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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2224

Did the Mahatma do his best to save Bhagat Singh..?

By R. K. Bhatnagar*- Syndicate Features

Did Mahatma Gandhi try his best to save Bhagat Singh from being hanged to death 75 years ago on March 23, 1931?

This question keeps cropping up at regular intervals though there is so much ‘recorded’ evidence to show how Gandhiji was concerned over the young and daring nationalist.

Scepticism is in built in the Indian psyche, probably.

Writing on the subject in his book, ‘Indian Struggle’, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose said “Pressure was brought to bear on the Mahatma to try to save the lives of young men and it must be admitted, he did try his best”.

Gandhiji held talks with the Viceroy between 17 February and 4 March 1931. During this period, he raised the issue of Bhagat Singh twice as per the files of Home (political) department vide file no KW Home (Government Political Branch) F5-541-1931.

Each time the Viceroy took the stand that the issue was not covered by the terms of reference of negotiations. The Imperial government’s representative in Delhi had a point. Non-Satyagrahi prisoners were not a part of the term of reference of the talks. Yet that did not prevent Gandhiji to put up his case as forcefully as he could do.

At the Karachi session of Congress, Gandhiji was heckled and questioned again as to what he did to save the life of Bhagat Singh.

He replied: “I pleaded with the Viceroy as best as I could. I brought all the persuasion at my command to bear on him. On the day fixed for the final interview with Bhagat Singh’s relations, I wrote a letter to the Viceroy on the morning of 23 March. I poured my whole soul into it, but to no avail. I might have done one thing more. I might have made the commutation a term of the settlement”.

Bhagat Singh was born in a Sikh family of farmers at Banga village of Lyallpur district (now in Pakistan’s Punjab province) on September 27, 1907. His grandfather, Arjun Singh, was drawn to Arya Samaj, and took keen interest in the Congress. His father, Kishen Singh, and uncle, Ajit Singh, were members of Ghadar Party founded in U.S. Both went to jail for their anti-British activities.

At one time, as many as 22 cases were slapped on Ajit Singh; he was sentenced to spend life in Kalapani (Andamans) for his revolutionary activities. He escaped to Iran. Thereafter he went to Turkey, Austria, Germany and finally to Brazil.

Given this family orientation, it is no surprise that Bhagat Singh was brought up on a diet of patriotism, nationalism and sacrifice. As a student of the DAV School in Lahore, in 1916, he came in contact Lala Lajpat Rai, Ras Bihari Bose and other stalwarts of the time. In response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation against British rule in 1921, Bhagat Singh left his studies.

The National College founded by Lala Lajpat Rai in Lahore was the centre of revolutionary activities. As if ordained by fate, Young Bhagat Singh joined this college and came in contact with Bhagwati Charan, Sukhdev and other revolutionaries.

The composite state of Punjab in those days was politically surcharged. It was seething with the memory of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre (1919) which claimed more than 400 innocent lives and left thousands injured. As a young boy of fourteen, Bhagat Singh visited the massacre site and collected in his lunch box the soil sanctified by the blood of the innocent. Call it a memento or a souvenir, the ‘holy soil’ was his constant reminder of the grim tragedy to steel his resolve to take vengeance.

To avoid early marriage, Bhagat Singh ran away from home and became a member of a youth organization, Noujawan Bharat Sabha, which had memberships of all religions. It was here at the Sabha he had met Chandra Shekhar Azad, B.K. Dutt and other revolutionaries. They secretly printed handouts and newspapers in Urdu, Punjabi and English to spread political awareness.

In a letter to The Tribune (December 24, 1929), Bhagat Singh explained at length what he and his fellow socialists meant by ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long Live Revolution). He wrote that by revolution, they did not so much mean violence, as “the spirit, but the longing for a change for the better”. Since people generally get accustomed to the established order of things and begin to tremble at the very idea of a change, they needed to be roused from their lethargy and the revolutionary spirit had to be instilled in them.

Those were the days when anti-British feelings were spreading. Indians wanted some representation in running the administration of the country to which British reciprocated only on paper. Noticing that restlessness was spreading the British appointed a commission under the leadership of Sir John Simon in 1928. There was no Indian member on this commission, and all the political parties decided to boycott the Simon Mission wherever it went across the country.

In Lahore, Lajpat Rai and Pandit Madan Malaviya decided to stage a protest march. It was a silent march. The police had banned meetings and processions. Thousands joined, without giving room for any untoward incident. Yet, the Police chief Scott beat Lala Lajpat Rai severally with a lathi on the head several times and he succumbed to the injuries.

Bhagat Singh was an eyewitness to the morbid scene. And he vowed to take revenge.

With the help of Azad, Rajguru and Sukhdev he plotted to kill Scott. Unfortunately he killed Sanders, a junior officer, in a case of mistaken identity. He had to flee from Lahore to escape death penalty. Bhagat Singh and his colleagues made a dramatic escape to Kolkata and from there to Agra, where they established a bomb factory.

Instead of finding the cause for discontent among Indians, the British took to repressive measures. The Defence of India Act gave more powers to the police - to arrest persons and to stop processions on suspicion. The law was brought on the statute in the form of an ordinance in the so called interest of the public. No doubt the British were keen to arrest all leaders who opposed its arbitrary actions, and Bhagat Singh who was in hiding all this while, volunteered to throw a bomb in the Central Assembly where the meeting was to pass the ordinance was held.

It was a carefully laid out plot, not to cause death or injury but to draw the attention of the government that the modes of its suppression could no more be tolerated. It was agreed that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt would court arrest after throwing the bomb on April 8, 1929. Singh and Dutt threw handouts in the Central Assembly and bomb in the corridor not to cause injury and courted arrest after shouting slogans ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. They could have run away and thus escaped. The heroes they were Bhagat Singh and his friends did not leave the scene. That was both heroism in action and patriotism in full flow.

Bhagat Singh thought the court would be a venue to get publicity for the cause of freedom, and did not disown the crime. He refused to employ any defense counsel. He gave a fiery statement giving reasons for killing which was symbolic of freedom struggle. In the jail, Bhagat Singh went on hunger strike to protest against the inhuman treatment of fellow political prisoners.

Bhagat Singh wanted to be shot like a soldier, and not die at the gallows. But, his pleas were turned down. The Special Tribunal that tried him and fellow revolutionaries, Sukh Dev and Raj Guru, awarded death sentence to them on October 7, 1930.

Despite great popular pressure and numerous appeals by political leaders, Bhagat Singh and his associates were hanged in the early hours of March 23, 1931. Their bodies were cremated on the banks of the river Sutlej in Ferozepur. Bhagat Singh was just 23 at that time. Old timers say that in many houses, not a single hearth fire burned that day.

Although 75 years have passed from that fateful day, Bhagat Singh is fondly remembered not merely as a bold militant who dared to challenge the mighty Imperialist rulers of the day but also as a thinker who was steeped in the best traditions of socialistic thought, the theory that advocated collective ownership of the means of production- land, labour and capital.

This is borne out in the numerous letters, pamphlets and articles that he wrote in the course of a short but turbulent life.

*The writer is a former Press Secretary to President R Venkataraman

- Syndicate Features -

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