S Irfan Habib
March 28, 2014

That Bhagat Singh was a thinker and an ideologue of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association is an accepted fact now. Inspired by the philosophers and thinkers he read during his incarceration between 1929 and 1931, he stood for change in governance.

His prison notebook brings to light his reading habits and the wide range of his selection of authors including Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Upton Sinclair, Lenin, W Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Umar Khaiyyam, Rabindranath Tagore, Bukharin, Hobbes, John Locke, Spinoza, Mark Twain, Leon Trotsky and several others. A mere perusal of his prison notebook is an indicator of his amazing choice, which ranged from poetry, fiction, philosophy, history and politics to economics. It was after this intense reading that he concluded “the sword of revolution is sharpened at the whetstone of thought”.

It was not easy to get hold of these books in prison because many of them were proscribed. Whenever his friends went to see him in jail, Singh handed over a list of books he needed. On a page with Alfred Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, we find below on the same page a few Urdu couplets written in his own handwriting.

Singh was also inspired and motivated by 18th-19th century American intellectuals and activists fighting oppression and slavery. He read Patrick Henry, Robert Ingersoll, James Lowell, Wendell Philips, Thomas Jefferson and an American socialist leader Eugene Debs and many others.

Engaging seriously with the subject of morality and religion he took copious notes from several philosophers who wrote on these issues. Agreeing with Bertrand Russell that religion is “a disease born of fear, and a source of untold misery to the human race” he wrote in his Why I am an Atheist that “Rebellion against King is always a sin according to every religion”. On morality he quotes an American statesman Horace Greeley, who said: “Morality and religion are but words to him who fishes in gutters for the means of sustaining life, and crouches behind barrels in the street for shelter from the cutting blasts of a winter night”.

This in short is the essence of his legacy. Celebrating him every year merely as martyr is not enough.

S Irfan Habib holds the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal

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