Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Bhagat Singh and Gandhi-the complex relationship

Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh (With Subhash Bose)
Chaman Lal*

As we commemorate the 75th martyrdom anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, one question is
perennially linked with Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Could Gandhi have saved Bhagat Singh?

Whatever the political views of Gandhi may have been, he was martyred while fighting a tide
of communal hatred. Before he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948, he was
attacked many times. In the month of January that year itself, attempts were made on his life.
Despite Jawaharlal Nehru pleading to have his security tightened, Mahatma Gandhi refused. Had
Bhagat Singh alive at the time of Mahatma Gandhi assassination, he would have been the first to
condemn it in strongest terms. In fact at one time, a Hindutavite religious organisation had offered
to supply arms to Chandershekhar Azad, provided they killed M A Jinnah and Azad had contempt
for them, expressing his anger-‘they think us, professional murderers not revolutionaries’! 

Unlike Bhagat Singh, ‘Shaheed’ never came to be associated with Gandhi perhaps because the
epithets ‘Mahatma’, referred to first by Rabindranath Tagore in all likelihood, and ‘Father of Nation’,
coined by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, had become more accepted and popular even when he was
alive. In public imagination, both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh held highest degree of popularity, as
Congress party historian Pattabhi Sitaramaih himself recorded in his history of Congress party! In
post independence era. ruling Congress party and some historians limited Bhagat Singh role during
freedom struggle as of just a brave and fearless revolutionary. It goes to the credit of historians
like Sumit Sarkar, Bipan Chandra and K N Pannikar to underline the role of Bhagat Singh as an
ideologically committed socialist revolutionary through his writings, with an alternative path to
freedom of India! 

Netaji, who had defeated Gandhi-patronised leaders in the Congress presidential elections in 1938
and 1938, had to quit and float a new political party, Forward Bloc, owing to differences with
Gandhi. Yet, the same Netaji, incidentally whose 126th birth anniversary was also observed recently,
was the one who described Mahatma Gandhi as Father of Nation (Rashtarpita) and set up Gandhi,
Nehru and Azad brigades in the Indian National Army (INA) or Azad Hind Fauj, whose command he
took over from Ras Behari Bose earlier.

Ironically, Netaji’s daughter Anita Pfaff Bose has exposed recent attempts to appropriate Netaji’s
legacy, calling her father a ‘leftist’ as against a ‘rightist’ party trying to appropriate Netaji Bose

Interestingly, in March 1931, British Viceroy Lord Irwin had sent, through his secretary, a letter
addressed to Gandhi to stop Netaji from holding a public protest against the execution of Bhagat
Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Gandhi plainly refused to intervene and told Irwin’s secretary that he
could not stop Netaji from holding a huge public protest in Delhi on March 20.

In the 1938 and 1939 Congress elections, Bhagat Singh’s comrades — Mubarak Sagar, Ahmaddin and
Ghadarites like Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga , who were part of All India Congress committee(AICC)
then— had supported Netaji.

A mass-based Congress movement from 1885 onwards included multiple ideological streams —
from feudal landlordism to revolutionary socialist views as expressed through the Congress Socialist
Party (CSP). Stalwarts like Jai Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Narender Dev, Nehru
and Netaji, even Communists like EMS Namboodiripad, were all working as part of CSP.

Groups or parties like the Muslim League, led by MA Jinnah who was part of the Congress at one
time, Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and pro-Sikhistan Akalis were working towards creating religion-based

There were the revolutionaries, from uprisings prior to 1857 and later. From Anushilan Samitis
to ‘Jugantar’, Ghadar Party, to Naujawan Bharat Sabha and Hindustan Socialist Republican
Army/Association (HSRA), the Chittagong revolutionary movement, Azad Hind Fauj and finally, the
Indian Navy Revolt of 1946. Bhagat Singh and fellow revolutionaries, even later ones after Bhagat
Singh, were dead against such concept of a religion based nation and they visualised an inclusive,
non sectarian and exploitation free India!

