One of the most frequent observations raised by my students when I mention Gandhi as a great hero is that Gandhi supported the hanging of Bhagat Singh though he could have saved him from the gallows. On the occasion of this Gandhi Jayanti [birth anniversary] – also the day of non-violence – I would like to take a look at this complaint.
It is true that Gandhi would not have tolerated Bhagat Singh’s violent methods. But that is not the same as saying that Gandhi wanted Bhagat Singh to be executed for his violent act though for the sake of the country’s independence.
Gandhi was both a shrewd leader and a great humanist. He got 90,000 political prisoners other than satyagrahis released under the pretext of “relieving political tension,” says an article in the Frontline of April 27, 2001. That article goes on to say that Gandhi did whatever he could to get the death sentence commuted for Bhagat Singh as well as Rajguru and Sukhdev.
The Frontline article quotes Lord Irwin on this matter: “As I listened to Mr. Gandhi putting the case for commutation before me, I reflected first on what significance it surely was that the apostle of non-violence should so earnestly be pleading the cause of the devotees of a creed so fundamentally opposed to his own, but I should regard it as wholly wrong to allow my judgment to be influenced by purely political considerations. I could not imagine a case in which under the law, penalty had been more directly deserved.”
It’s already clear by now that Gandhi tried his best to get the death sentence commuted.
Further, it must be pointed out that Bhagat Singh himself did not ask for a commutation of the sentence. Instead, he asked to be shot dead rather than be hanged like a common thief. When a friend of his (Prannath Mehta) visited him in the jail on March 20, 1931 (three days before the hanging) with a draft letter for clemency, Bhagat Singh declined to sign it.
Another point that I would wish to clarify for the sake of those who think of Bhagat Singh as an advocate of violence is that they are wrong. Bhagat Singh would use violence only in extreme situations. Perhaps, had he lived longer, he would have given up violence as a means. I would like to quote Bhagat Singh himself in this regard: “I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through these methods. One can easily judge it from the history of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. All our activities were directed towards an aim, i.e., identifying ourselves with the great movement as its military wing. If anybody has misunderstood me, let him amend his ideas. I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful….” [Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh]
This is what he wrote in a pamphlet after the Assembly bombing: “We are sorry to admit that we who attach such sanctity to human life, we who dream of a glorious future when man will be enjoying perfect peace and full liberty, have been forced to shed human blood.”
In The Philosophy of Bombs, Bhagat Singh writes:
“Let us, first of all, take up the question of violence and non-violence. Violence is physical force applied for committing injustice, and that is certainly not what the revolutionaries stand for. On the other hand, what goes by the name of non-violence is in reality the theory of soul-force, as applied to the attainment of personal and national rights through courting, suffering and hoping thus to finally convert your opponent to your point of view.”….. “The question really, therefore, is not whether you will have violence, but whether you will have soul-force plus physical force or soul-force alone.”
It is the “soul-force” that Gandhi relied on. Successfully. It is that force, if anything, which will make the world a better place. That’s why Gandhi continues to be my hero.