On Bhagat Singh: 100th anniversary celebration of birth of greatest Indian revolution martyr (Part 3)
Gandhi’s role in the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades
Following part 1 and 2 in the two previous issues, part 3 here provides evidence of how Gandhi and the Congress Party were as keen as was British imperialism to eliminate the revolutionary wing of the Indian freedom struggle as epitomised by Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
Gandhi studiously avoided visiting Bhagat Singh and his comrades in prison. On 17 February, Gandhi began his talks with the viceroy, Lord Irwin. Six days later, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (the highest court for appeals emanating from British colonies) rejected Bhagat Singh’s appeal against the death sentence. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact, reached on 5 March 1931, made absolutely no provision concerning the case of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries. Paragraphs 12 and 13 of this Pact, while making a provision for the withdrawal of prosecutions, had two provisos, namely, that the prosecution or imprisonment was in connection with “
the civil disobedience movement
” and that the charges or convictions did not result from acts of violence or incitement to violence. Thus the unstated, but clear and unambiguous, message was that there was no hope for Bhagat Singh and his comrades. The commutation of the death sentence to one of imprisonment for life, which alone could have rescued these great revolutionaries from the hangman’s noose, was consequently out of the question under the Pact concluded by Gandhi with Irwin. Let it be said in passing that during the entire course of the Gandhi-Irwin talks, the whole of the Congress Working Committee were with Gandhi. He kept its members fully informed of his discussions with the viceroy even if this involved waking them up in the middle of the night for consultations. Thus it was not Gandhi alone, but also almost the entire top leadership of the Congress Party which was complicit in sending the most wonderful revolutionaries to the gallows.
The day following the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, Gandhi held a press conference which attracted every foreign correspondent of note in Delhi as well as some senior Indian journalists. At this conference, Gandhi refused to answer the question whether the death sentences on Bhagat Singh and his comrades would be commuted to transportation for life, indulging instead in evasions, saying there was sufficient material in the press to enable journalists to draw their own inferences.
On 7 March, Gandhi spoke at a mass rally in Delhi, where he was handed a red leaflet listing several questions, including one pertaining to Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Gandhi’s answer, replete with dishonesty and full of irritation, was as follows:
May be, if you had been negotiating, you might have secured better terms from the Viceroy, but we, the Congress Working Committee, could secure no more than what we have. I may tell you that throughout the negotiations I was not acting on my own, but I was backed by the whole Congress Working Committee. We brought all the pressure we could to bear on our negotiations and satisfied ourselves with what in justice we could have under the provisional settlement. We could not as negotiators of the provisional truce forget our pledge of truth and non-violence, forget the bounds of justice”.
He went on: “
But it is still open to us to secure the release of all you have named and that can be done only if you will implement the settlement. Let ‘Young India’ standby the settlement and fulfil all its conditions, and if God willing, Bhagat Singh and others are alive when we have arrived at the proper stage, they would not only be saved from the gallows but released
” (Our emphasis).
The implication of Gandhi’s answer is that he had grounds enough to believe that there was a reasonable probability of Bhagat Singh and his comrades remaining alive for some time longer. Archival evidence, however, clearly reveals that Irwin had told Gandhi in terms most explicit that the death sentences would soon be carried out. Gandhi’s public claims that he had pleaded hard with Irwin for the death sentences to be commuted were plain and unadulterated lies.
The Gandhi-Irwin talks began in earnest only in the afternoon of 18 February 1831 when Gandhi raised the question of Bhagat Singh. Irwin made a detailed note of his entire conversation with Gandhi that afternoon. The concluding paragraph of Irwin’s note reads thus:
In conclusion and not connected with the above, he mentioned the case of Bhagat Singh. He 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 no be made with equal force in the case of any other violent crime. The viceroy’s powers of commutation were designed for use on well-known grounds of clemency, and I could not feel that they ought to be invoked on grounds that were admittedly political” (
The Trial of Bhagat Singh
by A.G. Noorani, p.239).
