Note: This article was first published on March 23, 2017 and is being republished on September 28, 2020, Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary.
“We want to emphasise the lesson often repeated by history, that it is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill the ideas. Great empires crumbled while the ideas survived, Bourbons and Czars fell, while the revolution marched ahead triumphantly.”
– Bhagat Singh, Red Pamphlet.
References in the slogans of (rowdy) “revolutionaries”, the three flop biopics of 2002 (Shaahed-E-Azam, 23rd March 1931: Shaheed, and The Legend of Bhagat Singh), the cultural swag of printed tees: that’s how the modern generation recognises one of the greatest revolutionaries of the world. Bhagat Singh, however, was grander, far grander than his pop culture avatar. In ‘Problem of Punjab’s Language and Script’ he notes, “Perhaps Garibaldi could not have succeeded in mobilising the army with such ease if Mazzini had not invested his thirty years in his mission of cultural and literary renaissance…The French revolution would have been impossible without the literature of Rousseau and Voltaire. Had Tolstoy, Karl Marx and Maxim Gorky not invested years of their lives in the creation of a new literature, the Russian Revolution would not have taken place, leave alone the propagation and practice of communism.” It would be an exaggeration to credit the Indian revolutionary movement entirely to Bhagat Singh’s ideas and writings, but they undeniably played a significant role.
Language and nature of writings
In his statement before Lahore High Court Bench, Bhagat Singh first and foremost put this disclaimer: “We are neither lawyers nor masters of English language, nor holders of degrees. Therefore, please do not expect any oratorical speech from us. We therefore pray that instead of going into the language mistakes of our statement Your Lordships will try to understand the real sense of it.”
His writings are filled with such modest disclaimers. He’d write an introduction to a poetry book but after writing a proper disclaimer. (“As I am not a poet I am not going to discuss it from that point of view. I have absolutely no knowledge of literary devices, and do not even know whether judged from literary standards it would prove correct. Not being an author I am not going to discuss it with a view of assigning to it its right place in the national literature.”) He’d discuss jurisprudence, philosophy, natural history, but only after expressing his lack of expertise in the subject. Surprisingly, his disclaimers turn out to be just an act of modesty. His ideas were no less than those of trained students of these disciplines. He was not a jurist, a philosopher, or a scientist, rather he was a revolutionary. He saw his role as one of understanding the nature of things and then explaining them to the masses. Therefore, he retains simplicity, lucidness, and clarity in his narration, which is devoid of any technical jargon.
Bhagat Singh realised that to make revolutionary propaganda successful it has to use the people’s language. In ‘The Problem of Punjab’s language and Script’ he remarks, “All the Sanskrit literature, put together, failed to revive the Hindu society; new literature had to be written in a contemporary modern language… Even for a person of proper education and comprehension, the hymns of unintelligible Sanskrit and ayat (verses) of classical Arabic cannot be as enthusing as is possible by the simple statements in a simple language.” In the same essay, he tried to solve the clash between Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi in Punjab. He supports the idea that Hindi should be used as a national language but he condemns the communal reasons for the usage of a particular language. He also identified the importance of regional languages and wrote most of his pamphlets in Punjabi using the Gurmukhi script.
Apart from writing pamphlets and essays that offered profound arguments, Bhagat Singh also wrote short articles that aimed at spreading the revolutionary message. The letter he wrote to the Punjab governor – his last petition – and ‘Red Pamphlet’ were of this nature. In such articles he made open declarations against the British government, and asked the masses to support revolutionary values.
Though Bhagat Singh mostly preferred realist ideas to romantic language (which was characteristic of most revolutionaries), his writings could also be passionate, as these excerpts from an article he wrote for the Hindi weekly Pratap about the Babbar Akali movement:
“The accused heroes thundered. Even the skies echoed with their triumphant slogans…
“What a beautiful, sanctified scene it must have been, when these people who had given up all of their family affections, were taking such an oath! Where is the end of sacrifice? Where is the limit to courage and fearlessness? Where does the extremity of idealism reside?”
Bhagat Singh however clarified (in ‘Regarding Line of Defence in Hari Kishan’s Case’) that he didn’t use beauty in its abstract sense but to praise the motive of an action. Also in his ‘Introduction to Dreamland’ he declared that like most revolutionaries he had no connection with mysticism.
‘[Initially] I was only a romantic revolutionary,’ he admits in his most talked about pamphlet ‘Why I Am An Atheist.’ Eventually he felt a craving for learning. He did a lot of reading. “The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking,” he recalls the era that came after extensive reading.
