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

Dissecting the Silence: Mahatma Gandhi and Congress on Bhagat Singh’s Martyrdom

Saturday 23 March 2019

by Saurav Kumar Rai

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 the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his 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 March 23, 1931. Now, it is often alleged that Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress could possibly avert 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 the Congress’ 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 insight 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. Following 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 the Congressmen carrying on propaganda so that there may be no complaint of breach of understanding arrived at between the Congress and the government. Now, one such instruction stated: ‘If any lawful orders are passed, right or wrong, they should not be disobeyed.’1 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.’2 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.’3

These instructions explain the unusual silence of the prominent Congress leaders over the execution of Bhagat Singh which was eventually ‘a lawful order’ passed by the competent judicial authority. At the same time, bound by the instructions to prevent any breach of under-standing, 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 against this brutality of the government. In fact, the very person, Mahatma Gandhi, who is charged of being insecure of Bhagat Singh’s popularity and of being guilty of remaining silent in the whole matter, spoke on more than one occasion against the entire logic of hanging Bhagat Singh and his associates. Mahatma Gandhi, on March 23, 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.’4 Subsequently, Mahatma Gandhi himself penned a moving yet powerful resolution on Bhagat Singh and his comrades adopted by the Indian National Congress on March 29, 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.’5

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 means 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 differences of opinions nowhere stripped them of the warmth which they shared among each other at the 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.

Endnotes

1. See ‘Circular for Congress Workers’ in The Selected Works of C. Rajagopalachari, Vol. V, Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2019, p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. Ibid., p. 8.

4. “Gandhi’s Letter to the Viceroy regarding the sentence of death to Bhagat Singh, 23 March 1931” (https://www.mkgandhi.org/faq/q26.htm, accessed on 18.02.2019).

5. See ‘Resolution on Bhagat Singh and Comrades, 29.03.1931 in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. XLV, Publications Division, New Delhi, 1971, p. 363.

Saurav Kumar Rai is a Senior Research Assistant, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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