Gandhi’s own version of his conversation with Irwin (as per the manuscript of Mahadeb Desai’s Diary) does not conflict with that of Irwin:
I said about Bhagat Singh: ‘he is undoubtedly a brave man but I would certainly say that he is not in his right mind’. However, this is the evil of capital punishment, that it gives no opportunity to such a man to reform himself. I am putting this matter before you as a humanitarian issue and desire suspension of sentence in order that there may not be unnecessary turmoil in the country. I myself would release him, but I cannot expect any Government to do so. I would not take it ill even if you do not give any reply on this issue'”.
From the above it is clear that Gandhi was merely asking for the suspension of Bhagat Singh’s execution – not for commutation of the death sentence. Suspension meant no more than postponement in the interests of avoiding “
turmoil in the country.”
Neither the viceroy’s note nor Gandhi’s version betray a strong appeal by Gandhi to the viceroy to commute the death sentences of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev.
A month later, and well after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact had been concluded on 5 March, Gandhi raised the question of the postponement of the executions, which according to the reports in the press had been fixed for 24 March – the same day that the Congress Session was due to be held in Karachi at which the ratification of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was to be high on the agenda. This “
” was inconvenient indeed for Gandhi. Irwin’s record of his conversation with Gandhi makes it starkly clear that, far from being willing to commute the death sentences, the viceroy was not prepared to agree even to the postponement of their execution; that Gandhi made no stronger plea on behalf of Bhagat Singh and his comrades on this occasion than he had done on 18 February; rather he seemed to acquiesce in the execution which, to his knowledge, were fixed for 24 March.
The question of Bhagat Singh was brought up by Gandhi towards the very end of his meeting with Irwin, who recorded: “
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. This was an unfortunate day as it coincided with the arrival of the new President of the Congress at Karachi and there would be much popular excitement.
I told him that I had considered the case with the 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:
“(i) that the postponement of execution, merely on political grounds, when orders had been passed, seemed to me improper;
“(ii) that the postponement was inhuman in that it would suggest to the friends and relatives that I was considering commutation;
“(iii) that Congress would have been able legitimately to complain that they had been tricked by Government.
appeared to appreciate the force of these arguments, and said no more
” (Quoted in Noorani, pp. 240-241).
On the evening of that very day, Gandhi spoke for three hours with the Home Secretary, Herbert Emerson. It is clear from Emerson’s record of his conversation with Gandhi that the latter conveyed the same impression as he had to the viceroy earlier in the day. What is more, it was Emerson who brought up the question of Bhagat Singh:
I then asked him if he had seen in the papers that the Governor-General in Council had rejected the petition for mercy on behalf of Bhagat Singh. He said that he had and that he was apprehensive regarding the consequences. I did not mention the date on which the execution would be carried out, but I did explain to him that the question as to whether it should take place before or after the Karachi Congress had been very seriously considered by 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. He did not seem to me to be particularly concerned about the matter. I told him that we should be lucky if we got through without disorder, and I asked him to do all he could to prevent meetings being held in Delhi during the next few days and to restrain violent speeches. He promised to do what he could.” (Quoted
Emerson’s account is corroborated by the correspondence the two exchanged the following day, which reveals unmistakably a considerable degree of rapport between them. It is worth our while reproducing Emerson’s letter of 20 March to Gandhi, as well as the latter’s reply to it on the same day.
Emerson’s letter to Gandhi:
Government of India
Home Department, New Delhi
March 20, 1931
With reference to our conversation last night regarding the danger of excitement being worked up in connection with the execution of the sentence passed on Bhagat Singh, etc., the Chief Commissioner informs me that notice has been given in the city that Mr Subhas Chandra Bose will address a meeting of protest tonight at 5.30. I fully realise your difficulties in the matter and I think that you realise the difficulties of Government and also their desire at the present time to avoid, if possible, preventive action, which may, however, be unavoidable if excitement grows. If a meeting is held tonight, it is almost certain to increase feeling, especially if speeches of an inflammatory character are made. Government will much appreciate any assistance you feel able to give to prevent this and check the creation of conditions which, if uncontrolled, may have serious consequences.”
H W Emerson
M K Gandhi, Esq.
1, Daryaganj, Delhi
March 20, 1931
Dear Mr Emerson
I thank you for your letter just received. I knew about the meeting you refer to. I have already taken every precaution possible and hope that nothing untoward will happen. I suggest that there should be no display of police force and no interference at the meeting. Irritation is undoubtedly there. It would be better to allow it to find vent through meetings, etc.
