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Mahatma Gandhi


What Mahatma Gandhi did to save Bhagat Singh

- Chander Pal Singh*


Gandhi's failure to secure commutation of Bhagat Singh's execution has provided his critics a convenient weapon to attack him. He has been accused of making half-hearted effort and even deception - for the alleged discrepancy between his actual role and his public statements. This paper attempts to establish that while following a consistent approach towards revolutionary violence, Gandhi tried his best to save the lives of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues till the last moment. The paper also discusses Gandhi's strategy to focus on suspension rather than commutation of the death sentence.

Executions of 23RD MARCH 1931 marked the collapse of the hopes of millions of Indians who had believed that Mahatma Gandhi would be able to save the lives of the three young heroes - Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. Gandhi's failure to stop the executions provided a potent weapon in the hands of his opponents who used it to malign him and charged him for disregarding the feelings of the entire nation. Soon after the executions Gandhi had to face the 'Red' demonstrators in the Karachi session (1931) of the Congress, shouting slogans of "Gandhi go back", "Down with Gandhism", "Gandhi's truce has sent Bhagat Singh to the gallows", and "Long Live Bhagat Singh".1

Yashpal, a revolutionary colleague of Bhagat Singh and a bitter critic2 of Gandhi, wrote: "Gandhi considered it moral to put government pressure on the people for prohibition but he considered it immoral to put people's pressure on foreign government to commute the sentences of Bhagat Singh etc."3 Leftist scholar revolutionary, Manmathnath Gupta also bitterly attacked Mahatma Gandhi over the issue of Bhagat Singh.

Another biographer of Bhagat Singh, G. S. Deol (1969), also held Mahatma Gandhi responsible for Bhagat Singh's execution.

A.G. Nooranij reaches the conclusion:

Gandhi alone could have intervened effectively to save Bhagat Singh's life.He did not, till the very last.

Gandhi's critics fail to understand that, he had more to gain by saving the lives of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, if it was possible, than the contrary. Gandhi was well aware that his failure to stop their execution will make the people in general and younger element of the Congress in particular, angry. Moreover, the executions would inevitably glorify the revolutionaries and popularise the ideals underlying the revolutionary violence and thus it will be a tactical setback in his fight with the forces favouring use of violence in the battle for swaraj. If Gandhi had succeeded in saving the lives of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Raj guru, it would have been seen as the victory of nonviolence over violence and moral victory of Gandhi over the revolutionaries.

Gandhi's stand in the Bhagat Singh case must be seen in the light of his approach towards the use of violent means for patriotic purpose. He had deep rooted faith in the futility of violence and the efficacy of non-violence. Gandhi had always maintained that means (non-violence) are more important than the end Swarajya. He had adopted a consistent stand towards revolutionary activities since 1908. He had no doubts about the patriotic impulse behind political violence but such patriotism, according to him, was 'misguided'. In 1909, Gandhi wrote: "The assassin is quite convinced in his mind that he is acting in the interest of the country, but it is difficult to see what good assassinations can do, whenever assassinations have taken place, they have done more harm than good."4 He termed Saunders' murder as a dastardly act but blamed the government for provoking the act: "The fault is of the system of Government. What requires mending is not men but the system..." At the same time he underlined the utter futility of such acts: "Freedom of a nation can not be won by solitary acts of heroism even though they may be of the true type, never by heroism so called."5 Gandhi was opposed to all forms of violence including the violence justified by law - prison sentence and capital punishment. He emphasised this fact at a public meeting in Delhi on March 7,1931: "I cannot in all conscience agree to anyone being sent to gallows, much less a brave man like Bhagat Singh."6

Mahatma Gandhi elaborated his stand on Bhagat Singh and revolutionary violence at the Karachi session of Congress, three days after the execution of the Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru,:

You must know that it is against my creed to punish even a murderer, thief or a dacoit. There can be no excuse for suspicion that I did not want to save Bhagat Singh. But I want you to realise Bhagat Singh's error. The way they pursued was wrong and futile. I wish to tell these young men with all the authority with which a father can speak to his children that the way of violence can only lead to perdition.7

