Bhagat Singh and Gandhi Ji : Did Gandhi ji speak a lie?

The Privy Council rejected the appeal of Bhagat Singh on February 11, 1931 and upheld the sentence of capital punishment awarded to him. Just six days thereafter, talks were initiated between Mahatma Gandhi and the British Viceroy Lord Irwin. People all over India were expecting that the question of death sentence to Bhagat Singh would also be taken up and Gandhiji will save Bhagat Singh from the gallows.


On 26 January 1930, the Congress Party had proclaimed that its goal was ''Poorna Swaraj" (full independence). Earlier also, many Congress leaders and various Congress resolutions had been demanding independence, but they merely meant "self Government'' or "Home Rule" under the British supremacy. Thus, 'Swaraj' did not mean full freedom or independence from the British domination. The demand for 'full independence' was for the first time raised in the Congress Session in 1928. However, Gandhiji was not ready for complete break from the British. Therefore, he used his personality and influence to get a resolution passed which demanded 'dominion status' for India within the British Commonwealth in one year's time. Gandhiji had hoped that the British would accept this demand and it would not then be necessary for the Congress Party to carry on the struggle. But that did not happen. Gandhiji was therefore compelled to give his consent to the resolution of 'full independence' in the Congress Session held in December 1929.


After the passing of the resolution for 'full independence', Subhash Chandra Bose and his colleagues proposed a full-fledged struggle against the British. In fact, he also proposed the establishment of a parallel Government of free India against the British rulers. But Gandhlji did not agree to any revolutionary struggle. Instead, he took a decision to wage a peaceful and nonviolent struggle. Announcement for a 'Civil Disobedience Movement' was made and a token 'Salt Movement' was launched against the British. The young element in the Congress was not happy at this. They argued that salt was extremely cheap and the cess imposed by the British rulers on it was less than one paisa. Therefore, even if the British withdrew this tax, they would not be adversely affected economically. They also raised an accusing finger that Gandhiji had deliberately taken up a weak cause in order that the real interests of the British did not suffer.


The Civil Disobedience Movement was brought to an end by Gandhiji before it reached its logical conclusion. He was invited for talks by Viceroy Irwin. Gandhi-Irvin talks, which started on 17 February 1931, stretched on till 5 March 1931, at the end of which the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was announced. According to articles 12 and 13 of the Pact, all cases going on in courts in connection with Civil Disobedience Movement were to be withdrawn and the prisoners were to be released provided they had not been charged with committing or inciting violence. It is clear from this that the case of Bhagat Singh was not covered by this Pact.


In those days, Bhagat Singh was a household name in India. Young and old, all were thrilled by his courage and patriotism. He was a leader even in the eyes of common men. Their hearts had a place of honor for him. Everybody was expecting that the death sentence of Bhagat Singh would either be revoked or converted into life sentence on the intervention of Gandhi. But, nothing of the sort happened. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact created an atmosphere of disappointment.


Gandhiji himself was not unaware of the public sentiment. Wherever he went, he saw a question mark in people's eyes. They wanted to know from him why the death sentence of Bhagat Singh could not be revoked. People had abiding faith in Gandhiji. They believed that if he so wanted he could surely save Bhagat Singh's life by getting his death sentence converted into life sentence. But the entire country was stunned when the news came that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukh Dev had been hanged on the evening on 23 March 1931. Everybody was thinking that Gandhiji must have tried his best, but adamant Irwin did not agree and saw to it that Bhagat Singh was hanged. Gandhiji himself issued statements to that effect.


On 11 June 1931, Gandhiji wrote in Young India -

"I had interested myself in the movement for commutation of the death sentence on Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I had put my whole being into the task."


Before this, on 26 March 1931, he stated at a press conference:

"I did not bother you with the details of what I did to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I pleaded with the Viceroy as best as I could. I brought all persuasion at my command to bear on him."


From this statement of Gandhiji, it appears that he had done his level best to save the life Bhagat Singh. The book "Trial of Bhagat Singh" by AG Noorani (Konark Publishers) published in 1996, It is established with ample evidence that Gandhiji did not make any serious attempt to save the life of Bhagat Singh. This book has a chapter captioned 'Gandhi's Truth', in which the author has tried to prove that, in the context of Bhagat Singh, Gandhi's truth was in fact an untruth. It is difficult to believe that a person of the status of Mahatma Gandhi would speak a public lie to cover up facts. It is therefore necessary to examine those facts on the basis of which A.G. Noorani has made this accusation against Gandhiji.