M K Gandhi
In the light of Gandhi’s conversation with Irwin and his correspondence with Emerson, it is clear that (a) Gandhi had no grounds whatever for believing that the colonial authorities were going to spare the lives of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries; (b) he had been repeatedly told that the authorities were determined to carry out the death sentences; he had made no meaningful effort to effect a change of that decision and had, on the contrary, led Irwin to believe that he was not seriously interested in the commutation of the death sentences to imprisonment for life; (c) and he acquiesced willingly in the Government’s decision to send these revolutionaries to the gallows. What is more, in his conversation and correspondence with Emerson, he had assumed the role of government adviser, counselling the latter on how best to manage the disturbances sure to follow the imminent execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the historian of the Congress Party, does not allege that Gandhi was duped by the viceroy. On the contrary, according to his recapitulation of the Gandhi-Irwin talks, although Irwin was willing to postpone the executions, it was Gandhi who showed a preference that these be carried out before the Congress met at Karachi. Of course, Gandhi’s version of events, as put out in his public statements, was just the opposite of it and at variance with the truth.
This is what Sitaramayya wrote: “
Any way Lord Irwin was unable to help in the matter, but undertook to secure a postponement of the execution till after the Karachi Congress. The Karachi session was to meet in the last days of March, but Gandhi himself definitely stated to the viceroy that if the boys be hanged they had better be hanged before the Congress than after. The position of affairs in the country would be clear. There would be no false hopes lingering in the breasts of the people. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact would stand or fall on its own merits at the Congress, and on the added fact that the three boys had been executed” (
Vol. 1, p.442).
Gandhi, who had done very little during his discussions with the viceroy from 18 February to 19 March to save the lives of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, sent the following letter to the viceroy on 23 March – the very day of the execution:
It seems cruel to inflict this letter on you, but 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 re-consideration, 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.”
Gandhi continued: “
Seeing that I am able to inform you that the revolutionary party has assured me that, in the event of these lives being spared, that party will stay its hands, suspension of sentence pending cessation of revolutionary murders becomes in my opinion a peremptory duty.”
Political murders have been condoned before now. It is worthwhile saving these lives, if thereby many other innocent lives are likely to be saved and may be even revolutionary crime almost stamped out” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi
[CWMG] Vol 45, pp.333-4).
In writing this letter, Gandhi was moved in equal measure by the belated realisation of the violent consequences likely to follow from the executions, resulting in the rejection of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, by a desire to stamp out the revolutionary section of the national liberation struggle through commutation of the death sentences, and by cynical hypocrisy so as to be able to claim later that he had done his best to save these revolutionaries from the gallows. If he had really been in earnest in trying to save them, he would have done it much earlier and much more forcefully, making it a condition of the Gandhi-Irwin talks that the death sentence must be commuted and backing such demand with the threat of the launch of a nationwide protest movement in the event of the demand being rejected. Had Gandhi and the Congress Party desired to save the lives of these revolutionaries, they had the prestige and mass following to compel British imperialism to relent. All the evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. Gandhi and his party were as keen as was British imperialism to eliminate the revolutionary wing of the Indian freedom struggle as epitomised by Bhagat Singh. Only this explains why
“… till as late as March 19, in his talks with the viceroy and the Home Secretary, and March 20, in his correspondence with the Home Secretary, Gandhi conveyed a clear impression of disinterest in Bhagat Singh’s fate. On the morning of March 23, Gandhi could have had no reason to believe that his plea for clemency at the very last minute stood any chance of acceptance by the viceroy”
In the words of Manmathnath Gupta: “
It is evident from Gandhi’s own letter to Emerson that he was not at all emotionally involved in the imminent hanging of the three youths in the way in which the whole of India, including Nehru and Bose, were”
(quoted in Noorani, p.245).
