Bhagat Singh and Atheism
By Bipan Chandra
Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantist and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilize for their own politics and ideologies the name of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.
Bhagat Singh died young at the age of 23. His political thought and practice started evolving very early when he made a quick transition from Gandhian nationalism to revolutionary terrorism. But already by 1927-28 he began to move from revolutionary terrorism to Marxism. During the year s 1925 to 1928, Bhagat Singh read voraciously, devouring in particular books on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, even though getting hold of such books was in itself at the time a revolutionary and difficult task. In the 1920s, Bhagat Singh was one of the most well-read persons in India on revolutionary movements, anarchism and Marxism. He also tried to inculcate the reading and thinking habit among his fellow revolutionaries and younger comrades. He asserted during his trial before the Lahore High Court that “the sword of revolution is sharpened at the whetstone of thought”. Already by the end of 1928, he and his comrades had accepted socialism as the final object of their activities and changed the name of their organization from the Hindustan Republican Association to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.
From now on, before his arrest in June 1929 and after, Bhagat Singh’s furious march towards the acquisition and mastery of Marxism continued unabated. In the process, he brought under critical scrutiny all contemporary views, including his own, regarding the nationalist movement, the character of the contemporary worldwide revolutionary process, anarchism, socialism, violence and non-violence, revolutionary terrorism, religion, communalism, older revolutionaries and contemporary nationalists, etc.
It is one of the greatest tragedies of our people that this giant of a brain was brought to a stop so early by the colonial authorities. In this small pamphlet* are brought before the reader two relatively unknown articles written by Bhagat Singh in jail during 1930-31, while he was awaiting the action of the gallows. In these articles, as in numerous other letters, statements and articles, he clearly emerges as a revolutionary fully committed to Marxism and capable of applying it with the full complexity of its method.
In the first article, Bhagat Singh deals with religion and atheism. He traces his own path to atheism though influenced in early childhood by religion and later by the early revolutionary terrorists such as Sachindra Nath Sanyal, whose book Bandi Jivan was a basic textbook for all revolutionaries during the 1920s. These early revolutionaries relied upon religion and mysticism to acquire the spiritual strength they revealed in their immensely courageous activities. In this article, as also in the second, Bhagat Singh shows full understanding of the approach and viewpoint of the early revolutionaries and traces the source of their religiosity. He points out that in the absence of a scientific understanding of their own political activity, they needed irrational religious beliefs and mysticism to sustain themselves spiritually, to struggle against personal temptation, to overcome depression, to be able to sacrifice their physical comforts, families and even life. When one is constantly willing to risk one’s life and make all other sacrifices, a person requires deep sources of inspiration. This necessary need was, in the case of early revolutionary terrorists, met by mysticism and religion.1 But these were no longer necessary as sources of inspiration for those who understood the nature of their activity, who had advanced to a revolutionary ideology, who could struggle against oppression without artificial spiritual crutches, who could confidently and without fear mount the gallows without requiring the consolation and comfort of `eternal’ salvation, who fought for freedom and emancipation of the oppressed because they “could not do otherwise”.
Bhagat Singh was himself at the time waiting for the noose to fall around his neck. He knew that at such a moment it was easy to take recourse to God. “In God man can W d very strong consolation and support”. On the other hand, to depend on one’s own inner strength was not easy. As he put it: “To stand upon one’s own legs amid storms and hurricanes is not a child’s play”. He also knew that the task required immense moral strength and that the modern revolutionaries were following a moral path of a unique nature. This path led one to devote oneself to ” the service of mankind and emancipation of the suffering humanity”. This was the path followed by men and women who dared “to challenge the oppressors, exploiters, and tyrants” and who, opposing “mental stagnation”, insisted on thinking for themselves. As Bhagat Singh further put it: “Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary”.
Bhagat Singh points out that it is not easy to live the life of a reasoning person. It is easy to take consolation or relief from blind faith. But it is our duty to try ceaselessly to live the life of reason. And that is why Bhagat Singh asserts at the end of the essay that by proclaiming himself an atheist and a realist (materialist) he was “trying to stand like a man with an erect head to the last; even on the gallows”.
In Bhagat Singh’s analysis of religion and its basic causation, we get a glimpse of his powerful intellect, his revolutionary commitment and his capacity to think in a historical, materialist and scientific manner.
Religion, he notes, is not merely created by the ruling and exploiting classes to decieve the people, to legitimize their class privileges and power, and to keep the people socially quiet, though it also serves that purpose in real life and therefore it becomes an ally and instrument of these classes. But religion is much more the consequence of the inability of the primitive man to fully understand his natural environment, to understand his own social activity and social organization, and to control his own life and overcome its limitations. God then becomes a useful myth. This myth was “useful to the society in the primitive age”.
Moreover, “the idea of God is helpful to man in distress”. God and religion enabled the helpless individual to face life with courage. “God was brought into imaginary existence to encourage man to face boldl all the trying circumstances, to meet all dangers manfully and to check and restrain his outbursts in prosperity and affluence”. “Belief softens the hardships, even can make them pleasant. In God man can find very strong consolation and support”. Thus, to the distressed, the betrayed and the helpless, God serves as “a father mother, sister and brother, friend and helper” 2
But, says Bhagat Singh, when science has grown and when the oppressed begin to struggle for their self-emancipation, when ” man tries to stand on his own legs and become a realist (Bhagat Singh uses this word in place of rationalist and materialist)”, the need for God
, this artificial crutch, this imaginary saviour comes to an end. In this struggle for self-emancipation, it becomes necessary to fight against “the narrow conception of religion” as also against the belief in God. “Any man who stands for progress”, says Bhagat Singh, “has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith. Item by item he has to reason out every nook and corner of the prevailing faith A man who claims to be a realist has to challenge the whole of the ancient faith the first thing for him is to shatter the whole down and clear a space for the erection of a new philosophy” .
Bhagat Singh’s sympathetic though critical understanding of his predecessors, his capacity to place philosophic and political approaches and ideas in a historical setting, and his basic Marxist reasoning also emerge clearly in his discussion of several other issues.
In the second essay, An Introduction to The Dreamland, the poetical work of the old revolutionary Lala Ram Saran Das, sentenced to transportation for life in 1915, Bhagat Singh indirectly traces the change from the earlier `pure’ nationalism, based on the single idea of overthrowing foreign domination, to a nationalism that was simultaneously committed to the total reconstitution of the existing social order. Writing more like a poet than a political-philosophical commentator, Bhagat Singh first establishes his own generation’s continuity with the old revolutionaries from whom it imbibed the spirit of nationalism, love of the people and the capacity to sacrifice. He then brings out his philosophical, political and ideological differences with them.
In the very beginning of the essay, he brings out, as already discussed in an earlier section of this introduction, the difference between their reliance on mysticism and religiosity for inspiration and his own firm commitment to materialism, reason and science.
He also deals with the contemporary and complex and vexed question of violence and non-violence. Going to the heart of the matter, he describes how the revolutionaries want to build a social order from which violence in all its forms will be eliminated, in which reason and justice will prevail and all questions will be settled by argument and education. But this is precisely what imperialists, capitalists and other exploiters will not permit. Instead, they mercilessly suppress any effort to evolve socialism through education of the people and by peaceful methods. Hence, revolutionaries have to adopt violence as ” a necessary item of their programme”. The entire question is brilliantly summed up when Bhagat Singh says that the revolutionaries “have to resort to violent means as a terrible necessity”. Once socialist power is established, methods of education and persuasion would be employed to develop society; force would be used only to remove the obstacles.
In his essay on Atheism also he had put the issue in the same way. The new generation of revolutionaries had replaced “the Romance of the violent methods alone which was so prominent amongst our predecessors”, and had come to believe that the “use of force (was) justifiable when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity”, while “non-violence as policy (was) indispensable for all mass movements”. Thus the revolutionaries do not glorify violence; revolution is not based on the cult of violence. At the same time, revolutionaries do not shun the necessary violence. Where history and the ruling classes force upon them, they take recourse to it as a “terrible necessity” in order to overthrow the existing social order.
Bhagat Singh simultaneously sees the utopian character of much of early revolutionary thinking, the positive historic role that utopians play in certain stages of social movements and social development, and the inevitable decline of utopias once the revolutionary movement starts acquiring a scientific outlook and philosophy on the basis of “scientific Marxian Socialism”:
Bhagat Singh deals at length with one aspect of utopian thought: How to combine mental and physical labour? He accepts that elimination of the gap between the two is basic to the building of a socialist society. But this elimination, he feels, cannot be brought about by mechanical and utopian means suggested by Ram Saran Das such as making all mental workers do physical and mental labour for 4 hours a day: The nature of physical and mental labour is different. The root of the problem lies in the existing inequality between the two. The answer lies in treating both as productive labour and opposing the notion that mental workers are superior to manual workers.
Lastly, Bhagat Singh was a critical revolutionary in the best traditions of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Asking young men to read The Dreamland, he warns: “Do not read it to follow blindly and take for granted what is written in it. Read it, criticise it, think over it, and try to formulate your own ideas with its help”.
*Bhagat Singh, Why I am an Atheist and An Introduction to the Dreamland, Delhi, 1979.
1Though not directly brought out by Bhagat Singh in these essays, they help clarify one other important aspect-that of the difference between religion as a source of nationalist inspiration and communalism. The early revolutionaries took to religion and mysticism for inspiration and ideology, but they were not communalists. To them, religion was a source of inner strength and not the basis of their politics. It inspired them to become fighters for national liberation of all Indian people and not organisers of communal politics spouting hate against other sections of Indian people. While their religious and mystical beliefs led them to fight against imperialism, the communalists were often pro-imperialism subjectively and invariably served imperialism objectively by dividing the united Indian people and turning the edge of their politics against other Indians and not against imperialism.
2How close is young Bhagat Singh to the thinking of young Marx. This is what Marx wrote in 1844: “Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanctions its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness”. Collected Works, Vol. III, 1975, pp. 175-6. Even though Bhagat Singh could not have read this passage, he understood better than most others what Marx meant when he described religion as “the opium of the people”.
Source: Excerpted from the book Ideology and politics in Modern India,
Har-anand Publications, 364-A, Chirag Delhi, New Delhi-110 017