On this day in 1931, Bhagat Singh was hanged to death along with two of his comrades for waging war against the colonial State. Singh had been valorised for his martyrdom, and rightly so, but in the ensuing enthusiasm most of us forget, or consciously ignore his contributions as an intellectual and a thinker. He not only sacrificed his life, like many did before him and also after him, but he also had a vision of independent India. During the past few years, it has almost become a routine to appropriate Singh as a nationalist icon, while not much is talked about his nationalist vision. Even Dinesh Trivedi invoked Bhagat Singh while talking about his commitment to the nation over his political party. It sounds good but Singh was not just a patriot, with a passionate commitment to his nation, he was a visionary, with a clear perception of independent India.
Singh institutionalised his thinking, when he founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1926 in Lahore, which was also a public platform for the otherwise secret group of revolutionaries. He saw to it that the Sabha remained above religious politics of the times. It is all the more important because the 1920s saw the emergence of the RSS and the Tableeghi Jamaat, leading to intense communal polarisation. But here was a group of young men who were thinking differently. They asked the member before enrolment "to sign a pledge that he would place the interests of his country above those of his community". Even Lala Lajpat Rai, the pillar of extremist nationalism in India, could not escape from the scathing criticism of the Sabha when he joined hands with the Hindu Mahasabha leaders. Rai was dubbed as a traitor by Kedar Nath Sehgal in a pamphlet - 'An Appeal to Young Punjab' - while Lajpat Rai responded by calling Singh a Russian agent who wanted to turn him into a Lenin.
Singh and his Sabha regarded communal amity as central to their political agenda but like the Congress, it did not believe either in the appeasement of all religions or in raising such slogans as 'Allah o Akbar', 'Sat Sri Akal' and 'Bande Mataram' to prove their secularism. On the contrary, they raised just two slogans, 'Inquilab Zindabad' and 'Hindustan Zindabad'. Singh questioned the policy of encouraging competing communalisms, which led to the partition of the country in 1947. He stands out in bold relief as a modern national leader and thinker emphasising the separation of religion from politics and State as true secularism.
Before I share with you some of his journalistic writings about the India of his dreams, let me point out that Singh was a voracious reader, who read on poverty, religion, society and the global struggle against imperialism. He debated and discussed what he read and also wrote extensively on issues of caste, communalism and conditions of the working class and peasantry.
The profundity of his ideas on these issues is visible in his columns in Kirti, Pratap and other papers. In an article on 'Religion and our freedom struggle' in Kirti in May 1928, Singh grappled with the role of religion in politics, an issue that haunts us even today. He talked of Leo Tolstoy's division of religion into three parts: essentials of religion, philosophy of religion and rituals of religion. He concluded that if religion means blind faith by mixing rituals with philosophy then it should be blown away, but if we can combine essentials with some philosophy then religion may be a meaningful idea. He felt that ritualism of religions had divided us into touchables and untouchables and these narrow and divisive religions can't bring about actual unity among people. For us freedom should not mean a mere end to British colonialism, our freedom implies living together happily without caste and religious barriers. Singh needs to be invoked even today to bring about the changes he yearned for.
In the June 1928 issue of the Kirti, Singh wrote two articles - 'Achoot ka Sawaal' (on untouchability) and 'Sampradayik Dange aur unka Ilaj' (communal riots and their solutions). What Singh wrote in 1928 looks relevant even today, which proves how precious little has been done to resolve these questions. In the first piece, Singh starts by saying that "our country is unique where six crore citizens are called untouchables and their mere touch defiles the upper castes. Gods get enraged if they enter the temples. It is shameful that such things are being practised in the twentieth century. We claim to be a spiritual country but hesitate to accept equality of all human beings while materialist Europe is talking of revolution since centuries. They had proclaimed equality during the American and French revolutions. However, we are still debating whether the untouchable is entitled for the sacred thread or can he read the Vedas or not. We are chagrined about discrimination against Indians in foreign lands, and whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India." Given our conduct, Singh wondered, do we really have any right to complain about such matters?
He also engaged with the solutions to this malaise. The first decision for all of us should be "that we start believing that we all are born equal and our vocation, as well, need not divide us. If someone is born in a sweeper's family that does not mean that he/she has to continue in the family profession cleaning shit all his life, with no right to participate in any developmental work".
For him, this discrimination was responsible for conversions, a burning issue of the 1920s. Despite his anti-colonialist fervour, he did not condemn the missionaries nor did he instigate Hindus to kill and burn all those who had accepted the new faith. He wrote self-critically: "If you treat them worse than animals then they will surely join other religions where they will get more rights and will be treated like human beings. In this situation it will be futile to accuse Christianity and Islam of harming Hinduism". Singh was convinced that "no one would be forced or tempted to change faith if the age-old inequalities are removed and we sincerely start believing that we are all equal and none is different either due to birth or vocation"
Thus, Singh and his comrades have not left behind an easy legacy, which can be ceremoniously commemorated by anyone. They have bequeathed us an unfinished task of nation-building, where no caste, class or religious barriers will ever exist.
(S Irfan Habib holds Maulana Azad Chair at National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.)