A Punjab political conference was convened in Amritsar during 11-13 April and a conference of the youth was organised at the same time. There was intense conflict and debate on two or three points. The question of religion was one of them.

Though the question of religion should not have arisen but a resolution was moved against sectarian organisations, and against misuse of religion by those who were following those divisive organisations because they wanted to protect themselves. This question would have remained buried for some time, but the way it came to the fore led to an open debate, and it was followed by a debate about the solution of the problem.

When Maulana Zafar Ali used the word Khuda-Khuda five or six times in the subject committee of the provincial conference, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru suggested not to do so whilst speaking on (a public) stage. He added, “If you are the preacher of religion then I am the preacher of irreligion.”

After that the Naujawan Bharat Sabha convened a conference on the same subject. Many individuals delivered lectures; some in the name of religion and others fearing a clash on this question made several types of kind suggestions. What was repeatedly said and upon which Bhai Amar Singh Jhabal laid maximum emphasis was that the question of religion should not even be touched. It was very good advice.

If the religion of a person does not interfere with the people before him/her then where is the need for somebody to speak against it? But the question that remains is what does past experience tell us?

The same question of religion had arisen during previous movements also, when everybody was given complete liberty; it is said that even on the Congress stage Koranic verses and (Vedic) mantras were recited. In those days no person lagging behind in religion was deemed good. So fundamentalism began to rise. And the evil result of this is not hidden from anybody.

Now the nationalist or freedom-loving people have come to grasp the reality of religion and they find it a hurdle.

Is it not true that if religion is kept within the boundaries of one’s home, it creates prejudice in the minds of the people? Does it not hamper the process of achieving complete independence?

Now the followers of complete independence label religion as a kind of mental slavery. And they say that to tell a child that god is omnipotent and man is nothing is to make the child weak forever. It is to destroy the mental potential and self-confidence of the child altogether.

However, even if we decided not to debate the issue or consider the two main questions before us, even then we notice that religion is the pre-eminent hurdle in our path. For example, we want the equality of the people, that there should be no division between who has more money and who has none, or between the touchable and non-touchable.

But Sanatan Dharma is in favour of this inequality. Even now, in the twentieth century, the Maulvi and Pandit after accepting flowers from a Dalit bathes himself with his clothes on, and denies these people the sacred cotton thread. If we pledge not to say anything against such religion then we should keep sitting at home quietly; otherwise it would mean opposing religion.

People even say that these evils should be discarded and set right. Sure enough Swami Dayanand eradicated untouchability but even he could not go beyond the four Varnas.

The practice of untouchability continues unabated. If Sikhs said while they were standing inside the Gurdwara that only true Sikhs should rule, and on coming out talked aloud in favour of Panchayati Raj, then what would it amount to?

Religion says that the people who don’t have faith in Islam should be killed with a sword, and what will happen here if we proclaim that all religious beliefs are equal? We know a clash between people could be instigated with the loud recitation of Koranic verses and Vedic mantras. The question is then, why should we not do away with all this once and for all?

We can see the mountain of religion standing in our path. Suppose a struggle for independence starts in India. The armies are standing facing each other fully armed and about to start firing. And if at that time, like (what happened with) Mohammad Ghauri, as is said, cows, pigs, the Vedas, the Koran and all such things were placed in our way then what would happen? If we are true to our religion then we would pack up and go home.

Being true to religion, the Hindu or Sikh would not fire at a cow; the Mussalman would not fire at a pig. The true-to-religion people would lie down before the idols of gods like they did in Somnath in thousands, and those who are not true to religion would finish their job, then what would be the outcome? We have to think against religion itself.

If we consider the arguments of those who are in favour of religion, they say the world will be annihilated. Sins would increase.

All right, then let us consider this also. The Russian mahatma Tolstoy, while debating on religion, had written in his essays and letters that there are three parts to it:

  1. Essentials of Religion, such as speak the truth, do not steal, help the poor, and live with love.
  2. Philosophy of Religion, ie, the philosophy of birth, death, rebirth, the artificial world. In this a person thinks about his choices and tries to comprehend them.
  3. Rituals of Religion, ie, the traditions, etc.

What this means is that all religions are the same in the first place. They all exhort us to speak the truth, not tell lies and live harmoniously. Some people have called this individual religion. There can be no clash over this, and such ideal thoughts should be there in every person.

Next comes the matter of philosophy. We have to say that philosophy is the outcome of human weakness. There is no clash in it. When we are unable to understand something, then we try to apply our mind to it to draw conclusions. Philosophy is a very essential thing, because without it no progress is possible.

But peace is also important. Our forefathers have said that there is rebirth after death but Christians and Muslims don’t agree with that. All right, so that is their view. Let’s have a calm discussion about it. We should listen to others’ views too.

But generally, when a debate ensues on such controversial matters, then Arya Samajis and Muslims start fighting. Both parties abandon their wisdom and ability to think as if they have left them behind at home. They think that in the Veda guru god had written it in a particular way and therefore it is true. Muslims say that Khuda has written it in the Koran in a particular way and that is true. In effect, they abandon their ability to think.

If a philosophy does not carry any value beyond personal opinion, and if no separate group is created from those adhering to one or the other philosophy, then where is the basis of any complaint against it?

Now arises the third issue. As per the rituals on the day of Sarasvati worship, it is necessary to take the Sarasvati idol in a procession with a band. But there is a mosque on Harry Road that lies on the procession route. Islam says no bands can play in front of a mosque. Now what should be done?

As per the civil rights of a citizen there can be a band playing in the streets, but the religion disallows it. Cow sacrifice is imperative in Islam and the other religion prescribes cow worship. Now what should be done? Cutting a branch of a Peepal tree makes such a difference, then what should be done?

And these small differences in beliefs ultimately spread far and wide and become a source for the creation of different organisations, and the result (of that) is evident.

Thus, if religion is the name of mixing the second (philosophy) and the third (ritual) aspects with blind faith, then there is no need for religion. It should be avoided from this very moment.

If religion, on the other hand, can blend with open-mindedness, then there can be no objection to it and it should be welcomed. But the different organisations and their partisan food habits need to be changed, and the words “touchables” and “untouchables” need to be eliminated.

Until we become united by leaving aside our narrow-mindedness we cannot cooperate. Thus by moving ahead as per the path laid out above, we could move towards freedom. The meaning of our freedom is not only to liberate ourselves from the clutches of the English but also complete independence, when all people live together harmoniously, liberated from mental slavery.

[In April 1928 there was a political conference in Amritsar as well as a conference of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. The event saw intense debate on the issue of religion and politics between Bhagat Singh and his comrades. This article, published in Kirti, May 1928 reflected on the same issue.]

Excerpted with permission from Inquilab: Bhagat Singh on Religion and Revolution, Bhagat Singh, edited by S Irfan Habib, Yoda Press-Sage-Select.