In 1957, Irwin, by then Lord Halifax, published his memoirs under the title
Fullness of Days,
in which he recapitulated his 19 March, 1931, conversation with Gandhi – along lines similar to those in his minute of the day. “
If the young man was hanged, said Mr Gandhi, there was a likelihood that he would become a national martyr and the general atmosphere would be seriously prejudiced … Mr Gandhi said that he greatly feared, unless I could do something about it, the effect would be to destroy our Pact. I said I should regret that no less than he, but it would be clear to him that there were only three possible courses. The first was to … let the execution proceed, the second was to … grant Bhagat Singh a reprieve, the third was to hold up any decision till after the Congress meeting was well over. I told him that … it was impossible for me … to grant him a reprieve, and that merely to postpone decision and encourage people to think that there was such a chance of remission was not straightforward or honest. The first course alone, therefore, was possible in spite of all its attendant difficulties. Mr Gandhi thought for a moment, and then said, ‘Would Your Excellency see any objection to my saying that I pleaded for the young man’s life?
‘” (Earl of Halifax,
Fullness of Days
, Collins, London, 1957, pp. 149-150).
Gandhi’s belated, and apparently fervent, plea for commutation of the sentences came as a total surprise to the viceroy in the light of their preceding discussions from 18 February to 19 March. Irwin lost no time in rejecting Gandhi’s plea. Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev were duly executed on 23 March.
Gandhi’s cynicism and duplicity
As the news of the executions reached Delhi, Gandhi issued a carefully drafted statement on 24 March before leaving for Karachi. While being compelled to pay tribute to Bhagat Singh, Gandhi was mainly concerned in this statement, first, to control within acceptable bourgeois limits the expression of people’s anger at the judicial murder of three of the finest youths of India, and, second, to remove any impression that the executions were in any way a “
breach of settlement
” by British colonialism. Now to Gandhi’s statement:
There never has been, within living memory, so much romance round any life as has surrounded that of Bhagat Singh. Though I must have seen him as a student while at Lahore many times, I cannot recall Bhagat Singh’s features. But during the past month, it was a privilege to listen to the story of Bhagat Singh’s patriotism, his courage and his deep love for Indian humanity. From all accounts received by me, his daring was unequalled. That he misused his extraordinary courage has been forgotten in the midst of his many virtues. The execution of such a youth and his comrades has given them the crown of martyrdom. Thousands feel today personally bereaved by this death. While therefore I can associate myself with all the tributes that can be paid to the memory of these young patriots, I warn the youth of the country against copying their example. Let us by all means copy their capacity for sacrifice, their industry and their reckless courage. But let us not use these qualities as they did. The deliverance of this country must not be through murder.
As for the Government, I cannot help feeling that they have lost a golden opportunity of winning over the Revolutionary Party. It was their clear duty in view of the settlement, at least to suspend indefinitely the execution. By their action they have put a severe strain upon the settlement and once more proved their capacity for flouting public opinion and for exhibition of the immense brute power they possess. This persistence in the exercise of their brute power is perhaps a portent showing that notwithstanding pompous and pious declarations, they do not mean to part with power. But the Nation’s duty is clear. The Congress must not swerve from the path chalked out for it. In my opinion, notwithstanding the gravest provocation, the Congress should endorse the settlement. We must not put ourselves in the wrong by being angry. Let us recognise that commutation of the sentences was no part of the truce. We may accuse the Government of Goondaism, but we may not accuse them of breach of settlement. In my deliberate opinion, a grave blunder has been committed by the Government and it has increased our power of winning the freedom for which Bhagat Singh and his comrades have died. Let us not fritter away the opportunity by being betrayed into any angry action. Universal hartal is a foregone conclusion. No better mark of respect can be paid to the memory of deceased patriots than by having absolutely silent and peaceful processions. Let it even be one of self-purification and greater dedication to the service of the country.”
26 March 1931, quoted in Noorani pp. 246-7).
Gandhi’s fulminations against the government were merely an exercise in cynicism and an expression of duplicitous hypocrisy for, along with the government, he was in no small degree responsible for the execution of Bhagat Singh for, to repeat, he and the Congress had had it within their power to compel the viceroy to reprieve Bhagat Singh and his comrades. The masses of India saw through his hypocrisy and poured scorn and derision on his assertions that he had tried his best to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades from the hangman’s noose. They were no less angry with him than with the government for the dastardly murder of these great young patriots. No wonder, then, that on his arrival at Malir station near Karachi, Gandhi was met by angry demonstrators of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha wearing red shirts, shouting ‘Down with Gandhism’ and ‘Go back, Gandhi’. He was greeted by demonstrators waving black flags at all the railway stations between Lahore and Karachi. In his press statement of 26 March, in an effort to mollify public opinion, Gandhi acknowledged the angry demonstration against him as
“…a legitimate expression of … anger”.
