system itself by a revolution. Subhas is sentimental, for the heart. He is giving a lot to the young men, but for the heart. Nehru is a revolutionary who is giving a lot to the heart as well as the head...They (both) should aim at Swaraj for the masses based on Socialism...The youth should firm up their views so that even when they feel dejected, sorrowful or defeated, they do not digress (from their path) and are able to face the world all by themselves. It is only by doing this that the masses can fulfill their dream of Inquilab."

Even though Bhagat Singh went to the gallows avenging the death of Lala Lajpat Rai following a brutal lathi charge, he nevertheless, a few months earlier, had castigated the 'Lion of Punjab' for his association with the Hindu Mahasabha. Lajpat Rai responded by calling Bhagat Singh a 'Russian agent.' Despite this exchange of missives, Bhagat Singh could not tolerate the act of Punjab's tallest national leader being beaten at the hands of an Englishman.

Though Bhagat Singh wrote many articles on diverse political, social and even international issues before he was incarcerated in 1928, his most popular work Why I am an Atheist was written in October 1930 while he was in jail.

In this long article Bhagat Singh raises a question: "I ask why your omnipotent God does not stop every person when he is committing any sin or offense? He can do it quite easily. Why did he not kill war overlords or kill the fury of war in them and thus avoid the catastrophe hurled down on the head of humanity by the Great War? Why does he not produce a sentiment in the minds of the British people to liberate India? Why does he not infuse altruistic enthusiasm in the hearts of all capitalists to forgo their rights of personal possessions....and redeem the whole society from the bondage of Capitalism.”

Bhagat Singh had a message for the Press too which seems as relevant today as it must have been when written 93 years ago: "The real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of the people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism."

So how should we remember Bhagat Singh today? The best homage we, as citizens, can pay to this fiery patriot is by fighting fearlessly the forces that propagate and promote communalism, hatred, superstitions and economic disparity.

(The writer, an ex-Army officer, is a columnist and political analyst)

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Published: 23 Mar 2021, 8:10 AM