As religion re-emerges as the faultline of Indian society, could Bhagat Singh's ideas of atheism be a way forward?
Bhagat Singh’s objection to faith and God seemed to be both philosophical as well as springing from the severe religious unrest that he observed around him which marred regular life in 1920s India.
In Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Shadow Lines, the unnamed narrator’s grandmother whom he addresses as ‘Tha'mma’ talks of how as a student in Dhaka, she wanted to join the revolutionary movement that was active in Bengal in the first decade of the 20th century. She talks of revolutionary societies like Jugantar and Anushilan and how a quiet, retiring classmate of hers turned out to be a member of one of them. These societies which were part of the first wave of the revolutionary movement propagated a programme of violent resistance to British rule by assassinating prominent British officials in their bid to state the case for India’s freedom. Highly motivated, secretive and daring, for a time, they caught the imagination of the public. Eventually, the British came down hard on them, sending several to the gallows.
But what remains unsaid is that while these societies were popular and patriotic, they were also characterised by a strong Hindu element in ideology and practice. They drew on the literature of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Swami Vivekananda for inspiration, swore oaths on the Bhagavad Gita and often worshipped arms in the presence of an idol of Goddess Durga. It appears that non-Hindus found virtually no place in the movement.
By contrast, the second wave of the revolutionary movement that grabbed the centre stage from the early 1920s and formed an important of the anti-colonial movement during that entire decade till the execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23, 1931, was distinctly non-religious. While some individual members did observe their faith privately, religion formed no part of the rituals and conduct of the organisation itself. Arguably, in large part, this was on account of the convictions of Bhagat Singh.
In a long essay, Why I am an Atheist, written and completed in 1931, a few days before his hanging, Bhagat Singh laid bare the nature of his lack of faith. In a nuanced and well-argued stance, he traces how his atheism came to be. Clearly, atheism wasn’t part of his childhood. His grandfather was an orthodox Arya Samajist and as a boarder at the DAV School, Lahore, the teenaged Bhagat Singh was in fact given to reciting the Gayatri Mantra several times a day. This habit lapsed in time, but not his faith in God. His close compatriot in revolutionary activities, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, was a fervent believer as well as were some of his other fellow-travellers in the revolutionary movement.
But in spite of keeping such company, by 1926, Bhagat Singh’s faith had lapsed. In his own words, ‘Realism became our cult.’ Atheism seemed to be the outcome of the extensive programme of the reading of revolutionary literature that Bhagat Singh had embarked on in the years prior to his final lapse of faith. And it was atheism that did not waver till his dying day.
"Belief softens the hardships, even can make them pleasant. In God man can find very strong consolation and support," Bhagat Singh states in the essay. But, given that many trials and tribulations lay ahead of him, what is perhaps of interest is how faith did not make a comeback to Bhagat Singh’s life. By his own telling, his first arrest in May 1927 over suspected complicity in the Kakori Case did not send him scurrying to faith. In fact, the police officers who arrested him actually encouraged him to pray, perhaps as a veiled threat of sorts since they probably intended to apply third-degree methods to him. But it didn’t make a dent.
Later, even when his execution was imminent, religious belief remained conspicuous by its absence. Clearly, faith had completely left him leaving no traces behind. Bhagat Singh’s objection to faith and God seemed to be both philosophical as well as springing from the severe religious unrest that he observed around him which marred regular life in 1920s India. This was a matter that Bhagat Singh had also written on prior to 1931.
In an article entitled Religion and National Politics published in the journal Kirti, in May 1928, Bhagat Singh talks of how religion is proving to be a barrier to national unity and preventing people from moving forward in their quest for independence. The practices of social distancing mandated by religious leaders were proving to be a huge obstacle. Equally, religion’s habit of demanding complete submission was in Bhagat Singh’s opinion, weakening individuals, and not helping to build their self-confidence.
Similarly, in another article, Communal Problem and Its Solution, published in the same journal the following month, Bhagat Singh comments darkly on the recent Lahore communal riots. These riots were prompted by the publication of a controversial book called Rangila Rasul by an individual with Arya Samaji persuasions which the Muslim community found offensive. On the other hand, cow slaughter was a sore point with the Hindu community. These differences were then sought to be resolved with daggers and fists. The article castigates the members of all three religious communities (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh) for their inability to keep a cool head in the face of provocation and the political leadership for their inability to play a constructive role. Interestingly, the article also takes to task the press and journalists for instigating communal tension through mischievous headlines and reports. The economic question, Bhagat Singh believes, is at the root of much of the tension and to attempt to solve that problem is to strike at the heart of the matter.
The impression that one gathers when re-reading these articles is that little has changed in close to a hundred years. On the one hand, it is tempting to say that religion has re-emerged as the faultline of Indian society in the last decade. But it appears that a heightened awareness of religious (and caste) differences was never very far away from the surface all along. Hence the inability of people to band together to demand more from elected representatives and the bureaucratic machinery. The nation has meandered along for seven decades riding on the back of some noteworthy achievements, but with most urgent tasks to do with economic matters left undone.
How then can we hope to plot our way forward?
In a country like India, while atheism is bound to have limited appeal, could we hope to make realism our cult? Could the sobering fact of widespread poverty, poor educational accomplishments and our lackadaisical health-care system not to mention the doddering economy and the agricultural crisis force us to look away from our religious and caste differences and concentrate on more compelling matters instead? The distractions that media and political leadership throw at us are not going to go away. It is up to us to look away.
That would perhaps be the greatest tribute to Bhagat Singh.
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