Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh - A clash of ideology

- Jain Narain Sharma*


Great men of all generations have been anxious about improvement of the lot of human beings. But how to realize it remains a formidable task for every age. Even though the goal is similar, the means to achieve the goal can differ. And this difference in approach can generate a lot of controversy. This is precisely what happened between Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Bhagat Singh, the two great statesmen of modern India. As a result, Bhagat Singh has been ranked as a rival of Mahatma Gandhi. It has been held in some quarters that while Gandhi was the sun of nationalism around which all the planets of the Indian National Congress revolved, Bhagat Singh was a star that pursued an orbit of its own.

The revolutionaries contributed a great deal in their own way towards the freedom of the country. Although they could not penetrate deeply into the hearts of the masses they certainly infused in them a sense of patriotism and a determination to drive out foreigners from their soil. This spirit alarmed the British bureaucrats. Even those who were opposed to their ideology and methods, praised them for their love of motherland and the heroic way in which they faced the gallows and an extremely hard life in the jails. While denouncing their cult of violence, even Mahatma Gandhi, an apostle of non-violence, unhesitatingly appreciated their feelings of intense patriotism and their willingness to sacrifice their all for the emancipation of their country from foreign yoke. Among martyrs who willingly treaded the thorny path with courage and faced the gallows with fortitude, the name of Bhagat Singh shines as a star. He is rightly called 'Prince of Martyrs'.

Bhagat Singh stated the truth when he said, “You can kill individuals, but not the ideas. Great empires crumbled, but the ideas survived.” He wanted India not only to be free but also a sovereign, socialist republic of workers and peasants. In a leaflet thrown in the Central Assembly, he declared, “We dream of a glorious future, when man will be enjoying perfect peace and full liberty. But, the sacrifice of few individuals at the altar of the great revolution that will bring freedom to all, rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible, is inevitable.”

After the bold act of throwing bombs in the Central Assembly, instead of escaping from the spot, which was not a difficult task for them, they stood there like a rock, raised revolutionary slogans, threw leaflets around and willingly courted arrests. 'Inquilab Zindabad', the echo of the slogan raised by Bhagat Singh throughout the proceedings of the Delhi Assembly Bomb Case by him and Batukeshwar Dutt, was heard in each and every part of the country. This endeared them to the nation and Bhagat Singh became a symbol of nation, to be honoured and emulated by the youths of India.

British government was conscious of the fact that its image was tarnished by the one-sided trial in the Assembly case. Bhagat Singh and Dutt, in order to improve the plight of political prisoners in the Indian jails, commenced the hunger-strike in Mianwali and Lahore jails respectively. He and his comrades were able to win the sympathy and support of the people for this noble cause. In the legislative assembly, Pt. Motilal Nehru criticized the government's policy towards the under trials in the Lahore conspiracy case. Jawaharlal Nehru also expressed his concern and visited the two jails of Lahore.

During the trial of Lahore conspiracy case, Bhagat Singh disseminated his views frankly and fearlessly. Besides explaining the philosophy of revolutionaries, he drew attention of the public towards the unjust actions of the government. He was successful to a great extent in achieving both. Crowds gathered to watch the proceedings in the court. At the main gate, a large number of students of schools and colleges always gathered to witness the proceedings. The huge youth crowd would sing patriotic songs like, 'Kabhi wo din bhi ayega ki jab azad hum honge', 'Watan par marne walon ka yehi baki nishan hoga' and 'Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai'.2 Such popular outbursts were also witnessed in almost all cities of the country. Undoubtedly, at that time, Bhagat Singh was the most popular figure of the nation.

The verdict of death passed on Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru virtually shook the nation. In a speech at Allahabad, five days after the sentence was passed, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Whether he agreed with Bhagat Singh or not, his heart was full of admiration for the courage and self-sacrifice of Bhagat Singh. A man of his type is exceedingly rare. If the viceroy expects us to refrain from admiring this wonderful courage and high purpose behind it, he is mistaken. Let him ask his own heart what he would have felt if Bhagat Singh had been an Englishman and acted for England?”2

Bhagat Singh did not associate himself with a plea of mercy, made on behalf of most of the accused, to the Privy Council.3 In fact during the entire period between the order of the death sentence (Oct 7, 1930) and his execution (March 23, 1931), he always opposed this idea of submission of an appeal of mercy.

The government felt that submission of the plea of mercy would defer the execution and apprehended popular demonstration during this period. Punjab govt was reluctant to prohibit such meetings, since it would be required to enforce it only with a series of clashes with police. In this view, while allowing local governments to follow a uniform policy, keeping in view local conditions, the latter were also authorised to prohibit meetings in sympathy with the convicts in case they felt it to be appropriate.4

Till Dec 23, 1930, there was no violent incidents in the aftermath of death sentence to Bhagat Singh, but on that day, two students fired six shots at governor of Punjab who had come to address the convocation at Punjab University. One of the assailants committed suicide just after firing, while the other was arrested. The governor suffered minor injuries.5

On Jan 26, 1931, Mahatma Gandhi was released from the jail. In the beginning, he was reluctant to talk with the viceroy but on Feb 14, he decided to talk with Lord Irwin for a compromise, which commenced on Feb 17. Five days before these talks, the Secretary of State for India telegraphically informed the viceroy that Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had heard the appeal of mercy and had decided to recommend its dismissal, to the King.6 In view of the prospects of a compromise with Gandhi, acting on behalf of Congress, the British government decided to defer the execution of Bhagat Singh and his two associates.

On Feb 14, Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya appealed to the viceroy for mercy in the case of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, and to commute the death sentence into that of transportation for life. According to him, their lives should be spared not only on grounds of humanity but also in view of the fact that their action was not prompted by any personal or selfish consideration but by a patriotic impulse. Moreover the execution would be a great shock to the public and the commutation, in contrast, would have a very beneficial effect on it.7

The leaders and the public continued to make similar appeals. On Feb 18, the public submitted a memorial to viceroy, arguing: (i) the trial was not held according to the ordinary form of law before an ordinary court of law, but was conducted ex parte in the absence of the accused by an extraordinary court of law (ii) after the judgement the accused were not permitted to appeal to the High Court (iii) Sardar Kishan Singh was not allowed to produce documentary and oral evidence to disprove the story regarding the murder of Saunders. It appealed for the commutation of the death sentence.8

Much against his wishes, Bhagat Singh's mother Vidyavati requested the viceroy to exercise his prerogative of mercy and put a stay on the execution and commute it to an imprisonment term, putting forward the following pleas: (i) in case proper examination of her son had been conducted, his innocence would have been established (ii) under the form of the trial prescribed by the Ordinance, her son was deprived of the right of appeal to High Court, which he would have had under the Criminal Procedure Code.9 & 10

On Feb 17, 1931, Gandhi discussed this matter with the viceroy. According to Gandhi, he told 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.” The viceroy expressed his gratefulness to Gandhi for putting the matter in such a manner, saying, “Commutation of sentence was a difficult thing but suspension could be considered.” While praising Bhagat Singh's bravery, Gandhi said that in his opinion he was not in the right frame of mind. He then referred to the evil of capital punishment which did not give any opportunity to such a man to reform himself. He was, therefore, putting the matter on humanitarian grounds and desired suspension of sentence in order to avoid unnecessary turmoil in the country.11