In the same statement, while being compelled to bow his head
“…before Bhagat Singh’s bravery and sacrifice
“, he went on to warn the youth against the cult of violence in his characteristic bourgeois style:
In this country of self-suppression and timidity almost bordering on cowardice we cannot have too much bravery, 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.” (Quoted
in Noorani, p. 248).
This was ever the Gandhian formula, sure to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The self-annihilatory gibberish contained in the above remarks of Gandhi is simply astounding. On the one hand in “…
this country … of timidity almost bordering on cowardice we cannot have too much bravery
“, on the other hand we must reach “
for greater bravery
” by exercising even more timidity and cowardice, albeit christened as the bravery of the “
meek, the gentle and the non-violent
“. This was the kind of bravery much appreciated by British colonialism which, while unleashing savage brutality on its victims, expected the latter to “
mount the gallows without injuring or harbouring any thought of injury
” against their oppressors and tormentors.
On being asked whether the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades altered his position in any way with regard to the Irwin-Gandhi Pact, he replied that the “…
staying of these executions was no part of the truce
” and no provocation
“… outside the terms will deflect me from the path I had mapped out when I agreed to the settlement
” (CWMG, Vol. 45, pp. 344-5).
When later on the same day he addressed the Karachi Congress, Gandhi, lying through his teeth, pretended to be shocked by the executions for, he said, the negotiations with the viceroy had made him “
entertain a distant hope
” that the lives of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries might be saved. In view of the detailed evidence referred to above, there is no basis on which Gandhi could have entertained such a hope. The viceroy had repeatedly made clear to Gandhi that British imperialism was not in the least inclined to spare the lives of these revolutionaries. What is more, Gandhi was not much bothered by the prospect of these executions, having gone so far as to have stated his preference to the viceroy for the hangings to take place before the Karachi session of the Congress. Having made this feint, Gandhi implicitly, not to say profanely, referring to Bhagat Singh and his comrades as murderers, went on to point out the futility of revolutionary violence in the most arrogant manner. By way of a reply to his critics, especially the youth, Gandhi said;
And now a message for the young men. If you want my service, do not disown me; come and understand everything from me. You must know that it is against my creed to punish even a murderer, a thief or a dacoit. There can be therefore no excuse for suspicion that I did not want to save Bhagat Singh. But I want you also to realise Bhagat Singh’s error. If I had had an opportunity of speaking to Bhagat Singh and his comrades, I should have told them that the way they pursued was wrong and futile.”
As he was winding up his speech, Gandhi was asked: “
What did you do to save Bhagat Singh’s life?”
An irritated Gandhi’s reply, which barely concealed his contempt for his critics, with a Jesuitical disregard for truth and honesty ran thus:
Well, I was not on my defence, and so I did not bother you with the details of what I did to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I pleaded with the viceroy as best I could. I brought all the persuasion at my command to bear on him. On the day fixed for the final interview with Bhagat Singh’s relations I wrote a personal letter to the viceroy on the morning of 23rd. I poured my whole soul into it, but to no avail. I might have done one thing more, you say. I might have made the commutation a term of the settlement. It could not be so made. And to threaten withdrawal would be a breach of faith. 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. I had hoped for magnanimity. My hope was not to materialise. But that can be no ground for breaking the settlement.” (Ibid.
True meaning and class basis of Gandhi’s non-violence
Thus Gandhi and the Congress Party put a far greater premium on reaching, and saving, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact than on rescuing the finest of India’s sons from the noose of imperialism’s hangmen. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact, by which Gandhi set so much store, secured not a single aim of the Congress struggle – not even the repeal of the Salt Tax. Under the Pact, the Congress was to withdraw the Civil Disobedience movement in return for which it was to be invited to participate in the Round Table Conference, which it had earlier vowed to boycott. Not a single meaningful step in the direction of self-government was granted. The Ordinances were to be withdrawn and political prisoners released – except for those guilty of ‘violence’ or ‘incitement to violence’ or soldiers guilty of disobeying orders. This proviso not only excluded the likes of Bhagat Singh but also soldiers from the 18th Royal Gharwali Rifles who had refused to fire on a crowd at Peshawar. Here was this amazing spectacle, whereby two platoons of Hindu troops in the midst of a Muslim crowd, refused the order to fire, broke ranks, fraternised with the crowd, with some of them handing over their arms. Following this event, the police and the army were pulled out of Peshawar, with the result that the city was completely in the hands of the people from 25 April to 4 May 1930. Seventeen men from the Gharwali Rifles were subjected to savage sentences, ranging from transportation for life to rigorous imprisonment for varying terms.
The refusal of the Gharwali soldiers to fire, this dramatic exercise in ‘non-violence’, ought to have endeared them to Gandhi. But no, nothing of the sort. Bhagat Singh and his companions earned the wrath of Gandhi because they had been guilty of acts of violence; the Gharwali soldiers did not escape Gandhi’s wrath either because they, in refusing the order to fire, had been guilty of practising non-violence! The two groups were therefore excluded from the amnesty under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The reason for this apparently contradictory attitude of Gandhi is simple and clear – both the violence practised by the revolutionaries and the triumphant demonstration of non-violence by the Gharwali soldiers threatened the foundations of the system of exploitation of one human being by another and one nation by another, and were thus not to the liking of this
“… ascetic defender of property in the name of the most religious and idealist principles of humility and love of poverty
“, to borrow the words of R P Dutt.
While in London to attend the Round Table Conference, Gandhi made clear, in an interview with a French journalist, his reasons for disapproving of the Gharwali men:
A soldier who disobeys an order to fire breaks the oath he has taken and renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey; for when I am in power, I shall in all likelihood make use of those same officials and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I would be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power”
(Gandhi, reply to French journalist Charles Petrash on questioning of the Gharwali,
20 February 1932, quoted in R P Dutt,
Gandhi’s above explanation shines a powerful searchlight on the real meaning and significance, the real class basis and bias, of the Gandhian concept of non-violence. Further, it shows Gandhi’s foresight, for more than any other political representative of the exploiting sections of the Indian population, the bourgeoisie and the landlords, he was looking ahead to the time when, with the British gone, the local exploiters in power would need to secure and strengthen their rule. He therefore did all he could to squash every manifestation, every act and every movement, be it violent, as in the case of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries, or non-violent, as was the case with the Gharwali soldiers, which could serve to undermine their rule.
Under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, all the aims of complete independence and the promises of no-compromise with imperialism, proclaimed with much fanfare at the Lahore Congress in 1929, were completely forgotten. The Congress was simply reduced to participation in the Round Table conference and its prestige and honour lowered
“… by its inclusion as an item in this motley array of government puppets brought like captives to imperial Rome to display their confusion and divisions for the amusement of Westminster legislators
p340). Gandhi returned empty-handed from the Round Table Conference, meeting Mussolini on his way back to India.
Already on the eve of the Civil Disobedience movement, Gandhi published a statement in the
New York World
of 9 January 1930 that “
the independence resolution need frighten nobody”.
