Sardar Bhagat Singh: A shared hero for India and Pakistan?

It is gratifying to hear that Pakistan considers Bhagat Singh a shared hero. While there has always been popular support for him among the people in Pakistan, what is refreshing now is to have a meeting headed by the Chief Secretary of Pakistan’s Punjab province call him a “hero of both India and Pakistan”.

A special man

This is also a crucial moment to think about the possibility of projecting him as a shared hero in the midst of divisive politics, with narrow jingoistic nationalism overtaking everything else. It happened in Pakistan decades ago and now India seems to be following this destructive model. What’s there in Bhagat Singh that can bring India and Pakistan together? Is it his ultimate martyrdom or something more that recommends him as a common hero?

There are a few distinctive attributes in the persona of Bhagat Singh which make him acceptable crossing the limits of nationality, religion and culture. However, I will lay emphasis on his distinctive political and social ideals, which he espoused in his short but eventful life.

Singh is probably the only one from amongst our freedom struggle heroes who can be celebrated by both India and Pakistan. It is possibly because he stood for a non-sectarian and egalitarian world. He never espoused any divisive idea in his short life. And it is possible to make sense of his politics because he left behind a substantial written legacy to engage with. It is rare to find a young man in his early twenties developing the idea of universal brotherhood and articulating it in a detailed article. He imagined a world, in 1924, where “all of us being one and none is the other. It will really be a comforting time when the world will have no strangers.” Singh could imagine such a world several decades ago, while today some of us are busy othering our own people. We do that using the pretext of religion, caste, language or culture. He can be our hero only if we care to go along with his vision where he stressed that we need to “start believing that we all are born equal and our vocation, as well, need not divide us. If someone is born in a sweeper’s family that does not mean that he/she has to continue in the family profession cleaning **** all his life, with no right to participate in any developmental work”.

Singh continued with the same spirit and went on to say something which should be remembered by all in India and Pakistan, if at all we accept him as our shared hero. He emphatically exclaimed: “As long as the words like black and white, civilized and uncivilized, ruler and the ruled, rich and poor, touchable and untouchable, etc. are in vogue where is the scope for universal brotherhood? This can only be preached by free people. The slave India cannot refer to it.” He goes further to appeal, “We will have to campaign for equality and equity. Will have to punish those who oppose the creation of such a world.”

We in India mostly look up to Singh as a nationalist and a martyr, which is true but not enough. If Pakistanis also call him as their hero of the freedom struggle then he surely must be more than a territorial nationalist. He was a nationalist who stood for the freedom of all oppressed communities across the colonised world. He also vouched for a non-sectarian and inclusive nationalism which shall not discriminate on religious or any other ground. Both India and Pakistan need to ponder over Singh’s revolutionary vision, if they sincerely venerate him as a shared hero.

Squaring with reality

There is a large section of people in Pakistan who seem to be inspired by Singh’s ideals, but if the state calls him a shared hero, then it should be reflected in its politics. Sadly, both countries are far away from his vision, and Pakistan in particular is terribly antithetical to his ideals of egalitarianism, pluralism and non-sectarian governance. While commenting on the role of the press, Singh spoke his mind about rising communalism and skewed nationalism, which sounds so contemporaneous: “The real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness, and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism. Instead, their main objective seems to be spreading ignorance, preaching and propagating sectarianism and chauvinism, communalising people’s minds leading to the destruction of our composite culture and shared heritage.”

We can’t fabricate history to suit our present political concerns, the past can surely be interpreted on the basis of facts and not just fantasies to construct a “new India” or a “new Pakistan”.

  1. Irfan Habib is a historian based in New Delhi

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