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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 24, June 10, 2023

Bhagat Singh And His Religiosity | Sahastranshu Pandey

Friday 9 June 2023


23 March 1931.

It has been ninety-two years since Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Bhagat Singh were martyred. Today, we all know about Shaheed Bhagat Singh, popularly known as Shaheed-e-Azam. But I believe, he is one of our country’s most misunderstood and misrepresented freedom fighters. When one hears the name ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh’, many associate it with words like weapons and violence, many people use his photo as their profile picture, and if you ask someone to act like Shaheed Bhagat Singh, they will play with their moustaches and fire finger guns. But few have tried to actually read all that he wrote and understand his opinions, ideas, and ideologies. 

The 24-year-old Bhagat Singh was a fierce intellectual. Some of his thoughts summarise the nature of his ideology which is opposite to what the world thinks he was. ‘Bombs and pistols cannot bring revolution. Revolution’s sword is sharpened on thoughts’. [1] But when do people talk about ideas and ideologies today? People are happy to project an intellectual revolutionary as a trigger-happy rebel. 

BHAGAT SINGH’S EMERGENCE as a youth icon and revolutionary who built a totally different kind of ‘the cult of freedom fighters’ [2] during the national movements, is a matter of great study. Marx, Trotsky and Lenin’s ideology influenced Bhagat Singh’s political philosophy. He spent a lot of time exploring and analysing the history of various groups and revolutionaries. The way he divides religion into its three aspects — religious philosophy, religion, and rituals of religion — was another predictor of his belief about the role of religion in society.

Many historians have studied Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s belief in religion through the lens of popular ideas that were rooted in a deep understanding of the social and political expression of religion. This article tries to provide an overview of Bhagat Singh from the perspective of historians such as Dinesh Kumar, Irfan Habib and all those who did not consider him a violent revolutionary and instead attempted to define his politics. This analysis also attempts to throw some light on Bhagat Singh’s religious ideology based on his writing, Why I’m an Atheist?

Bhagat Singh’s Religiosity 

If you oppose a prevailing belief, if you criticize a great person who is considered to be an incarnation, you will find that your criticism will be answered by calling you vain and egoist. [3]

 Bhagat Singh (Why I am an Atheist)

A revolutionary socialist and independence fighter, Bhagat Singh was one of the country’s early converts to Marxism. Unfortunately, as not much was known about him when he was alive, a wide range of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have mistakenly and dishonestly attempted to use the names of Bhagat Singh and his allies, including Chandra Shekhar Azad, for their own politics and purpose.

The way he defines and provides a rationale for divinity and religion in his writings, like Why I am an Atheist, presents the picture of a young revolutionary tormented by greater philosophical and theological questions. Witnessing the imperialist’s intolerable cruelty towards his countrymen makes Bhagat Singh assert, God did not create man. It is the man that created God.

In the prologue of Atheist, Bhagat Singh elucidates that his atheism is not the result of vanity. In response to what he witnessed in his milieu and community, he rejects the existence of an all-mighty God. He asserts that atheism cannot result from vanity, because the notions contradict one another. In the grip of vanity, a person might declare himself to be a deity or believe that he possesses godlike qualities. According to Bhagat Singh, a vane person cannot be an atheist. There are theists who believe in supernatural powers that control the universe.

He says, ‘This is my own, and that a stranger’ is the calculation of the narrow-minded. For the magnanimous hearts, however, the entire earth is a family. There is a famous phrase in Mahaupanishad and Rig Veda, called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The whole world is one family.

Internationalism is an ideology in which Shaheed Bhagat Singh strongly believed. He wrote an article, titled, Vishwa Prem [4] (Love the World), published in a magazine from Calcutta, Matwala, in 1924. How great is the idea, ‘Let everyone be your own, and no one is a stranger’? How beautiful will that time be when unfamiliarity does not remain in the world? In this article, he praises the poet who envisioned the world as one family.

In June 1927, Bhagat Singh wrote an article on Religious Riots and their Solutions, [5] where he talks about Egalitarianism. The world’s poor people, irrespective of ethnicity, race, religion or country, should have the same rights... discrimination based on religion, colour, race, and origin should stop where the power of the government is with the people. This brings us to yet another ideological concept that influenced Bhagat Singh, Secularism.

Bhagat Singh & Secularism 

Dinesh Kumar’s study, the Religious Philosophy of Bhagat Singh, notes that in one Naujawan Bharat Sabha meeting in 1926 at Lahore, Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries openly voiced their opposition to any appeasement of all religions and brushed aside slogans like Allahho Akbar, Sat Sri Akal and Bande Mataram to state their secular values. Nirmal Singh explains Bhagat Singh’s ideology as, ‘For him, religion was a private affair of a person, which had nothing to do with the person’s political activities’, in keeping with his and his associates’ socialist perspective towards religion.

