One of the prominent revolutionaries of India, Bhagat Singh (28 September 1907-23 March 1931), an Arya Samaji turned atheist, has been an icon of the youth in India even today. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, who followed the path of Ahimsa during his life time and was the torch-bearer of the freedom movement, is being questioned whether he ever tried to defend Bhagat Singh from being hanged. On 17 December 1927, Bhagat Singh and Shivram Rajguru shot and killed assistant superintendent of police, John Saunders. They were supported in this act by their compatriots Sukhdev Thapar and Chandrashekhar Azad. However, their original target was not Saunders but superintendent of police, James Scott, who had ordered his men to lathi-charge protesters leading to death of the nationalist leader, Lala Lajpat Rai.
Owing to the slow pace of the legal proceedings, a special tribunal consisting of Justice J. Coldstream, Justice Agha Hyder and Justice G. C. Hilton was set up on the directives of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin on 1 May 1930. The tribunal was empowered to proceed without the presence of the accused and was a one-sided trial that hardly adhered to the normal legal rights guidelines. The tribunal delivered its 300-page judgement on 7 October 1930. It declared that irrefutable proof has been presented confirming the involvement of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru in the Saunders murder. Bhagat Singh admitted to the murder and made statements against the British rule during during the trial. They were sentenced to be handed till death.
“Gandhi alone could have intervened effectively to save Bhagat Singh’s life.He did not, till the very last,” concludes A. G. Noorani in “The Trial of Bhagat Singh”. Talks between Gandhi and Irwin, who was to retire in April, began in New Delhi on 17 February 1931; just six days after the Privy Council rejected Bhagat Singh’s appeal. The talks culminated in the famous Gandhi- Irwin Pact on 5 March 1931. Eighteen days lay between it and Bhagat Singh’s execution. The Pact did not contain any provision concerning Bhagat Singh and the other two sentenced to death with him. Both Gandhi and Irwin noted that the issue of the suspension of the capital punishment was discussed. But rather the Viceroy was helpless. Noorani does mention: “Gandhi did not know, did not try to know and to understand, Bhagat Singh’s thinking when in prison; specifically, his renunciation of terrorism.” Even Barrister M. A. Jinnah while delivering his speech in the Central Legislative Assembly on 12 and 14 September 1929 did say: “Mind you, Sir, I do not approve of the action of Bhagat Singh, and I say this on the floor of this House. I regret that, rightly or wrongly, youth today in India is stirred up, you cannot , when you have three hundred and odd millions of people, you cannot prevent such crimes being committed, however much you may deplore them and however much you may say that they are misguided. It is the system, this damnable system of Government, which is resented by the people.”
According to Noorani, Jinnah’s was one of the most powerful and effective speeches in the Central Legislature Assembly, in defence of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, when the Government tried to amend the law to provide, draconically enough, for trial in absentia. Yet not one book in India or Pakistan mentions that with the exception of a volume brought out by the human rights activist I. A. Rehman and his colleagues in Lahore.
Kuldip Nayar, who was an Indian High Commissioner in UK, in his well researched book “Without Fear : The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh”, has revealed the circumstances which made even the Viceroy helpless in at least postponing the execution of Bhagat Singh and his two comrades. Subhash Chandra Bose, representing the left wing of the Congress, had told Gandhi that they should, if necessary, break with the Viceroy on the question of Bhagat Singh and his two comrades.’ Because the execution was against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Delhi pact.’ Still, Bose added, ‘it must be admitted that he(Gandhi) did try his very best.’
One of the most credible journalists, Nayar, notes : “ Faced with the public’s ugly mood, Congress leaders tried to come up with several explanations for their failure to rescind the sentence. But nothing worked to soothe the frayed tempers of the public. One explanation the Congress offered was that Irwin promised Gandhi he would commute the death sentence to life imprisonment but he went back on his word when senior British ICS officers threatened to resign en bloc if the three men were not hanged.” “Another incredible story doing the rounds was that the Viceroy had sent orders for commutation to Lahore Central Jail through a telegram but the bureaucrats conspired to delay its transmission and jail officials received the telegram after the hanging.” In an appeal to mollify the anger of the huge gathering, Sardar Patel, who was to take over as Congress President, paid glowing tributes to Bhagat Singh and his comrades in his address and expressed the deep resentment in the country over the execution. Of course, the Sardar did say: “I cannot identify myself with their methods, I have no doubt that political murder is no less reprehensible than any other ; but patriotism, the daring and the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his comrades command my admiration.” He preferred to call the British administration ‘heartless’.
Gandhi chose Nehru to pilot the resolution “to place on record the admiration of the bravery and sacrifice of the late Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru” which was seconded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. The session was addressed by Kishen Singh, the father of Bhagat Singh, also: “Bhagat Singh told me not to worry. Let me be hanged. One week after the execution, the country will get independence. He warned me against going to the Privy Council because he said slaves had no right to complain….You must support your general(Gandhi). You must support all Congress leaders. Only then will you be able to win independence for the country.” Kishen Singh was a supporter of Congress. The Mahatma wrote in the ‘Young India’ of 11 June 1931, “I had interested myself in the movement for the commutation of the death sentence of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I have put my whole being into the task.” In another public utterance, he said: “I would gladly have surrendered my life to the Viceroy to save Bhagat Singh and others.” Despite these efforts, Gandhi is blamed even today.
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(The writer is a Socio-political Historian. E-mail: [email protected] )