A.G. Noorani writes that Gandhiji had raised the issue of converting the death sentence of Bhagat Singh into life sentence on 18th February, during the Gandhi-Irwin talks that took place from 17 February to 5 March, 1931. The last Para of the personal 'note' prepared the same day by Irwin on his talks with Gandhi reads:-

"In conclusion and not connected with the above, he (Gandhi) mentioned the case of Bhagat Singh. He did not plead for commutation, although he would, being opposed to all taking of life, take that course himself. He also thought it would have an influence for peace. But he did ask for postponement in present circumstances. I contended myself with saying that, whatever might be the decision as to exact dates, I could not think there was any case for commutation which might not be made with equal force in the case of any other violent crime. The Viceroy's powers of commutation were designed for use on well-known grounds of clemency, and I could not feel that they ought to be invoked on grounds that were admittedly political." (National Achieve of India: File No. 5-45/1955 KW2.)


This 'Note' of Irwin is available in the National Archives. It clearly establishes that Gandhiji made no effort to save the life of Bhagat Singh during Gandhi-Irwin talks. He only wanted his capital punishment to be suspended for some time.

The veracity of Irwin's 'Note' is also confirmed by the diary of Gandhiji's Secretary, Mahadev Desai. Gandhiji had himself told him:

"I talked about Bhagat Singh: I told him (Lord Irwin): "This has no connection with our discussion, and it may not even be appreciated on my part to mention it. But if you want to make the present atmosphere more favorable, you should suspend Bhagat Singh's execution. The viceroy liked this very much. He said: "I am very grateful you had put this before me in this manner. Commutation of sentence is a difficult thing, but suspension is certainly worth considering".


On the basis of these two evidences, Noorani has established that Gandhiji never asked Irwin to spare the life of Bhagat Singh. Therefore, Gandhiji's statement made in the press conference of 26 March 1931 that he tried his level best with the Viceroy to save the lives of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues is not true. Even token efforts were not made to save the life of Bhagat Singh during the Gandhi-Irwin talks between 17 February to 5 March, 1931. The utmost that was done was to ask for suspension of his capital punishment for some time, so that it may not come in way of countrymen in accepting the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. This conclusion is confirmed by Gandhiji's statement and action on 19 and 20 March 1931.


Gandhiji had a meeting with Viceroy Lord Irwin on 19 March 1931. On the basis of the talks held, Irwin also noted the same day:-

"As he Gandhi was leaving, he asked if he might mention the case of Bhagat Singh, saying that he had seen in the Press, the intimation of his execution for March 24th. This in unfortunate day as it coincided with the arrival of the new President of the Congress at Karachi and there would be much popular excitement. "I told him I had considered the case with most anxious care, but could find no grounds on which I could justify to my conscience commuting the sentence. As to the date, I had considered the possibility of postponement till after the Congress, but had deliberately rejected it on various grounds."


In the words of A.G. Noorani: "The tone and tenor of this conversation on March 19 are identical to those of the initial conversation on February 18. They do not support the view that the viceroy gave any assurance of commutation of the sentences, however vaguely; reneged on it; and thus "duped" Gandhi. On the contrary, he flatly ruled out even postponement of their execution, let alone their commutation. Gandhi pleaded no more strongly on this occasion than he did on February 18. Indeed, he seemed rather to acquiesce in the execution which, he knew, was fixed for March 24.

On 19 March, Gandhiji had a meeting with the then Chief Secretary to the Government of India, M.W.Emerson. A gist of this three-hour meeting is available. In the words of Emerson in the National Archives:

"I then asked him (Gandhiji) if he had seen in the papers that the Governor-General in Council had rejected the petition for mercy on behalf of Bhagat Singh. He said that he had and that he was- apprehensive regarding the consequences. I did not mention the date on which the execution would be carried out, but I did explain to him that the question as to whether it should take place before or after the Karachi Congress had been very seriously considered by Government who realized the difficulties of either course, but thought it would have been unfair to Gandhi to allow the impression to gain ground that commutation was under consideration when this was not the case. He agreed that of the two alternatives it is better not to wait, but he suggested, though not seriously, that the third course of commutation of the sentence would have been better still. He did not seem to me to be particularly concerned about the matter. I told him that we should be lucky if we got through without disorder, and I asked him to do all that he could to prevent meetings being held in Delhi during the next few days and to restrain violent speeches. He promised to do what he could."


These words of Emerson which have been lying sealed for the last over six decades in the Archives. These are an eloquent testimony of an unspoken understanding between the British and Gandhiji in regard to the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues. Gandhiji, in the interest of the British, took upon himself the responsibility of preventing inflammatory speeches in the public meetings going to be organised to save Bhagat Singh from gallows.

