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Ideas for a truly new India, from Bhagat Singh

When agitations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University were at their peak in February, Mohandas Pai, the former Infosys CFO and television expert on all and sundry, waded into the battle with an opinion piece on ndtv.com. Among other things, he sought to connect tax with academics, claiming that he (and by extension all taxpayers) was paying tax to fund students’ studies and not their politics. Stay away from politics altogether seemed to be the advice. Hunker down and hit the books à la Chatur Ramalingam of the movie 3 Idiots was the tone.

In an article titled “Students and Politics” published in the journal Kirti in June 1928, Bhagat Singh argued differently. He, in fact, made the case for student political involvement succinctly and vigorously.

Among the more interesting arguments he made was whether student involvement in welcoming a commission or viceroy, or students volunteering for the army—as had happened in England in World War I—are not political acts.

Juxtaposed against today’s realities, one could pose these questions to Pai too. Would he recommend that students not attend a minister’s speech in their institution or in the event of a war or a national calamity, students not take time off to do national service?

Bhagat Singh—whose 109th birth anniversary was on 28 September—talks of student political involvement also being a way to understand the conditions of the country and figuring out ways to improve things. Surely, that cannot be wrong.

Those speaking against student involvement want students to do some things and stay away from others. "Politics my way or else..."—in the red corner, their opponent is Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

Another important writing by Bhagat Singh that has considerable contemporary resonance is "A Critique of the Indian Revolutionary Movement”. This was an introduction to a book of verse authored by a revolutionary from an earlier phase of the movement, Lala Ram Saran Das.

The book, The Dreamland (1931), attempted to portray an utopia that the poet envisioned through his poetry. Given the theme, Bhagat Singh too, in the course of his introduction, talked about the shape of the society of his dreams. Among the salient points he made were the necessity of equating manual labour with mental labour, ensuring free education and recasting jails as institutions of reform rather than as institutions of punishment.

Given the current belligerent, jingoistic mood in the nation, what he says about war is particularly thought-provoking. Bhagat Singh saw war as an “institution of the transitional period” till an equal society was created on the communist pattern.

That he spoke against going into war motivated by a “primitive national or racial hatred” and instead argued for wars of liberation to give the toiling masses their due, is worth mulling over.

With the benefit of hindsight that one has about communist regimes, it would be easy to dismiss his belief in the ideology. This is just as well. But, can we truly claim that our wars today are not motivated by jingoism of the most puerile kind with “teaching them a lesson” seen as sufficient justification?

The human cost of war is, of course, romanticized as “sacrifice” and “martyrdom”, but it is not counted as being critical in the decision-making process that leads up to war—a state of affairs that Bhagat Singh is unlikely to have endorsed.

“Why I am an Atheist” is Bhagat Singh’s most celebrated piece of writing. A long essay, it discusses his changing attitudes towards religion, belief and the motivation behind these changes.

As someone hailing from a family of strong Arya Samaji persuasions, Bhagat Singh didn’t grow up with atheistic values. His father Ajit Singh, he states, was a believer, as was Bhagat Singh himself for a significant time.

He was even in the habit of mumbling the Gayatri Mantra several times a day. But his reading of Marx, Lenin, Bukanin and Trotsky seems to have led him on the atheist path. He also mentions a book called Common Sense by Niralamba Swami (a mistake, actually—the book was by Soham Swami, Niralamba Swami’s guru).

Common Sense propounded a philosophy of a divinity in all beings and dismissed the idea of a god. This line of thinking seems to have had a powerful effect on Bhagat Singh. While conceding that belief in a supreme being does mitigate hardship, Bhagat Singh clearly enunciates the reasons for his disbelief.

Reason, he says, does not permit him to believe. He finds it difficult to reconcile with the notion of a caring and all-powerful god when there’s poverty in the world. How can there be a god when there is sin?

He cites his belief in Darwinian science to explain the process of creation and even flirted with the Nietzschean notion of man “inventing” god in his own image. When Bhagat Singh wrote this tract, he had already been sentenced to death. But this notwithstanding, he refused to pray for what he believed were selfish reasons. He remained steadfast in denying the presence of a supreme being without bearing ill-will to those who chose to believe.

Three years previously, in an article “Religion and National Politics” published in Kirti in May 1928, Bhagat Singh had articulated his thoughts on this ticklish issue in as articulate a manner as possible given that he was just 20 years old when he wrote it.

Referring to the Tolstoyan division of religion into three parts: essentials, philosophy and rituals, he sought to locate the genesis of religious clashes in the second and third parts, i.e., philosophy and rituals.

Philosophy in Tolstoy’s reckoning dealt with matters related to death, birth, rebirth, origins of the world and so on. It was an area of intense speculation and different religions viewed it differently and their differences in this sphere led to clashes.

Rituals were the nuts and bolts of religion, so to speak. They were practices that people followed in day-to-day lives. Given this situation, competing rituals led to disagreements and clashes. The point is not about who was to be held responsible, it was actually about holding the ritual as an end in itself.

One could perhaps find common ground in the essentials. All religions were remarkably similar in their essentials in Bhagat Singh’s view—they emphasized truth, love and charity. But in their philosophy and rituals, religions diverged and the disagreements that arose became irreconcilable beyond a point.

Given the recent Una incident, another piece that draws our attention is “The Problem of Untouchability”, published in Kirti in June 1928. While castigating Hindu society for its treatment of lower castes, Bhagat Singh makes another important point which is really at the heart of his argument. He talks of India asking for rights from their rulers while unmindfully oppressing those “below” them in social status.

He points out that Indians are vocal in their demand for equal treatment in foreign countries while denying equal treatment to members of certain communities within. In this regard, one could perhaps allude to the outrage on social media and regular media that occurs every time Shah Rukh Khan is held back in a US airport.

The relative silence that accompanies incidents like in Una or the lynching on account of beef-eating only stands out in contrast. It is this kind of hypocrisy that Bhagat Singh sought to draw attention to.

As is evident, his writings haven’t lost their relevance even almost a century later—Bhagat Singh died in 1931. The issues he mentions continue to occupy considerable mind space even today. So, have we, as a nation, not moved on? Is our thinking handicapped by selfish and narrow reasoning?

These are pertinent questions. Could the Bhagat Singh we love to idolize, dress up as and cheer in movies and plays provide us with sufficient impetus to make us think and bring lasting change?

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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