A false impression has been created that Gandhi became interested in Bhagat Singh's fate only a few weeks before his execution. As far back as 4 May 1930, a day before he was arrested, Gandhi had written to the Viceroy strongly criticizing him for the creation of the special Tribunal to try the revolutionaries in the Lahore Conspiracy Case: "You have found a short cut through the law's delay in the matter of the trial of Bhagat Singh and others by doing away with the ordinary procedure. Is it any wonder if I call all these official activities a veiled form of Martial Law?"8 On 31 January, 1931, he spoke at Allahabad on the subject of Bhagat Singh's execution. "Those under a death sentence should not be hanged. My personal religion tells me not only that they should not be hanged but also that they should not even be kept in prison. However, that is my personal opinion and we cannot make their release a condition."9

Coming to the tense events leading to 23rd March 1931, after the dismissal of the Petition for Special Leave to Appeal in the Privy Council on 11 February 1931, it became quite apparent that only an intervention by the Viceroy in the form of commutation alone could save the lives of the revolutionary trio.

Gandhi-Irwin talks were round the corner. There was intense pressure on Gandhi from Congressmen and the general public alike to negotiate for Bhagat Singh's life during his parleys with the Viceroy.

Gandhi-Irwin talks began on 17th February 1931 and continued till 5th March when Gandhi-Irwin Pact or Delhi Pact was arrived at. Gandhi entered the talks without making Bhagat Singh's issue a precondition. Gandhi explained in Young India:

The Working Committee had agreed with me in not making commutation a condition precedent to truce. I could therefore only mention it apart from the settlement.

Gandhi raised the issue of Bhagat Singh with Viceroy on 18th February:

Talked about Bhagat Singh. I told him, "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". The Viceroy liked this very much. He said "I am very grateful to you that you have put this thing before me in this manner. Commutation of sentence is a difficult thing, but suspension is certainly worth considering".

Lord Irwin, in his own report to the Secretary of State on the same day, penned his position on the issue of commutation:

He (Mahatma Gandhi) did not plead for commutation, although he would, being opposed to all taking of life, take that course himself. He also thought it would have an influence for peace. But he did ask for postponement in present circumstances. I contented myself with saying that, whatever might be the decision as to exact dates, I could not think there was any case for commutation which might not be made with equal force in the case of any other violent crime.10

Accounts by both Gandhi and Irwin make it amply clear that Gandhi asked for postponement or suspension of the execution and not the commutation. Gandhi has been criticised on this account. Was Gandhi interested only in postponement? Why did he make this move?

Legally, (as Viceroy himself also admitted) after the Privy Council decision, Viceroy's commutation stood no chance. That Congress leadership had already explored the legal aspect was admitted by Gandhi in a letter to C. Vijayaraghvachari dated 29 April 1931: "the legality of the convictions was discussed threadbare by jurists like Sir Tej Bahadur with the Viceroy and you know what great influence he had with him. But it was all of no avail..."11 Hence, in place of the commutation, Gandhi asked for the suspension of the sentences. Gandhi's plan was to prolong the suspension and wait for a proper stage when a favourable environment was created in which he could ask for the remission of the sentences or even the release of the condemned revolutionaries.

A secret part of Gandhi's prolongation strategy was that he hoped to use the time in getting guarantee from the revolutionaries to shun violence if Bhagat Singh's life is spared. Gandhi hoped to use this guarantee as a 'carrot' or a bargaining point with the British Government for the release of revolutionaries including Bhagat Singh.

Gandhi, for the second time, raised the issue of Bhagat Singh with Lord Irwin on 19th March when they met to discuss the notification of the Pact at the Congress session in Karachi. lrwin recorded his conversation with Mahatma Gandhi in his minutes:

As he was leaving he asked if he might mention the case of Bhagat Singh, saying that he had seen in the press the intimation of his execution for March 24th.

I told him I had considered the case with most anxious care, but could find no grounds on which I could justify to my conscience commuting the sentence. As to the date, I had considered the possibility of postponement till after the Congress, but had deliberately rejected it on various grounds:

  • That postponement of execution, merely on political grounds when order had been passed seemed to me improper;
  • That postponement was inhuman in that it would suggest to the friends and relatives that I was considering commutation; and
  • That Congress would have been able legitimately to complain that they had been tricked by Government.

