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The two martyrs and their enduring legacy

Bhagat Singh praised Gandhi as a leader who could impress masses, but was equally critical of his idealistic and impractical views. Gandhi praised Bhagat Singh’s bravery but was critical of his militant revolutionary approach to achieve freedom. One was a committed atheist and socialist, the other deeply religious but non-communal, respecting all faiths equally

The two martyrs and their enduring legacy

Gandhi could not have saved the three revolutionaries as Bhagat Singh (right) himself was determined to sacrifice his life in order to shake the conscience of Indians. Tribune photos

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 targeted several times. In the month of January that year itself, attempts were made on his life. Despite Jawaharlal Nehru pleading to have his security upgraded, Mahatma Gandhi refused. Had Bhagat Singh been alive at the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, he would have been the first to condemn it in the strongest terms. Once, a religious organisation had offered to supply arms to Chandra Shekhar Azad in lieu of killing MA Jinnah. An angry Azad held them in contempt: “They think we are professional murderers, not revolutionaries!”

Unlike Bhagat Singh, ‘Shaheed’ never came to be associated with Gandhi perhaps because the epithets ‘Mahatma’, as he was 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 enjoyed the highest degree of popularity. Congress party historian Pattabhi Sitaramayya recorded in his book, ‘The History of the Indian National Congress’, that Bhagat Singh’s name was as widely known all over India and was as popular as Gandhi’s.

In the post-Independence era, the Congress party and some historians limited Bhagat Singh’s role during the freedom struggle as that of just a fearless revolutionary. It goes to the credit of historians like Sumit Sarkar, Bipan Chandra and KN Panikkar to underline the role of Bhagat Singh, through his writings, as an ideologically committed socialist revolutionary with an alternative path to freedom of India.

Netaji, who had defeated Gandhi-patronised leaders in the Congress presidential elections in 1938 and 1939, floated a new political party, Forward Bloc. Yet, the same Netaji, whose 126th birth anniversary incidentally was observed recently, was the one who described Mahatma Gandhi as ‘Father of Nation’ (Rashtrapita) and set up the Gandhi, Nehru and Azad brigades in the Indian National Army, whose command he took over from Rash Behari Bose. 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’.

Interestingly, in March 1931, British Viceroy Lord Irwin had sent, through his secretary, a letter to Gandhi to stop Netaji from holding a protest against the execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Gandhi 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 the 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).

Then there were the revolutionaries, and 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 to Azad Hind Fauj and, finally, the Indian Navy Revolt of 1946. Bhagat Singh and his comrades, and even later-day revolutionaries, were against the idea of a religion-based nation. They visualised an inclusive, non-sectarian and exploitation-free India.

Religion-oriented nationalist movements were in constant conflict with the Congress as well as with different revolutionary streams, though Abhinav Bharat-like religious organisations had been in touch with some former revolutionaries who later turned into religious fundamentalists.

However, later-day revolutionaries took a clear ideological position of a secular India, with religion as a private affair. Members of the HSRA and Chittagong movement became more pronounced socialist revolutionaries. The groups had constant interaction with the Congress leaders. Even Bhagat Singh and his associates were in touch with the Congress leadership. During the elections to the central and provincial assemblies, they supported the Motilal Nehru-led Swaraj Party against Lala Lajpat Rai as he was close to groups perceived to be more aligned with the religious concept of nation.

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

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

Gandhi and Bhagat Singh probably never met. 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 Belgaum Congress also, the only Congress session 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 it. However, their writings have 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 the masses immensely and he wishes the revolutionaries learn this art from him. But, he is equally critical of his views as those of an ‘idealist’ and being impractical.

He even prophesises 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, he did not take his own professed principled stand against capital punishment, whatever the crime, political or otherwise. Gandhi, however, 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 Indians.

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

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

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

By his consciously chosen martyrdom, Bhagat Singh became an icon for the future generations. The farmers’ protest of 2020-21 saw a year-long successful struggle, mixing the Gandhian methods with Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary ideology. The two live on in popular imagination.

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