The disappointment of the public was shared by Subhas Chandra Bose, and few other leaders of Congress. A few young enthusiasts of the Congress distributed pamphlets asking Gandhi, as to how can there be peace when a sentence of death is hanging over the heads of patriots? On March 7, addressing a mass meeting of over fifty thousand, Gandhi pointed out that two days before he had signed a provisionary temporary settlement with viceroy, which in no way can be called a peace treaty. He beseeched the young men to have courage, patience and reason. In case the old men had bungled and were guilty of weakness, the youth should force them to abdicate and assume the reins themselves. He then explained that throughout his negotiations, he was not acting on his own but was backed by the whole Working Committee of Congress. As a negotiator of provisional truce, the pledge of truth, non-violence and boundaries of justice were not forgotten by him. He requested the youth to stand by the settlement and secure the release of the prisoners. He also warned the youths that Bhagat Singh cannot be released by violent means. In his place thousands of Bhagat Singh would have to be sacrificed. As he was not prepared to do so, he preferred the way of peace and non-violence. In the end, he beseeched the youths to change their methods and accept the settlement.12

In a speech on Mar 10, Nehru throwing light on the efforts made by Congress to release Bhagat Singh, said that if in asking for the release of Bhagat Singh, Congress had demonstrated obstinacy, he would perhaps have been hanged by this time. If Bhagat Sigh is alive will then, it was because of Mahatma Gandhi's efforts and if he and other prisoners guilty of violence were released, it would be due to Mahatma Gandhi's efforts.13

On hearing this news about suspension, Bhagat Singh felt somewhat worried. He was not inclined to pass his days any more in the dingy cell. The sooner he embraced death, it was better for him. Moreover he had no faith in Gandhi, and his cult of non-violence and the Congress. In his conversations with Chuhar Singh, a 'Ghadrite' prisoner, Bhagat Singh told him, “Babaji, the imperialist British do not care for the popular urge. Gandhi-viceroy meetings... would be no good to us. The Congress policy is weak, reformatory and constitutional. The constitutionalists are always useless for the revolutionary interests. The opportunist enemy has made an agreement to save his skin after some give and take. When the question of implementation arises, it throws the (agreement) paper into the waste paper basket. So many pacts were made previously but nothing had materialised.”14

In the next meeting, viceroy informed Gandhi about his considering the case of Bhagat Singh with most anxious care but he was not able to find any grounds on which he could justify to his conscience the commutation. He had rejected the idea of postponement on following grounds: (i) postponement on political grounds, when orders have been passed, seemed to him improper (ii) postponement was inhuman in that it would suggest to Bhagat Singh's friends and relatives that he was considering commutation (iii) the Congress would consider it legitimate in complaining that they were tricked by the government.15

“Did Gandhi fail to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades from the gallows?” is a question which is repeatedly asked by historians and scholars of freedom movement. It is also held at certain quarters that Gandhi did not sincerely try to save them. The purpose of the present piece is to put the facts straight and let the learned readers make their own assessment.

The Gandhi-Irwin Pact raised Gandhi's stature as for the first time the agents of British government condescended to negotiate with Congress on an equal footing for the settlement of terms of peace. But execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru damaged Gandhi's prestige since it was believed that he had so much influence over the viceroy, that he could persuade the latter to spare the lives of young revolutionaries.

The execution gave a rude shock to all, especially the youths. The supreme self-sacrifice and courage and patriotism thrilled the hearts of young and old alike, across the country. The official historian of Congress, Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya observed that Bhagat Singh's name was as widely known all over India as Gandhi's.16 Nehru declared at the Karachi session of the Congress that in Bhagat Singh, self-sacrifice and bravery had reached their zenith.17 The Mahatma himself had a special regard for the brave patriots. He gave the following assurances to congressmen in Bombay:

(i) He would ask the Karachi Congress for a mandate to bind the hands of the Congress deputationsist to the Round Table Conference. (ii) The mandate would contain nothing that was not consistent with the status of independence for which the Lahore congress had declared. (iii) He would use all his influence and strain every nerve to secure amnesty for those who had been left out in the pact.18