He appeared to appreciate the force of these arguments and said no more.12

On 20th March, Gandhi had a long conversation with Herbert Emerson, the Home Secretary.

The question as to whether it (the execution) should take place before or after the Karachi Congress had been very seriously considered by the Government who realised the difficulties of either course, but thought it would have been unfair to the condemned persons to postpone execution and also not fair to Gandhi to allow the impression to gain ground that commutation was under consideration when this was not the case. He agreed that of the two alternatives it is better not to wait, but he suggested, though not seriously that the third course of commutation of the sentence would have been better still.13

One of the last efforts of Gandhi to save the lives of the three revolutionaries was Asaf Ali's mission to get an undertaking from Bhagat Singh and his colleagues in jail, asking the revolutionary party to shun violence. Such a declaration, it was felt, would strengthen the hands of Gandhi, in his final efforts to save the lives of Bhagat Singh and others.14 Details of this unsuccessful mission are reconstructed from the contemporary press.

The above account is corroborated by Asaf Ali himself in a statement which appeared in Bhavisya of 27th March, 1931:

I had come to Lahore from Delhi to meet Bhagat Singh with the permission of the Punjab Government with the intention of getting a letter from him for the Revolutionary Party instructing the Party to postpone their violent activities until there was hope of gaining independence through the non-violent movement of Mahatma Gandhi. I tried every possible means to meet him but without any success.15

Eighteen years after the incident, Asaf Ali, then Governor of Orissa, recalled his unsuccessful mission to save Bhagat Singh:

When the Gandhi-Irwin pact was being negotiated much pressure was brought to bear on Gandhi to secure reprieve for Bhagat Singh and his colleagues after they had been sentenced to death in the later Lahore conspiracy case. Mahatma Gandhi did not find it consistent with his creed of non-violence to make a point of honour in respect of one found guilty of assassination. He did whatever he possibly could to plead with Lord Irwin, otherwise.16

Lord Irwin, who carried the final authority regarding the executions, was still hesitating till the last day. Gandhi was certainly aware of Viceroy's dilemma and so he redoubled his efforts to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Robert Bernays17 of News Chronicle (London), noted in his diary on 21st March 1931, "Gandhi is delaying his departure (for Karachi Congress) here another day for further conversation with the Viceroy"18 on the issue of Bhagat Singh's execution. On 21st March, Gandhi met Irwin and again communicated his request for reconsideration of the impending executions.19 Gandhi met Irwin yet again on 22nd March to discuss the issue.20 The Viceroy promised to consider Gandhi's submission. Sensing some hope, Gandhi wrote a personal letter on the morning of 23rd (Monday) to the Viceroy. In his final endeavour Gandhi tried his best to convince the Viceroy (addressing him as dear friend) for the commutation of the death sentence citing public opinion, internal peace, offer of revolutionaries to shed violence, his own position, the possibility of a judicial error and the appeal to the Christian sentiments of Lord Irwin.

Mahatma's efforts failed to bear fruit. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Raj guru were hanged the same evening at 7 p.m. As the news reached Gandhi, according to an eyewitness account, he was "visibly moved and deeply shocked".

As the above mentioned events show, the execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Raj guru was the triumph of British bureaucracy especially of the Punjab, rather than the failure of Gandhi. Bhagat Singh and his comrades' refusal to seek mercy and on the contrary demand execution in military style made the task very tough for Mahatma Gandhi. Viceroy remained indecisive till the very end and ultimately fell to the mounting pressure of British officers from the Punjab. Jatinder Nath Sanyal, who was watching the events related to his revolutionary colleagues very closely, opined that "most probably the viceroy had felt the influence of the public opinion on the matter, especially the request of Mahatma Gandhi. But the real citadel of power in India, the European ICS cadre, was deadly against the commutation, and the Viceroy ultimately yielded to their pressure".21 Aruna Asif Ali, who had accompanied Asaf Ali while visiting Bhagat Singh in jail, was another keen observer of developments related to the efforts to commute the death sentence. Recalling the events, she wrote later: "Irwin at one time almost submitted to Gandhi's intercession. But the Punjab Governor of the day, rumours say, threatened to resign."22 That the threat of resignation of British high officials of Punjab was a common knowledge is also suggested by memoirs of contemporaries like Kranti Kumar, Robert Barnays and C.S.Venu.23 Telegram of 'Free Press had categorically stated: 'Free Press has 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 mass."24

Murder of Saunders and subsequent revolutionary actions had posed a direct challenge to the European civil servants serving in India. Huge popularity of Bhagat Singh only rubbed salt in their wounds.

