“I tell you that the British rule is not there because God willed it but for the reason that we lack the will and courage to oppose it….Where is God? What is he doing? Is he getting a diseased pleasure out of it (the exploitation of a nation)? A Nero! A Genghiz Khan! Down with him!” – Bhagat Singh.
Bhagat Singh, the young Indian revolutionary was only 23 when he was executed by the British for his participation in the ‘Lahore Conspiracy Case’ in 1931. The martyr didn’t have the time or luxury to write a full-fledged book during his short life, so readers will have to content themselves with the handful of essays and letters Singh wrote while he was alive. ‘Why I Am An Atheist’ is a short 13-14 page long essay, where Singh puts forth some brief but logical questions to denounce the existence of a higher power. He is neither bitter, nor angry, or frustrated, but instead is filled with an optimistic idealism, an emotional maturity that seeps into his writing, giving readers goosebumps. Here is a man, who knew who would be sent to the gallows soon, and yet he didn’t resort to the ‘cowardice’ of prayers.
Singh’s ruminations on atheism are admirable for a man his age, and while it’s not powerful enough to move strong believers into abandoning their faith in a higher ‘being’, there’s argument enough to make skeptics re-think a little. As someone who’s been an atheist all their life, I wish this book had been available to me as a school student. There are dozens of patriotic films on Bhagat Singh, but his atheism is something that was never touched upon onscreen; even though it was a large part of his personality, just like religion’s role in the lives of leading figures throughout time. But perhaps Singh’s own thoughts on the matter explain why very few dare talk on the subject – the fear of persecution. The freedom-fighter doesn’t take names, but mentions a few times of men he knew, who didn’t have the conviction to openly declare they were Godless.
The rest of the book is a collection of some letters and statements by Singh during the last 2-3 years of his life, a lot of written while he was still in prison. The statements are dry and hold little value as reading material, unless read in a larger historical context of the ongoing freedom-struggle in the 1920s. The letters, especially one that Singh writes to his father, admonishing the elder for submitting a petition to defend him, starkly portrays what a young stubborn revolutionary Singh was. A son worth fighting for, a son one’s bound to be proud of. Because despite all their differences, (Singh’s father was very devout), their affection for each other never diminished, Singh still signed his angry letter as ‘your loving son’. It demonstrates a tolerance that’s becoming thinner in a world where now families cold-shoulder each other over political clash of views.
As far as the writing is concerned, it’s simple, slightly stiff, probably because some of them were originally written in Punjabi. There are also a lot of errors, but I am glad the publishers didn’t correct them, because once an editor is tasked with editing a work, some of them can go as far as changing the entire essence of a piece. Grammar snobs can go to hell. And if you aren’t one of them, you must get your hands on the book just to read the essay ‘Why I Am An Atheist’, especially if you are an Indian. Sure, there are perhaps 100s of encyclopedia sized books with more explosive arguments against the existence of a God, but none of them are by a young 22-year-old revolutionary, who was certain of being hanged by his oppressors in a few days.
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Listen to Episode 53 for some interesting book recommendations & quick reviews