There are several ‘myths’ pertaining to modern Indian history and India’s struggle for independence. While some of these myths were created by the colonial state itself to weaken the ongoing independence movement, some of them were constructed out of vested political interests in post-independence India. One such powerful myth is regarding Mahatma Gandhi’s alleged silence on martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and comrades. It should be noted that Bhagat Singh and two of his associates Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar were sentenced to death by the colonial state in the Lahore conspiracy case and were hanged on 23 March 1931. Now, it is often alleged that Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress could have possibly averted this execution. At the same time, the silence of prominent Congress leaders following the death of Bhagat Singh is often cited as a glaring example of Congress’s insecurity towards the soaring popularity of Bhagat Singh and his associates. Thus, a binary of Mahatma Gandhi / Congress vs. Bhagat Singh / Revolutionaries has been created over a period of time, the resonance of which can often be heard in various discussions and debates in the public sphere.
However, careful dissection of this alleged ‘silence’ gives some interesting insights on the whole issue. It should be remembered that the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades took place around the same period when the Gandhi–Irwin settlement was in force. Consequent on the conversations that took place between the Viceroy Lord Irwin and Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress agreed to temporarily suspend the ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement and to participate in the Second Round Table Conference. Subsequent to this, instructions were issued for the guidance of all Congressmen so that there should be no complaint of breach of understanding arrived at between the Congress and the Government. One such instruction stated, ‘If any lawful orders are passed, right or wrong, they should not be disobeyed.’ Further, ‘During the period of truce, [our] speeches should not be an attack on Government. There is now no necessity to show past misdeeds of misgovernment.’ Moreover, it was instructed that ‘we should not make any approving references to acts of violence; congratulation of bravery and self-sacrifice on the part of persons committing acts of violence are unnecessary and misleading, except when made by persons pledged to non-violence in thought and deed as Gandhiji.’ These instructions explain the unusual silence of prominent Congress leaders over the execution of Bhagat Singh which was ‘a lawful order’ passed by the competent judicial authority. At the same time, bound by the instructions to prevent any breach of understanding, they could not openly criticise the Government for its unforeseen haste in this matter nor could they celebrate the heroics of Bhagat Singh.
Nonetheless, it was not that nobody spoke out against this brutality of the government. In fact, the very person who is charged of feeling insecure because of Bhagat Singh’s popularity and of being guilty of remaining silent in the whole matter, Mahatma Gandhi, spoke on more than one occasion against the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his associates. Mahatma Gandhi, on 23 March 1931, made a final appeal to the Viceroy in the interest of peace to commute the sentence of Bhagat Singh and two others. He emphatically argued that ‘popular opinion rightly or wrongly demands commutation; when there is no principle at stake, it is often a duty to respect it.’ Subsequently, Mahatma Gandhi himself penned a moving yet powerful resolution on Bhagat Singh and comrades adopted by the Indian National Congress on 29 March 1931. The resolution stated as follows:
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 Syts. Sukhdev and Rajguru, and mourns with the bereaved families the loss of these lives. The Congress is of 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 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.
Thus, contrary to popular myth of ‘unforeseen silence’, Mahatma Gandhi did admire the bravery and sacrifice of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. The difference between them was basically over the ‘use of violence’ as a mean to attain independence. In fact, people today often fail to fathom the depth of the virtues which drove our leaders to struggle for independence. Political opposition and difference of opinions nowhere stripped them of the warmth which they shared among each other at personal level. Hence, binaries such as Gandhi vs Bhagat Singh, Gandhi vs Subhas Chandra Bose, Nehru vs Patel, etc. hardly do justice to the cause for which these towering leaders devoted their lives.
(The author is Senior Research Assistant, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.)
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