Often portrayed as a trigger happy radical, the towering Indian revolutionary should be remembered as a book lover, who continues to inspire many to read even today.
Bhagat Singh was executed for waging war against the British occupation of India in 1931. He believed in an armed resistance for not only a liberated homeland, but to establish a classless and egalitarian society free of human exploitation.
Born in 1907 into a family of dedicated nationalists who were in the forefront of the freedom movement, he was fond of books from a very early age, and gradually acquired knowledge on many issues, such as Communism, atheism and social justice. As one thing leads to another, his reading habit turned him into a sharp essayist.
Moments before being taken to the scaffold to hang for assassinating a police officer, he was reading Reminiscences of Lenin, a memoir of Clara Zetkin, a German political activist, based on her interactions with an icon of the Bolshevik revolution.
Lenin had greatly inspired many other activists who died fighting for India’s freedom. Bhagat Singh therefore wasn’t an exception. What was exceptional in this story though was that he was reading a book before embracing death with conviction and courage. That should be considered as his true legacy.
We have seen enough imaginary paintings with a gun in his hand, but there is a need to show more of his pictures with books. Several attempts have been made by a few artists, but a lot needs to be done to make people see that he was a thinker, and encourage them to read his written work, besides the books he read during his struggle to truly understand his philosophy.
Testimonies from his contemporaries suggest that he spent hours reading, and maintained a library with his comrades. So much so, they fought for the right to be given books and newspapers in jails, setting a stage for the international convention for such services for political prisoners.
This is also necessary to encourage a reading habit among the masses, to defeat ignorance which is the mother of many ills, such as racism and hate. Bhagat Singh has shown us that it is never too late to learn through reading, even in the face of death, to keep our hopes alive and remain in high spirits.
On World Book Day, April 23, let’s remember our hero as a book lover, who is even more relevant in an era of growing censorship and bigotry, shrinking space for dialogue and free thinking, under a growing threat of right wing politics worldwide, especially in his birthplace.
Gurpreet Singh is a journalist