Of means and ends

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Could Mahatma Gandhi have saved the lives of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukh Dev? An analysis in retrospect, on the 70th anniversary of the execution of the three revolutionaries.

IT is 70 years since Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged to death at the Lahore Central Prison. That was on March 23, 1931. The same month witnessed another event of importance in the freedom struggle, that is, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The pact was signed on March 5, 1931 after a long discussion. The executions and truce between the Congress and the Raj after an intense spell of satyagraha in 1930 did not merely coincide in history but almost collided. They influenced each other to some extent. A controversy was generated about Mahatma Gandhi not getting an amnesty for Bhagat Singh under the pact, and it put him on the defensive. The controversy also created a strong debate about the inter-relationship between the peaceful and violent means employed in the freedom struggle. In fact, reviewing the events now in perspective, one suspects that the British might have timed the execution to create an uneasy situation for the Congress. It will be interesting to review both the events independently and then in conjunction.

Bhagat Singh. Mahatma Gandhi did plead for the commutation of the death sentence imposed on Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, but he did not succeed in the bid because the Viceroy's moves were governed from England and the three were considered a challenge to the Raj.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The chain of events started with the death of Lala Lajpat Rai while demonstrating against the Simon Commission. Lalaji was injured in a lathicharge; he died on November 17, 1928, probably owing to shock. This drew many youth closer to the conclusion that violence is the only means to fight the British. In fact, inspired by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, many militant groups had been functioning in India. Bhagat Singh was a member of one such group called the Ghadar Party. Some of these militants killed Assistant Superintendent of Police John Poyantz Saunders , who was supposed to have beaten Lala Lajpat Rai. Four months after Saunders was shot, that is, on April 8, 1929, two young men were arrested for throwing bombs at the treasury benches of the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. One of them was Bhagat Singh. It was possibly this incident that prompted the police to suspect his involvement in the so-called Lahore Conspiracy Case.

The case is famous because of the draconian provisions incorporated by the British in this context in the otherwise reasonable laws of criminal procedure. Those detained under the case resorted to hunger strikes and boycotts in jails. Many a time the accused had to be brought to the courtroom on stretchers because of physical weakness. It is believed that Jatin Das, a young man, died during an attempt to feed him forcibly after he had completed 63 days of fasting. Bhagat Singh is more in the public memory than many other martyrs probably because of the attention this trial attracted.

The trial was discussed so much that the witnesses started turning hostile. Even a British policeman refused to identify Bhagat Singh as a person present at the time of the murder. As a result, the government came out with the Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance, 1930, which dispensed with the need of defence counsel, defence witnesses and the presence of the accused during the trial. After this new-style trial that lasted five months, the judgment came on October 7, 1930. An appeal was made to the Privy Council but to no avail. Some people feel that Bhagat Singh could have been saved under the Gandhi-Irwin agreement, which evolved during the same period. This feeling prevailed especially among the leftists who presumed that Gandhiji did not attempt for amnesty because he hated violence.

It will be proper to sit in judgment on the matter only after knowing the background of the Gandhi-Irwin pact. This first ever agreement between the Raj and the Congress came after two years of turmoil in the country in the form of a non-violent civil disobedience struggle. After the Congress passed its Poorna Swaraj resolution in December 1929, Gandhiji devised the 450-kilometre Dandi March to shake the rural people out of inaction and break the Salt Law, as a token of disobedience. The chain of events that followed showed that the extent of sacrifice needed for a non-violent struggle was no less than what was required for a violent struggle. Apart from making monetary and career sacrifices, the participants showed, in the face of police torture, a level of physical courage that would have been required in a violent struggle. By December that year almost all leaders, including Gandhiji, were rounded up and jails in the country were full. Finally, thanks to the mediation of moderates like Tej Bahadur Sapru, the government came forward to talk to the satyagrahis. As a precondition the leaders were released in January 1931. Gandhiji stayed in Delhi where later he convened a meeting of the Congress Working Committee.

Accounts of the parleys between the Congress and the government between February 17 and March 5 indicate that frequently there were delicate moments of stalemate, long arguments over a phrase or a word, objections from colleagues and so on. Many a time Gandhiji was seen off by the Viceroy after midnight and the former would walk down to his residence at Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari's house, which was 8 km away. It was on this occasion that Winston Churchill made the nasty remark describing Gandhiji as a half-naked fakir. Disturbed by the endless discussions, he had said: "It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace... to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor."

The outcome of the talks was a mixed one. Each leader was unhappy about specific parts of the pact. Subhas Chandra Bose, for example, told the leftists among Congressmen: "Between us and the British lies an ocean of blood and a mountain of corpses. Nothing on earth can induce us to accept this compromise which Gandhiji had signed." On the whole, the Congress had to accept the pact because the Working Committee was with Gandhiji at every stage of the discussions. But the militants and their supporters would not have it. What is the use of a truce that does not get amnesty for Bhagat Singh and his colleagues? Wherever Gandhiji went, youngsters with red flags encountered him with questions; sometimes he was even manhandled. At the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in Karachi they shouted: "Gandhi's truce sent Bhagat Singh to the gallows."

WHILE parading through history, it would be unfair to Gandhiji if one does not record his efforts in this case. He was not a mere politician but a humanist at the core. He got 90,000 political prisoners other than satyagrahis released under the pretext of "relieving political tension". He did plead for the commutation of the death sentence of the three heroes, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, also. But he did not succeed because the Viceroy's moves were governed from England and these three were a challenge to the Raj and thus were not thought fit for pardon. In fact, he wrote a letter to the Viceroy on the day of their execution, pleading fervently for commutation, not knowing that the letter would be too late.

A point to be placed on Gandhiji's side of the balance is that he was already weak in the truce with the Raj, owing to incomprehensible reasons. Probably, Irwin was a better bargainer than he; otherwise a leader who spearheaded a successful, unique, non-violent agitation that attracted the attention of the press the world over and drew millions, including women and children who showed a rare spirit of sacrifice, need not have made so many concessions to the government. In such a situation he could not have been expected to win on the major issue of commutation of death sentences. He said in Karachi: "I might have done one more thing, you say. I might have made the commutation a term of settlement. It could not be done so. And to threaten withdrawal now would be a breach of faith." But this should not be taken as a manifestation of a lukewarm feeling towards Bhagat Singh.

Records are replete with Gandhiji's speeches commending the spirit of sacrifice of all such youth and their nationalistic spirit. He once said: "I am not referring to the frothy eloquence that passes muster for patriotism; I have in mind that secret, silent, persevering band of young men and women who want to see their country free at any cost." He differed with them only on the merit of their path. He said in Karachi: "If I had an opportunity to speak to Bhagat Singh and his comrades, I should have told them that the way they pursued was wrong and futile. We cannot win Swaraj for our famishing millions by sword. The way of violence can only lead to disaster, perdition. I shall explain to you why. Do you think that all women and children who covered themselves with glory during the last campaign would have done so if we had pursued the path of violence? Would our women known as the meekest on earth have done the unique service they did, if we had violence in us? And our children - our Vanar Sena; how could you have had these innocent ones who renounced their toys, their kites, their crackers and joined as soldiers of Swaraj - how could you have enlisted them in a violent struggle?"

It is worth pondering over these words. It is the mass support that decides the success or failure of a method of struggle. The people of India chose non-violent means over violent ones so clearly that even after this controversy, whenever Gandhiji gave a call he had millions responding to it. Perhaps it was this mass support to Gandhiji that made prominent Left-leaning youth like M.R. Masani, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan to stay in his company. In any case, a violent struggle for Independence could have succeeded only with external armed help, which came as late as 1942 with Subhas Bose's efforts; by then independence had already been conceded in principle.

It may take too long to discuss the Mahatma's arguments and compare the merits and demerits of violent and non-violent means of struggle, but it would suffice to note that it was not his creed of ahimsa that would turn to violence even "to punish a dacoit, or even a murderer". Perhaps the following words of Lord Irwin himself might explain why Gandhiji must have failed to persuade him to commute the sentence: "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, but I should regard it as wholly wrong to allow my judgment to be influenced by purely political considerations. I could not imagine a case in which under the law, penalty had been more directly deserved." He has referred to Gandhiji's personal visit to meet him on March 19. Interestingly enough, on the same day, Bhagat Singh and two others had sent off a letter to the Viceroy because their friends coaxed them to do so. But in that letter they had not asked for clemency. Instead they asked the Viceroy to treat them as prisoners of war and hence to shoot them rather than hang them. With this letter now available, it is no use lamenting on Gandhiji's stand, whatever that was, because Bhagat Singh did not relish the idea of asking for a pardon. This is evident from the fact that a friend of his (Prannath Mehta) visited him in the jail on March 20 with a draft letter for clemency but he declined to sign it.

Four days later the three were executed in Lahore, on the eve of the AICC session in Karachi. On hearing the news, Gandhiji said that the sudden execution under the circumstances was like cutting the ground underneath his feet, however technically unconnected it might be with the terms of the truce. It probably was a cunning move by the Raj to order the execution just a night before the Karachi session. It was done in the knowledge that the emotiveness of the issue would put Gandhiji and the Congress in an awkward position at the AICC as the heat was anyway directed against them. Indeed, that was what happened.

No doubt, it was a queer combination of circumstances that two streams of the freedom struggle should thus meet in one incident, namely, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. But queerer yet is the fact that people who never believed in satyagraha as a tool to achieve freedom should be irked at the withdrawal of satyagraha by those who started it.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor