From the Jacket
Did Gandhi try his best to save Bhagat Singh from the gallows? Or was Bhagat Singh just another pawn in the complex and intricate web of imperial power politics?
The aim of this study is to understand and explain why Mahatma Gandhi, the most influential political leader of his time in India, could not save Bhagat Singh, when he was negotiating a settlement of political questions with the Viceroy Lord Irwin during February-March 1931. Gandhi's critics accuse him of failing, mainly owing to his stern commitment to non-violence, while his party men and followers defend him, and attribute his failure to the events that took place beyond his reckoning.
Generally, scholars assume that the issue of the commutation of Bhagat Singh's death sentence could have been settled by Irwin and Gandhi if they had acted with prudence and some compassion. This assumption, so stridently bruited in historical works, is challenged in this study. Using a wide range of historical materials, V.N. Datta examines with sensitivity and critical discernment, the tragic episode of Bhagat Singh's death sentence from a new perspective by analyzing it against the background of the political climate of the background of the political climate of the times, the role of Irwin and Gandhi, the pressure of public opinion, and the working of the British imperial system. This work further provides insights into the manner of political thought of the period, on the nature of political activity and the state of society that lay captive under foreign rule.
V.N. Datta is a Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Kurukshetra University. He was the former General President of the Indian History Congress, the Resident Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (1998), and visiting professor to a number of universities including Moscow, Leningrad and Berlin. Among his much acclaimed publications are Jallianwala Bagh (translated into Hindi and Punjabi), New Light on Punjab Disturbances, Vol I and II, Sati: A Historical, Social, and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning and Maulana Azad. He was contributed articles regularly to journals and the popular press. He is now writing a book called Ghalib's Dilli (1857).
This work is a revised and enlarged version of the keynote address delivered at the International conference held on 'Bhagat Singh and His Time' at the ICCSR complex in Punjab University, Chandigarh, from 27 to 30 September 2007. The conference was organized under the auspices of the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Institute of Punjab Studies.
This year marks the birth centenary of Bhagat Singh and the seventy-fifth year of his execution. Bhagat Singh was hanged in the Central Jail in Lahore on 23 March 1931 at 7.30 pm. A number of books have been published in 2007 relating to his role in the national movement. His own writings and what his contemporaries and others wrote on his have also been published. The present study belongs to a different category-it focuses on a single issue: Mahatma Gandhi's attitude to Bhagat Singh's trial and execution. Most historical narratives discuss or refer to Gandhi's reactions on Bhagat Singh's trial and execution. When Bhagat Singh and his comrades were tried and hanged, Gandhi by then had emerged as the most influential political leader with a mass following in the country He was loved and respected for his moral integrity and practical sagacity.
Historians give different explanation about Gandhi's attitude to the trial and execution of Bhagat Singh. Some writers allege that Gandhi was not emotionally involved in saving Bhagat Singh's life from the gallows because of his obsession with his creed of non-violence and his repudiation of violent means, which Bhagat Singh had adopted for the fulfillment of his plans to wreck British power in India. Other writers argue that Gandhi did make desperate efforts to save Bhagat Singh's life till the end; and he failed not for wants of efforts on his part but he failed because the power to commute Bhagat Singh's death sentence lay not in his hands, but in the Viceroy Irwin's. These writers assert that Gandhi had put the maximum pressure on Irwin to commute Bhagat Singh's death sentence, but the Viceroy duped him by giving him false hopes.
A general assumption in the works published so far is that the issue of the commutation of Bhagat Singh's death sentence was the one that could have been amicably resolved between Gandhi and Irwin with tact and compassion. The assumption is questionable. The study argues that the question of Bhagat Singh's life and death has to be seen from a broader perspective, especially within the framework of the British Imperial system operating in the country, which is generally ignored.
Secondly, some of the historians in the country are of the view that Bhagat Singh was a convinced and confirmed Marxist, Socialist and Leninite. Such a one-dimensional view ignores, obscures and undermines the other tangible influences which formed his social and political outlook. Bhagat Singh grew and evolved himself by drawing inspiration from several quarters. He also meditated on his own experiences. This work traces the growth and evolution of his thinking through various stages of his development by identifying the influences that worked on him.
Undeniable Bhagat Singh by his sacrifices had aroused national consciousness in the country. The question is what was his legacy? What was his achievement? These are uncomfortable questions to answer. This study shows that Bhagat Singh and his associates were as much the victims of British imperialism as of Gandhian politics. In the late Twenties and early Thirties of the last century, Gandhi regarded Bhagat Singh's mode of militant nationalism, and the extreme left-wing political activity as the most injurious to the cause of Indian independence. As a strategist he appropriated the positive features of both the approaches and made them with some modifications an integral part of the Congress policy and programme, which he presented later at the Congress session at Karachi, about a week after Bhagat Singh's execution.
From contemporary evidence, especially from the Lahore Conspiracy Case trial proceedings, it is evident that Sukhdev. Was the real brain and organizer of the entire programme, plans and activities of the militant nationalists of the period, but his role has been ignored. As a silent worker, operating in the background he shunned the limelight. Sukhdev still awaits a historian!
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