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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 42, New Delhi, October 3, 2020

On Bhagat Singh’s Birth Anniversary: Revisiting Bhagat Singh’s Sociological Imagination Through the Reading of “Why I am an Atheist” | Naren Singh Rao

Friday 2 October 2020


by Naren Singh Rao

Bhagat Singh is one of the most unique and rarest of revolutionaries who significantly stand out amongst all revolutionists- his predecessors, contemporaries and successors. He did not just go to the gallows as a nationalist revolutionary. Rather, while striving to achieve political transformation, he ardently aspired to bring about deep social revolution by annihilating the retrograde and reactionary societal-cultural practices, ideologies and institutions. Hence, his intellectual and revolutionary legacy continues to inspire the generations to come.

The ruling classes of the post-decolonised India have continued to project Bhagat Singh as a gun-toting, macho-nationalist- an image which was essentially manufactured by the British Empire for the official records in service of its (mis)rule. It is indeed a colossal tragedy that the exploitative forces of communalism and capitalism against whom Bhagat Singh fought so resolutely have, of late, managed to co-opt him within their fold while cunningly eliding his Marxist-socialistic revolutionary beliefs and ideals.

Bhagat Singh was a gifted, young intellectual and a committed writer who passionately wrote on almost all pressing issues of his time. Even after hundred years, all his writings stand out as highly progressive and pertinent texts. They testify to the historical fact that when most of the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle including the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi were merely looking at the immediate enemy- the British Empire, he could very well see beyond the immediate and accordingly addressed the issues and concerns head-on. He presciently informs, “…the struggle of India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”

Bhagat Singh’s most celebrated article “Why I am an Atheist” offers profound insight into his sociological imagination. It points out the significance of reason and logic being informed by scientific-socialism and materialist philosophy. It attests to the fact (which the right-wing forces deviously hide without fail) that all his life Bhagat Singh doggedly refused to believe in any supernatural power and steadfastly believed that God is an invention of a weak human imagination, and religion is nothing more than a weapon of exploitation in the hands of the ruling classes. In fact, he perceptively observes that all ruling classes across societies have utilised the concept of God in pursuance of the exploitation of the ordinary people.

Originally, the article was written for a fellow political worker who levelled a wild charge against Bhagat Singh that his atheism was a product of his excessive vanity and “unnecessary pride’’. On the face of it, the article comes across as a text which questions the existence of God. However, a close reading of it clearly reveals that it is essentially a critique of the idealist philosophy and the exploitative modes of production associated with it.

In the article, Bhagat Singh clinically takes on the outdated, regressive beliefs and value systems existing in society due to prevalence of “blind belief” which, in turn, deprive human beings of their true comprehension power and make them reactionary. He vociferously advocates “rigorous reasoning” guided by scientific thinking which helps in criticising every phenomena of the universe. He firmly says that everything should be questioned under the sun. There must not be anything which is beyond the purview of doubt. Every human being who stands for progress has to think rationally and critically, and hence criticise every tenet of old beliefs in the strongest terms possible. Each belief system has to be critically evaluated with the prism of reason. And any belief which cannot “withstand the onslaught of reason” needs to be outrightly rejected.
Further, Bhagat Singh argues that poverty and caste system are the worst curse in the world. He asks the believers of God – Why did God (if he or she does exist at all) create such systems of oppression against human kind? He lambasts those believers who say that the God has created such systems of oppression to punish those human beings who committed sins in their previous birth. He remarks, “Tell me, has this tomfoolery, perpetrated in the name of punishment, any reformative effect on human man? How many of them have you met who were donkeys in their previous births for having committed any sin? Absolutely no one of this sort! The so called theory of ‘Puranas’ (transmigration) is nothing but a fairy-tale.”

Clearly, the article establishes Bhagat Singh’s fearless character at an individual level. At political level, it points to his firm belief in human agency-driven progressive political and social change. He held that only through resolute will and action, human beings can bring about a change. He notes, “Society must fight against this belief in God as it fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion. In this way man will try to stand on his feet. I don’t think that by strengthening my belief in God and by offering prayers to Him every day, I can bring improvement in my situation, nor can I further deteriorate it.”

Bhagat Singh takes a solid stand against the brahmanical order which has been the ruling force for the longest time. Here, it is important to note that Bhagat Singh was the only prominent freedom strugglers alongside B.R. Ambedkar who exposed and vehemently opposed the brahmanical order. In the article, he meticulously highlights the atrocities committed against the people belonging to the ‘‘lower’’ castes and oppressed communities and categorically holds that these systems are created by the ruling establishments in order to serve their political interests. He observes, “If by chance these poor creatures heard a few words of your sacred books, Vedas, these Brahmans poured melted lead into their ears. If they committed any sin, who was to be held responsible? Who was to bear the brunt? My dear friends, these theories have been coined by the privileged classes. They try to justify the power they have usurped and the riches they have robbed with the help of such theories.”

Indeed, the text of “Why I am an Atheist” proves beyond doubt that Bhagat Singh was deeply influenced by progressive, Marxist politics and accordingly developed his political line and programme. At this critical juncture when India is witnessing acidic, fascistic-communal politics and unabashed display of neo-liberal economics, this article must be read by the public intellectuals, activists and common citizens alike in public and private spheres as often as possible. It is high time when Bhagat Singh’s true politics and ideals were reclaimed and disseminated in every nook and corner of the country. Certainly, this will counter the efforts of the ruling regimes which have deceitfully subverted Bhagat Singh’s true political legacy by projecting him as mere macho jingoist who happily chose to go to the gallows for the cartographic notion of mother India!

(Naren Singh Rao is a Delhi-based media critic, educator and social commentator.)

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