When Gandhi was travelling from Bombay to Delhi, he got the news that the government had decided to execute Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Pressure was brought to bear upon Gandhi to intercede with the viceroy for the commutation of the death sentence. “On this occasion”, writes Subhash Chandra Bose, “I ventured the suggestion that he should, if necessary, break with viceroy on this question, because the execution was against the spirit, if not the letter of the Delhi pact.”19 But the Mahatma who did not want to identify himself with the revolutionaries would not go far and it naturally made a difference when the viceroy realised that the Mahatma would not break on that question. However, at that time, Lord Irwin told Gandhi that he had received a large signed petition asking for commutation. He would postpone and consider, but not beyond that. The conclusion which Gandhi and everybody else drew from the attitude of the viceroy was that the execution would be finally cancelled and there was a jubilation all over the country.20 It was a painful surprise when on March 24, Gandhi received the news that Bhagat Singh and his comrades had been hanged the night before.

Was Gandhi cornered by the viceroy? Or was it a failure of his techniques? Subhash Chandra Bose and a host of other leaders criticized the Mahatma for failing to save their precious lives. But there is no doubt that he made sincere efforts to save those precious lives in spite of his disapproval of their reliance on violence for the liberation of motherland. He pleaded with the viceroy to the maximum of his ability to commute their death sentence on the ground that commutation was the general demand of the country and therefore any act to the country would endanger internal peace.21 Giving an idea of the efforts made in this connection he said, “I pleaded with the viceroy as best as I could. I brought all the persuasion at my command to bear on him.. I wrote a personal letter to the viceroy.. I poured out my soul in it but to no avail. I might have done one thing more, you say. I might have made the commutation a term of settlement. It could not be so made. And to threaten withdrawal would have been breach of faith. The Congress Working Committee had agreed with me in not making commutation a condition precedent to truce. I could only mention it apart from the settlement. I had hoped for magnanimity. My hope was not to materialise. But that can be no ground for breaking the settlement.”22

The viceroy himself admitted that Gandhi tried his best. But Lord Irwin remaining adamant, told Gandhi that there was a very minor difference between a revolutionary and a patriot for one section of the society and a terrorist and a criminal for the government. Also, in his own words, “As I listened to Mr. Gandhi putting the case for commutation forcibly 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 opposite to his own, but I should regard it as wholly wrong to allow my judgement on these matters to be influenced and deflected by purely political considerations. I could imagine no case in which under the law penalty had been more directly deserved.”23 The Mahatma told him that the question at present was no between violence and non-violence but of saving the precious lives. The viceroy gave only a verbal assurance.

In his autobiography, Lord Irwin mentions, “Mr. Gandhi said he greatly feared that unless I do something, the effect would destroy our pact. I said, I would regret this no less than he. There were only three possible course. First was to do nothing and let the execution proceed. Second was to change the order and grant Bhagat Singh reprieve. Third was to hold up any decision till after the Congress meeting was over.”24 Gandhi requested him to show mercy and spare the young men. He appealed to the viceroy's conscience.

Gandhi was greeted with hostile slogans and black flags when he went to attend the Karachi session of the Congress. He was blamed for not making commutation of the sentence a condition for settlement in the Gandhi-Irwin pact. Members of Naujawan Sabha shouted: “Gandhi go back”, “Down with Gandhism”, “Gandhi's truce has sent Bhagat Singh to gallows”, “Long live Bhagat Singh”. Far from being angered, Gandhi had a good word for them to say in the press, “Though they were incensed against me, they gave vent to their wrath in what I would call a most dignified manner. It was open to them to do physical injury but they refrained from doing so. And it was open to them to insult me in many other ways, but they confined their resentment to handing me black-cloth flowers representing, I imagine, the ashes of three patriots. I am hoping they will exercise the same restraint. For they know I am trying to reach the same goal with them. Only I am following a method wholly different from theirs. In this country of self-suppression and timidity, almost bordering on cowardice, we cannot have too much self-sacrifice. One's head bends before Bhagat Singh's bravery and sacrifice. But I want the greater bravery, if I might say so without offending my young friends, of the meek, the gentle and the non-violent, the bravery that will mount the gallows without injuring or harbouring any thought of injury to a single soul.”25