Numerous references of Marx, Lenin, Bakunin, and Trotsky; of the Russian, French and Irish revolutions; of socialism, and communism could be noticed in his later writings. One can notice that even though his writings featured references normally understandable only by scholars, he explained them in a way that even lay persons could make sense out of it.
What is revolution?
Bhagat Singh was asked in the lower court what he meant by the word “revolution”. In his joint statement he answered this question and demolished all the stereotypes about revolution. First and foremost he clarified that “revolution” is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. Rather he regarded revolution as an inalienable right of mankind. He slammed capitalists and imperialists and advocated the reorganisation of society on a socialist basis.
“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.”
It must also be duly noted that while most national leaders were fighting against alien rule, the fight of Bhagat Singh and his comrades was against social injustice. He claimed that with Congress only power would be transferred from one set of exploiters to others. He wanted India to be a society where the proletariat is no longer exploited at the hands of capitalists. Some say his ideas were utopian but he offered the youth a proper plan and predicted that it would take at least 20 years to bring the desired change (slamming Gandhi’s swaraj in one year promise).
Far from being passionate young men with bombs who had no connection with ground reality – as some mistakenly believe – Bhagat Singh and his group had the most strategic plans, a deep understanding of all political phenomena and a real zeal for change. In ‘To Young Political Workers’ he explains in detail why the Congress was going to end up in a compromise (which eventually happened). He was not politically naïve. He understood political compromises and also their usability. But he felt that not all compromises are permitted, especially the one Congress was engaging in. He also analysed the Minto-Morley reforms and showed how they wouldn’t do any good to the nation. H e condemned the qualification of having property to secure voting rights and advocated universal adult suffrage.
Bhagat Singh was a admirer of the Ghadar Party and deeply studied the reasons for the failure of the uprising it attempted during World War I. He felt that the masses were ignorant of their plan and that their revolutionary propaganda was not effective enough. He asked the young political workers to form a revolutionary party to propagate revolutionary ideas. He advised them to employ study circles, class lectures and publication of leaflets, pamphlets, books and periodicals.
Lahore and British hypocrisy
When Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly on April 8, 1929, the aim was not to kill but to take the message of the revolution to the masses of India. During the trial, the accused divided themselves into three groups so as to prolong the proceedings and propagate their ideas in an efficient manner. The first group comprised those against whom there was little evidence and thus had good chances of securing an acquittal. These comrades were defended through a lawyer.
The second group included comrades who defended themselves on their own. Bhagat Singh was part of this group. These comrades were the main unit of the propaganda machine. They challenged the prosecution, cross-examined its witnesses, and delivered political speeches, with the goal of buying as much time as possible.
The third group refused to defend itself. Their function was to challenge the credibility and legitimacy of the court itself. They submitted a written statement on the first day stating that they did not anticipate any justice from the make-believe court. Though Bhagat Singh belonged to the second group, the written statement was prepared by him. It was delivered in the court by Jitendra Nath Sanyal on behalf of himself and Mahabir Singh, Gaya Prashad Katiyar, Kundan Lal and Batukeshwar Dutt.
Through his statement, Bhagat Singh very effectively questioned the validity of British government and its legal system. He argued that the government must serve the needs of the people, whereas the British government exploits them. He attacked imperialism and declared that the law in India rather than serving its people facilitates alien rule.
In his statement before the Lahore High Court bench (1930), Bhagat Singh reminded the court of the motive behind the bombing. It certainly wasn’t to kill anyone but to gain attention and to protest against the unjust policies of the British. Had murder been the intention they would not have taken extra care to throw bombs in vacant spaces. Moreover, if attacking institution and spreading propaganda was not their main motive they would have easily escaped after the act. But they voluntarily got arrested. He quoted the jurist Solomon to assert that no man be punished for an act if his motive is not against the law. The court was unmoved but many modern legal systems take such principles into account.
Bhagat Singh in his statements and letters repeatedly termed the British judicial system a make-believe one. According to him it was just a formal setup and it could not administer justice. When the governor general introduced the LCC ordinance to expedite the proceedings (read: to immediately award capital punishment to the accused even in their absence from the court through a special tribunal) Bhagat Singh sensed an opportunity to prove his point. In his letter to the governor general, he also demolished the argument that the special tribunal was created because the accused failed to participate in court proceedings due to hunger strikes. Bhagat Singh used factual arguments to disprove him. As Bhagat Singh explicitly said in this letter, most of his writings of jail aimed at clarifying their position to the masses of India on every issue. What the crowd outside the jail would make of their actions was the most significant thing for him then.
