“Gandhi and Bhagat Singh’, V.N Datta, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2008, pages 126, Price- Rupees 295/
Ever since death sentence for Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev in Lahore conspiracy case-II was pronounced on 7th October, 1930 by a controversial three member special tribunal established by British colonial government, it became a national issue to get the lives of these patriots saved. And who could save these precious lives? In general perception it was Mahatma Gandhi, who was thought to be the tallest national leader of India at that time. Since then this question has never been settled. Every now and then, this issue again erupts, why did Gandhi not save the lives of these young men? Or could he save or not save? This issue had been discussed umpteen times, ‘Mainstream’ had series of articles, both in favour of and against Gandhi, but without any convincing conclusion. Academia had remained more or less aloof from this contentious issue, but with well known historian V.N.Datta’s latest publication ‘Gandhi and Bhagat Singh’, the debate has entered academic world also.
V. N. Datta has referred to earlier debates on the issue and has come out with his own views as well, which are of course in favour of Gandhi to a large extent. Although no one gave thought to this view, whether this issue deserved so much energy and space and such long time to continue? Before probing the different aspects of this contentious question, one should look at the background in which this question got focused and later even struck. Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary group after getting their organization renamed as “Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’ from earlier simple ‘Hindustan Republican Association’ on 8th and 9th September 1928, went into quick political actions, but they were trapped in the quagmire of British repressive actions on Indian masses and had to act against their own ideological perspective of building socialist movement with organizing masses in foreseeable future and thus creating an alternative to Indian National Congress for liberating the country. As the group requested Lala Lajpat Rai , a tall national leader, though with whom they had differences on communal issue, to lead the mass protest against the visit of Simon Commission to Lahore on 30th October, 1928, Lalaji fell to the brutal lathi blows of colonial police while leading the mass demonstration and succumbed to injuries on 17th November, 1928. There are two famous statements of that occasion, one issued by Lala Lajpat Rai himself on the same evening, i.e. 30th October, 1928, while addressing mass rally against this brutality by British police officers, namely Scott and Saunders, Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent of Police at Lahore at that time. Lala Lajpat Rai proclaimed in highly charged mass rally that ‘every blow on his body will prove to be the last nail in the caffeine of the British colonial rule in India.’ Other equally charged reaction came after the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, this was by Basanti Devi, the widow of most respected national leader C.R.Das that ‘whether the youth of this country have lost their shame? Whether our young men will avenge the death of our tallest national leader at the hands of a lowly British police officer? Known to be the most sensitive to the dignity of Indian nationhood, revolutionary group of Bhagat Singh had no option under the circumstances to uphold the dignity of Indian nationalism by avenging the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, who was the symbol of Indian nationalism at that time, despite their bitter differences with him. On 17th December, 1928, exactly one month after the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Saunders was shot dead by Rajguru and Bhagat Singh, with the cover given to them by Chanderrshekhar Azad. Though they all escaped from Lahore in a very daring manner and could even had lie low for sometime, but the sharp intellect and growing political maturity in Bhagat Singh led him to take further clear decisions. Bhagat Singh could see that in spite of reaching the consciousness of the need to have socialist revolution in India through insurrection, like in Russia in 1917, he and his group was not equal to that great task. He knew that their days are numbered and they must perform such spectacular actions which could awaken the sleepy masses of India. He wanted that the socialist ideas of his revolutionary group and his own must reach every nook and corner of the country and they had to sacrifice their lives to awaken the masses. Bhagat Singh was more than absolutely clear that sacrifice of some of the leading leaders of the group was must and due to his involvement in Saunders murder, he had to be one of those, who must accept this moral duty towards the nation and its people. It was with such clear understanding that the second spectacular action of throwing harmless bombs in Central Assembly Delhi, ( ‘To Make the Deaf Hear’), to protest against anti people legislations like ‘Public Safety Bill’ and ‘Trade Disputes Bill’ was planned very meticulously. The decision not to escape and use courts as platform to propagate their ideas was also taken with political maturity. Further to sing national songs and raise slogans in the court and get brutally beaten up publicly at the hands of British police in response, was also part of that political design. Even to use the weapon of hunger strike and observe record hunger strike of 115 days, with the loss of their dear comrade Jatin Dass after 63 days was to rouse the masses and they did succeed in their target.
