Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2019 > Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh: Concept and Vision of Freedom

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 14 New Delhi March 23, 2019

Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh: Concept and Vision of Freedom

Saturday 23 March 2019

by Mansavi Patyar

India achieved complete emancipation from British rule after a lot of hassle. This struggle for independence was flagged by numerous freedom fighters who not only sacrificed their personal happiness but their precious lives too. They dedicated themselves without even giving a single thought to their personal well-being. Such great leaders not only ensured our freedom but also inspired the youth of the present time. The names of some of such famous leaders are Subhas Chandra Bose, Bipin Chandra Pal, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Jayaprakash Narayan, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Baba Gurdit Singh, Sukhdev, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Jawaharlal Nehru. The list does not end here and all of them are recognised as the brave soldiers of India. All these leaders are worth saluting while men-tioning them, but two iconic leaders whose legacy as legendary figures still continue and who are immensely popular even after their death till date are: Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the pre-eminent leader of the Indian freedom movement. He opted for the non-violent path of achieving independence as he was a believer of truth and ahimsa. He launched many movements such as the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, Satyagraha, Swadeshi and several other initiatives to drive out the British. All movements had a single motive: to get freedom. Gandhi presented all his demands before the British Government so as to achieve independence. Not only in India but also abroad he came out as a strong force evoking respect and prestige for India and Indians. Apart from this, he educated the masses so that they know their civil rights.

Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in South Africa to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian traders based in the city of Pretoria. He first employed non-violent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights.

In South Africa, Gandhi faced discrimination based on colour. He was even thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from the First Class but Gandhi was not a man to lose. The effect of it all was that he protested, complained. Finally he was allowed on First Class the very next day. But partiality did not end here and he was beaten by a driver for refusing to move to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from several hotels for the sheer reason of not belonging to the white community.

In another incident, the Magistrate of a Durban court ordered Gandhi to remove his turban, with which he strongly disagreed and remained as firm as a rock. These events were a turning- point in Gandhi’s life, shaped his social activism and awakened him to social injustice. After witnessing racism, prejudice and injustice against Indians in South Africa, Gandhi began to question his place in society and his people’s standing in the British Empire. He decided to extend his original period of stay in South Africa to assist Indians in opposing a Bill to deny them their right to vote. In regard to this Bill Gandhi sent out a memorandum to Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, asking him to reconsider his position on this Bill.

Though he was unable to halt the Bill’s passage, his campaign proved to be a victory for drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa which Indians either ignored or for which they felt helpless. He helped to found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and through this organisation, he moulded the Indian community of South Africa into a unified political force.

In 1906, the Transvaal Government promu-lgated a new Act compelling the colony’s of Indian population to go for registration. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg on September 11 that year, Gandhi adopted his still evolving methodology of Satyagraha (non-violent protest) for the first time. He urged the Indians to defy the new law and to suffer punishments for doing so. The community favoured this plan in full measure. In the ensuing seven-year struggle, thousands of Indians were jailed, flogged, or shot at for striking, refusing to register, for burning their registration cards or engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance. The government successfully repressed the Indian protesters, but the public outcry over the harsh treatment of peaceful Indian protesters by the South African Govern-ment forced the South African leader, Jan Christiaan Smuts, himself a philosopher, to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi.

Gandhi’s ideas took shape, and the concept of Satyagraha matured during this struggle. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics and leadership skills which he later applied in India to attain independence. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Ramchandra Guha argues that when he returned to India in 1914, Gandhi was proficient at public speaking, fund-raising, negotiations, media relations, and self-promotion. In 1915, when Gandhi returned to India perma-nently, he brought with him an international reputation of a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser and later joined the Indian National Congress.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale introduced Gandhi to the Indian political scenario and asked him to tour India to know the ground realities of the country. Gandhi took Gokhale’s liberal approach based on British Whiggish traditions and transformed it to make it look wholly Indian. During the latter part of World War I, Gandhi agreed to recruit Indians for the war. Initially many Indians rejected the idea to join the war but when Gandhi convinced them they agreed to do so. Perhaps the motive was to walk shoulder to shoulder with the British Government so that the government also understands their rights and demands for achieving independence and in this he eventually succeeded. Gandhi’s first major achievement came in 1918 when he decided to launch the Champaran satyagraha and Kheda satyagraha in Bihar and Gujarat respectively. In Champaran, the peasantry was forced to grow Indigo. This system was termed as the ‘Tinkathia system’. Unhappy with this, the peasantry appealed to Gandhi at his ashram in Ahmedabad. Pursuing a strategy of non-violent protest, Gandhi took the administration by surprise and won concessions from the autho-rities.