In India, from the early days of the national freedom movement, secularism has been handled in two extreme ways. Mahatma Gandhi was promoting an Indian version of secularism, where the government would promote religion but would be impartial to it. This policy gave rise to considerable contradiction and it provided opportunities for religious one-upmanship and competition. If any religion is accorded undue importance by any government and promoted (or like the Congress governments did in independent India, encouraging all religions and calling themselves secular), it would be very difficult to convince people that these governments were impartial to all religions. As we see today, this leniency towards religions has resulted in the rise of religious fundamentalism and a religious divide, creating dominant and minority communities.

Bhagat Singh and his group believed in the French version of secularism, where the government needs to keep a distance from religion, and this is specified in the French definition of secularism. The government should not have any stake in any religion because religion is a personal affair of an individual. Here the government does not identify a person by religion, nor are affirmative actions taken on grounds of religion. The government claims to have an egalitarian perspective and as such, government action is based on the socio-economic status of the citizen.

In Religious Philosophy of Bhagat Singh, Dinesh Kumar describes Bhagat Singh’s journey as a recognised national hero, saying that his ideas were rooted in a deep understanding of then colonial India’s social and political realities. This historian argues that Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary and he and his associates adopted violence only as a tool. Their motive was not to encourage people to be violent.

On 8 April 1929, two young men, B K Dutt and Bhagat Singh, threw two bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly ‘to make the deaf hear’, as was written on the leaflets they had distributed in the assembly before the attack. Bhagat Singh indicated that this deed was part of a broader strategy. They were protesting against the Public Safety and Trade Disputes Bill that the colonial masters were attempting to legalise. If passed by the assembly, it would have penalised Indian labourers. This attack was also intended to show up how the British-Indian government tried to portray the central assembly (as it was called then) as a British accomplice.

Finally, the attack on John Saunders, sought revenge for Lajpat Rai’s killing. Saunders was not the actual target and was mistakenly killed as part of a plot to kill the police chief responsible for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. Dinesh Kumar links Bhagat Singh’s actions to socialist and anarchist ideologies, equally. At the same time, he credits Bhagat Singh with religiosity, an attribute, which in India, does not subscribe to any violence. Kumar also calls Bhagat Singh a great ‘intellectual’, which again reads like a post-independence attempt at deification. The reality was, Bhagat Singh and his group were relatively unknown during their lifetime.

Bhagat Singh and Satyagraha

The contemporary reaction to the assembly attack and Saunders killing differs substantially from the adulation that later surfaced. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha, which had organised the Lahore protest march along with the HSRA, found that attendance at its subsequent public meetings dropped sharply. Bhagat Singh’s popularity did not surge until the hunger strike in 1929. [When he was in Mianwali Jail, Bhagat Singh with his inmates went on an indefinit hunger strike for 112 days, one of the world’s longest hunger strikes at that time, to protest against the treatment of prisoners. They demanded that they be recognised as ‘political prisoners’ and not criminals.’ This was in 1931.] It is difficult to decide whether the fame Bhagat Singh accrued was due to his own actions or because of adopting Gandhiji’s romanticised approach to Satyagraha or non-violence.

 Neeti Nair’s Bhagat Singh as ’Satyagrahi’: The Limits to Non-violence in Late Colonial India [6] argues that Bhagat Singh and his comrades became national heroes, not after their murder of a police inspector in Lahore or after throwing bombs in the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi, but during their practice of hunger strikes and non-violent civil disobedience within the walls of Lahore’s prisons in 1929-30.

Bhagat Singh, the Socialist

Bhagat Singh religiosity can be studied from the perspectives of Irfan Habib, Nirmal Singh and Pankaj Srivastava, whose article, religious freedom: Unreasonable Attack on Reason, [7] asks the question, ‘Is it possible to be an atheist in a country which blindly follows religion?’

Bhagat Singh was a progressive thinker who brought up several societal and communal concerns through his own in-depth analysis. His article, Why I am an Atheist, revealed his premise, which was perhaps inspired by Emmanuel Kant’s Enlightenment — that people should be rational while practising religion. ‘Any man who stands for progress has to criticise, disbelieve, and challenge every article of the old faith’, Bhagat Singh said, making it clear that the lack of scientific knowledge had led to the development of irrational religious beliefs and that as a result, people needed to recognise their procedural religiosity and endorse it.