On love, life and death
When the LCC case was in its final stage, Sardar Kishan Singh (Bhagat Singh’s father) made a written request to the Tribunal, saying that there were many facts to prove that his son was innocent and that he had nothing to do with Sounder’s murder. He also requested that his son be given an opportunity to prove his innocence. When Bhagat Singh came to know of it he got infuriated, and wrote a strong letter to his father, protesting against his move. Of course his determination in conditions as adverse as those would be appreciated. But the language he used would have been too strong for a father who’d lose his son soon. Bhagat Singh, here, seems to be devoid of all human emotions and feelings.
“As regards the moral status of love I may say that it in itself is nothing BUT PASSION, not an animal passion but a human one, and very sweet too. Love in itself can never be an animal passion. Love always elevates the character of man. It never lowers him, provided love be love. You can’t call these girls — mad people, as we generally see in films — lovers. They always play in the hands of animals passions. The true love cannot be created. It comes of its own accord, nobody can say when. It is but natural.” In his letter to Sukhdev that he wrote in 1929 he surprisingly comes up with this beautiful depiction of love. But very soon he declared that love has human weakness. He acknowledged that it was not so for ordinary individuals. But for men with ideals it was a weakness. According to him, in ideal stage men should move ahead of love for one individual to universal love. This was probably poetic representation of his socialist ideas.
From a popular understanding of Bhagat Singh it may appear that he was a young fanatic who had no value of his own life. Indeed he valued revolution and interest of masses more than life of an individual. At numerous instances he made clear that he had no fear of capital punishment. But this doesn’t mean that he had no value of his own life. Rather he considered not only his life but that of every human being precious. He regretted in many of his writings the deaths that had been brought down in the process of revolution. In his letter to Sukhdev regarding suicide, he condemns suicide and advocates living and suffering for the interests of revolution at all costs. He wasn’t afraid of death, but he wouldn’t give up just because life in prison was depressing. Rather he chose to work for the proper treatment of political prisoners and organised many hunger strikes. Here again, he distinguishes between suicide and dying for a cause. ‘Regarding line of defence in Hari Krishan’s Case’ (Hari Kishan tried to kill the governor in 1930. During the trial Hari Kishan’s defence counsel took the line that he had no intention to kill the governor) he distinctly expresses the view that revolutionary acts need to be boldly accepted. According to him, there was a political importance the act had, and denying the intention as a defence defeats the political importance. “To save lives at any cost is not our policy. It may be the policy of the easy-chair politicians, but it is not ours,” he reminded his fellow-revolutionaries. Thus, the LCC – what appeared suicidal from the populists’ eyes – was a strategic masterstroke.
Atheism and critical thinking
Bhagat Singh was accused of vanity for denying the existence of god. Not only did he expose the fallacy of such arguments, but also offered his own logical arguments for his disbelief.
He employed the Epicurean paradox on the problem of evil. He also cited Darwin’s theory of evolution to explain the origin of life and species and natural history to explain the universe. He was modest enough to admit that he wasn’t very well acquainted with these ideas.
In the latter part of Why I Am An Atheist he discussed the social aspects of religion. He felt that whenever someone goes against popular feelings he would be considered vainglorious. But according to him, “merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking.” Thus he wanted to criticise every tenet of old beliefs, to challenge the efficacy of old faith. Giving utmost importance to reason he wrote, “If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.” He wanted society to fight against the belief in god as it fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion.
Bhagat Singh was smart enough to understand the importance of past achievements. He didn’t advocate abandoning all old beliefs but a thorough analysis of them. “[But] instead of developing the ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle – lethargic, idle, fanatical as we are – we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool,” he observed.
He also reflected upon the origin of god. He believed that man created god in his imagination when he realized his weaknesses, limitations and shortcomings. He recognised two functions of belief in god: social control and hope for depressed. “He was used as a deterrent factor when his fury and his laws were repeatedly propagated so that man might not become a danger to society. He was the cry of the distressed soul for he was believed to stand as father and mother, sister and brother, brother and friend when in time of distress a man was left alone and helpless. He was almighty and could do anything.” He admitted that idea of god is helpful to a man in distress.
It’s said that there are no atheists in foxholes; Bhagat Singh proved this argument wrong. Like most of his ideals, he stuck to his atheism till his last breath. When informed of his atheism, one of his jail friends said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.” He leaves the reader to decide whether it was vanity.
‘The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting-stone of ideas,’ Bhagat Singh once said. And he proved that with the few masterpieces his brief but legendary life allowed him to pen.
Ankit Yadav is studying law at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.
(I would like to convey my gratitude to Dr. Vandana Singh, associate professor of history at RMLNLU, for her feedback and guidance. All the quotes of Bhagat Singh have been taken from the ‘Marxists Internet Archive’. A debt of gratitude to the selfless work of digital age “comrades”.)