Bhagat Singh delayed the Lahore conspiracy case proceedings, much to the chagrin of British colonial rulers, but he never wanted to save his life. He agreed to allow and appeal to Privy Council for this purpose but with the clear understanding that ‘Execution must not stop’. His wish was that ‘they should be executed at the time when Indian people’s rise in masses to demand for their release was at its peak’. That is what exactly happened. He was executed exactly when the whole nation had woken up and Bhagat Singh had become a household name and it proved Gandhi’s apprehension expressed to Irwin, true, that ‘their execution will make them ‘national martyrs’, so they became defeating both Gandhi and British crown design to marginalize them from Indian political scene.
‘Gandhi and Bhagat Singh’ is an enlarged and revised version of a long keynote address delivered by Prof. V.N.Datta at the international conference held on ‘Bhagat Singh and his Times’ at Panjab University, Chandigarh in September 2007 by ICHR and Institute of Punjab Studies. In a short preface the author argues that ‘The question of Bhagat Singh’s life and death has to be seen from a broader perspective, especially within the framework of the British Imperial system operating in the country, which is generally ignored’. The author also questions the view of some of the historians that ‘Bhagat Singh was a convinced and confirmed Marxist, Socialist and Leninite’. The author takes this view to be one dimensional. Prof. Datta also poses the question—‘What was his (Bhagat Singh’s) legacy? What was his achievement? The author counterpoises the view of Gandhi that Bhagat Singh’s mode of militant nationalism was ‘most injurious to the cause of Indian independence. Still more Prof. Datta proclaims that ‘Sukhdev was the real brain and organizer of the entire programme’ and ‘his role has been ignored’, further ‘ Sukhdev still awaits a historian!’. For a small book of about 125 pages, these questions and observations are too tall. The book divided into eight chapters includes in appendices, notice by HSRA after killing JP Saunders, the leaflets thrown in Central assembly after throwing the bombs, Governor General’s statement after Gandhi-Irwin pact and Karachi Congress resolution of 31st march 1931 on ‘Fundamental Rights and Economic Changes’. Apart from useful index and bibliography, Chronological table of Bhagat Singh’s life has also been included in the book.
In the first chapter, the author refers to the debate that took place mostly in the pages of left weekly ‘Mainstream’ on Gandhi’s role in this whole episode. While Ashok Celley, D.P.Das and A.G.Noorani took a strong stand that Gandhi had not sincerely tried to save the lives of these young revolutionaries, Anil Nauriya and Prem Bhasin counter these views by supporting the view that Gandhi did his best to save the lives. Some other authors have also been referred from their books. K K Khullar and Kuldip Nayar are quoted as supporting Gandhi for making efforts, while D(G?) S Deol, Manmathnath Gupta and also A.G.Noorani in his book ‘The Trial of Bhagat Singh’ have been referred to castigating Gandhi in this context. S. Irfan Habib has been referred to be a bit ambivalent on this issue. Some British historians like Roy Jenkins, Andrew Roberts and Allan Campbell Johnson have been shown as describing the events or Gandhi-Irwin negotiations in a matter of fact manner. In fact the major article in this regard was penned by D.P.Das, which was published under the title ‘Gandhi and Bhagat Singh’ in Independence Day number of ‘Mainstream’ in 1970. D.P Das had based his arguments on the basis of documents of British bureaucracy in national archives. He also referred to Lord Irwin’s autobiography, in which he has referred to his dialogue with Gandhi on this issue. This article has created ripples, as for the first time Gandhi’s