In his introductory notes to a new collection of writings by the revolutionary freedom-fighter and political thinker Bhagat Singh, the historian S Irfan Habib, who edited the book, writes that Singh has always been a “passionate ideological presence in my life.” Habib says that though Singh went to the gallows as a revolutionary nationalist, most historic records of Singh’s life have ignored his legacy as a socio-political thinker.
“Bhagat Singh was ... a prolific writer, an insightful thinker and a sensitive young nationalist,” Habib writes. “It is significant to read what Bhagat Singh wrote ... particularly in the midst of seething university campuses and the spread of exclusivist politics today.” The following is an extract from an essay included in the book, titled, “Why I Am an Athiest,” which Singh wrote in October 1930. In it, he directs several questions towards Hindu believers, in particular on reincarnation and karma.
You Hindus, you say all the present sufferers belong to the class of sinners of the previous births. Good. You say the present oppressors were saintly people in their previous births, hence they enjoy power. Let me admit that your ancestors were very shrewd people, they tried to construct theories strong enough to hammer down all efforts of reason and disbelief. But let us analyse how far this argument can really stand.
From the point of view of the most famous jurists, punishment inflicted upon a wrongdoer can be justified only from three or four ends. They are retributive, reformative and deterrent. The retributive theory is now being condemned by all advanced thinkers. The deterrent theory has also met the same fate. The reformative theory is the only one which is essential and indispensable for human progress. It aims at returning the offender as a most competent and peace-loving citizen to society. But what is the nature of punishment inflicted by God upon humans who are considered offenders. You say he sends them to be born as a cow, a cat, a tree, herb or a beast. You enumerate 84,00,000 such punishments. I ask you what is its reformative effect upon the human being? How many people have you met who say that they were born as a donkey in their previous birth for having committed any sin? None. Don’t quote your Puranas. I have no scope to touch your mythologies. Moreover, do you know that the greatest sin in this world is to be poor? Poverty is a sin, it is a punishment. I ask you how far would you appreciate a criminologist, a jurist or a legislator who proposes such measures of punishment which shall inevitably force man to commit more offences? Had your God not thought of this or did he also have to learn these things by experience, but at the cost of untold suffering to be borne by humanity? What do you think shall be the fate of a man who has been born in a poor and illiterate family of say, a Chamar [a Scheduled Caste community, also known as Jatavs] or a sweeper. He is poor hence he cannot study. He is hated and shunned by his fellow human beings who think themselves to be his superiors having been born in say a higher caste. His ignorance, his poverty and the treatment meted out to him shall harden his heart towards society. Suppose he commits a sin, who shall bear the consequences? God, the man in question, or the learned ones of the society? What about the punishment of those people who were deliberately kept ignorant by the haughty and egotistical Brahmins and who had to pay the penalty of lead being poured in their ears for having heard a few sentences of your sacred books of learning, the Vedas? If they committed any offence, who was responsible for them and who should have borne the brunt? My dear friends, these theories are the inventions of the privileged ones; they justify their usurped power, riches and superiority by the help of these theories. Yes, it was perhaps Upton Sinclair, who wrote in some place that just make a man a believer in immortality and then rob him of all his riches and possessions; he shall help you even in that ungrudgingly. The nexus between religious preachers and possessors of power brought forth jails, gallows, knouts and these theories.
I ask why your omnipotent God does not stop every person when he is committing any sin or offence? He can do it quite easily. Why did he not kill warlords or kill the fury of war in them and thus avoid the catastrophe hurled down on the head of humanity by the Great War? Why does he not produce a sentiment in the minds of the British people to liberate India? Why does he not infuse altruistic enthusiasm in the hearts of all capitalists to forgo their rights of personal possessions of means of production and thus redeem the whole labouring community, nay the whole human society from the bondage of capitalism. You want to reason out the practicability of the socialist theory, I leave it for your Almighty to enforce it. People recognise the merits of socialism in as much as general welfare is concerned. They oppose it under the pretext of it being impracticable. Let the Almighty step in and arrange everything in an orderly fashion. Now don’t try to advance roundabout arguments, they are out of order. Let me tell you, British rule is here not because God wills it but because they possess power and we do not dare to oppose them. It is not with the help of God that they are keeping us under their subjection but with that of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and it is because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin against society—the outrageous exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is he doing? Is he enjoying all these woes of the human race? A Nero; a Changez: down with him.