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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 39, September 12, 2009

On Gandhi’s Deep Interest in Saving Bhagat Singh

Saturday 12 September 2009, by Visalakshi Menon



Gandhi and Bhagat Singh by V.N. Datta; Rupa and Co., New Delhi; 2008; pages

126; Hardcover price: Rs 295.

Here is an extremely readable book—rather old-worldish in some ways, but very topical nevertheless. V.N. Datta, the well-known historian and retired Professor of History, engages with questions that are asked repeatedly: did Mahatma Gandhi let Bhagat Singh down at the Gandhi-Irwin talks in 1931? Could he have saved Bhagat Singh from the gallows and did he choose not to? Was it not a great act of betrayal by the Mahatma?

One of the most frequently cited accusations is that put forward by D.P. Das in the Independence Day issue of Mainstream in 1970, that Gandhi was a “wheeler-dealer” who was more interested in the Delhi Pact than in saving the lives of young revolutionaries. It was echoed by Manmathnath Gupta, the well-known revolutionary leader, in his What Gandhi Did and Did Not Do, wherein he accused the Mahatma of being double-faced, “professing sympathy for Bhagat Singh in public, but in secret, settling with the Viceroy a suitable time for his execution”. In much the same vein A.G. Noorani has more recently accused Gandhi of not having taken sufficient interest in saving Bhagat Singh’s life.

Challenging this, Anil Nauriya has argued that Gandhi did make an effort to save Bhagat Singh’s life by asking for the commutation of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence. In fact, his was a multi-pronged effort because he also sent Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, M.R. Jayakar and Srinivasa Sastri to the Viceroy to plead Bhagat Singh’s case.

There is another angle to the whole story which had been put forward by Prem Basin in another Mainstream article of July 1996. Here, it is maintained that Mahatma Gandhi had actually succeeded in getting a private assurance from the Viceroy that Bhagat Singh’s death sentence would be commuted and Gandhi had conveyed this to the Congress Working Committee. Unfortunately, this strictly confidential piece of information was leaked to the press by a Working Committee member from Punjab and this promptly brought a backlash from the British bureaucracy and Irwin had to go back on his assurance.

Sounds like a good story but it begs the question: would not the assurance have become public some day in any case? And would not the bureaucracy then have protested strongly? After all, the killing of Saunders was an unpardonable offence in the eyes of the bureaucracy. In any case, as Professor Datta himself informs us, there is nothing in Viceroy Irwin’s own autobiography, Fullness of Days, to suggest that there was any such understanding between him and Mahatma Gandhi.

There is no doubt that the writer of this book has great fondness for Irwin (later Lord Halifax), who is described as “a man of sterling character, a devout Christian highly respected for his integrity”. (p. 96) In a chapter titled “Irwin’s Action” (a good British policy chapter of the kind we seldom see these days), Datta examines the constraints and misgivings which accompanied the Gandhi-Irwin talks. The anger of Winston Churchill at the very idea of the half-naked faqir striding into the Viceroy’s palace, the general feeling in Conservative circles that by “Irwin’s gullibility and overconfidence, India was being given away”, the dismay of the British bureaucracy in India were all very real problems to contend with. So we realise that it was not only Gandhi who had to face a volley of criticism for having suspended the Civil Disobedience Movement and entered into negotiations with the Viceroy. Both the negotiators were up against tremendous odds. And then there was the Bhagat Singh issue.


Datta’s book has seven chapters. After the customary historiographical survey in the chapter titled ‘A Debate on Gandhi’s Role’, he goes on to ‘Bhagat Singh’s Self-Education’, followed by ‘Gandhi’s Attitude’, ‘Irwin’s Action’ and then ‘The Trial’ and ‘Karachi Congress’. Through these chapters he gives us a cogent narrative beginning with Bhagat Singh’s early years, through the killing of Saunders and the bomb-throwing in the Central Legislative Assembly.

The author then pauses to engage with Gandhi’s attitude towards violence – his severe condemnation of Madan Lal Dhingra’s act of killing Curzon Wylie in 1909 as an example of the worst and detestable form of violence. This incident had a deep impact on him and was no doubt contributory to the creation of his seminal work Hind Swaraj, in which he categorically stated that the use of violent means for attaining political ends was suicidal and a strict adherence to non-violence was the only way to solve India’s problems. Later, in 1912 when a bomb was thrown at Viceroy Lord Hardinge when he was making his ceremonial entry into Delhi, Gandhi expressed his disapproval in no uncertain terms. He wrote in the Indian Opinion of December 28, 1912:

….That in this century, which is considered an enlightened period in the history of mankind, there are people who believe that assassination can lead to political or other reform is a fact which should make people think and ask whether what passes under the name of progress is real progress.

At the Lahore Congress session in 1929, he initiated a resolution condemning the bomb outrage on the Viceroy’s train outside the Delhi railway station on December 23, 1929.

Given this background, Datta tells us, it was obviously very difficult for Mahatma Gandhi to broach the subject of Bhagat Singh at the Gandhi-Irwin talks. However, he did criticise the evil of capital punishment which disabled a person to reform himself and pressed for the suspension of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence. In his letter to the Viceroy on March 23, 1931, Gandhi wrote:

Execution is an irretrievable act. If you think there is the slightest chance of error of judgement, I would urge you to suspend for further review an act that is beyond recall.

However, besides this ethical issue, Gandhi was also concerned about the political consequences of the execution, which would endanger peace and result in the loss of many more lives.

On the basis of different kinds of evidence, Datta concludes that

Gandhi was deeply interested in saving Bhagat Singh’s life, and was consistent in his appeals to Irwin not to hang him.

And that is the burden of this extremely well-written and researched book. It leaves us in no doubt that efforts were made to save Bhagat Singh’s life but Gandhi fully realised there was a point up to which he could push the issue. In any case there were many more issues at stake at that moment in time and the Bhagat Singh case has to be viewed in perspective.

The reviewer is an Associate Professor, Department of History, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.

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