British civil servants were against all sorts of compromise with the anti-government movement. Intelligence reports of that period mention that Gandhi-Irwin agreement "disheartened and depressed them and all other supporters of Government; for they believed they saw in the truce evidence of lack of determination on the part of Government in the last resort to maintain its authority".25 In the case of commutation of the death sentence of Bhagat Singh, Raj guru and Sukhdev, they sabotaged all efforts that could lead to commutation such as Asaf Ali's mission. Suggestion of the Punjab Government to hang the trio before the Karachi session was a masterstroke as it left Irwin without a sound argument. But when they found that Irwin, was still vacillating they threatened to resign en masse. Intelligence report of the Government for the fortnight ending 15 April 1931 acknowledged: "There is no doubt that the carrying out of these executions has been in the nature of a much needed tonic to officials and supporters of Government".26

Gandhi's efforts in the case of Bhagat Singh have been appreciated by his close associates like Sitaramayya, Mira Behn (Madeline Slade), Asaf Ali, and Aruna Asaf Ali.

Distinguished historian V. N. Datta also reached the conclusion that "from the extracts of Gandhi - Irwin correspondence and also contemporary evidence, it is clear that Gandhi was deeply interested in saving Bhagat Singh's life, and was constant in his appeals to Irwin not to hang him." According to Datta, in order to understand Gandhi's role, "we have to relate his negotiations with the Viceroy to the political climate of the times, the pressure of public opinion, the role of the Viceroy, and the working of British bureaucracy, and Imperial system in India and England".27

Amit Kumar Gupta in a research paper entitled - 'The Executions of March 1931, Gandhi and Irwin', presented a fine analysis of Gandhi's strategy to save Bhagat Singh:

Why did Gandhi at all ask for postponement of the executions instead of a forthright appeal for reprieve? To be fair to Gandhi one could argue with some force that a mere appeal for commutation to the Viceroy in February 1931, following a Privy Council ruling, was foredoomed to failure. After all Bhagat Singh's patriotism was not on trial. The Tribunal decided on what was a political crime and a premeditated murder. Nobody denied Bhagat Singh's legal guilt and Bhagat Singh and his comrades were the last persons to do that. On the question of reprieve and death penalty Bhagat Singh's own opinion was unequivocal... Under this circumstance judicial mercy from a British Viceroy stood little chance and Gandhi's understanding of law clearly grasped this. The only alternative to save the condemned to death was to exert political pressure. Political pressure in the form of public opinion was already there; otherwise it would not have been a point of discussion between Gandhi and Irwin. Gandhi could have, as he himself said, made commutation a condition of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, which, of course, he was unwilling to do. His unwillingness is understandable in the context of the promise of a historic pact which occurred only rarely in a nation's life-time. A nation's fate could not be staked against the fate of some individuals. Besides, Gandhi and his Working Committee could not with justice champion the cause of violence by departing from their declared devotion to non-violence. In fact much of contemporary criticism of Gandhi on this point seems unreasonable. Thus when pressure through pre-condition appeared illogical Gandhi probably desired to add political manoeuvre to public opinion. He might have thought that if he could, by any remote chance, secure the suspension of executions, the Government would face great difficulty in carrying out the executions at all. The hope of ultimate success in a bargain is sometimes greater if demands are kept low at an initial stage. Gandhi was probably calculating that his apparently innocent request might be treated favourably by a Viceroy - anxiously preparing for a truce.28