image was questioned in a very serious manner. A.G.Noorani later added this article in his book in appendices and he himself supported all the arguments of Das with his own painstaking research in the process of writing ‘The Trial of Bhagat Singh’. Ashok Celly argued that Gandhi never tolerated any other view in the national movement apart from his own views. He refers to the throwing away of Subhash Bose from Congress party despite being democratically elected President, as he had defeated Gandhi’s candidate in elections. D.G. Tendulkar and Pattabhi Sitaramaya are quoted for espousing Gandhi’s moral dilemma in this regard as being a votary of non violence; he could not defend an act of violence by the young men. INA General Mohan Singh and author G.S.Deol are unhappy with Gandhi’s passivity in this matter. All this debate is concentrated on only on one issue, which was why Gandhi did not make it the condition of Gandhi-Irwin negotiations going on that time that the lives of these young men will be spared and it would be converted into life sentence. Privy Council by this time had rejected the appeal on these executions and now only Viceroy could commute the sentence and all the appeals were being made to him. Since Congress party as main driving force of national movement was expected to take lead in this regard, pressure was being built on it from inside and outside to take a clear stand and further make it a condition of any agreement with British Government. Not only Gandhi, who was the undisputed most powerful leader of Congress party, even the Congress working committee also did not make it as a precondition for the negotiations with British Government. At that time Subhash Chander Bose was part of Congress party, Jawaharlal Nehru like popular leaders of the party were admirers of Bhagat Singh, yet they all were so helpless before Gandhi that none could force the issue, so their admiration for revolutionaries remained on paper and confined to speeches.
Prof. Datta has thrown some light on Gandhi’s attitude towards revolutionary or militant means in national movement in third chapter of the book. In 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, son of a pro British rich family from Amritsar, came for higher studies to London and under the influence of Veer Savarkar’s militant views, killed Curzon Wyllie and got executed in London itself after a quick trial. Gandhi was in London in those days and he condemned this killing in most strong words. Gandhi had also referred to this case in his tract ‘Hind Swaraj’, which many people think is the key to understand Gandhian thought on Indian independence. This book written in Gujrati in 1909 was banned, when its English edition came out in 1910, for some time. Gandhi also condemned bomb hurled on Lord Harding on 23rd December 1912, during his ceremonial entry into city, after the capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta. Gandhi from South Africa at that time declared it to be ‘a catastrophe’. Incidentally Madan Lal Dhingra and the four persons executed in Lord Harding bomb case-Master Amir Chand, Balmukund , Awadh Behari and Basant Kumar Biswas were highly praised by Bhagat Singh in his writings on national movement. Gandhi from his South African experiences has made non violence as his creed for national movement and created a political term ‘Satyagraha’, literally meaning ‘insisting for truth, as new weapon for attaining independence for the country. Gandhi had again strongly condemned bomb thrown on 23rd December 1929 at Viceroy’s train by Bhagat Singh’s comrades. Killing of Saunders and throwing of bombs in Central assembly was also condemned as strongly as other actions of the revolutionaries by Gandhi and some other leaders of the Congress party. Gandhi had described the bomb throwing in Central Assembly as ‘the criminal act of two mad youth’.
