Bhagat Singh, iconic revolutionary and thinker, was martyred on March 23, 1931. He evokes unbounded respect and emotion all over India. Most of us, of course, revere him as a nationalist — a true but incomplete description. Bhagat Singh was indeed a nationalist par excellence, but what was the nationalism he espoused? He left behind a huge corpus of writing which can help us to comprehend his vision. This is particularly necessary in the current context, where nationalism is touted as an all-encompassing ideology. This unbridled nationalism features religion as a pivot, often using majoritarianism and nationalism interchangeably.
To Bhagat Singh, religion was irrelevant. He shared Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s vision who once said that, “I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty, whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians.” Bhagat Singh stood for an inclusive nationalism, not just politically, but socially and economically as well.
He matured as a political thinker while in prison during the two years before he was hanged. His prison diary clearly reveals the trajectory of his political evolution. It brings into light his reading habits and the wide range of authors, including Marx, Engels, Russell, T. Paine, Lenin, William Wordsworth, Tennyson, Tagore, Trotsky, among others.
He wrote a classic essay called ‘Why I am an Atheist’, while in prison, which was surreptitiously sent out and then published in The People on September 27, 1930. This essay was not only about his engagement with the idea of God, but also underlined his vision of India. In a country where a majority of the ideologues of nationalism — as reflected in its current usage as well — used one religion or the other to buttress their ideas, Bhagat Singh illustrated that religion was not necessarily an imperative for being a nationalist. As he explains in the essay, Singh began as a believer, who regularly chanted the Gayatri Mantra, but he gradually realised the futility of religion. And he did so quite early in his life. In the essay, he proclaims: “My atheism is not of recent origin. I had stopped believing in God when I was an obscure young man”.
Bhagat Singh’s commitment to rationalism and critical thinking is also crucial in present times. He was not for blind flag-waving. His nationalism was embedded in the idea of progress where there is scope for criticism, disbelief and the capacity to question the old faith. He was uncompromising when he said, “mere faith and blind faith is dangerous: It dulls the brain and makes a man reactionary. A man who claims to be a realist has to challenge the whole of the ancient faith. If it does not stand the onslaught of reason, it crumbles down.” Silencing rationalists or defending obnoxious religious practices can’t be nationalism.
Bhagat Singh, in ‘Why I am an Atheist’, also questions those who found any criticism of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi blasphemous. He perceived this hero worship as symptomatic of an unhealthy, regressive politics: “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.” He goes on to say that, “Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary”. There cannot be, therefore, an uncritical exaltation of either religion, culture, leader or anything else in the name of the nation.
Just a year before Bhagat Singh was arrested, he wrote some insightful pieces in May-June 1928. In one of them, he was critical of the press, and also spoke about his idea of nationalism, saying, “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”.
He also warned against dragging religion into politics and gave an example of the early Ghadar revolutionaries who kept religion in the realm of personal faith and so worked together, espousing a composite nationalism.
Our born-again nationalists today often use the past to subvert the present. They love the medieval past the most, and for obvious reasons. I wish they cared to read more about the recent past and the freedom struggle to make some sense of their favourite obsession.