A Tribute to the Agnostic Khushwant Singh

By Naeem Asgher Tarar


“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God. Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod. Writing nasty. Things he regarded as great fun. Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

Khushwant Singh in his prime.
Khushwant Singh in his prime.

Sardar Khushwant Singh wrote these lines, as his own epitaph. True to the words, during his lifetime he spared neither man nor God, as he once said, “There is no condom for a pen.”

Khushwant Singh, basically a Sikh, was a self-confessed agnostic, but when we examine his life and some of his works we came to a conclusion which fills us with curiosity.

“There is no condom for a pen.”

During his lifetime, he after an extensive adroit research wrote two hefty volumes of the history of Sikhs. One can find many books on the history of Sikhs, but these two volumes stand on the acme of all other works. This work of Khushwant Singh led him to the title of Historian.
Many people who knew him very well, were least expecting such an extensive religious work from him.
He had no enthusiasm for religious scriptures, but still he read their translations during the short tenure as a visiting lecturer with the department of religion at Princeton University and later at Swarthmore College. Such contradiction can be rarely seen – being agnostic and teacher of religion.

Khushwant Singh wrote a book with Ashok Chopra, the title of the book is, “Agnostic Khushwant. There is no God!”
In this book, he have in detail discussed the bizarre notions and believes of religions, and the more gruesome shape they have taken, since the half-baked religious men have taken matters into their own hands. This book contains thirteen essays in which Singh has brought all the leading religions under discussion, including Buddhism. After reading this book, when you’ll put it back on the side table of your chair and lose yourself in the realm of fragments and essence of this book for few minutes to analyze it, you will not find a single line which is indecent or is aimed to hurt the emotions of follower of any religion. This reflects the gentleman and his supreme intellectual level. This is what a scholar is!

He reserved great respect for the founders of the religion and true acolytes, who preached it after them in letters and words. Be it Guru Nanak and then following ten Gurus or Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his close allies. He regarded them with due integrity. During his lifetime despite of being an agnostic, his pen rose several times to write for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Guru Nanak & Buddha.
When Salman Rushdie wrote a novel exploiting beliefs of Muslims, “The Satanic Verses”, and hazardously put his reputation of a liberal autore to dilapidation, Khushwant Singh was the first from the literary circle to criticize him.
He was basically against the religious bigotry and hatred which was a self-creation of the clerics & pundits of today. He wrote history of Sikhs, but when a leader of a very famous Gurdwara wrote him, asking for alms, Khushwant Singh wrote him back in such a manner that it relived him of any further annoyance from that Gurdwara.

In his writings and jokes he have made fun of everyone, whether it is Muslim or a Sikh, but he never crossed the periphery. His pen never wore a condom, but it always acquiesced to the lofty mind of his holder.
Rest in peace Sardar Khushwant Singh!


“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God. Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod. Writing nasty. Things he regarded as great fun. Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”


The writer is a lawyer, a student of Philosophy and interested in culture, history and literature.

  • engrich
  • BJK

    Khushwant Singh made himself a minor commercial success when he peddled soft sex via the pages of the Illustrated Weekly of India back in the 1960’s. IMHO, his literary talents were rather modest otherwise.

  • Raj Kamal

    ‘In his writings and jokes he have made fun of everyone, whether it is Muslim or a Sikh, but he never crossed the periphery.’
    He was a coward. He knew if he ever tried to cross the periphery, he will not live to write anything again.

  • engrich
  • Kamath

    This Sardarji was quite an extraordinary man- a great one!

  • Raj Kamal

    Nehru had said in a Press Statement issued on 18 December, 1933: “I do believe that fundamentally the choice before the world today is between some form of Communism and some form of Fascism, and I am all for the former, that is Communism. I dislike Fascism intensely and indeed I do not think it is anything more than a crude and brutal effort of the present Capitalist order to preserve itself at any cost. There is no middle road between Fascism and Communism. One has to choose between the two and I choose the Communist ideal. In regards to the methods and approach to this ideal, I may not agree to everything that the orthodox Communists have done. I think that these methods will have to adapt themselves to changing conditions and may vary in different countries. But I do think that the basic ideology of Communism and its scientific interpretation of history is sound.’’ p. 351, The Indian Struggle (1920-1942).

  • Raj Kamal

    WHEN PRIME MINISTER P.V. Narasimha Rao and finance minister Manmohan Singh initiated the reform process in 1991, I was an undergraduate in Delhi University. Some reforms did get done in subsequent years, but sadly the bulk still remains to be done after quarter of a century. Indeed, we are still debating many of the issues that I remember discussing in the college canteen: privatisation, enforcement of contracts, administrative reforms, simplification of the tax system and so on.

    There may be many factors that explain why India has been such a reluctant reformer—bureaucratic obstructionism, political populism, fiscal constraints, the small pool of technocratic talent and so on. However, a major reason is that the intellectual case for reforms was never really made. Recall that it was not a change of mindset, but a serious economic crisis that forced the government to start liberalising the economy in 1991.

