Hindutva narrative that Gandhi didn’t try to save Bhagat Singh from gallows is fallacious
In the days leading to the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Gandhi met the Viceroy on multiple occasions to convince him to rethink and undo the court judgement
One of the popular narratives among some admirers of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, who were hanged on March 23, 1931, is that Mahatma Gandhi did nothing to save them. This narrative goes like this: “If Gandhi wanted, he could have saved Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru from the gallows”.
When Gandhi reached Karachi on August 26, 1931 to attend the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress, the supporters of Bhagat Singh raised slogans against him for his alleged failure to convince the Viceroy to commute the sentences of their beloved comrades.
While the anger of admirers of Bhagat Singh can be understood in light of the premature death of their leader, the Hindutva brigade, especially after Independence, began to forcefully peddle this narrative in order to delegitimize Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.
It is true that Bhagat Singh, his comrades and Mahatma Gandhi did not see eye to eye on many political questions, but it is also true that both had immense respect for each other. It was Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement launched in the 1920s that ushered many youngsters to participate in the Indian freedom movement. Bhagat Singh and his comrades heeded Gandhi’s call and jumped into the freedom struggle when they were just teenagers, and whenever they criticised Gandhi, they recognised this fact.
On the other hand, Gandhi, whenever revolutionaries wrote letters to him criticising him, published such criticism in his journal Young India and replied to them as his equals.
Both were critics of each other but there existed mutual respect.
When Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt hurled bombs in the central legislative assembly, Gandhi criticised them. But it is also accurate that Gandhi made several attempts to save Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru from the gallows.
These attempts were made during the Gandhi-Irwin talks that began on February 17, 1931, and continued till March 5, 1931. In the days leading to the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Gandhi met the Viceroy on multiple occasions to convince him to rethink and undo the court judgement. Let us see them chronologically for a better and clear understanding.
On February 18, raising the issue of Bhagat Singh, Gandhi said to the Viceroy; “This has no connection with our discussion, and it may even be inappropriate on my part to mention it. But if you want to make the present atmosphere more favourable, you should suspend Bhagat Singh's execution”. To this, the Viceroy replied, “I am very grateful to you that you have put this thing before me in this manner. Commutation of the sentence is a difficult thing, but the suspension is certainly worth considering”.
The second attempt was made on March 19, 1931, when Gandhi again appealed to Irwin for commutation of the sentence, which was noted down by Irwin in his minutes of the meeting.
On March 20, Gandhi met Herbert Emerson, the Home Secretary, for the same reasons. While Gandhi kept pushing British officials for reducing the sentence of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, he also deputed Aruna Asif Ali to convince the revolutionaries to publicly shun violence. This request, if accepted, would have given Gandhi an upper hand during his negotiation, but it was rejected by Bhagat Singh.
Gandhi again met Irwin on March 21 and then again on March 22 to convince him to reduce the sentences. On March 23, the day Bhagat Singh and his comrades were hanged, a day before the scheduled date, Gandhi had written an emotional letter to the Viceroy.
“The interest of peace demands a final appeal. Though you were frank enough to tell me that there was little hope of your commuting the sentence of death on Bhagat Singh and two others, you said you would consider my submission of Saturday. Dr Sapru met me yesterday and said that you were troubled over the matter and taxing your brain as to the proper course to adopt. If there is any room left for reconsideration, I invite your attention to the following.
Popular opinion rightly or wrongly demands commutation. When there is no principle at stake, it is often a duty to respect it. In the present case the chances are that, if commutation is granted, internal peace is most likely to be promoted. In the event of execution, peace is undoubtedly in danger…. It is worthwhile saving these lives if thereby many other innocent lives are likely to be saved…. Since you seem to value my influence such as it is in favour of peace, do not please unnecessarily make my position, difficult as it is, almost too difficult for future work. Execution is an irretrievable act. If you think there is the slightest chance of error of judgment, I would urge you to suspend for further review an act that is beyond recall. If my presence is necessary, I can come….”
Gandhi’s attempt to save the lives of three young revolutionaries was sincere. Even Viceroy Irwin was amused by his perseverance on the issue, as he later wrote; “As I listened to Mr Gandhi putting the case for commutation before me, I reflected first on what significance it surely was that the apostle of non-violence should so earnestly be pleading the cause of the devotees of a creed so fundamentally opposed to his own…”.
Similarly, Robert Bernays, a journalist with News Chronicle who was reporting on the developments of the Gandhi-Irwin pact, mentions in his book ‘The Naked Fakir’, that Gandhi was delaying his departure from Delhi to Karachi for the scheduled session of the Congress Party, to have further communication over the question of Bhagat and his comrades.
Gandhi, by force of his argument and perseverance, was able to sow the seeds of doubts in the mind of Viceroy Irwin, who indeed by thinking of suspending the sentences but was overpowered by the bureaucracy of British Punjab, who threatened to resign en masse if the sentence was commuted.
In this regard, the Free Press noted; “[We have] come to know from reliable sources that, although Lord Irwin was himself not in favour of hanging Bhagat Singh etc, but almost all the English officers of the Punjab Government had threatened Lord Irwin that if he commuted the death sentences, they will resign en masse”.
The same was also noted by Jitendra Nath Sanyal – a colleague of Bhagat Singh who shared jail time with him – as well as C.S. Venu, another comrade and early biographer of Bhagat Singh, who wrote: “…it cannot remain a secret that Mr Gandhi in his own way and by arguments he alone can put forward, did everything possible to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades from the gallows. If Bhagat Singh had been Mr Gandhi’s own son, he could not have done more in the matter”.
Mahatma Gandhi did what he could to save the lives of three young revolutionaries. He exhausted his efforts to their limit. To repeatedly say that Gandhi did not want to save them is wrong and also to say that he could have is again wrong because Gandhi did not have absolute power over the brutal British administration; like others, he too was a subject of the colonial regime.
Moreover, the Hindutva narrative that blames Gandhi fails to even acknowledge that none of their leaders paid tribute or homage to the young martyrs, while Congress leaders from Gandhi to Nehru to Patel to Bose, each of them held in very high esteem the ultimate sacrifices made by the trio for the cause of Indian Independence.
(The writer is a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University)