His youth. His heroism. His unflinching, even welcoming, acceptance of the price he would pay for his thoughts and deeds. The amazing clarity and depth of his thoughts. All this and more have ensured that his memory, unlike that of many others, has not become one that is brought out of mental recesses once a year to be dusted and placed on a pedestal for a few hours of remembrance. His memory retains a brightness and sense of close proximity and each generation of young men and women discovers him with a sense of excitement and veneration.
The dimensions of Bhagat Singh’s thought and the depth of his understanding of social, ideological and political issues are amazing. His young companion, Shiv Verma, recalled never having seen him without a book in his hand. Every free moment would find him devouring books. He would absorb new ideas and then discuss them animatedly with his comrades. His reading not only strengthened his political understanding and commitment, it also wrought very basic changes in his outlook.
In his seminal work written in jail, “Why I am an Atheist”, Bhagat Singh writes: “I studied Bakunin, the Anarchist leader, something of Marx, the father of Communism and much of Lenin, Trotsky and others, the men who had successfully carried out a revolution in their country. They were all atheists…By the end of 1926 I had been convinced as to the baselessness of the theory of existence of an almighty supreme being who created, guided and controlled the universe… I had become a pronounced atheist.”
Bhagat Singh’s studies not only made him an atheist but an ardent socialist as well. At a meeting of the leading members of his organization in December, 1928, after much discussion initiated by him, its name was changed to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. This reflected how his definition of freedom now encompassed the establishment of a Socialist state in free India. He also recognized the importance of combatting casteism and communalism in order to achieve this.
In the June 1928 issue of the periodical, ‘Kirti’, he published two articles, ‘Achhoot ka Sawaal’ (The Question of Untouchability) and ‘Sampradayik Dange aur unka Ilaj’ (Communal Riots and Their Solution). In the first article, he wrote “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…We claim to be a spiritual country but hesitate to accept the equality of all human beings…We whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India. Given our conduct, do we really have any right to complain about such matters?” He went on to say “If you (upper castes) treat them (untouchables) worse 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.” What resonance these words have in India today.
In the second article, he castigates the leaders of the national movement for compromising with the communal forces whom he identified as the Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim fundamentalists like the Tableeghis.
Despite the clarity of Bhagat Singh’s thoughts and the fact that he wrote extensively about them, attempts have been made to distort them. In an early film made by Manoj Kumar who also acted as Bhagat Singh, he was shown singing “Mera rang de basanti chola” as he walked to the gallows. This was a complete falsehood. All eyewitness reports confirm that Bhagat Singh and his two comrades shouted “Inquilab Zindabad” as they confronted death.
The song in question has very strong political undertones. It resonates strongly with a mythic historical ‘fact’ that is repeated ad nauseam in various’ histories’ of medieval India. According to this, Rajput soldiers would tie saffron scarfs around their heads when they rode out in suicide squads against various marauding Muslim armies. It is interesting that a more recent and extremely popular film that intercuts authentic incidents from the lives of Bhagat Singh and his companions with the those of a group of young men who try to emulate them was named “Rang de Basanti” (Colour It Saffron).
Bhagat Singh’s writings and courageous opposition to colonial rule, so different from the abject apology tendered by Savarkar to the British Government whose loyal subject he remained for as long as they ruled India, are proof of the chasm that separates him from the ideology of the Sangh Parivar.
At a time when contesting narratives of the freedom movement are making their presence felt more strongly than ever in the political arena, it is essential to remove the saffron scarf that has posthumously been placed around Bhagat Singh’s proud and unbowed head.