Yes, Gandhi did his utmost to save 
the lives of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev 
and Rajguru, writes Sumit Paul

History is often based on half-baked truths and apocryphal facts.

--Historian R C Majumdar in his essay on ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, Dacca University Press

March 23, 2021, will be the 90th anniversary of the hangings of Bhagat Singh and his intrepid comrades Sukhdev and Rajguru. The trio was hanged on this day in 1931 by the unscrupulous Brits at Lahore Central Gaol, breaking the universal rule of hanging a convict before 7am. They were hanged in the evening.

Now the oft-repeated question, rather an inconclusive debate again raises its head: Did Gandhi really try his level best to save the lives of three young revolutionaries? Many people in India are of the view that M K Gandhi was rather half-hearted in his endeavours to save them from the noose.

In his book, The Trial of Bhagat Singh, in Chapter 14, titled ‘Gandhi’s Truth’, A G Noorani maintains that Gandhi’s efforts in saving Bhagat Singh’s life were half-hearted because of his failure to make a strenuous appeal to the Viceroy for the commutation of his death sentence to life.

Mutual respect

Though the ideologies of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were different, rather poles asunder, both had a healthy respect for each other. Being a pacifist, Gandhi didn’t approve of Bhagat Singh and his comrades’ militant ways to win freedom. That did not mean, Gandhi was tacitly in favour of Bhagat Singh and his friends’ hangings.

Kenning Ebron, the British editor of The Statesman, Calcutta, (until 1967, The Statesman, Calcutta, had British editors) along with Dean Fraser of The Guardian, London, analysed why the trio was hanged and the reasons and circumstances that led to their unlawful executions. Both the editors were extremely honest and were rabidly critical of British imperialism. They found that Gandhi was really earnest about saving the three young men from the scaffold. He (Gandhi) wrote to the then Viceroy Lord Irwin to commute their punishment to life imprisonment.

Lord Irwin, a personal friend of Gandhi and a devout Christian, himself was against the death rap and wrote to the British judge Sir Roy Emil in London that his conscience didn’t allow him to hang them. He (Lord Irwin) cited Gandhi’s fervent letter to him, in which Gandhi had pleaded with Irwin to save the lives of the young revolutionaries. But circumstances were volatile.

Gandhi's efforts

Historian Anil Nauriya has highlighted that Gandhi sent Tej Bahadur Sapru, M R Jayakar and Srinivasa Sastri to the Viceroy to plead for the commutation of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence.

Home Secretary Herbert William Emerson (from April 1926 to April 11, 1933) wrote in his memoirs that Gandhi’s efforts to save Bhagat Singh and his friends were honest and calling them perfunctory is an affront to the apostle of peace.

We must bear this in mind before condemning Gandhi for not succeeding in saving three young lives because the Viceroy’s moves were governed from England and these three were a challenge to the Raj and thus, were not thought fit for pardon. In fact, he wrote a letter to the Viceroy on the day of their execution, pleading fervently for commutation, not knowing that the letter would be too late.

Moreover, the English ICS cadre from Punjab pressurised the English government to hang Bhagat Singh and his friends. The family of police officer John P Saunders, along with the British cops of Lahore, relentlessly pressurised the English government for their executions. The Pioneer wrote about the immediate contributing factors leading to Bhagat Singh’s execution. Gandhi felt helpless. So did Lord Irwin, who suggested that their punishment could yet be commuted should they pledge to refrain from their violent ways.

Would not waver

But young as they were, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev told the government in no uncertain terms that they’d not compromise on their principles and beg for their lives. The trio was even ready to face the firing squad. The cult of martyrdom had overwhelmed them. Embracing death appeared to them more fascinating than life granted by begging.

In such circumstances and perspectives, criticising Gandhi for not saving Bhagat Singh’s life is akin to reading history wrong. It’s like the popular myth that on hearing the news of Gandhi’s assassination, Winston Churchill, an avowed critic of the former, exclaimed ‘good riddance’. Churchill said nothing. He was too stunned to react to the assassination of his greatest adversary. Or the erroneous popular belief that Shahjahan had the hands of the artisans chopped off after they built Taj Mahal. This too didn’t happen. Myths persist and eventually get fossilised because masses love to indulge in them and, therefore, never try to rectify or detonate the ingrained popular belief in public consciousness.

The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and cultures.

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