In this longest chapter Gandhi’s Attitude, Prof. Datta has referred to some other interesting aspects of national movement, such as commercial interests or one would say national bourgeoisie’s interests. Every one know that Gandhi was too close to business magnet G.D.Birla, in fact mush of the funds for Congress party came from these business houses and largest from Birla family. Prof Datta has quoted another eminent historian of national movement Sumit Sarkar that ‘ G.D.Birla, Walchand Hirachand and Purshottamdas Thakurdas thought that the further continuance of anti-British struggle would adversely affect their commercial interests.’(Page 39) It is same Purshottamdas Thakurdas to whom Bhagat Singh had referred in his famous quote that what difference it makes to people if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru or Purshotamdas Thakurdas take the place of Lord reading or Lord Irwin, if system does not change. Prof. Datta has quoted Gandhi’s letter to Viceroy written on 23rd March, 1931, the day he was observing silence. This is by far the strongest defense for Gandhi in favour of his ‘efforts’ to save the lives of these young men. But this letter rather than being the defense of Gandhi becomes a moral reflection on him, as the letter contains such reference to revolutionary group, which was far from truth and no one could believe that. In the letter it is said that-‘ I am able to inform you that the revolutionary party has assured me that, in the event of these lives being spared, that party will stay its hands, suspension of sentence pending cessation of revolutionary murders becomes in my opinion a preemptory duty.’(Page 42)
It is a double moral reflection on Gandhi’s considered ‘truthful’ personality. Every political personality in those days and British administration as well, knew fully well that whatever may come, Bhagat Singh and his comrades will never give any assurance on renouncing violence under pressure or to ‘save lives’. Such was their moral stature. Though it was a fact that Bhagat Singh and his group had decided to keep away from political violence and work for organizing the masses, yet they would never convey it to their sworn enemy, the British colonial rulers. Aruna Asaf Ali had vouched to this in this very chapter’s references. Here Bhagat Singh’s ‘truthfulness’ had higher credibility than Gandhi’s. Nationalist leader and Bhagat Singh’s counsel Asaf Ali was trying his best to get some dignified statement from Bhagat Singh, which could convey their political view of shunning terrorism as method, but he was not granted permission by British rulers. Gandhi writing this letter to Viceroy on 23rd March morning also makes it as a ritual, as British administration had sent secret circular to jail authorities to execute the prisoners on 23rd evening itself, though it was widely believed that executions will take place on 24th March morning as per tradition.
In fact, Prof. Datta has not quoted the passage from Lord Halifax’s (Irwin) autobiography, which had been quoted by DP Das in his ‘Mainstream’ article that during their talk on Bhagat Singh issue Gandhi had asked Irwin that would he mind if he publicly claims that he put the maximum pressure on Viceroy on this issue. Irwin had replied that he won’t mind that. So ‘the best efforts’ made by Gandhi ‘to save the lives of Bhagat Singh’ were planned in the full knowledge of British administration. In this chapter, Prof. Datta had not referred to some more facts in this regard. Durga Bhabhi widow of revolutionary Bhagwaticharn Vohra and herself an accused in attack on British Governor in Bombay had met Gandhi in this regard. Gandhi knew her well and thought she had come to seek his intervention in her own case. She was living underground those days and had warrants against her. Gandhi told her ‘to surrender’ and the rest he would take care. But when Durga Bhabhi told Gandhi that she had come to appeal him to ‘save the lives of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru’, Gandhi told her point blank that ‘he can not do anything in the matters of political violence cases’ and refused intervention. Chandershekhar Azad was desperate to save Bhagat Singh as he thought revolutionary group needed his ideological leadership most urgently. He himself had meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in Anand Bhawan Allahabad, about which Nehru had narrated in his ‘Autobiography’. Nehru was all sympathetic, but wanted the revolutionaries to go to Moscow to get training in Marxism, he actually contributed some money for this purpose, the project which never could materialize. Jawaharlal Nehru was actually patronizing ‘Bhagat Singh Defense committee’ as well, whose secretary Kumari Lajjawati was