Gandhi’s treatment of Bhagat Singh and his comrades is one of the most intriguing episodes of India’s freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh was a fearless and intensely patriotic young man who wanted to see his country free and a just social order established. He had also participated in Gandhi’s freedom movement but was dissatisfied by its slow pace and the waywardness of its leader. But he and his comrades did not believe in the cult of the bomb and the bombs they dropped in the Assembly were not meant to kill or harm anyone but to awaken ‘a deaf government’. Even their assassination of the British Police officer was provoked by the senseless and brutal lathi-charge that had resulted in the death of one of India’s tallest political leaders, Lala Lajpat Rai. In any case there was no doubt about Bhagat Singh’s commitment to India’s freedom and a society free from exploration—the two objectives so dear to the Mahatma. Why then did the Mahatma, who was known to be magnanimous even to his foes, not fight vigorously for rescuing Bhagat Singh and his comrades from an unusually harsh punishment?
In fact, if one looks at the letters and utterances of the Mahatma relating to the revolutionaries, one is appalled by his apathy and utter lack of emotional involvement. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, an ardent Gandhian, observes in his History of the Indian National Congress: ‘The Karachi Session was to meet in the last week of March, but Gandhi himself stated to the Viceroy that if the boys should be hanged, they had better be hanged before the Congress than after.’ There is a chilling matter-of-factness about ‘if the boys are to be hanged’ and a willingness to reconcile himself to their tragic fate. Interestingly enough, Gandhi shows extraordinary empathy with the colonial ruler—empathy that would do a Nirad Chowdhary credit. In a letter to Lord Irwin he writes: ‘It seems cruel to inflict this on you, but the interest of peace demands a final appeal.’ Cruel? One thought cruelty was on the other side, and appeals and pleadings were the moderate brand of politics, not Gandhi’s. If he felt strongly about the issue, he could have launched an agitation or gone on a satyagraha—that would be a characteristic Gandhian response. But he is just content to appeal to the Viceroy. Why?
SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE, who observed this drama from close quarters, has this to say in his Indian Struggle: ‘….The Mahatma who did not want to identify himself with the revolutionary prisoners would not go so far and it naturally made a great difference when the Viceroy realised that the Mahatma would not break on that question.’ This may be true to an extent, for the Mahatma seemed to place great value on the Gandhi-Irwin pact and did not wish to jeopardise it. But it seems to me there was a deeper reason for Gandhi’s apathetic or halfhearted response. He had a pathological dislike, even fear, of the revolutionaries. Gandhi wanted India to achieve independence through non-violence and non-violence alone. (One little incident in Chauri Chaura and he suspended the struggle.) Presumably he was to lead India in this non-violent struggle and make history, for never in history of the world such a thing had happened. This would be his ticket to immortality. If the revolutionaries grew stronger and succeeded—Bhagat Singh had become extremely popular during this period—he might be deprived of his great opportunity.
This reading of Gandhi’s treatment of Bhagat Singh and his comrades is confirmed by what happened a few year later—the famous Gandhi-Bose confrontation. Subhas Bose is no longer a spectator but a protagonist—in fact the chief protagonist. Bose was elected the Congress President in 1939 for the second consecutive term despite Gandhi’s opposition. (Gandhi didn’t take it sportingly and declared: ‘Pattabhi’s defeat is my defeat.’) He felt Bose was getting too independent and then his commitment to non-violence was not as pure and absolute as he would have wished, for Bose was known to hobnob with the revolutionaries as well. So Gandhi decided to teach him a lesson and show him who called the shots in the Congress. His cronies launched, presumably with the Mahatma’s blessings, a ruthless and somewhat Machiavellian operation to finish off a democratically elected President and they succeeded. Bose was compelled to leave the Congress due to the non-cooperation of his colleagues. This was another dimension of Gandhi’s non-cooperation. It could also be used effectively against colleagues who were getting difficult.
But the Gandhi-Bose ‘interface’ does not end here. When Bose made his daring escape from Calcutta and eventually succeeded in raising an Army for the liberation of India, Gandhi lost his nerve and launched his ‘Quit India’ movement. Its suddenness surprised many and one of this admirers, Louis Fischer, the American journalist, asked him why he was in such a tearing hurry to drive the Britishers out of India. Gandhi replied: ‘Go and ask Subhas.’ It seems Gandhi was afraid that Bose’s INA adventure might succeed and rob him of this ticket to immortality.