During the Khilafat movement, he attracted a strong base of Muslim support with local chapters in all Muslim centres in India. Gandhi became India’s first national leader with a multicultural base. Along with this, Gandhi facilitated his rise to power within the Congress, which had previously been unable to reach out to Muslims.

Gandhi took over the leadership of the Congress in 1920. With the Congress now fully behind him Gandhi had the base to carry out non-cooperation, non-violence and peaceful resis-tance as his “weapons” in the struggle against the British Raj. Nationwide campaigns were launched by him for erasing poverty which he described as a stain on the fabric of society. Against all odds, he also favoured equality and expanded women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, but, above, all he fought for achieving Swaraj or self-rule. Gandhi opted the Swadeshi policy—the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially British goods—with a view that India had to become self-reliant. Boycott of foreign goods was also a way to show the strong non-dependence side of the Indians. In addition to boycotting British products, Gandhi urged the people to boycott the British educational institutions and law courts, to resign from government employment, and to forsake British titles and honours.

All strata of Indian society supported Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement and showed great interest for his way of achieving freedom which was popularly known as ‘Gandhism’. Yet, just as the movement reached its apex, it ended abruptly as a result of a violent clash in the town of Chauri-Chaura. Gandhi pushed through a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in December 1928 calling on the British Government to grant freedom to India to which the government did not agree.

On January 26, 1930, the Indian National Congress declared the independence of India. The British did not recognise that and more negotiations ensued, with the Congress taking a role in provincial governments in the late 1930s. Gandhi and the Congress withdrew their assistance to British rule when the Viceroy declared war on Germany in September 1939 without consulting anyone. Tensions escalated until Gandhi demanded immediate independence in 1942. In the wake of such a declaration the British Government responded by imprisoning him and tens of thousands of Congress leaders at that point. Earlier Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with a 400 km Dandi Salt March in 1930. It was there that he along with other Indians made salt. Later in 1942 Gandhi launched the ‘Quit India’ Movement so as to live freely. For being so adamant on his demands, he was imprisoned on many occasions in both South Africa and India. Finally in August 1947, India got freedom from British rule, but the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. In the following months, he undertook several fasts unto death to promote religious harmony. The last of these, undertaken on January 12, 1948 when he was 78, also had the indirect goal of pressuring India to pay out some cash assets owed to Pakistan. Not all people favoured him and some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating. Among them was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, who assassinated Gandhi on January 30, 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest at point-blank range.

Gandhi attempted to practise non-violence and truth in all situations, and preached the same among the people. He was a believer of simple living and high thinking. He spent his entire life in a self-sufficient residential community and wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with hand-spun yarn on a charkha. He used to eat simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as a means of both self-purification and social protest.

Bhagat Singh is considered as one of the most influential revolutionaries of the Indian indepen-dence movement. He was born in Punjab into a Sikh family which had been active in the Indian independence movement against the British Raj. As a teenager Singh studied European revolutionary movements and was attracted to anarchist and Marxist ideologies. He was influenced by a number of incidents during his childhood which instilled in him a deep sense of patriotism to eventually take up the struggle for India’s independence.

Independence from British rule was such a dominating concept in his mind that when he was just a kid, he went with his father to a field where he started digging. When his father asked him as to what he was doing, he replied that if he sows bullets, he will be able to reap many bullets like crops thus make India free. In 1919, at the age of 12, Bhagat Singh visited the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where hundreds of people gathered for a peaceful public meeting, were fired upon without warning, as per the order of General Dyer and killed.

As a young lad, Bhagat Singh was under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and actively took part in the non-cooperation movement. He earnestly believed that India would indeed gain freedom under Gandhi’s leadership. But when Gandhi called off the movement following the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922, he became disenchanted with Gandhism and gradually veered towards armed revolutionary struggle.