Nirmal Singh’s ‘Bhagat Singh and his Ideas’ [8] mentions that Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice changed the face of the romantic revolutionary movement to the realistic one. His vision can be seen in his ideas on revolution, socialism, violence, religion and way of life. Imperialists and their followers called him a terrorist and anarchist. Bhagat Singh’s rejection of religion complimented his socialist criticism of two systems of oppression — capitalism and casteism. Before that, Indian revolutionaries had only targeted capitalism and colonialism. Bhagat Singh and Bhagwati Charan Bohra focused on this while writing the Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha [9] (Young India Association) and asked, ‘We Indians; What are we doing? Hindu religious sentiments are hurt when a branch of a tree is cut. If the paper Taaziya’s corner is broken, Allah is infuriated. Shouldn’t humans be more valuable than animals? But still, in India, people are killing each other in the name of “holy animals”’.

Bhagat Singh said that if God had made this world, why was there so much injustice, pain, and suffering? According to him, the theory of jurisprudence where ‘people are punished for the crimes of their past lives and revenge as justice’ are very outdated ideas. At the same time, the Theory of Punishment ‘where someone is punished for their wrongdoings’ is also an ideology that is being slowly eradicated from the world. He predicted that the theory of Reformative Action was being gradually accepted in the world. The reformative theory says that if someone has wronged someone, he should be made to understand how wrong he has been and given the opportunity to reform into a righteous citizen, this was necessary for human progress. Bhagat Singh asks, if God converts a person into a cow, cat, or dog in his next life, how will the person be able to reform himself? Or if he is born into a low-income family in the next life, how can he stop his oppression?

Shaheed Bhagat Singh contends, as indicated by S Irfan Habib in his Inquilab: Bhagat Singh on Religion and Revolution, [10]contends that Bhagat Singh argued that if religion entails blind trust by fusing rituals and philosophy, it must be abandoned without hesitation for the benefit of society. On the other hand, if religion is integrated with philosophy and the fundamentals, it might have relevance for humanity, Bhagat Singh conceded. He advocated use of the ritualistic part of any religion to unify, where these rituals have always been a dividing factor and used as a tool by foreign rulers. And nowhere can it be argued that the religiosity of Bhagat Singh was contrary to society’s own social construct, where ‘all of us being one and none is the other’ is the leitmotif.


In today’s world, where people call themselves nationalists, they stoop to jingoism. Jingoism is a word that depicts an extreme form of nationalism, where one stops trying to improve one’s country and is instead focused on humiliating others. The hostility between India and Pakistan now is nothing compared to the animosity between France and Germany. And between America and Japan, when Bhagat Singh was alive. Bhagat Singh dreamt of a day when France and Germany would not fight each other. Instead, trade with each other. That day would be called the Zenith of Progress. A day when America and Japan will both exist but not fight each other, a day when the British and Indians will live, but neither will rule over the other.

Trying to ensure that a country’s institutions uphold democratic values and avert majority authoritarianism are the two significant hurdles currently confronting the world. The group that creates laws ultimately has the authority to disobey them. Fear of social and cultural tyranny, with an attempt to muzzle minority voices and impose regimentation of ideas and values, coexists with the apprehension of political despotism by the majority. In Bhagat Singh’s view, religion is not the solution to our problems, and we cannot achieve our life’s aim through religion. The Left celebrates his socialist ideology, the Right his patriotism and nationalism and Bhagat Singh is a symbol of something for everyone.

One has to think against religion to overcome or break the illogical web religion weaves and Bhagat Singh always advocated keeping religion separate from politics and other philosophies of life. He thought, and rightly so, the practice of different religious ideas will lead to differences among people that will culminate in infractions in people’s thinking. He believed that the fight for social change in India will continue not only till the ‘white masters’ were removed from power, but ‘brown masters’ were also removed from the throne.

(Author: Sahastranshu Pandey is a Scholar at the Nalsar University Of Law)


[1A M et al. (2022). A visionary way ahead of his time, Tehelka.

[2Kumar D D (2020). Religious philosophy of Bhagat Singh, International Journal of Humanities and Education Development (IJHED).

[3Singh B (1930). Why I am an Atheist.{

[4Singh, B (1924) 4.1 Vishwa Prem an article written in Hindi under pen name of Balwant Singh published in Matwala (Calcutta) in Nov 1924., Shaheed Bhagat Singh authentic information.{

[5Singh, B. (1927) Religious riots and their solutions, Leaflet.

[6Nair N (2009) Bhagat Singh as ’Satyagrahi’: The Limits to Non-Violence in Late Colonial India. Available at:

[7Srivastava P (2015) Religious freedom: Unreasonable attack on reason, Governance Now.{

[8Singh N (2009) Bhagat Singh and his ideas.{

[9Vohra B C (1928) Manifesto of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Punjab,The Anarchist Library.

[10Habib I (no date) Book review: Irfan Habib (ed.), Inquilab: Bhagat Singh on Religion and Revolution

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