Congress activist. Massive meetings and rallies all over Punjab and elsewhere were taken out under the aegis of this defense committee. There was signature campaign all over India to save the lives of young patriots. Record of at least two lakh signatures is preserved even today in National archives Delhi. More than forty thousand signatures are on record on just one petition from Kanpur. All these facts do not find mention in Prof. Datta’s book, when the issue of value of Bhagat Singh’s life is being discussed. The fact that Gandhi did not take into account this popular sentiment of Indian people towards Bhagat Singh does not find mention in the book. Pattabhi Sitaramaya has himself recorded this sentiment in ‘The History of Congress party’ that Bhagat Singh was no less popular than Mahatma Gandhi in those days. Even today if ‘Hindu’ survey finds Bhagat Singh having the approval rate of 64% Indians, ‘India Today’ finds Bhagat Singh at the top of Indian people’s approval rate, while Gandhi is found much down in its approval rate. Indian people rightly think that Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life to defend the dignity of Indian nationhood, which was seriously compromised with the death of Lala Lajpat Rai due to brutal police beatings. While national leaders of Congress party exhorted revolutionary youth to ‘avenge’ this humiliation of Indian nationhood at that time, clever and politically astute leaders like Gandhi diverted the issue from ‘ national dignity’ to that of ‘political violence’
Revolutionaries trusted Moti lal Nehru more in this matter, who passed away on 6th February, 1931 and revolutionaries thought that they lost ’sincere sympathizer’ to their cause. Robert Bernays has been quoted from his book ‘Naked Faquir’ in this chapter in reference to Sarojini Naidu, who had told the author that ‘Bhagat Singh ought to be punished for his crimes, but not by death. After all he is only a rebel.’ (Page 47)In this chapter there is an interesting quote from internationally renowned Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz that ‘slogan Inqilab Zindabad’ had replaced Bande Matram’ in those days.(Page51) Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi had confided to this author that Faiz had heard the pistol shots on 17th December, 1928 from his hostel of Government College Lahore. The college is little away from where Saunders was killed that day.
Lord Irwin has been introduced in next chapter, who was a conservative party man but ‘liberal’. After holding many senior positions he came to India as Viceroy in 1926 and served for five years. Days before he relinquished his charge as Viceroy, the ‘liberal Viceroy’ got Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru executed. In this chapter the author had quoted from editorial of ‘The People’ of 22nd March, 1931, which refers to British civil servants machinations in Punjab, including threat to ‘resign’, if these revolutionaries were not hanged.(Page 64). Prof. Datta refers to the bomb thrown on Viceroy’s train and also Punjab Governor being shot at in Panjab University Lahore convocation by young Harikishan. All these references are fine to analyze and understand, but the concluding paragraph based on these analyses is somewhat intriguing. The author concludes—‘Bhagat Singh had killed a British police officer and the punishment for murder was hanging. In imperial calculations Bhagat Singh was a cold blooded butcher who had committed the murder of a fellow human being. From the British perspective, he was a rebel, a seditionist, a challenger, and wrecker of their system, which they were zealously determined to guard against anarchists like him. Irwin realized that the British life in India was unsafe so long as political militancy was not crushed. Of course, he could not ignore the strong feelings of British bureaucracy in India, and of Home government.’(Page 66-67)
One can understand British colonial viewpoint in this regard, but that does not justify or clarify nationalist response to that viewpoint, which to say the least was pitiably inadequate. Even the historian seems to be reconciled to this perspective that the whole issue revolved around whether Bhagat Singh could live under those circumstances or not. To this reviewer this is most inadequate explanation. It was Bhagat Singh, who more than anyone else, British bureaucracy, Gandhi or Irwin, knew most clearly that ‘he can not live in those prevailing circumstances’, which he made clear in his last letter to his comrades, a day before his execution and he almost chose the path of gallows himself. Injustice done to him, however by nationalist leaders or historians, is to obfuscate his own viewpoint in this whole debate or scenario.
