Remember Bhagat Singh for his ideas and vision

On his birth anniversary, we should celebrate Bhagat Singh not just as a martyr but also as a young revolutionary ideologue who left behind an intellectual legacy. SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
26 September, 2022

Bhagat Singh was born on 28 September 1907. We know him as a martyr and a nationalist par excellence but, lately, we have also learnt of his intellectual capabilities as a young man. Some of my own efforts have helped to unravel his intellectual evolution through his writings, many of which have surfaced during the past few decades. On his birth anniversary, we should celebrate him not just as a martyr but also as a young revolutionary ideologue who left behind an intellectual legacy, instilled with the ideals based on socialism, pluralism, rational and critical thinking, and a cosmopolitan worldview. 

These ideals inspired his writings as well as his actions. Let me discuss today the first platform he created as a young man: the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. Bhagat Singh founded the Sabha in 1925–26, in Lahore, with the collaboration of young comrades such as Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev, Dhanwantri and Ehsan Ilahi. The Sabha was also patronised by many left-wing Congress leaders of Punjab, such as Satyapal, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Kedar Nath Sehgal, Pindi Das and Lal Chand Falak. Bhagat Singh felt the need to have an organised body that could undertake a serious mobilisation of the youth, based on agreed upon ideological principles.

What were these principles? According to a 1928 membership form reviewed by the colonial authorities, the Sabha had a well-defined political programme that included the following objectives:

(a)  to establish a complete independent republic of the labourers and peasants of the whole of India;

(b)  to infuse a spirit of patriotism into the hearts of the youths of the country in order to establish a united Indian nation;

(c)  to express sympathy with, and to assist, the economic, industrial and social movements which, while being free from communal sentiment, are intended to take us nearer to our ideal, namely the establishment of a complete independent republic [of] labourers and peasants;

(d) to organise the labourers and peasants.

Besides these objectives, the Sabha was above the petty religious politics of the time and stood for secularism. “Before enrolment each member was made to sign a pledge that he would place the interests of his country above those of his community,” a report on the Sabha’s activities, compiled by the Punjab Criminal Investigation Department, noted. Bhagat Singh pursued these ideals all his life. His journalistic pieces and writings from prison were impregnated with this spirit and vision of a future India.

We know little about one of the major and interesting activities of the Sabha, which was carried out through a tract society, run by Chhabil Das, the principal of Lahore’s National College. Bhagat Singh had studied at the college and was one of Das’s favourite students. Just six years younger than Das, he used to call his teacher “guruji” and objected to his marriage, which, he believed, would hamper Das’s ability to teach the lesson of revolution to his students. (He raised similar objections when his own family came to him with a marriage proposal.) Along with the economist Brij Narain and the Marxist activist BPL Bedi—the father of the actor Kabir Bedi—Das would visit villages to hold classes for peasants, explaining to them the meaning of socialism. 

The tract society aimed to carry the objectives of the Sabha to the maximum number of people. It was committed to the publication and distribution of revolutionary socialist literature. Das, who was elected its first secretary, wrote several 16-page tracts, which were priced at two pice and were thus affordable for almost everyone, however poor they may be. These tracts were extremely popular throughout north India, where Urdu was read by many, and were printed and sold in the thousands. 

The tract society published three pamphlets in the beginning, which were described in the CID report as “objectionable” and “strongly impregnated with Bolshevik and Communist doctrines.” These were “The Wealth of Nations” by the Ghadar Party founder Har Dayal, “India and the Next Year” by the US journalist Agnes Smedley and “Bharat Mata Ka Darshan”—A Glimpse of Mother India—by Chhabil Das. Unfortunately, there are not enough details available about the content of these tracts. However, we do have details about some other important tracts, such as “Ham Swaraj Kyon Chahte Hain”—Why We Want Swaraj. This tract was a comprehensive compilation of statistical information regarding area, extent, population, education, health, wealth and daily income of Indians and citizens of developed nations. These comparative statistics startled many Indians.

Another tract was “Naujawanon Se Do Do Batein”—A Few Words with the Young. It depicted grim poverty, illiteracy and superstitions, and asked who would rid India of these evils. It reminded the people that no god would descend from heaven to intervene and provide relief. The people themselves would have to tackle these evils. Who would take on the task, it asked, when the millions in the villages were illiterate, traders and businessmen were busy accumulating money, religious clerics were engaged in prayers and rituals, government employees spent their time earning and spending their wages? History was witness to all the adversities faced by humanity, it replied, and it was only the educated courageous young men and women who took up the challenge. The tract urged the youth of the country to follow the example set by the youth of Ireland, Turkey, Japan and China in their respective struggles for independence and accused the English government of exploiting India and keeping its inhabitants impoverished and illiterate.

Another tract argued that the greatest sin was poverty, since financial and educational deprivation leads to most sins. How would this sin be eradicated? The answer, according to the revolutionaries, lay in the economic restructuring of the society. Private property should be abolished. The means of production should be socially owned and all people should share work and benefits alike. These questions continue to pester us even now—and more so during the past few years.

Yet another tract by Chhabil Das began with the question, “Who are the greatest men in the world?” The author described five categories:

1.    Conquerors and Generals—Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler.

2.    Wealthy men—Ford, Carnegie, Tata.

3.    Poets and writers—Kalidas, Shakespeare, Milton.

4.    Kindly people—Gautam Buddha, Christ, Confucius, Gandhi.

5.    Revolutionaries—Rousseau, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Engels, Lenin.

Das brought all these great men before the bar of the twentieth century and administered judgment on each category. If killing even one person was a sin, he argued, conquerors and generals were the worst sinners for having committed mass murder. Philanthropists whose wealth depended on exploiting thousands of workers were frauds. It was shameful to sing the praises of kings and tyrants; poets should instead sing to inspire the oppressed to break their fetters. The “kindly people” were welcomed and respected, but their message of peace was ill-suited to the people as it blunted the edge of anger of the awakened, the downtrodden and the exploited poor. It was only the revolutionaries who deserved praise for having awakened and aroused the exploited people and showing them the new path of struggle for freedom and prosperity.

This spirit continued to permeate Bhagat Singh’s writings and revolutionary actions during his short and eventful life, even while he was in prison. He penned his seminal essay Why I Am an Atheist during his incarceration in Lahore and took these issues to a more mature stage. His vast and diverse reading helped him unravel the complexities of colonial sufferings as well as age-old social and cultural discriminations. We need to celebrate his birth anniversary by emulating the intellectual and political legacy he has bequeathed to us.