In these times when people are expected to wear badges and slogans of nationalism on their sleeve it is wise to inquire about the nationalism of Bhagat Singh, whose death anniversary falls on March 23, and whose patriotism, sacrifice and selfless love for India and her people is beyond doubt.
Bhagat Singh was hanged In 1931 when he was just over 23 years of age. But he wrote enough in his last years, particularly in publications such as Kirti and Pratap. We get a clear picture of his thoughts, motivations and philosophy from compilations of his writings and commentaries by scholars like Chaman Lal, Kuldip Nayar and A. G. Noorani.
Bhagat Singh differed from most other revolutionaries on two important aspects: (i) he was an atheist and went to the gallows with full awareness of his atheism, and (ii) he had a vision of the Indian society that he envisaged post-independence and could articulate its essential characteristics. From such thoughts of Bhagat Singh we glean his idea of nationalism. While it is easy to be swayed by the current rhetoric of nationalism peddled by RSS, BJP and their supporters, it is vital to understand true meanings of nationalism from time-honoured patriots like Bhagat Singh. That will help us clear prevailing confusions and learn to distinguish between genuine and pseudo-nationalism.
Bhagat Singh’s atheism
First, let us look at Bhagat Singh’s atheism. Bhagat Singh was arrested on April 8, 1929 from the Central Assembly in Delhi where he and B. K. Dutt voluntarily offered themselves for arrest after throwing harmless bombs in the Assembly to ‘make the deaf hear.’ In his famous article titled “Why I am an Atheist?” written in jail in early October 1930, a few days before the expected judgment of his execution was to be pronounced, he laid bare his life’s profound guiding principles in a simple language. He wrote:
“… Beliefs (in God) make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds.
… This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be! A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hope should I entertain? I know that will be the end when the rope is tightened round my neck and the rafters move from under my feet. To use more precise religious terminology, that will be the moment of utter annihilation. My soul will come to nothing. If I take the courage to take the matter in the light of ‘reward’, I see that a short life of struggle with no such magnificent end shall itself be my ‘reward.’ That is all. Without any selfish motive of getting any reward here or in the hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of freedom. I could not act otherwise. The day shall usher in a new era of liberty when a large number of men and women, taking courage from the idea of serving humanity and liberating them from sufferings and distress, decide that there is no alternative before them except devoting their lives for this cause. …”
Thus, Bhagat Singh did not need the assumptions of God, Heaven, Hell or even permanence of soul in order to find a deeper purpose of his life and engage in fulfilling it. In fact he realised that beliefs in such assumptions only weakened a person’s will and thereby came in the way of rational thought and independent, selfless action. He could see the direct correlation between selflessness, reason and non-belief in God. He could also link selflessness with the attitude and act of serving humanity, i.e. compassion. Internalizing this compassion and acting out of it within the timeframe of a short life was itself a reward – this is a state of enlightenment, one could even say ‘spiritual enlightenment’, that Bhagat Singh attained in his short life. And he probably attained it through a process that combined reason and compassion, as well as thought and action.
It is not necessary that everyone has to follow the same process to achieve such a state. However, a general lesson we can safely draw is that attaining a basic level of clarity about questions such as ‘what is our purpose?’ and ‘what would give us fulfilment?’, and internalizing that clarity through both thought and action, is a pre-requisite to forming views and taking stands on issues like nationalism. The latter must be outcomes or symptoms of our core values which are formed out of our efforts to resolve these questions.
Poverty-free India was his goal
Second, let us see what Bhagat Singh said about the society he wished for. In the excerpts from his article cited above it is evident that he found fulfillment through serving humanity and liberating it from sufferings and distress. He equated that cause to that of India’s freedom. Working towards building an India where poverty, socio-economic disparity and exploitation did not exist, rather than achieving freedom from the British alone, was his goal.
While presenting their worldview in the Court on June 6, 1929 in connection with the Assembly Bomb case, Bhagat Singh and B. K. Dutt explained their objective and understanding of revolution as follows (Dutt was represented by a counsel whereas Bhagat Singh fought his own case with the help of a legal advisor):
“By ‘Revolution’ we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice must change. Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant who grows corn for all, starves with his family; the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies; masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims.”
On the problem of caste exploitation Bhagat Singh wrote in a separate article, “… It is often said that untouchables do not keep themselves clean. The reason for this is simple – they are poor. Solve their poverty. The poor from the high caste too do not live any cleaner. … Councils and Assemblies need to push for freedom of untouchables to use schools-colleges, wells and roads. But in a legislative where a lot of fuss is created over issues like religion and bill against child-marriage, how can they muster courage to enrol untouchables among themselves? That’s why we believe that untouchables must have their own elected representatives. They must demand greater rights for themselves.”
India has come a long way since the time Bhagat Singh made those observations. Through an egalitarian Constitution and robust institutions there is a semblance of democracy and justice. Economic growth has been phenomenal and a big section of middle class enjoys much greater material comforts than at the time of independence. However, a majority of India’s population still reels under poverty and exploitation, and is deprived of basic living conditions and rights such as food, healthcare, education, employment, safety and justice.
While on the one hand India has several billionaire businessmen, on the other hand it ranks among the lowest in the world on most indicators of human development that measure status of health, education and other living conditions. While the common man routinely faces the brunt of corruption, the government waives lakhs of crores of loans of big corporate houses. Caste based discrimination still exists, especially in villages, small towns and local institutions, but also in big cities and national institutions as Rohith Vemula’s case demonstrates. The miserable conditions of Indian society that fired Bhagat Singh’s motivations are by and large present even today.
Bhagat Singh’s colleagues, Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagwati Charan, wrote in 1929/30: “It (revolution) will bring joy and prosperity to the starving millions who are seething under the terrible yoke of both foreign and Indian exploitation.” Today, the miserable conditions of the starving millions in India are perpetuated by a nexus of vested interests of political parties, bureaucracy and big businesses which are largely Indian.
Bhagat Singh saw his fight for India’s freedom as well as his life’s fulfillment in selflessly working towards the goal of removing these inequalities, injustices and absence of opportunities faced by his fellow citizens. This was his ‘nationalism’ and this was his ‘patriotism.’ It was universal and not confined by boundaries of religion, caste, race, creed or even nation. Can we take a little inspiration from his life and ideas and relook at our own nationalism?
Rahul Pandey is an entrepreneur and visiting faculty at IIM Lucknow.