Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary on September 27 is an occasion to review the accusation that his execution in the Lahore Conspiracy case (1929) was inspired by the Gandhi-Irwin pact. A dispassionate study of the history of India’s freedom movement would be based on freedom from bias, an elementary condition of historiography, like ‘null hypothesis’ in statistical analyses.
History for Hegel was “a slaughter house” as it spares none. The ‘terro-communists’ and revolutionaries of India’s freedom struggle had no faith in non-violence against colonialism. Nor did they endorse constitutionalism — ‘dominion status — and suspected that the Gandhi-Irwin Pact contained an understanding to facilitate the execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. They appeared to have over-read one of the six main points in the deal — “withdrawal of all prosecutions relating to several types of offences except those involved in violence” — as if it meant ‘no objection to the execution of those committed to armed resistance for routing the Raj’.
Records and documents now available rule out the possibility of any such covert deal between Gandhi and Viceroy Lord Irwin. On the contrary, six days after the execution, Gandhi conceded during the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress that “many attempts to save the life of Bhagat Singh” and his two comrades had been “in vain”. But the martyrdom, Gandhi emphasised, had “increased our power for winning freedom. These heroes had conquered the fear of death. Let us bow to them a thousand times for their heroism.”
The Mahatma himself did not budge a millimetre from the principle of non-violence. “We should not imitate their act. In our land of millions of destitute and crippled people, if we take to the practice of seeking justice through murder, there will be a terrifying situation. Our poor people will become victims of our atrocities,” he said.
The veracity of the secretive content of the pact is suspect when we read Gandhi’s 330 word-plus letter to the Viceroy on the day of the execution. He drew the Viceroy’s attention to the popular opinion against the execution, which “rightly or wrongly demands commutation”. Gandhi further wrote: “Execution is an irretrievable act. If you think there is the slightest chance of error of judgment, I would urge you to suspend for further review an act that is beyond recall.”
Furthermore, in October 1930, five weeks before the tragic day, Gandhi, armed with his sound legal wisdom, warned Irwin against the risk of capital punishment against innocents, a basic commitment in law. “This is the evil of capital punishment that it gives no opportunity to such a man to reform himself” (Collected Works of M.K. Gandhi, Vol. 45, p. 200). Irwin, too, confirmed Gandhi’s plea for commutation to restore peace.
Months before this, on May 4, 1930, Gandhi had snapped fingers at procrastination in the trial. “Law’s delay,” he said, is “a veiled form of Martial Law” (ibid. p. 391).
Sadly enough, even a scholarly analyst like A.G. Noorani ignored this in his book, The Trial of Bhagat Singh (1996). “Except for the letter of March 23 (1931), hours before the execution, his (Gandhi’s) efforts were exclusively in an altogether different direction — the forging and implementation of a pact with the British,” he wrote, reflecting cynicism over Gandhi’s role (p. 250). However, a patient reading of Gandhi 1915-1948, A Detailed Chronology (Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1971) refutes this canard.
Noorani’s interpretation of Gandhi’s exchange of opinion with the British Home Secretary, E.W. Emerson, suffers from subjectivism, particularly his impression that the Mahatma counselled with His Majesty’s government to “manage the situation arising out of imminent execution”. When the Home Secretary wrote to Gandhi on March 20, 1931 (the day after their conversation on the issue), he apprehended provocative speeches at a protest meeting in Calcutta (particularly from Subhas Chandra Bose), saying these may force the government to resort to “preventive action”. Gandhi promptly replied: “I suggest that there should be no display of police force and no interference in the meeting” (Complete Works, op cit, p. 316, 446).
Bhagat Singh’s comrade and co-prisoner Ajoy Ghosh, the last general secretary of undivided CPI, also doubted Gandhi’s role. The pact was “in defiance of universal popular demand for commutation of death sentences”, paving the way for the tragedy, due to the INC’s obsession with constitutionalism in contrast to complete freedom from colonial rule (Bhagat Singh and His Comrades, 1946). He died prematurely in 1962 and did not live to read Gandhi’s complete works, published after 1969. Described by top Soviet communist theoretician Boris Ponomarev as among the “sterling leaders” of the Comintern era — ranking him alongside Ho-chi Minh, Maurice Thorez, Rajani Palme Dutt and Palmiro Togliatti — Ghosh had a rare, dialectical mindset, and might have corrected himself, as he often did.