And, on 30 January, through his paper,
he made an offer of Eleven Points, covering various reforms, in return for the granting of which he promised to call off the civil disobedience. In the words of RP Dutt, “
The publication of the Eleven Points on the eve of the struggle served to intimate to the other side that the claim for independence was to be regarded as only a bargaining counter, a kind of conventional maximum at the opening of a traditional bazaar haggling, which could be placed on one side in return for substantial concessions
Gandhi’s fight on two fronts
While the Indian masses wanted a fight to the finish, to end British rule and to establish a democratic and free Republic of India, the Congress, on the other hand, in particular Gandhi, intended the campaign of civil disobedience to be “…
a limited and regulated demonstration of mass pressure with a view to securing better terms and concessions from British rule
p.328). In his letter to the viceroy, Gandhi correctly analysed the forces driving forward the struggle for Indian freedom, and his aim in undertaking its leadership:
The party of violence is gaining ground and making itself felt… It is my purpose to set in motion that force (non violence) as well against the organised violence force of the British rule as the unorganised violence force of the growing party of violence. To sit still would be to give rein to both the forces above mentioned
(Gandhi, letter to the viceroy 2 March, 1930, quoted in R P Dutt, p.329)
Palme Dutt makes the following correct observation on Gandhi’s stance, relating it to the class interests of the Indian bourgeoisie:
Thus on the eve of rising mass struggle, Gandhi proclaimed the fight on two fronts, not only against British rule, but against the internal enemy in India. This conception of the fight on two fronts corresponds to the role of the Indian bourgeoisie, alarmed as it sees the ground sinking beneath its feet with the growing conflict of imperialism and the mass movement, compelled to undertake leadership of the struggle, despite the ‘mad risk’ (in Gandhi’s phrase in his letter to the viceroy), in order to hold it within bounds (‘to sit still would give rein to both the forces above mentioned’), and seeking to conciliate both with the magic wand of ‘non-violence’. However, ‘non-violence’, like the notorious ‘non-intervention’ of later days practised by the democratic Powers in relation to Spain, was ‘one-way non-violence’. It was ‘non-violence’ for the Indian masses, but not for imperialism, which practised violence to its heart’s content – and won the battle.”
Given Gandhi’s conception of the struggle, given his understanding, his strategy could hardly be intended to lead to the victory of the Indian national liberation struggle. His was a strategy aimed merely at finding the means of asserting leadership over a powerful revolutionary liberation movement, while keeping it within bourgeois bounds by placing the maximum of restraints upon its growth and emasculating it in the end. Hence the fight on two fronts; hence the effort to keep it ‘non-violent’; hence the effort to confine his campaign against the government’s salt monopoly to his 78 hand-picked followers – with the aim of excluding from participation the industrial working class and the downtrodden peasant masses, the two classes Gandhi feared like the plague.
Gandhi’s role as the representative
of the Indian exploiting classes, his role as the enemy of the Indian masses and hangman of the Indian people’s revolutionary struggle, in close collaboration with imperialism, is best summed up in the following never-to-be-forgotten characterisation of him by Palme Dutt:
Whatever the views of the moderate leaders might be with regard to his personal idiosyncrasies, there was no question that he was the most subtle and experienced politician of the older group, with unrivalled mass prestige which world publicity had now enhanced as the greatest Indian figure, the ascetic defender of property in the name of the most religious and idealist principles of humility and love of poverty; the invincible metaphysical-theological casuist who could justify and reconcile anything and everything in an astounding tangle of explanations and arguments which in a man of common clay might have been called dishonest quibbling, but in the great ones of the earth like MacDonald or Gandhi is recognised as a higher plane of spiritual reasoning; the prophet who by his personal saintliness and selflessness could unlock the door to the hearts of the masses where the moderate bourgeois leaders could not hope for a hearing – and the best guarantee of the shipwreck of any mass movement which had the blessing of his association. This Jonah of revolution, this general of unbroken disasters, was the mascot of the bourgeoisie in each wave of the developing Indian struggle. So appeared once again the characteristic feature of modern Indian politics, the unwritten article of every successive Indian constitution – the indispensability of Gandhi (actually the expression of the precarious balance of class forces). All the hopes of the bourgeoisie (the hostile might say the hopes of imperialism) were fixed on Gandhi as the man to ride the waves, to unleash just enough of the mass movement in order to drive a successful bargain, and at the same time to save India from revolution.” (Ibid.
After this fairly lengthy but unavoidable digression, let us return to the Karachi Congress. On 29 March 1931, it passed a resolution which read thus:
This Congress, while dissociating itself from and disapproving of political violence in any shape or form, places on record its admiration of the bravery and sacrifice of the late Sardar Bhagat Singh and his comrades… and mourns with the bereaved families the loss of these lives. The Congress is of the opinion that this triple execution is an act of wanton vengeance and is a deliberate flouting of the unanimous demand of the nation for commutation. This Congress is further of the opinion that Government have lost the golden opportunity of promoting 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”
(Sitaramayya, Vol.1, pp.456-7, quoted in Noorani, p. 249).