Gandhi admitted that he could go no further since India's freedom was more important than the execution of a few young men who would cheerfully court death for their country. Nevertheless Gandhi paid tribute to their courage and self-sacrifice, while drafting a resolution on their sacrifices for the Karachi session. It ran thus: “This Congress, while disassociating itself from and disapproving of political violence in any form, places on record its admiration for the bravery and sacrifice of the late Sardar Bhagat Singh and his comrades Sukhdev and Rajguru and mourns with the bereaved families the loss of their lives. The Congress is of the opinion that government have lost the golden opportunity of promoting the goodwill between the two nations, admittedly held to be essential at this juncture and of winning over to the method of peace, the party which, being driven to despair resorts to political violence.”26

Sardar Kishan Singh, the father of late Sardar Bhagat Singh came to the rostrum of the Karachi Congress and spoke in favour of the resolution. He said he never wanted anyone to emulate the act of violence. He only admired the spirit behind their action. But such subtle distinctions could hardly be for the masses. Gandhi had to issue a statement in Young India, repudiating the cult of violence that came to be associated with the name of Bhagat Singh: “.. I regret to observe that caution has been thrown to the winds, the deed itself being worshipped as being worthy of emulation.”27

D.P. Das concludes, “Gandhi's deception should not make us cynical about him, nor should the discovery of a deception for a cause considered noble by him be taken as an indication of any absence of nobility in him. He was indeed a great Indian. Let Bhagat Singh episode be just a spot in his career and a condonable spot. Have not condoned the spots in the moon, Yudhishthira and Rama?”28

It must be remembered that Gandhi himself was not the viceroy of India. All he could do was try. And he pleaded hard. The viceroy on his part, was just a paid employee of the British government, acting under the directions of his masters in England who were bent on suppressing the revolutionaries. It would have been easy in case the revolutionaries concerned were ordinary, and not like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, who were class apart.

Gandhi's role in this affair has to be judged in view of the fact that the ultimate goal for which he worked was for country's independence where not one but many Bhagat Singhs were required to be sacrificed for the sake of freedom. His earnest desires was to make absolutely final, what was provisional. “It has”, said Gandhi, “increased our power for winning freedom for which Bhagat Singh and his comrades have died.”

Notes and References

  1. Virendra Sandhu, Amar Shahid Bhagat Singh, p.46
  2. S Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, A biography, Vol 1, pp.394-395
  3. Home Department File Number 4/12/1931
  4. Ibid.
  5. Home, Political, File Number 4/10/1930
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., File Number 4/20/1931
  8. Hindustan Times, February 19, 1931
  9. Home Department, Judicial, File NumberĀ  152/1/1931
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XLV, p.200
  12. Young India, March 12, 1931
  13. Leader, March 12, 1931
  14. G.S. Deol, Shaheed-e-Azam Sardar Bhagat Singh, pp.86-87
  15. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XIV, pp. 315-316
  16. Pattabhi, Sitaramayya, History of Indian National Congress, Vol. I, p.456
  17. Indian Annual Register, 1931, Vol I, p.385
  18. Bose, Subhas Chandra, The Indian Struggle, 1964, pp.203-204
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. S.L. Malhotra, Gandhi: An experiment with communal politics, p.143
  22. Young India, 2.4.1931
  23. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol.3, p.79
  24. Viscount Halifax, Fullness of Days, 1957, p.149-150
  25. Tendulkar, Mahatma, op.cit.pp. 74-75
  26. Indian Annual Register, 1931, Vol I, p.267
  27. Young India, April 2, 1931
  28. Khullar, K.K., Shaheed Bhagat Singh, p.79

Adapted from the original article of the same name, which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Vol.33, Number 4, January-March 2012, pp.427-439

* Jai Narain Sharma is Professor, Department of Gandhian Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh-160014, Punjab. Email: