S Irfan Habib unveils the revolutionary Bhagat Singh’s literary side

Little is known about the revolutionary nationalists beyond their daring exploits leading to supreme sacrifice for the motherland. All of them were not merely bundles of emotion, ever ready to kill or die for the freedom of India. Quite a few of them were serious thinkers, besides being active revolutionaries. They read voraciously about the world politics and wrote extensively about Indian politics, economy, society and culture. Bhagat Singh, one of the most heroic amongst them, was one such extraordinarily gifted young thinker and writer.

His intellectual legacy needs to be remembered in these troubled times, both in India and Pakistan. He fought most of his battles, intellectual as well as otherwise, in Lahore, till he was hanged on the outskirts of the city. I strongly feel that Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary bequest is our collective memory and should not be divided by political borders.

The body of serious writings, philosophical, thought-provoking and critical, which Bhagat Singh has left behind, would place him in the ranks of Keats and Shelley who died as young. Unfortunately, romantic poetry puts you on a pedestal, whereas hard words, painfully true words, which questions society and systems are too uncomfortable to remember. Bhagat Singh not only set high standards as a great martyr, he also left behind a rich legacy as a journalist who worked for Kirti, Arjun and Pratap, well known papers of their times. Hardly anything is known about his vocation as a scribe and the issues he dealt with in his articles. These focused on the various aspects of the nationalist struggle, combating communalism, untouchability, students and politics, world brotherhood etc. This piece is an attempt to set up Bhagat Singh as a potential role model for the aspiring journos.

Bhagat Singh did not merely wish to free India from colonial bondage but dreamt of independent India, which would be egalitarian and secular. This was reflected in his revolutionary activities as well as in his commitment as a sensitive journalist. I have chosen some of his articles to illustrate his priorities and obligations as a young scribe.

In the June 1928 issue of the Kirti, published from Amritsar, Bhagat Singh wrote two articles titled Achoot ka Sawaal (On Untouchability) and Sampradayik Dange aur unka Ilaj (Communal riots and their solutions). What Bhagat Singh wrote in 1928 appears to be contemporaneous even in 2008, which unfortunately proves how precious little has been done to resolve these questions. In the first piece, Bhagat Singh starts by saying that “our country is unique where six crore citizens are called untouchables and their mere touch defiles the upper castes. Gods get enraged if they enter the temples. It is shameful that such things are being practised in the twentieth century. We claim to be a spiritual country but hesitate to accept equality of all human beings while materialist Europe is talking of revolution since centuries. They had proclaimed equality during the American and French revolutions. However, we are still debating whether the untouchable is entitled for the sacred thread or can he read the Vedas or not. We are chagrined about discrimination against Indians in foreign lands, and whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India. Given our conduct, Bhagat Singh wondered, do we really have any right to complain about such matters?”

He also seriously engaged with the possible solutions to this malaise. The first decision for all of us should be “that we start believing that we all are born equal and our vocation, as well, need not divide us. If someone is born in a sweeper’s family that does not mean that he/she has to continue in the family profession cleaning shit all his life, with no right to participate in any developmental work”.

For him, this discrimination was directly responsible for conversions, which was a burning issue even in the 1920s. Despite his anti-colonialist fervour, he neither spewed venom against the missionaries nor did he instigate Hindus to kill and burn all those who had accepted the new faith. He was rather self-critical when he wrote “If you treat them worst than animals then they will surely join other religions where they will get more rights and will be treated like human beings. In this situation it will be futile to accuse Christianity and Islam of harming Hinduism”. Bhagat Singh was convinced that “no one would be forced or tempted to change faith if the age old inequalities are removed and we sincerely start believing that we are all equal and none is different either due to birth or vocation”. All those who have organized pogroms against the hapless Christians in Orissa should pause to ponder about the views of the revolutionary they claim to revere.

As a young writer, just out of his teens, Bhagat Singh was profoundly stirred by the communal upsurge of the 1920s. Expressing his anguish in the second article, he held some of the political leaders and the press responsible for inciting communalism. He believed that “there were a few sincere leaders, but their voice is easily swept away by the rising wave of communalism. In terms of political leadership, India had gone totally bankrupt”.

Bhagat Singh felt that journalism used to be a noble profession, which had now fallen from grace. Now they give bold and sensational headlines to incite people to kill each other in the name of religion. There were riots at several places simply because the local press behaved irresponsibly and indulged in rabble-rousing through their articles. Not much seems to have changed since Bhagat Singh wrote these lines. He categorically spelt out the duties of journalists and then also accused them of dereliction of duty. He wrote that “the real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness, and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism.Instead, their main objective seems to be spreading ignorance, preaching and propagating sectarianism and chauvinism, communalising people’s minds leading to the destruction of our composite culture and shared heritage”.

Bhagat Singh’s disenchantment needs to be placed in the context of the developments during the 1920s, which included the birth of the RSS and the Tablighi jamaat. Both these communal platforms further polarised the political leadership as well as the press, particularly the Hindi and Urdu press of the times. Its ugly manifestation can be seen today in the emergence of Hindutva in India and the increasing Talibanisation of Pakistan, both of them threats to peace and harmony in their respective nations.

(S Irfan Habib holds Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. His most recent book is To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades)