It is the death anniversary today of Bhagat Singh, atheist, secular and socialist freedom fighter.

He was 23 years old when the British in India executed him on March 23 in 1931.

Born in 1907, Bhagat Singh was traumatized by the massacre by the British of innocent people enjoying a day in the park at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh in April, 1919.

He was 12 years old at that time and the incident haunted him for the rest of his life. In 1928 he shot dead John Sanders, a British police officer and threw bombs and leaflets into the house of the Central Legislative Assembly. He was locked up in prison where the thinking revolutionary kept a notebook, published later by LeftWord Books as Jail Notebook and Other Writings.

Professor Chaman Lal, an authority on the romantic revolutionary recalls that Bhagat Singh read a lot of Marx. He acted in plays and had enjoyed watching cinema particularly Charlie Chaplain. He loved to drink milk by the bucket and had always carried an English language dictionary in his pocket.

Today the activities of Bhagat Singh as a brave revolutionary are part of Indian folklore but less is known about his role as a journalist.

Bhagat Singh wrote regularly for Kirti, Arjun and Pratap popular publications in Punjab on a wide range of matters. He wrote on political aspects of the freedom struggle but also about social problems like untouchability and communal politics.

His thoughts were not restricted to organising political battles but also in trying to imagine what society would look like after the British left India. Would India be secular, and would it practice social justice were questions that played on his mind.

A feature written by him is titled sampradayik dange aur unka ilaj on communal riots and its solution. It appeared in June 1928 in Kirti, a journal published from Amritsar by the workers and peasant party.

The writing is a scathing criticism of communal politics.

The condition of India has now become pathetic. The followers of one religion have become bitter enemies of the followers of the other religion. In this situation, God alone knows what will happen to India.

Today India’s future seems extremely bleak. These riots have shamed India at the world stage… the role of communal leaders and newspapers in instigating these riots is shameful. In these times of communal hatred, the leaders of India have decided to remain quiet.

Bhagat Singh had come of age in the 1920s when communalism was violent and widespread amongst the masses. The unity between Hindus and Muslims had fallen apart after the non-cooperation movement of Gandhi was called off in 1922. Kemal Attaturk, father of modern Turkey had dissolved the khilafat movement that had favoured monarchy, was against the British and was supported also by Indian Muslims led by Gandhi.

To fill this political vacuum many communal leaders surfaced. Reports from that time say that hate mongers had roamed the streets, preaching the boycott of Gandhi. Self-styled community leaders had entered slum areas to preach their politics of hate amongst the poor and extremist propaganda against Gandhi had made ordinary citizens suspicious of the freedom struggle.

Many a riot broke out between Hindus and Muslims. In UP alone, there were 91 riots between 1923 and 1927. Muslims lighted the spark with objections to music playing near the mosque in processions led by Hindus. While communal Hindus who had tolerated the slaughter of cows by the British were up in arms against Muslims in urban areas. Bengal suffered when the dominantly Muslim peasantry went on a rampage between 1926 and 1931 destroying records of debts to Hindu moneylenders and attacking places of worship.

This is also the time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded in 1925 and the Tablighi Jamaat was born in 1927 to defend Islam and Muslim rights. The two communal organisations further polarized politics, politicians and journalists, in particular from the Hindi and Urdu press of the time.

Bhagat Singh was deeply saddened at the state of affairs in the country. He wrote that religion should be separated from politics. Religion should stay away from politics because it does not allow people to work together for a common cause. He gave the example of the first war of independence against the British in 1857. When religion was not an issue all Indians had united for the cause of revolution to fight the British then.

This is a beautiful way to cure the malaise of communal violence. Even though we have different religious beliefs, if we separate religion from politics we all can stand together in the matter of politics and national cause. We hope that the true sympathizers of India will think over our solutions and will save India from following the path of self-destruction.

After 1922, Bhagat Singh’s enchantment with Gandhi had worn off and he was attracted to more revolutionary ideas. He was filled with admiration for the Russian revolutionaries, and joined the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in 1928.

He concluded that the root cause of communal violence is probably economic and if there is any solution to communal riots, it can only be achieved through improvement of the economic condition in India. He wanted the poverty stricken labourers and farmers to know that their enemy is the capitalist. The poor of the world too have the same rights. The wellbeing of ordinary citizen is in erasing discrimination based on colour, creed, race, religion and regionalism and in uniting to take the power of government.

Bhagat Singh kept abreast of international affairs by reading voraciously. He was very impressed with the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and very aware that fascism was in competition with communism as a world movement. In the early 1920s the Soviet Union had emerged as the first socialist state in human history under Lenin’s leadership. Meanwhile Mussolini had nursed fascism in the Italian city of Milan in 1919. Later Mussolini’s movement was to inspire the rise of the nationalist NAZI party of Hitler in Germany.

Inspired by events in Russia, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded in1925. Yet all was not well around him, felt Bhagat Singh who blamed some fellow journalists for inciting communal violence.

The profession of journalism was once considered respectable but today it is in a dirty mess. These people write against another community with big bold headlines that provoke constant feelings of hatred and enmity among communities. It is not a stray accusation but one can give numerous examples of communal riots that have taken place after provocation from writings in these newspapers. There are very few reporters who can boast of balance and poise of the mind and heart during these turbulent times.

Bhagat Singh believed that the real duty of newspapers was to educate, to bridge gaps and to build mutual trust…to bring about rapprochement and to advance the cause of a common nationalism. Instead the media does exactly the opposite.

This is the very reason that makes me cry tears of blood when I think of the present day and wonder what will happen to India?

Bhagat Singh posed this question nearly a century ago and we are still not sure of what the answer is.