Bhagat Singh, who is perhaps the greatest revolutionary India has known and loved, was just 23 when he was martyred in 1931. Today is the 110th birth anniversary of this charismatic revolutionary, and tributes and remembrances of the same have been pouring in on social media from leaders, spokespersons and commoners alike. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted this morning, “I bow to the brave Shaheed Bhagat Singh on his Jayanti. His greatness and exemplary courage inspires generations of Indians.”
Not only did Singh inspire hundreds of youth in his time to embrace the cause of India’s independence with abandon, but the clarity of his thought in his short life remains stunning and illuminating to this day. At a time when the early yearnings of freedom from the yolk of British were buttressed with religion and religious identity, Bhagat Singh showed that religion was not necessary for nationalism. He observed the divisiveness of religion around him in early twentieth century British India and the hurt it inflicted to the unity and identity of Indians: “Man should receive more attention than the beasts and yet, in India, people break their heads in the name of ‘sacred beasts'”. Singh strongly stood for critical thinking and constant change over blind hero worship, which he believed could only be the pathway to regressive politics and corruption.
Historian S Irfan Habib, in this relevant piece, notes Bhagat Singh’s indictment of press and views on nationalism in his insightful newspaper writing in the months preceding his arrest in 1928. He had written: “the real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness, and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism. Instead, their main objective seems to be spreading ignorance, preaching and propagating sectarianism and chauvinism, communalising people’s minds leading to the destruction of our composite culture and shared heritage”.
“Go and oppose the prevailing faith, you go and criticise a hero, who is generally believed to be above criticism because he is thought to be infallible, the strength of your argument shall force the multitude to decry you … This is due to mental stagnation,” said the revolutionary who believed in independent thinking, questioning, and personal agency towards the cause of nation. At the time, this was perhaps mainly in response to those who questioned the difference of his methods and ideology vis-a-vis those of Mahatma Gandhi. However, it is not hard to notice that Bhagat Singh’s India, albeit not undivided, could still benefit a great deal from a close reading of his humanism and his nationalism.