Bhagat Singh's 87th death anniversary: Despite political appropriations, freedom fighter remains youth icon

Bhagat Singh remains one of India's youth icons even 87 years after being hanged. He is also, arguably, one of the most contested revolutionaries of India's Independence movement, where all streams of ideology have tried to appropriate him.

But, in an attempt to make the man a poster boy of their ideology, they have failed to recognise and propagate the values that he stood for. Bhagat at the core was a humanist, a patriot. The two for him were complementary and not contrary.

He grew up seeing abject poverty around himself, exploitation of farmers and workers by the British government and a society divided along the lines of caste and religion. These influences forced him to question the existing state of affairs and search for an alternate model.

File image of Bhagat Singh. PTI

File image of Bhagat Singh. PTI

He was inspired by freedom fighters like Guru Gobind Singh, Shivaji, and Kartar Singh Saraba, and was also impressed by the Russian revolution. He wished to create a cult of self-believing individuals who are ready to work for the cause of mankind.

Bhagat writes in the book 'Why I am An Atheist': "With no selfish motive, or desire to be awarded here or hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of Independence because I could not do otherwise. The day we find a great number of men and women with this psychology, who cannot devote themselves to anything else than the service of mankind and emancipation of the suffering humanity; that day shall inaugurate the era of liberty."

Bhagat and Sukhdev founded the 'Naujawan Bharat Sabha' in Lahore, whose motto was 'to suffer and sacrifice through service'. His message for his co-travellers was not limited to sacrifice and service, rather he urged them to study and to reason.

He writes in the book, "Study was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of my mind. Study to enable yourself to face the arguments advanced by the opposition. Study to arm yourself with arguments in favour of your cult."

The Left-wing celebrates Bhagat as one of its idols, yet the Left-wing extremism as we know it today advocates killing and murder. Bloodshed was not what Bhagat aimed to achieve.

He writes: "We are next to none in our love for humanity. Far from having any malice against any individual, we hold human life sacred beyond words."

He explains what he means by 'revolution': "It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By 'Revolution' we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change."

He is pragmatic enough to realise that 'revolutionaries know better than anybody else that the socialist society cannot be brought about by violent means, but that it should grow and evolve from within'.

Bhagat, in his essay, writes that any man who stands for progress "has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith. Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary".

Those who try to box him in their respective ideologies would benefit well by reading his letter to Sukhdev, while the latter was contemplating suicide. The letter shows that Bhagat is not averse to changing views and evolving his opinions.

He writes, "The things you hated outside have now become essential to you. In the same way, the things I used to support strongly are of no significance to me anymore."

It is also relevant to mention here that Bhagat was influenced by Socialist and Marxist philosophy. But the revolutionary who was martyred at the age of twenty-three concedes that he was not exposed enough to Indian philosophy.

He writes in 'Why I Am an Atheist': "I had the great desire to study the oriental philosophy but I could not get any chance or opportunity to do the same."

In a letter to his father dated 4 October, 1930, Bhagat writes: "My life is not so precious, at least to me... It is not at all worth buying at the cost of my principles."

Bhagat the patriot can best be described in a couplet that was his favourite: "Dil se nikalegi na mar ke bhi watan ki ulfat, meri mitti se bhi khushboo-ae-watan aayegi (Even after my death my love for my motherland will not diminish from my heart. Even my ashes will smell of your greatness and love)." 

The real tribute that we as a nation can pay to him is not by fighting over his ideology but by trying to live up to his ideals.

The author is a senior research fellow at India Foundation.


Updated Date: Mar 23, 2018 11:42 AM

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