The author has devoted one chapter to Bhagat Singh’s self education, where he admires his personality. He quotes from Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru to show their admiration as well. Author narrates Bhagat Singh’s life story, particularly of his college days, but he commits a blunder in referring to his first arrest by Punjab police. Author mentions-‘Bhagat Singh was arrested in connection with the Dussehra bomb outrage in 1926, and was locked up in a small cell on 17th December, 1928.’(Page 27) Actually Bhagat Singh was arrested in this case on 29th May 1927 at Lahore and released on bail on 4th July, 1927, full five weeks after his arrest. This is his only arrest by police before his final arrest on 8th April, 1929. Ironically 17th December 1928 was the day, on which Saunders was shot dead. But to be fair to the author, this could be a ‘printers devil’ .In a chapter on ‘The Trial’, author quotes A.G Noorani that ‘ Bhagat singh’s trial was a farce, politically motivated, and the procedures adopted in his prosecution were devious and a ‘negation of justice’.(Page 69) But author’s own narration of this trial does not support Noorani’s contention that strongly. Author is appreciative of Bhagat Singh’s court statement for its ‘elegance, ’lucidity’, ‘cadenced language’, ‘sobriety and seriousness of its theme’, ‘breadth of outlook and loftiness of thought’ etc., but gives its credit strangely to Jawaharlal Nehru, despite admitting that Asaf Ali had admitted only of ‘polishing’ Bhagat Singh’s language. No source had been referred to the authorship of Nehru for this statement except the author’s own imagination that the statement has ‘the striking features of Nehru’s own prose writings’.(Page 74).This shows our academia’s vision of our supreme revolutionary hero, no one wants to recognize his intellectual potential, that is why Bhagat Singh’s transition to Marxist thought is also questioned, despite his own writings as the best proof for that. In this chapter author raises the issue-‘why no eminent lawyer defended Bhagat Singh and his associates in Lahore conspiracy case’. Author even surmises that ‘lawyers wished to keep themselves out of a British police officer’s murder case because they thought that as Bhagat Singh’s counsel they might incur the ire of British bureaucracy and judiciary from which they were accustomed to seeking favors.’(Page 75). One does not know whether to laugh or cry at such observations. The fact of the matter is that the best lawyers of Lahore and from whole country were ready to offer their services and they treated this as a national cause. Lawyers like Asaf Ali, Kailashnath katju, Chanderbhan Gupta, Mohan Lal Saxena etc. had all remained concerned about this trial, including Nehru father and son duo. It was revolutionaries own decision to engage lawyers selectively. By a conscious decision they divided themselves into three groups- one group completely ignored court proceedings, they did not engage any lawyer and practically boycotted court proceedings to show ‘the hollowness of British judicial system’. Another group, which included Bhagat Singh engaged lawyer as to counsel them only and they represented themselves in the court after consulting their counsel on legal points. The third group properly engaged lawyers. Interesting fact is that the fees of revolutionaries counsel’s were paid by British rulers as per their own laws in this regard. Lala Duni Chand, Amolak Ram Kapoor, Prannath Mehta etc. counsels of revolutionaries were among the best lot.
Prof. Datta’s observation on Sukhdev that he was the real brain etc. comes from the fact that this case was registered as ‘ Sukhdev vs. the Crown’. Sukhdev in fact had made the statement to the police when he was arrested, that statement damaged the group a lot. But as Sukhdev refused to become approver and the statement he gave was due to ‘standard police tactics’ of misleading through telling plain lies to the accused. Sukhdev in jail broke his hunger strike midway, when his other comrades suffered a lot. Sukhdev did not have the consistency, patience, farsightedness and suffering capacity of true revolutionary leader, though he was one of the intellectuals and quite well read. His only saving grace has been to go along with his comrades and accept death sentence cheerfully, though he was not part of the conspiracy or actual execution of murder of Saunders. One of the travesties of justice in this case was the death sentence awarded to Sukhdev.
In a small chapter on Karachi Congress held immediately after the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, the author has thrown light on Gandhi’s capacity to face criticism without yielding from his position. Gandhi told emphatically to the press that ‘the commutation of the death sentence these young men ‘was not a part of the truce’ with British’. He faced black flag demonstration and was presented black flowers in Karachi amid the slogans of ‘Go back Gandhi’ and ‘Down with Gandhism’, he was even described as the ‘ally of the British exploiters in India’.(Page 84) Prof. Datta has highlighted that how writers like Prem Chand and Rabindernath Tagore had kept quite on these executions. Gandhi declared in his speech at this congress that ‘the way of violence cannot bring Swaraj; it can lead only to disaster.’(Page 85) But revolutionaries were not fighting to get Swaraj in the country, they wanted to overthrow the system of exploitation and build socialism in due course, which of course would have been disaster for Birlas, Lalchandanis and Thakurs of the country, who funded and supported Gandhi. Author has mentioned about the resolution of condolence passed in the congress as per the wishes of Gandhi, but not the fact that how narrow was the difference in voting on revolution. In a full fledged book on Karachi Congress, which was banned by British rule, Jitmal Lunia had given details of parallel meetings of Naujwan Bharat Sabha, in which all the fiery leaders of Congress party had participated including Subhash Bose, Nehru, Ghaffar Khan and Madan mohan Malviya etc. The chapter gives figure of Rupees 18 lakhs given by Birla for the congress and promise of Rs. 30 lakhs to attend Round Table Conference in London for congress delegation. To placate left-wingers like Nehru and Subhash Bose, Gandhi got resolution of ‘Fundamental Rights and Economic Change’ passed in this session, which gave a little pro poor and democratic color to Congress social programme. But how much he depreciated Bhagat Singh was the letter Gandhi wrote to Mehta Anand Kishore on 26th June 1931, in which he refused to associated with building any memorial to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.(Page 90) Mehta Anand Kishore had been Congress activist of long standing and close family friend of S. Kishan Singhj, father of Bhagat Singh. In fact the first Lahore Conspiracy case in 1915 against Ghadar party activists was registered as ‘Mehta Anand Kishore vs. the Crown’. Mehta was acquitted in this case, in which Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingley like uoung patriots were executed.
Comrade Ramchandra, President of ‘Naujwan Bharat Sabha’ in 1926 has given a lucid detail of how Congress party had sabotaged the Naujwan Bharat Sabha’s plan to build suitable memorial to three martyrs in Lahore. The plan was chalked during Karachi Congress itself, but Congress party used Bhagat Singh’s father Kishan Singh to throttle the plan. Congress party promised to build the memorial on its own and Mehta Anand Kishore , a Congress activist and friend of Kishan Singh was made General Secretary of All India Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev memorial society, on whose behalf Mehta wrote to Gandhi for issuing an appeal to raise funds for the memorial. Gandhi’s response to this letter killed the whole plan. This act on the part of Gandhi show that how Congress party used these young men, when the honor of country was at stake and after gaining ground, ironically due to public sympathy for the young revolutionaries, Congress disowned the patriotic acts of these revolutionaries as ‘political violence’, thus keeping themselves aloof, but reaping the fruits of their sacrifice to get concessions from British colonial bureaucracy.
In ‘Conclusion’, Prof. Datta has rather absolved not only Gandhi, but even Irwin for the execution of the revolutionaries because it was beyond Irwin and Gandhi to save these lives as ‘they were not free and independent enough to do whatever they wished as commonly assumed. They had to act within the framework of the British imperial system operating in the country’.(Page 93) One can very well understand Irwin’s role as British imperial system’s representative, but unwittingly the author has ascribed this uncanny aspect to Gandhi’s personality and position as well, which many analysts including revolutionaries, then and now say with force of logic. Prof. Datta has also shown that leaving aside the issue of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence, Gandhi could not even stick to his position of abolishing capital punishment altogether, which almost all the democrats then and now support world over, which make his moral position further week. There is another error of dates in this chapter, ‘Why I am an Atheist’ was published in ‘The People’ of Lahore in the weekly issue of 27th September, 1931 and not on 31st September as mentioned. In this chapter author had again expressed doubts on Bhagat Singh’s English writings and he ascribes their ‘amendment’ to Asaf Ali, despite denial by Asaf Ali himself. He doubts even the authorship of articles attributed to him still as ‘mystery’.(Page 95)
Had he seen the proceedings of Bhagat Singh case, this would not have remained mystery to him. In continuing exhibition in Supreme Court Museum at New Delhi on ‘The Trial of Bhagat Singh’, number of such letters in Bhagat Singh’s own handwriting are on display there with no sign of Asaf Ali ‘amending’ or ‘polishing’ these. One may not find even a spelling error in those letters written in beautiful handwriting of Bhagat Singh.
In Recollections’ after conclusion, author has referred to his meeting with Partap Singh, who narrates the story that though Irwin has decided to commute the death sentence at Gandhi’s request, due to Dr. Muhammad Alam, a CWC member’s premature revelation to public had made Irwin order the execution. These are the kind of folk tales created after such incidents. Prof. Datta also like Kuldip Nayar has taken undue interest in the later life of Hans Raj Vohra , who had turned approver in the case and who died in Washington as journalist after living a long life. There were seven approvers in the case, out of which Phaninder Ghosh was murdered in Bihar and Baikunth Shukal was executed for that. Jaigopal was shot at in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon court by Bhagwan Das Mahour and Sadashiv Malkapurkar. Jaigopal was also hit on head with chappal by Premdutt, youngest member of revolutionary group in the court, since he was provoking the revolutionaries by ridiculing them. But none of other approvers were subjected to any kind of misbehavior on the part of revolutionaries in jail or outside. They understood perfectly that not all can stand up to police tortures. Hans Raj Vohra felt guilty and ashamed even during the trial, but his parents being of high class could get him out of country. Had Vohra written his accounts, some truth could have come out about police methods of brutality.
By this presentation of Bhagat Singh, it would look as if he achieved nothing or left no legacy, rather negative legacy in Gandhi’s terms. But the fact is that Bhagat Singh, exposed British imperial system as a system of exploitation and oppression to the core. How one would explain the ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ episode of British colonial system, the single most brutal incident, in which as per Congress fact finding team repost more than one thousand Indians were mowed down by General Dyer’s orders, out of which more than four hundred and fifty names are being in the process of putting on record now in the memorial itself. Since no justice was done to the brutal killer of people, Udham Singh had to go London to shot dead Michael O’dwyer, after 21 years of the incident, who as Governor of Punjab defended Dyer. Udham Singh was also hanged in London like Madan Lal Dhingra earlier, would anyone say that since the Jallianwala bagh killing was part of imperial system, so there was no need to bring the culprits to book. Were Scott or Saunders even questioned once for brutally hitting Lala Lajpat Rai, an old man and respected national leader. Or in neo colonial/imperial times, has any court summoned Bush and Blair for causing more than six lakh murders in Iraq and committing worst crimes against humanity, as committed earlier by Hitler and Mussolini?
Whatever Gandhi may think or the historians influenced by him may analyze, for common people of the country Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh had defended the dignity of the nation. In political movements, when movements win who counts the killings during the process of movement. Can anyone dare to book Prachanda today for political killings or earlier Castro or Che Guvera. Yes the colonialists and imperialists have always called Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Che Guvera etc. with all kinds of names, yet their role to liberate the people of the world from exploitation and oppression will remain a beacon light of all liberation movements in the world. Bhagat Singh’s name also falls in that revolutionary legacy. The revolutionary legacy of not only India, but of the struggling people of the whole world. That is why, despite all political contradictions between India and Pakistan, Bhagat Singh is as much loved in Pakistan as in India. In fact one of the major Urdu writers of Pakistan, Zahida Hina has recently described Bhagat Singh as ‘the tallest martyr of Pakistan’.
Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh like national heroes did not need reprieve, they did need the proper appreciation of their deed by fellow countrymen—politicians, scholars and common people alike. Common people do understand and appreciate them for their noble deeds, but it is the politicians and sometimes some scholars, who want to defend the system and in the process misconstrue the history. But as Bhagat Singh was fond of being a phoenix, he comes alive as many times he is burnt by colonialists or their defenders.
However Prof. Datta must be complimented for bringing out many important documents and facts, whose interpretation can be different.
Professor and Chairperson
Centre of Indian Languages
Jawaharlal Nehru University