All these socio-cultural streams had a complex relationship with each other. Religion-oriented
nationalist movements were in constant conflict with the mass-based Congress party as well as with
different revolutionary streams, though Abhinav Bharat like religious organisations had been in
touch with some former revolutionaries who had turned into religious fundamentalists later

However, later-day revolutionaries took a clear ideological position of a secular India with religious
or any other faith as the private affair of revolutionaries. Members of HSRA and Chittagong
movement became more pronounced socialist revolutionaries. The groups were in constant
interaction with the Congress. Even Bhagat Singh and his associates were in touch with the Congress
and in one elections to Central and provincial assembly, had supported Moti Lal Nehru led Swaraj
party against Lala Lajpat Rai party, which was perceived to be more close to religious concept of
nation! Later both factions had merged in parent party Indian National Congress party.

National College, Lahore, was set up at Bradlaugh Hall, headquarter of Punjab Congress party. It was
the nursery of Bhagat Singh-led revolutionary movement. Acharya Jugal Kishore and Principal
Chhabil Das, the two college principals from 1921 to 1926, were members of the Congress party as
well as sympathisers of revolutionaries.


Netaji Subhash Bose, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malviya, Lala Lajpat Rai and
Purshotam Das Tandon had a constant interaction with the revolutionaries. Netaji and Jawaharlal
Nehru had been presiding over annual meetings of Naujwan Bharat Sabha, incidentally held around
same time and venue when the Indian National Congress sessions were being held.

Gandhi and Bhagat Singh probably never met each other. Bal Gangadhar Tilak may have blessed
Bhagat Singh in his childhood, when his father Kishan Singh and uncle Ajit Singh had taken him to a
Congress session, where Tilak bestowed a ‘taj’ on Ajit Singh in appreciation of his role during the
Pagdi Sambhal Jatta farmers’ movement of 1907.

Bhagat Singh had accompanied his father Kishan Singh to the 1924 Belgavi Congress also, the only
Congress session was presided over by Mahatma Gandhi.

There are chances that Bhagat Singh would have paid his respects to Gandhiji and may have shared a
few words as well, but both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh never mentioned about it. However, in the
writings of both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, there are ample references to each other. In his famous
‘Letter to Young Political Workers’ (February 2, 1931), Bhagat Singh praises Gandhi as a leader who
can impress masses immensely and he wishes revolutionaries to learn this art from him, but he is
equally critical of his views as an ‘idealist’ and impractical.

He even prophesies that Gandhi will not have any permanent followers of his ideas! After the
pronouncement of death sentence to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, Mahatma Gandhi did try
to get their sentence commuted in communication with Viceroy Irwin, but while appealing for the
reprieve of revolutionaries, Mahatma Gandhi did not take his own professed principled stand
against capital punishment, whatever the crime, political or otherwise.

Gandhi could not have saved the lives of the three revolutionaries as Bhagat Singh himself was
determined to sacrifice his life in order to shake the conscience of Indian people to rise for achieving
freedom from British colonial rule!

Mahatma Gandhi praised Bhagat Singh’s bravery but was critical of his militant revolutionary
approach towards achieving freedom. After his execution, Mahatma Gandhi in the Karachi Congress
got a resolution moved through Nehru which praised Bhagat Singh’s bravery and patriotism, but
asked youth ‘not to follow his path’.

In political terms, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were poles apart. One was a committed atheist and
socialist and the other deeply religious but non-communal, respecting all religious faiths equally.
Historian V N Datta, who had authored a book-Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, was favourably inclined
towards Mahatma Gandhi’s view of nationalism and national struggle and upheld Gandhi’s
criticism of Bhagat Singh. 


Towards the end of his life, Bhagat Singh and his comrades had realised that a peaceful militant
mass mobilisation of workers, peasants and youth was the way towards achieving their goal of
socialism, but they never ruled out the use of violence if absolutely necessary, for achieving their
final goal of socialism! By then, their revolutionary organisation HSRA was almost in disarray as
most of its leading figures were either martyred or incarcerated for a long period. Many of Bhagat
Singh’s comrades joined CPI after release, few joined Congress party and one or two joined RSS
oriented groups! (Third point already covered here)

By his consciously chosen martyrdom, Bhagat Singh wanted to create an icon for future generations
to follow. The farmers’ protest of 2020-21 saw a year-long peaceful but militant struggle, mixing the
Gandhian methods with Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary ideology, which led to their victory and
the government had to buckle down by withdrawing the controversial farm laws.
*Chaman Lal, an ex Dean of PU Chandigarh and retired Professor from JNU is the editor and author of
The Bhagat Singh Reader and Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh.

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