He joined the young revolutionary movement and began to advocate the violent overthrow of the British in India. He founded the Indian nationalist youth organisation, the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, in March 1926. He also joined the Hindustan Republican Association, that later emerged as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, which had in it prominent personalities, such as Ram Prasad Bismil, Chandra Shekhar Azad and Ashfaqulla Khan. Due to the widespread popularity of Singh the police became concerned over his influence on the youth and decided to trap Singh so as to divert him from his goal. In May 1927 the police arrested him on the mere pretext of having been involved in a bombing that had taken place at Lahore in October of the previous year. He was released on a surety of Rs 60,000 five weeks after his arrest. He wrote for and edited Urdu and Punjabi newspapers, published from Amritsar, as well as briefly for the Veer Arjun newspaper published from Delhi. He also contributed to Kirti, the journal of the Kirti Kisan Party (Workers and Peasants Party). In September 1928, the HSRA organised an all-India meeting of revolutionaries in Delhi with Singh as its secretary. He later rose to become the HSRA’s leader.

After Lala Lajpat Rai’s death during a non-violent protest against the Simon Commission’s visit, he was deeply influenced by the development, and vowed to take revenge against the British officials. In this vow he was not alone but was joined by other revolutionaries such as Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev Thapar and Chandra Shekhar Azad. They plotted to kill Scott who was responsible for Lajpat Rai’s death. They did not look back and delved deep into the movement facing all the heinous actions of the British Government and ultimately sacrificed their life. However, in a case of mistaken identity, Singh received a signal to shoot John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police. He was shot by Rajguru and Singh while leaving the District Police Headquarters in Lahore on December 17, 1928. Although the murder of Saunders was condemned as a retrograde action by Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress leader, others were more understanding of the motivation.

Within a few months, Bhagat Singh achieved amazing popularity. He eluded efforts by the police to capture him. Together with Batuke-shwar Dutt, he undertook a successful effort to throw two bombs and leaflets inside the Central Legislative Assembly while shouting slogans of revolution. Subsequently they volunteered to surrender and be arrested. Singh and Dutt were sentenced to 14 years of life imprisonment.

On April 15, 1929, after the discovery of a bomb factory in Lahore, the police arrested other members of the HSRA, out of which seven turned out to be informants. Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were charged with the murder of Saunders. Singh’s life sentence in the Assembly bomb case was deferred till the Saunders’ case was decided. He was sent to the Mianwali jail from the Delhi jail, where he witnessed discrimi-nation between European and Indian prisoners. Even in prison he did not keep quiet and vehemently opposed all biases. He along with other prisoners decided to declare hunger strike to protest this. They demanded equality in standards of food, clothing, toiletries and other hygienic necessities, as well as availability of books and a daily newspaper for the political prisoners. He also demanded that Indian prisoners should not be forced to do manual labour or any undignified work in the jail as it was also a part of colour prejudice symbolising hatred against Indians. Since the activities of the hunger strikers had gained popularity and attention amongst the people, especially the youth, the government decided to advance the start of the Saunders murder trial, which was henceforth called the Lahore Conspiracy Case. He underwent a 116-day fast in jail and his popularity among the common Indians melted all the geographical boundaries of Punjab.

During this time, sufficient evidence was brought against him for a conviction in the Saunders case. After trial by a Special Tribunal. Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were convicted and subsequently capital punishment was announced against them for the Lahore cons-piracy case on March 24, 1931. In Punjab, a defence committee drew up a plan to appeal to the Privy Council. Singh initially did not favour it, but later agreed to it in the hope that the appeal would popularise the HSRA in Britain. However, the appeal was dismissed. Singh was hanged on March 23, 1931 at 7:30 pm in Lahore jail with his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. His death turned out to be an inspiration to thousands of youth, who popularised the dream of Singh. After this incident the youth not only opposed the British Government but fully plunged into the war of independence. In all regions around northern India they came out in protest against the British Raj and Gandhi too as they felt that Singh’s hanging could have been revoked if Gandhi had backed the move.

In his last letter, Bhagat Singh wrote: “I have been arrested while waging a war. For me there can be no gallows. Put me into the mouth of cannon and blow me off.”

Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged that the popularity of Bhagat Singh was leading to a new national awakening, and observed:

“He was a clean fighter who faced his enemy in the open field ... he was like a spark that became a flame in a short time and spread from one end of the country to the other dispelling the prevailing darkness everywhere.”

Four years after Singh’s hanging, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Sir Horace Williamson, wrote: “His photograph was on sale in every city and township and for a time rivalled in popularity even that of Mr Gandhi himself”.

Singh’s legacy prompted the youth in India to begin fighting for Indian independence and achieve freedom by all means. He started being idealised by thousands of youngsters of the time.

Both Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were the two front wheels of the cart of the Indian freedom movement which could not move without them. Both were committed towards achieving the goal of India’s freedom from British rule. However, the means they adopted were distinctly different. Mahatma Gandhi spearheaded a civil disobedience movement founded on the principles of non-violence and satyagraha, while Bhagat Singh waged a revolutionary armed struggle laced with violence against the British regime. Both had their own views and ideologies but the motive was the same. Gandhi inspired all the people not only in India but across the world to join hands to wrest independence from the British empire but Singh, on the other hand, traversed a new path to demand independence. Also Singh turned out to be a great inspiration for the youth to join the freedom movement. Both contributed immensely towards Indian freedom. Bhagat Singh was executed while he was only 24 years old. In contrast, Gandhi lived a long life and India succeeded in gaining freedom under his leadership. Gandhi is affectionately known as Bapu while Bhagat Singh is remembered as Shaheed-e-Azam. The youth of India still idealise Singh as a brave hero, who was voted the “Greatest Indian” in a poll by the magazine, India Today, in 2008, ahead of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi. Although Bhagat Singh was quite popular yet history has seen the prominence of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian freedom movement and he became popular and famous not only in India but overseas too.

The pre-eminence of Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh in the Indian freedom movement and their distinctly different approaches have triggered many controversies and even cons-piracy theories. Most of these stem from Gandhi and the Indian National Congress’s alleged failure to prevent Bhagat Singh’s execution despite the former enjoying substantial clout with the British Government. In fact, in a number of recent Bollywood movies like Shaheed Bhagat Singh it has been shown that Gandhi could have done more to save Bhagat Singh’s life. Yet Gandhi was an admirer of Bhagat Singh and publicly acknowledged his patriotism on many occasions. The Mahatma in fact wrote to the Viceroy pleading with him to commute the death sentence of Singh and his accomplices. Bhagat Singh’s 404-page jail diary speaks a lot about his ideas, philosophy and his dreams for the country. There are some questions like: What were the reasons behind Mahatma Gandhi’s success in achieving self-rule in India? What were the major causes behind Bhagat Singh diverting from Mahatma Gandhi’s path after following that cause for quite sometime? What were the methods of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh to achieve freedom and in what respects were they different? Was Bhagat Singh a terrorist or not? Was he an atheist or not? So, the present study has tried to address the issues like how Gandhi overshadowed Bhagat Singh and emerged as a strong focus of the freedom movement. Was it just the contrasting principles, ideologies and approaches or Gandhi’s mass appeal, charisma or political strategy? And whether it is actually correct to say that Bhagat Singh was a total contrast to Mahatma Gandhi. Through the current study, an effort has been made to explore the perceptions of both the leaders regarding freedom, regarding each other and Gandhi’s role in Bhagat Singh’s defence. For the purpose of the present research work, various primary as well as secondary sources were used.


Both Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh are two legendary figures of the Indian freedom movement. Both preferred different strategies and were equally popular among the masses. Among the martyrs who willingly treaded the thorny path with courage and faced the gallows with fortitude, the name of Bhagat Singh shines as a star and is reveredly remembered as Shaheed-e-Azam. So, Bhagat Singh has been ranked as a rival of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi considered satyagraha as a strategic, ethical and pedagogic tool. On the other hand, Bhagat Singh criticised the upliftment of satyagraha from a political strategy to a vague moral appeal. Gandhi was a strict follower of non-violence (ahimsa) while for Bhagat Singh the question of violence or non-violence was merely a question of strategy in the political struggle. Although Bhagat Singh’s acts of violence were heroic and truly patriotic, yet they yielded not much success because the masses were not ready for violence, and the political leadership also had opted for another strategy. On the other hand, Gandhian non-violence resonated with the Indian masses and offered them a chance to serve the nation. Gandhi’s satyagraha involved mass-participation and became quite popular. Due to this popularity, he is affectio-nately remembered as Bapu. Gandhi, despite his disapproval of Bhagat Singh’s action, regarded his sacrifice as a patriotic act, and described his death as a great loss to the nation. After studying and comparing the perceptions of Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, the present study concludes that

• One of the prime reasons for the success of Mahatma Gandhi was the method deployed by him, that is, satyagraha based on non-violence (harmless methods to present demands).

• Gandhi had far-sighted goals but the goals of Bhagat Singh could be termed as short- term as the latter opted for the tit for tat theme. And the major causes behind differences between Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh lay in their methods and strategies.

• Although both aimed to achieve one common goal, yet the methods adopted by them were as different as chalk and cheese. Gandhi believed in the use of non-violent force and was also willing to compromise. Gandhi considered satyagraha and non-violence as two strategic tools for achieving freedom. For Gandhi satyagraha was a form of ethical-political operation to reinforce rationality in an otherwise irrational and inhuman system of oppression and exploitation that denied humanity of its essential dignity. For Bhagat Singh, such a view was at best a naivety that failed to gauge the political task at hand. It could be practised against individuals—even the most hideous ones—but not against a system that was much beyond any indivi-dual or group of individuals.

• Bhagat Singh was not a blind adherent of violence. He differentiated between ‘violence’ and ‘force’, the former being used by the ruling classes, the oppressors or the state to perpetuate exploitation and their rule, while the latter was the resistance put up by the exploited or oppressed people and insisted that what they were resorting to was ‘force’ and not ‘violence’.

• Singh was not a total contrast to Gandhism as he also adopted various forms of struggle such as hunger strike and satyagraha while in jail. He had also actively participated in the non-cooperation movement.

• Although Bhagat Singh’s acts of violence were heroic and truly patriotic yet they yielded not much success because the masses were not ready for violence, and the political leadership also had opted for another strategy. On the other hand, Gandhian non-violence resonated with the Indian masses and offered them a chance to serve the nation. Gandhi, despite his disapproval of Bhagat Singh’s action, made desperate efforts to save Bhagat Singh’s life till the end and described his death as a great loss to the nation.


1. Books—Collected Works forMahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh.

2. Gandhi, M.K., Satyagraha In South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House), 1924.

3. Gandhi, M.K., An Autobiography or The Story Of My Experiments With Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House), 1927.

4. Singh, Bhagat, Why I am an Atheist (Ludhiana:Letters,Writings and Statements of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his Compatriots. Shaheed Bhagat Singh Research Committee), 1930.

5. Andrews, C.F., M. Gandhi’s Idea (London: Allen and Unwin), 1931.

6. Gandhi, M.K., Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Ahmedabad : Navajivan Publishing House), 1938.

7. Diwaker, R.R., Satyagraha: Its Technique and History (Bombay: Hind Kitans), 1946.

8. Wellock, Wilfred, Gandhi as a Social Revolutionary, Sarvodaya Pracharalayam(Tirupur), 1953.

9. Ashe, Geoffrey, Gandhi (London: Heinemann), 1968.

10. Gandhi, M.K., Harijan, A Journal of Applied Gandhism (New York: Garland) 1973.

11. Bakshi, S.R., Revolutionaries and The British Raj (University of Michigan: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors), 1988.

12. Singh, Sangat, The Sikhs In History (University of Michigan : S. Singh), 1995.

13. Datta, Vishwanath, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh (New Delhi: Rupa and Co), 2000.

14. Nayar, Kuldip, The Martyr: Bhagat Singh Experiments In Revolution (University of Michigan : Har-Anand Publications), 2000.

15. Habib, Irfan S., Singh, Bhagat, To make the deaf hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades (University of Michigan: Three Essays Collective Publisher), 2007.

16. Singh, Bhagat, Hooja, Bhupendra, The Jail Note-book and Other Writings (New Delhi: Leftword Books Publishers), 2007.

The author belongs to the Department of Gandhian and Peace Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. She can be contacted at e-mail: mansavipatyar[at]

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted