I was a young child in the early 1960s watching the sunny afternoon street that ran past the amaltas tree in front of the house when I was told that it was March 23, the anniversary of the hanging of Bhagat Singh. I did not quite know what a hanging meant but I still remember the nameless and haunting dread that suddenly took over that careless afternoon. A second childhood memory recalls a 1965 front page photograph of the garlanded body of Batukeshwar Dutt, one of Bhagat Singh’s closest associates, under a banner headline: “Batukeshwar Dutt Dead”. I had the impression that he had lived into hoary old age after being awarded life imprisonment. I now realise he was only in his mid-fifties when he died. All this was before the legend of the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev was emblazoned emphatically in public consciousness by Manoj Kumar’s superb Shaheed , a film which should be made compulsory watching for every Indian school student.
This year, the first two major newspapers I scanned on March 23 only mentioned Bhagat Singh by way of two government-sponsored advertisements and quite another Dutt dominated the news columns. Mercifully the third newspaper — the one in Punjabi being read by my driver — rescued me from the precipitous edge of cynicism: it carried a front page essay on the revolutionary.
Not only was Bhagat Singh a fearless patriot and one of the most charismatic figures of India’s freedom struggle, he was also a thinker and an intellectual giant in the making when the gallows took him at the young age of 23. Immersed in books from the Dwarka Das Library founded by Lala Lajpat Rai since his childhood, he had given a strong intellectual underpinning and political philosophy, strongly influenced by Marxist-Socialism, to his actions. His wide reading, his grasp of political ideologies and revolutionary movements sweeping the word and his vision of true revolution in India come through in the statements he made at his trials, his letters and his articles. It is believed that during the two years in jail before his hanging he wrote four books, but these are lost. Thankfully, Bhagat Singh’s selected speeches and writings have been edited by Prof. D.N.Gupta and brought out in a slim volume by the National Book Trust and reading them is one way of paying homage to his courage and conviction.
The most substantive piece in the collection is his essay ‘Why am I an Atheist’. This essay was smuggled out of jail and published by Bhagat Singh’s father after his martyrdom in The People , the magazine founded by Lala Lajpat Rai. Bhagat Singh put down his ideas on God and religion on paper when asked by an old prisoner if believed in God. When he replied in the negative, the old man taunted him that he would start believing when his end was near. Bhagat Singh argues against the insinuation that his atheism is an offshoot of any vanity that may attach to him because of the popularity of the trials; rather, he ascribes his conviction that there is no Supreme Being guiding the affairs of men to his deep study of the Marxist doctrine. As he writes: “My previous faith and convictions underwent a remarkable modification. The romance of the violent methods alone which was so prominent amongst our predecessors was replaced by serious ideas. No more mysticism, no more blind faith. Realism became our cult.”
He stuck to his atheism in the most difficult circumstances even though he knew that “belief softens hardships, even can make them pleasant.” He ascribes the invention of God to “encourage man to face boldly all the trying circumstances, to meet all dangers manfully and to check and restrain his outbursts in prosperity and affluence.” He points to the myriad horrors of social and political exploitation to question the existence of a benevolent God and asks why such a Being would create a world of “woes and miseries, a veritable, eternal combination of numberless tragedies.” His cold rational courage has the feel of steel: “I know the moment the rope is fitted round my neck and rafters removed from under my feet. That will be the final moment — that will be the last moment. I, or to be more precise, my soul, as interpreted in the metaphysical terminology, shall all be finished there. Nothing further. A short life of struggle with no such magnificent end shall in itself be the reward if I have the courage to take it in that light. That is all. 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.”
Similar clear-headed logic and conviction is evident in his statements before the Courts and his letters. He left his home when his father arranged his marriage without his consent and wrote: “My life has already been committed to a noble cause — the cause of freedom of India. For that reason comforts and worldly desires have no attraction in my life.” He was 16. In another amazing letter to the Punjab Governor, he (along with Sukhdev and Rajguru) argues that since they have been accused of waging war against the King and detained as war prisoners they “claim to be shot dead instead of to be hanged....we request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.” He wrote to Sukhdev who was contemplating suicide over life imprisonment that such a step would be cowardice. As for himself he awaited capital punishment, of which he was always certain, as a “beautiful death” saying that “when the fate of a country is being decided, the fate of individuals should be forgotten.”
But that is not the same as saying that a country, once its tryst with destiny is done, should ever forget such individuals.