Nehru let it be known in his speech that the above resolution had been drafted by Gandhi. Nehru also stated: “
We tried to get his
sentence reduced to life imprisonment but we did not succeed”.
This was a lie.
Although under the weight of overwhelming mass pressure, Gandhi had written the above resolution, placing on record the Congress’s “
admiration for the bravery and sacrifice of … Bhagat Singh and his comrades”,
before long he had reverted to type and expressed doubt as to his wisdom of having drafted this resolution of 29 March. He wrote: “
The extolling of murderers is being overdone. If we are to sing the praises of every murderer because the murder has a political motive behind it, we should proceed from praising the deed to the deed itself. The praising … as a hero raises a doubt in my mind about the wisdom of my having been the author of the Congress resolution about Bhagat Singh
” (CWMG Vol 46, p.50, quoted in Noorani pp. 249-250).
All the same, Gandhi was compelled to acknowledge the “
” and “
” of Bhagat Singh, “
the romance around
” his life, and whose execution, along with two of his comrades, had made them “
” and surrounded them with
“… a halo
” (see his letter, dated 8 May 1931, to Darcy Lindsay of the European Group in the Central Assembly, quoted in Noorani, p. 250).
Gandhi returned to the subject in an article in
of 11 June 1931. Replying to criticism of his part in relation to Bhagat Singh, he once again expressed doubts as to the wisdom of having drafted the resolution of 29 March on Bhagat Singh, explaining how he came to write it: “
I have already expressed my doubts as to the propriety of my having drafted and sponsored the Bhagat Singh resolution not because it was wrong but for the misinterpretation it has lent itself to … I had interested myself in the movement for the commutation of the death sentence on Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I had put my whole being into the task. I had, therefore, to study the life of the principal actor in the tragedy. I had to come into contact with his devoted father and those who were attached to Bhagat Singh not for his deed but for his character. I was thus drawn to the resolution in the natural course
p.359, Noorani p.250).
Gandhi’s claim that he “…
whole being into the task
” is, as shown above, not borne out by the record and is therefore a blatant lie. Except for his letter of 23 March 1931, written hours before the executions, he had devoted his whole being into forging and implementing the Pact with the British viceroy Irwin. His subsequent claim that he “…
would gladly have surrendered
life to the viceroy to save Bhagat Singh and others
” I s belied by the record. In fact, such was his visceral dislike of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary ideology, politics and activity that he refused to be in any way associated with the move to raise a memorial in honour of Bhagat Singh. In his letter to the Memorial Committee, dated 20 June 1931, he did not attempt to conceal his reasons:
A memorial erected in honour of anybody undoubtedly means that the memorialists would copy the deeds of those in whose memory they erect the memorial. It is also an invitation to posterity to copy such deeds. I am, therefore, unable to identify myself in any way with the memorial
” (Deol, p.94, Noorani p 251).
Let us conclude this section with the following balanced and moderately expressed judgment of Noorani regarding Gandhi’s role in the Bhagat Singh affair:
The last regret is about Gandhi’s role between February 18 and March 22. As late as on March 20 he was counselling Emerson, a bureaucrat who had exhibited his racism to the Central Assembly on September 14, 1929, on damage control. It was bad enough that Gandhi spoke to the viceroy as he did on February 18 and March 19. It was far worse that he counselled the Home Secretary thereafter on ways to contain expressions of indignation by his own people on the execution of a patriot, whose patriotism Gandhi himself admired, by the British rulers of the country.”
Continuing, Noorani concludes:
Gandhi alone could have intervened effectively to save Bhagat Singh’s life. He did not, till the very last. Later claims such as that ‘I brought all the persuasion at my command to bear on him (the viceroy)’ are belied by the record which came to light four decades later. In this tragic episode, Gandhi was not candid either to the nation or even to his closest colleagues about his talks with the viceroy, Lord Irwin, on saving Bhagat Singh’s life
Translated into plain undiplomatic language, it amounts to saying that Gandhi was deliberately telling lies on this score. So much then for this apostle of ‘truth’ and ‘non-violence’.
To be continued:
In the next and last instalment of this article, we shall briefly emphasise the legacy of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries.