Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary freedom fighter and the evergreen youth icon is one of the names in the history of Indian freedom struggle who—at his young age—registered his presence with a political-ideological sharpness. The echo of his ideas is still heard in the dreams of the youth. His life is not only a story about a 23-year-old young man who was firm on his ideology while embracing the gallows. It is the story of a young man came the conclusion that the fight for social change in India will continue not only till the ‘white masters’ are removed from power, but ‘brown masters’ are also removed from the throne. Social change can be achieved only when real power is transferred to the hand of the working class.
Bhagat Singh was not merely a theorist who was in forefront of every action program, on every front of the struggle. He was also the organiser who treated cadre as a true companion and lived with them. The dream of a fundamental change, for which Bhagat Singh and his generation were willing to sacrifice their lives, is still alive in the eyes of countless youth despite the path being difficult. Today, when the pseudo-nationalists in the country are teaching us lessons of nationalism and exploitation of the public is going on with the same pace, the relevance of Bhagat Singh and his ideology gains even more attention.
No one can deny Bhagat Singh’s contribution to the freedom movement and his popularity, especially among the youth. Due to this reason, even the forces, which are ideologically opposed to his ideas, are trying to appropriate his legacy. They are portraying Bhagat Singh as a symbol of only nationalism and even trying to depart his ideology from his image. At the same time, he is portrayed as a hero who only believed in armed struggle and attempts are being made to disregard his deep understanding about society, his intellect and his clarity about the kind of revolutionary change for which he was working.
In the present times when the popularity of right wing is on the rise and communal venom is being spread in our lives by the ruling party, the ideas of Bhagat Singh and millions of followers of his ideology are challenging the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party. Though the Sangh and its allies cannot contradict the popularity of Bhagat Singh but, recently efforts are being made to link him with the Hindutva brand of nationalism—by imposing the image of a “brave patriot” who made a selfless sacrifice for the nation. He is often portrayed in paintings as a pistol holding terrorist. Yet, his ideas—political and religious—are being ignored as he was a Marxist and self-confessed atheist.
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When violence against minorities and other socially deprived sections Scheduled Castes, Scheduled tribes, Other Backward Classes and women are increasing, his ideas are important. He had appealed to the masses to consider religion a personal issue. He was a bitter and uncompromising enemy of communalism in all its forms.
Secularism was one of the foundations of the belief system of Bhagat Singh. This was reflected in his writings. He understood the danger that communalism posed to Indian society and Indian nationalism more than any other contemporary leader. He considered communalism as big an enemy as colonialism. He was of the strong opinion that religion should be separated from politics. Religion should stay away from politics because it does not allow people to work together for a common cause.
This idea is badly needed in the present times when our ruling party is using religion as a tool for their politics. In fact, secularism mandates the state to maintain a separation from religion, which is a private matter of citizens. If we separate religion from politics, we all can stand together in the matter of politics and national cause despite having different religious beliefs. These were the important principles of the organisations in which he was working. Two of the six rules of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) drafted by Bhagat Singh were: “To have nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas” and “to create the spirit of general toleration among the public considering religion as a matter of personal belief of man and to act upon the same fully.”
One of the less-discussed aspects of Bhagat Singh’s understanding of communalism is his deep understanding of the root cause of communalism. Along with other reasons, he considered economic cause as the root cause for communalism. His ideas on communalism appeared in the Punjabi magazine Kirti in June 1928 in an article, Communal Riots and Its Solution, “The root cause of communal violence is probably economic. During the time of the non-cooperation movement, leaders and reporters made huge sacrifices for the cause of the movement. As a result of these sacrifices, their economic conditions deteriorated considerably. When the non-cooperation movement lost its steam, people lost trust in its leaders, as many of the present “communal leaders” had become economically bankrupt. Whatever happens in the world, money can easily be traced as the reason for that event. This is one of the three key principles of Marxist theories. The rise of “Tablighi” (Sunni Islamic movement urging Muslims to return to primary Sunni Islam) and “Shuddhi” (which urged people to return to the Hindu fold) organisations can be attributed to this principle of Marx and this also happens to be the main reason why we have become so indescribably pathetic.”
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These views are crucial when there is a debate about the struggle against communalism. The anti-people economic policies are primarily responsible for the rise of communal forces led by the RSS. The West is also facing a similar problem where the same policies contributed to the elevation of Trump to power in the USA. Bhagat Singh’s ideas, which had identified the root causes of conditions favourable for the growth of communal forces, hold true even today.
Accordingly, he advocated for a solution, “So if there is any solution to communal riots, it can only be achieved through improvement of economic condition in India. Actually, the economic condition of a common man in India is so bad that anyone can give a quarter of a rupee to another person and offend a third person. When struggling through hunger and suffering, and given an option between doing or dying, people often keep their principles aside and why wouldn’t they? But in present circumstances, changes in economic condition are extremely difficult because the government is foreign, who is least interested in the betterment of economic conditions of people. This is the very reason why people should target and protest against the foreign government until this government changes.”
Bhagat Singh not only criticised the rising nature of communalism in Indian society but had also written on the grave issue of untouchability and caste during the years of the independence struggle. He was also conscious of the need for social justice and overthrowal of the caste system. He linked development to social justice and advocated that without equality of untouchables, a just society cannot be imagined. When there was a proposal in the Congress meeting of 1923 to divide the untouchables amongst Hindu and Muslim missionary organisations, he wrote an article, ‘The question of untouchables', which was published in Kirti in June 1928. In this article, Bhagat Singh sensitively puts forward the situation of untouchables in those times and offered solutions to some extent and concrete suggestions have been made for the progress of the working class by estimating its strengths and limitations.
He was also a critique of some leaders of the freedom movement for their hypocrisy. In this article, he quoted Noor Mohammad to expose this hypocrisy and explained the meaning of real freedom for equality, “If the Hindu society refuses to allow other human beings, fellow creatures to attend public school, and if the president of the local board representing so many lakhs of people in this house refuses to allow his fellows and brothers the elementary human right of having water to drink, what right have they to ask for more rights from the bureaucracy? Before we accuse people coming from other lands, we should see how we ourselves behave toward our own people. How can we ask for greater political rights when we ourselves deny elementary rights of human beings?”
He considered the treatment met by untouchables inhuman, writing, “Just imagine how shameful! Even a dog can sit in our lap, it can also move freely in the kitchen but if a fellow human touches you, your dharma is endangered. The temple is built to worship the God who loves everyone, but if the untouchable goes there, then the temple becomes unholy! God becomes angry! When this is the situation of within, then how does it look good to even struggle for equality with outsiders? Then there is also an extent of ungratefulness in our attitude.” He was a strong believer that deprived sections themselves have to lead their struggle against exploitation based on their own unity and self-reliance. He wrote, “Unite, be self-reliant and then challenge the whole of society. Then you will see no one will dare to deny you your rights. Don’t allow others to deceive you. Don’t expect anything from others.”
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His life will continue to inspire many generations of revolutionaries to defend truth, justice, and freedom even if it costs them their lives. His sacrifice has special relevance to contemporary India, especially at a time when all kinds of communal and casteist forces are attempting to shatter the country’s unity and integrity.
The writer is former All India General Secretary of Students’ Federation of India and now works with the All India Agricultural Workers Union. The views expressed are personal.