    In other words, India’s intellectual establishment remained, and still largely remains, wedded to the idea that Nehru’s socialist economic model was essentially good; if only it had been implemented properly. Even when it became quite apparent by the 1970s that the model was a failure, establishment economist Raj Krishna coined the term “Hindu rate of growth” to describe lacklustre economic performance. The term slyly rebranded the failures of socialism as those of India’s social structures and dominant religion.

    The message was that India had failed the Nehruvian vision and not the other way around. That is why Manmohan Singh, even while announcing reforms in his budget speech of February 29, 1992, felt it necessary to start by saying, “Our nation will remain eternally grateful to Jawaharlal Nehru for his vision….”

    So, why was the Nehruvian worldview so dominant? Part of the explanation is that it gelled with the prevailing intellectual milieu of the time that saw the Soviet Union as a genuine alternative. However, India’s first prime minister also benefited from the fact that all other leaders who could have provided different visions died soon after independence: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and B.R. Ambedkar (controversy still rages on what happened to another alternative, Subhas Bose).

    The only survivor was C. Rajagopalachari, who bitterly opposed Nehru’s socialism and prophetically warned of “Licence Raj”. After being systematically sidelined in the Congress party, Rajaji would set up the Swatantra Party in 1959 to vociferously oppose the socialist economic model. He was in his eighties by now and the party would fizzle out after some initial success.

    Perhaps one can forgive Nehru and his generation for having been swayed by the intellectual fads of their times. What is far more puzzling is the persistence of the socialist-era mindset in the intellectual establishment, despite its glaring failures and the obvious gains from the sporadic episodes of reforms. We saw some reforms during 1991-93, followed by faster GDP growth in subsequent years. But the reforms themselves petered out once the crisis was over.

    There was another period of reforms during 2000-2003 under the A.B. Vajpayee regime. This too led to better economic performance, but again was not followed up with new reforms in subsequent years. Instead, we saw regressive measures such as the Right to Education Act (RTE) which was deliberately meant to undermine any private sector response to the failures of the state-run school system (but contains nothing to actually improve government schools).

    So, the question is why RTE can be pushed through, but not GST? After all, there was no large-scale popular movement demanding RTE in any part of the country. The answer lies in the near total dominance of all intellectual institutions by the Left. For every reform-minded Raghuram Rajan, there were platoons of the National Advisory Council. Even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power with an explicitly reformist manifesto in 2014, almost all intellectual institutions—think-tanks, universities, the media—remain overwhelmingly Left dominated.

    The Left dominance over the intellectual establishment has its roots in the systematic “ethnic cleansing” of all non-Left thinkers since the 1950s. One of its early victims was liberal economist B.R. Shenoy who questioned Nehru’s economics. He was squeezed out of the establishment and persecuted, but continued to write against socialist planning.

    In 1975, Shenoy wrote, “We adopted these policies as a means to an end, not as a political way of life, as in communist countries. It is time that we replaced them by policies that have stood the test of logic and empirical evidence.” He went on to argue that socialist economics was at the root of all-pervasive corruption. It is telling that these critiques have been erased from public memory, but Raj Krishna’s disingenuous “Hindu rate of growth” is still widely used.

    The result of the systematic cleansing was that there were no non-Left academics remaining in the social sciences field in India by the early 1990s. This is the reason that even as the Soviet Union was collapsing and India was being forced to liberalise, my lecturers in Delhi University were still waxing eloquent about the benefits of the P.C. Mahalanobis model and arcane intricacies of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky’s “primitive accumulation” theory.

    Since the 1990s, the more explicitly Soviet-derived material has been removed from curriculums, but they remain heavily dominated by the Left. Thus, economics students are mostly taught material written by Amartya Sen and his stable of academics but exposed only in passing to the thoughts of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman or Jagdish Bhagwati, Sen’s intellectual rival. Even when non-Left thinkers are included, their ideas are lumped together as exotic curiosities to be critiqued, rather than imbibed. Shenoy is still deemed too dangerous to be taught widely. The situation is much worse in other disciplines like sociology and history.

    The result is that even those advocating change end up using language and frameworks derived from the Left, often with roots going back all the way to Nehruvian socialism. This is very damaging to the cause of reforms, because the starting point of each debate is heavily skewed and it is a struggle to push through even the simplest measures. This is why there needs to be a wider national debate about bringing greater plurality of thought in India’s intellectual establishment.

    Note that I am not advocating that the overwhelming dominance of the Left should be replaced by a similar dominance of the Right. However, a healthy debate requires that some sort of balance is restored. There is a need, moreover, that debates place greater emphasis on evidence than on ideologies and personalities. Only then will policy-making shift from argument to discussion. I am no fan of the argumentative Indian; much prefer the Indian who gets things done.