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Bhagat Singh: Voice of Reason or Dissent?

By Garima Dutt | Last Updated: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 17:42
Garima Dutt

As a literature student when we were studying ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ by Kenyan writers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Micere Mugo at Hansraj College, Delhi University, it was obvious that we discussed Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev and their contribution to India’s struggle for Independence since this significant African protest – play has many parallels with the trial of Bhagat Singh.

Dedan Kimathi was the figurehead of the Mau Mau uprising and the leader of an armed military struggle against the British in Kenya in the 1950s.  Much like Bhagat Singh, he was not seen as a freedom fighter but a miscreant, a terrorist by the British Government.  His eventual capture and execution in 1957 dealt a death blow to the British Colonial Government in Kenya. 

The play, as a response to many colonialist writings, resurrects Kimathi as a man of courage and valour; loved by Kenyan peasants and workers, and brings to life his contribution in the Kenyan freedom struggle.

Our classes were interesting and dense and also made us question the validity of history itself. Dr. Sanjay Kumar who was taking up this play with us stirred a hornet’s nest when we began discussing ‘how history is of the strong and not of the weak.’ We wondered perhaps this was the reason why in our NCERT history textbooks we read more about the ‘moderates’ and less (and only towards the end) about the ‘extremists’ in the chapters pertaining to India’s freedom struggle.  But this debate on history and viewpoint (that I needed to mention here) is actually the stuff for another piece.

The good part of our discussions was that we could debate, we could disagree. Freely.

 Like Kimathi, closer home, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev too have found place in popular culture (along with a handful of other freedom fighters) through books, articles and films – my favourite one being the popular Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’

Today as we commemorate ‘Shaheedi Diwas’ marking 84 years of martyrdom of Bhagat Singh with tributes in real and virtual world flying thick and fact, my mind just cannot stop thinking how we would have treated him if he were alive?

The Bhagat Singh that we have created in our heads with help of selective information, that merely reiterates that he was a young revolutionary and eventually a martyr, contributes next to nothing in helping us know the man or his philosophy.

Out of his many writings that I have read, one of my favourites is ‘Why am I an Atheist.

In the essay, written in response to a charge, that Bhagat Singh’s “lack of belief in the existence of an Omnipresent, Omniscient God is due to (his) arrogant pride and vanity”, he explains why he doesn’t believe in God and talks about his studies in Lenin, Trotsky and Nirlamba Swami etc.; his entire journey through revolution, trials and arrest; and his reasons to be an atheist.

He argues thus, “Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds...First of all we all know what the judgment will be (referring to his trial). It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be! A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hope should I entertain? I know that will be the end when the rope is tightened round my neck and the rafters move from under my feet. To use more precise religious terminology, that will be the moment of utter annihilation. My soul will come to nothing. If I take the courage to take the matter in the light of ‘Reward’, I see that a short life of struggle with no such magnificent end shall itself be my ‘Reward.’ That is all. Without any selfish motive of getting any reward here or in the hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of freedom. I could not act otherwise. The day shall usher in a new era of liberty when a large number of men and women, taking courage from the idea of serving humanity and liberating them from sufferings and distress, decide that there is no alternative before them except devoting their lives for this cause. They will wage a war against their oppressors, tyrants or exploiters, not to become kings, or to gain any reward here or in the next birth or after death in paradise; but to cast off the yoke of slavery, to establish liberty and peace they will tread this perilous, but glorious path.”

This was Bhagat Singh.

The truth is, much to the chagrin of the political parties that are paying homage to his legacy (or perhaps much to their relief for he is now dead), Singh was a dissenter, a staunch atheist and a non-conformist.

I am not sure if Singh and his ideas would have found space in present day India. Like the sham trial that pronounced his death sentence then, he would have been trolled to death on social media or arrested or banned or gagged today.

Clearly, the end would not have been that of a martyr for dissenting voices and a place for them to freely and fearlessly disagree is shrinking in the world’s largest democracy.

Take a look around you and you will find that we are increasingly becoming an intolerant nation. And boy, do we get angry easily!

We have problem with Dr. Binayak Sen, Perumal Murugan, India’s Daughter, AIB Roast, Mahatma Gandhi, Godse, Women, Homosexuals, Social Activists, Minorities, Animal lovers, Majority and/or  just about anyone who could be a potential non-conformist.

Have we lost the will to debate and disagree peacefully? Have we put to rest sense of humour and the ability to look at things from another perspective?  Not fully, but we are getting there. Are we?

The situation is sad. The situation could get scary and violent.

Perhaps the only noble way we could keep alive the memory of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev is by carefully choosing what we need to react to; and by understanding that heterodoxy, non-conformism, difference, protest, disagreements are the life force of a democracy.

This is the true 'Legend of Bhagat Singh' we need to revive and pass it on to our generations to come.

You may care to disagree! :)

PS: One of my colleagues just told me, “Ask any mother, if they would want their child to be like Bhagat Singh and 99% would say ‘No’. You may find it upsetting but truly speaking, he is irrelevant today. If he were alive, we would have called this dissenter, this atheist – a ‘desh-drohi’, the one who is against our idea of India!”

First Published: Monday, March 23, 2015 - 15:16

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