In retrospect, the question whether Bhagat Singh could have been saved or not should also be dealt from Bhagat Singh's own perspective. Would he have liked to be deprived of his long cherished ideal of martyrdom? Would he have liked to survive at the mercy of Mahatma Gandhi, against whose political creed the revolutionary movement of 1920's was born? Would it not have been a symbolic defeat of the ideals of the revolutionary movement in the form of defeat of violence against non-violence? Gandhi was aware of Bhagat Singh's steadfast resolve to die a martyr's death. Had Mahatma Gandhi succeeded in preventing Bhagat Singh from attaining martyrdom, would Bhagat Singh have commanded the same place which he commands at present in the galaxy of patriots? Perhaps in view of all these stirring questions, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, on 20 March 1931, closed the door on all efforts to save them by writing their 'mercy petition' to the Punjab Governor: "... according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and we are therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead instead of being hanged."29

Notes and References

  1. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi, Vol.Ill, 1930-34 (Delhi: Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1961), p. 74.
  2. One of his books was titled 'Gandhivad Ki Shav Pariksha' (Post-Mortem Examination of Gandhism).
  3. Yashpal, Simhavalokan, (Allahabad: Lokabharati, 2005), pp. 404-405.
  4. CWMG, Vol. X, p.112.
  5. CWMG, Vol. XXXVIII, pp. 274-276.
  6. CWMG, Vol. XLV, p. 273.
  7. CWMG, Vol. XLV, p. 349.
  8. CWMG, Vol. XLIII, p. 391.
  9. CWMG, Vol. XLV, p.133.
  10. CWMG, Vol. XLV, pp. 196-197.
  11. CWMG, Vol. XLVI, pp. 51-52.
  12. CWMG, Vol. XLV, pp. 315-316.
  13. National Archives of India (N.A.I.), Home Political File, 33/1 & KW, 1931.
  14. Mahadev Desai's diary (page 171) quoted by Anil Nauriya in Mainstream, April 6, 1996, p. 30.
  15. Bhavisya, Allahabad, 27 March 1931. Also published in Snehlata Sehgal (Tr.), op.cit. pp. 293-294.
  16. Commonweal, Pune, 23 March 1949.
  17. Bernays , a senior journalist, maintained a diary of his talks with a number of prominent Indian leaders and high ranking British officials. His diary, published in 1932, proved to be a sensitive and accurate chronicle of the events.
  18. Robert Bernays, Naked Faquir, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932), p. 213.
  19. CWMG, Vol XLV, p. 320; Gandhi 1915-1948: A Detailed Chronology, compiled by C.B. Dalai, (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1971), p. 87.
  20. Gandhi 1915-1948: A Detailed Chronology, Ibid.
  21. J.N.Sanyal, op. cit., p.74.
  22. Aruna Asaf Ali, Fragments from the Past, Selected Writings and Speeches of Aruna Asaf Ali, (New Delhi: Patriot Publishers, 1989), p.102.
  23. Homage to Martyrs, (Delhi: Shaheed Ardha Shatabdi Samaroh Samiti, 1981), Hindi Section, pp. 85-86; Robert Barnays, op. cit. pp. 211-212; C.S. Venu, Sirdar Bhagat Singh, 1931, Microfilm, N.A.I. , p. 48.
  24. Bhavisya, 9 April 1931 (translated from Hindi)
  25. Terrorism in India, 1917-1936, 1937, p. 42.
  26. N.A.I., Home Political File, 18/IV/1931, 1931.
  27. V.N Datta's keynote address at the International Conference on "Bhagat Singh and His Times" organised by the Indian Council of Historical Research in collaboration with the Institute of Punjab Studies, Chandigarh in September 2007. Excerpts from the address were published in The Tribune of December 23, 2007 under the title, Bhagat Singh Trial and Execution: Gandhi Tried His Best for Reprieve". Datta has since revised and enlarged the address into a book-Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, (New Delhi: Rupa, 2008).
  28. Amit Kumar Gupta, "The Executions of March 1931, Gandhi and Irwin", Bengal: Past & Present, Vol. XC, (January- June 1971), pp. 111-112.
  29. Shiv Varma , The Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, (Kanpur: Samajvadi Sahitya Sadan, 1996), pp. 132 - 133.

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 32, No. 3, October-December 2010.

* Chander Pal Singh is free lance researcher in History. He was awarded Ph.D. in History by C.C.S. University, Meerut on the concept of national education in India during the British period. Later, he worked on census policy of British in India and Bhagat Singh. Currently he is working on origins and working of colonial political system in India covering the period 1858-1919. This article forms a part of his larger study on Bhagat Singh. Email: