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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 14 New Delhi March 26, 2016

The Legend of Bhagat Singh: Gandhi tried his best to save his Life

Monday 28 March 2016

by Praveen Davar

The following article is being published on the eightyfifth anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom; he was executed along with Sukhdev and Rajguru in Lahore on March 23, 1931.

The 85th death anniversary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary icon of the freedom struggle, who attained martyrdom at the young age of 23, fell on March 23, 2016. Alongwith Sukhdev and Rajguru, Bhagat Singh was hanged to death less than a week before the commence-ment of the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress, on March 29, 1931, a landmark event of India’s freedom struggle in which economic freedom was equated with political freedom.

The year 1928 was marked by an anti-Simon Commision upsurge everywhere in India. On October 30, 1928, the Simon Commission faced a large hostile crowd led by Lala Lajpat Rai at the Lahore Station. The Lala was severely beaten by the Police under J. A. Scott, the British SP, and later succumbed to his head injury. The whole nation was stunned by this savagery. As news of the attack on Lajpat Rai spread, the country reacted with anger. Jawaharlal Nehru asked the British to take concrete steps to atone for the insult to the nation. He described the savage treatment meted out to Lajpat Rai as a national humiliation. Bhagat Singh was appalled. He could not believe that a White man could dare take a stick in hand and set upon Lajpat Rai. The HSRA (Hindustan Socialist Republic Army) decided to undertake retaliatory action. On December 17, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and Chandra Shekhar Azad mistook the ASP, John Saunders, for SP J.A. Scott, as they pounced upon him and shot him dead.

A few months later, on April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Datta threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly Hall in Delhi. It was hurled from the midst of the packed gallery, not aimed at anybody, but to draw the attention of the House, the Indian people and the British rulers in India.

As Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt had planned not to escape after throwing the bomb, they were arrested. While Dutt was sentenced to transportation for life in the Assembly Bomb Case, Bhagat Singh, alongwith Rajguru and Sukhdev, was sentenced to death for the murder of Saunders in what became famous as the Lahore Conspiracy Case. While in jail, Bhagat Singh took up the cause of bettering jail conditions and commenced a hunger strike. The Jail Committee requested Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt to give up their hunger strike but it failed to persuade them to do so. As the fast continued indefinitely with no solution in sight, Jawaharlal Nehru visited Bhagat Singh and the other hunger strikers in jail. Pandit Nehru gives the account of his visit in his Autobiography: “I saw Bhagat Singh for the first time, and Jatindranath Das and a few others. They were all very weak and bed-ridden, and it was hardly possible to talk to them much. Bhagat Singh had an attractive, intellectual face, remarkably calm and peaceful. There seemed to be no anger in it. He looked and talked with great gentleness.”

Finally, it was Bhagat Singh’s father who had his way. He came armed with a resolution by the Congress urging them to give up the hunger strike. The revolutionaries respected the Congress party because they were knew of its struggle for India’a freedom. They called Gandhi ‘an impossible visionary’ but they saluted him for the awakening he had brought about in the country. Bhagat Singh said in a statement: “ In obedience to the resolution of the All India Congress Committee, we have today decided to suspend the hunger strike till the final decision by the government in regard to the question of treatment of political prisoners in Indian jails.”

As the days of execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades drew near, appeals from all over India, from all sections of people poured in, usually addressed to the Viceroy, asking him to stay the execution. Gandhi met Irwin on March 19 and pleaded for the reprieve of Bhagat Singh and his two colleagues from the death sentences to which they had been condemned. He reinforced this oral request with a powerful appeal to the charity of a “great Christian” in Young India.

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged to death on March 23, 1931. As the news of Bhagat Singh’s execution spread, the nation went into mourning. There were processions throughout the country. Many went without food. People wore black badges and shut down their businesses to express their grief. A pall of gloom hung over the Motilal Nehru pandal at the annual Congress session in Karachi. When the session was scheduled for March 29, 1931 nobody had an inkling that Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru would be hanged six days ahead of schedule. A procession, to be led by President-elect Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was abandoned in grief.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru sponsored a resolution which was seconded by Madan Mohan Malaviya. According to Kuldip Nayar in The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh, ”Gandhi chose Nehru to pilot the resolution because he was popular among the youth. Patel was heckled. A part of the resolution read: ‘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, Sukhdev and Rajguru, and mourns with the bereaved families the loss of these lives. This Congress is of the 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.’ What soothed the emotions was a speech by Bhagat Singh’s father, Kishen Singh.” Delegates wept loudly and openly as Kishen Singh recalled Bhagat Singh’s words: “Bhagat Singh told me not to worry. Let me be hanged. But he made a fervent appeal: ‘You must support your general (Gandhi). You must support all Congress leaders. Only then will you be able to win independence for the country.’”

Subhash Chandra Bose had told Gandhiji 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, Netaji added: ‘It must be admitted that he (Gandhi) did try his very best.’ Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai, also quoted the Mahatma as saying : “I was not here to defend myself and hence I have not placed the facts as to what I have done to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I have tried to persuade the Viceroy with all the methods of persuasion I had. After my last meeting with the relatives of Bhagat Singh, on the appointed date, that is, 23rd morning, I wrote a personal letter to the Viceroy, in which I had poured in my whole being—heart and soul—but it has all gone in vain... Pandit Malaviyaji and Dr Sapru also did their utmost.”

Lord Irwin took the public into confidence on his reasons for rejecting Gandhi’s appeal. Irwin’s farewell speech on March 26, 1931, at a local club in New Delhi was very forthright and a sort of political stocktaking. In the course of the speech Irwin remarked: “As I listened the other day to Mr Gandhi putting the case for commutation formally before me, I reflected first on what significance it surely was that the apostle of non-violence should so earnestly be pleading the cause of devotees of a creed fundamentally opposed to his own, but I should regard it as wholly wrong to allow my judgment on these matters to be influenced or deflected by purely political considerations. I could imagine no case in which under the law the penalty had been more directly deserved.”

The jail diary of Bhagat Singh makes for an interesting historical reading. He wrote shortly before his death : “They (the youth) should aim at a Swaraj for the masses based on socialism. That was a revolutionary change which they could not bring about without revolutionary methods...” Bhagat Singh exhorts Punjab’s youth to follow Nehru. He had seen the emergence of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose as a ‘redeeming feature of the freedom struggle’ during the 1920s. Before his hanging he asked his lawyer, Pran Nath Mehta, to convey his thanks to Pandit Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose for their support. For all his revolutionary mind Bhagat Singh was deeply fond of his family. In his last letter to his youngest brother, Kultar, he quoted the popular Urdu couplet: Khush raho ahle watan hum to safar karte hain (Goodbye, dear countrymen, we proceed on our journey).

The author is a writer, an ex-Army officer and a member, National Commission for Minorities. The views expressed here are his personal.