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On World Book Day, we should remember that Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader as well as an anti-colonial revolutionary

Bhagat Singh by Jarnail Singh.
Surrey artist Jarnail Singh painted this image of book lover Bhagat Singh.

By Gurpreet Singh

Often portrayed as trigger-happy radical, the towering Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh should also be remembered as a book lover. And he continues inspiring many to read even today.

In 1931, Bhagat Singh was executed for waging war against the British occupation of India. He believed an armed resistance not only to liberate his homeland, but to establish a classless and egalitarian society free of human exploitation.

Born into a family of dedicated nationalists in 1907, who were in the forefront of the freedom movement, he was fond of books from a very early age. He gradually acquired knowledge on many issues, such as Communism, atheism, and social justice. His reading habit turned him into a sharp essayist.

Moments before being taken to the scaffold to be hanged for the assassination of a police officer, he was reading Reminiscences of Lenin. It’s a memoir by German political activist Clara Zetkin, based on her interactions with whom she saw as the icon of the Bolshevik revolution.

Lenin 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 of the imaginary paintings with a gun in his hand, whereas there is a need to show more images of him with books. Efforts have been made by a few artists, including the one at the top of this article by Surrey-based Jarnail Singh.

World Book Day is on Sunday (April 23)

However, a lot more needs to be done to make people see that Bhagat Singh was a thinker and encourage people to read his written works. This is in addition to reading books that he read during his struggle to truly understand his philosophy.

There are testimonies from his contemporaries suggesting that he spent hours reading books and maintained a library with his comrades. So much so, they fought for the right to be given books and newspapers in jails. This set the stage for the international movement for such services for political prisoners.

This is also necessary to encourage the reading habit among the masses to defeat ignorance, which is the mother of many ills, such as racism and hate. As Bhagat Singh has shown us, 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 on April 23, let’s remember our hero as a book lover. He is even more relevant in an era of growing censorship, shrinking space for dialogue and free thinking, and bigotry under the growing threat of right-wing politics worldwide, especially in his birthplace.

Gurpreet Singh is a B.C. author, broadcaster, and cofounder of the online magazine Radical Desi. Follow him on Twitter @gurpreetonair. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Gurpreet Singh

Gurpreet Singh

Gurpreet Singh is a B.C. author and cofounder of Radical Desi.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.