Next day, on 20th March 1931, an exchange of letters took place between Emerson and Gandhiji which clearly testifies to the proximity and understanding existing between the two:

Government of India

Home Department, New Delhi

March 20, 1931


Dear Mr. Gandhi,

With reference to our conversation last night regarding the danger of excitement being worked up in connection with the execution of the sentence passed on Bhagat Singh, etc., the Chief Commissioner informs me that notice has been given in the city that Mr. Subhash Chandra Bose will address a meeting of protest tonight at 5.30. I fully realize your difficulties in the matter and I think that you realize the difficulties of Government and also their desire at the present time to avoid, if possible, preventive action, which may, however, be unavoidable if excitement grows. If a meeting is held tonight, it is almost certain to increase feeling, especially if speeches of an inflammatory character are made. Government will much appreciate any assistance you feel able to give to prevent this and to check the creation of condition which, if uncontrolled, may have serious consequences.

Yours sincerely,


H.W.Emerson

M.K.Gandhi, Esq.

1, Daryaganj Delhi.


Gandhiji replied to the letter the same day:

1, Daryaganj, Delhi

March 20, 1931


Dear Mr. Emerson,

I thank you for your letter just received. I knew about the meeting you refer to. I have already taken every precaution possible and hope that nothing untoward will happen. I suggest that there should be no display of police force and no interference at the meeting. Irritation is undoubtedly there. It would be better to allow it to find vent through meetings, etc.

Yours sincerely

M.K.Gandhi

H.W. Emerson Esq.

Chief Secretary to the Government of India

New Delhi.


In the words of A.G. Noorani:

"He (Gandhiji) had been told repeatedly that the sentence of death (on Bhagat Singh and his colleagues) would be carried out: he made no serious efforts, nonetheless, to alter that decision; led his interlocutors, the Viceroy and the Home Secretary, to believe that he was not seriously interested in commutation of the sentence; and, that he acquiesced in the Government's decision to execute them. In his conversation and correspondence with Emerson, he went a step further. He counseled the Government how best to manage the situation arising out of the imminent execution."


These conclusions are also confirmed by the writings of Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Sitaramayya wrote: "Any way Lord Irwin was unable to help in the matter, but undertook to secure a postponement of the execution till after the Karachi Congress. The Karachi session was to meet in the last days of March, but Gandhi himself definitely stated to the Viceroy that if the boys should be hanged, they had better be hanged before than after. The position of affairs in the country would be clear. There would be no false hopes lingering in the breasts of the people. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact would stand or fall on its own merit as the Congress, and on the added fact that the three boys had been executed."


However, a few hours before Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were to be hanged, Gandhiji wrote a fervent and emotional letter to the Viceroy on 23rd, March 1991, appealing to save the lives of these three revolutionaries. The Viceroy immediately sent his reply to Gandhiji, expressing regret. A few hours thereafter, at 7.30 in the evening, the three brave fighters of freedom for their Motherland became martyrs. The entire country was stunned. People were also seething with anger. Subhash Chandra Bose gave expression to this resentment.


When Gandhiji reached Karachi, to participate in the Congress Session, members of Nav Jav Jawan Sabha, the young colleagues of Subhash Chandra Bose showed him black flags at the railway station. They were shouting slogan - "Gandhi, go back", "Gandhiji Murdabad." (Death to Gandhi)


Later, on the same day in the Congress Session, Gandhiji moved a resolution of condolence which he had himself drafted. The resolution zealously praised the bravery and martyrdom of Bhagat Singh.


It appears that Gandhiji was not inclined to save Bhagat Singh and his colleagues from the gallows. He made no serious attempt between 17 February and 5th March 1931 for revocation of their death sentences. But when he realised the mass adulation for these young revolutionaries as evidenced by the unprecedented huge attendance at the public meeting organised by Subhash Chandra Bose, he felt for the first time that if he made no visible gestures to save Bhagat singh from the gallows, he would not escape public wrath and all blame for Bhagat Singh's murder would be heaped on him. He, therefore, wrote the letter of 23rd March only a few hours before Bhagat Singh was to be hanged, seeking clemency for him. He must known that there was no sense in making a last minute appeal. He wrote this letter - only to show that he had left no stone unturned in saving the life of Bhagat Singh.


In the concluding part of the chapter on, 'Gandhiji's Truth', A.G.Noorani writes in his book 'Trial of Bhagat Singh':

"Gandhi alone could have intervened effectively to save Bhagat Singh's life' He did not, till the very last. Later claims such as that "I brought all the persuasions at my command to bear on him (the Viceroy) are belied by the records which came to light four decades later. In this tragic episode, Gandhi was not candid either to the nation or even to his closest colleagues about his talks with the Viceroy, Lord lrwin, on saving Bhagat Singh's life."


Mahatma Gandhi is held in high esteem in India. He is worshipped like a god. Most people have blind faith in him. They-cannot tolerate a word against him. They would go to any extent to defend him. Noorani's research should be a challenge to Gandhi-worshippers. It is expected of them to refurbish the image of Gandhi by mustering counter-arguments and counter-evidence to contradict the arguments and evidence produced by Noorani. Will anybody accept this challenge? Debate is the positive side of democracy.

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