The Road Not Taken

Ever had to take a decision? We all come across those situations where we need to choose a path. We have to make a life-altering decision, which is simply irreversible. Nothing remains the same once you have started your journey on a particular course and the two roads never intersect. We always find it difficult to make up our mind because a lot is at stake. Choosing between the right and the right is one of the toughest things we have to do. But what will you do when your choices will affect not only your life but also a million others? What if the future of your country is at stake? Over 80 years ago, someone made one such choice. He chose a trail and as they say, the rest is history. Today, we look back at The Road Not Taken.

The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was an agreement signed by then British Viceroy to India, Lord Irwin and Mohandas Gandhi. The negotiations and meetings began on 17th February 1931 and finished with signing of the pact on 5th March 1931. There were 4 major agreements under the pact:

  • The Congress would call-off the Civil Disobedience Movement
  • Gandhi and some other members of Congress would participate in the second Round Table Conference in London.
  • The British government would withdraw all ordinances restricting the activities of the Congress.
  • The government would release all political prisoners (except the ones involved in the cases of violence)

The Pact was a major event in the Indian History but today, it is remembered for all the wrong reasons. People talk about the things not agreed upon, rather than the ones agreed and signed upon. Ohh, did I say, “The things not agreed upon”? Sorry, I meant “the thing not agreed upon” – The commutation of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were to be hanged on 24th March 1931. The nation wanted Gandhi to get the death sentences commuted. As we all know, that never happened and three of the bravest sons of this nation were sent to the gallows on 23rd March 1931. One question remains. Did Gandhi try hard enough to get the sentences commuted? Did he really want Bhagat Singh to live? Let us explore this idea.

The supporters of Gandhi vehemently argue that he tried his best but failed because he didn’t have enough power or clout in the British administration to get the sentences commuted/dismissed. Had he succeeded, he would have gained a moral victory over violence. So, he had no reason not to make efforts. Gandhi asked for suspension of the sentences, not commutation because he knew there was no chance of getting them commuted after the Privy Council had also upheld the sentences. It would have taken a major miracle for the Viceroy to overrule the Council. Gandhi got 90000 political prisoners (though, not a single revolutionary) other than Satyagrahis released under the pretext of “relieving political tension”. Gandhi was also very vocal against capital punishment. Even Bhagat Singh didn’t like the idea of asking for a pardon. This is evident from the fact that he shouted at and criticised his father when he tried to intervene and get the sentence reduced. Bhagat Singh’s friend, Prannath Mehta, also visited Bhagat Singh in the jail on 20th March 1931 with a draft letter for clemency but Bhagat declined to sign it.

The people against Gandhi also have a lot to say. Congress, under Gandhi, issued a joint statement condemning the way of working of the revolutionaries in the Karachi session of Congress on 31st March 1931, 8 days after Bhagat Singh’s death. He wrote to Anand Mehta, a Congress activist on 26th June 1931, refusing to be associated with building of a statue in honour of Bhagat Singh’s, Sukhdev’s and Rajguru’s martyrdom.

The reason why Britishers decided to leave India in 1947 has nothing to do with non-violence. They could have easily crushed the Satyagrahis and ruled for a century more. The economic state of Britain after World War II and mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy in 1946 made it unfeasible for the Britishers for keep ruling India. I would also like to point out that Congress was not the first group to come forward with the demand of Purna Swaraj (complete Self-rule). It was content with India getting a Dominion Status and reiterated this demand many times in its public meetings. Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, a party founded by Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh was the first to raise the demand of Purna Swaraj. When Singh threw the bomb in the Assembly on 8th April 1929, he also threw some pamphlets which carried this demand. Congress later passed the Purna Swaraj Resolution on 26th January 1930.

Mahatma Gandhi didn’t make the commutation a precondition for the pact, against the wishes of Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawahar Lal Nehru, to some extent. Gandhi wrote in Young India, his weekly paper, “I would have made the change in (death) sentences a condition of the pact, but I could not convince myself of doing so. The (Congress) Executive Committee agreed with me in not making the change in sentences a condition of the pact. Therefore, I could only make a reference to it.” It is clear from this statement that he never tried to raise the issue of commutation strongly in front of the Viceroy.

Both Gandhi’s and Irwin’s journals clearly noted that Gandhi asked for the suspension of the sentences, not commutation. Both sets of journals also confirmed that the issue of Bhagat Singh was discussed only once, on 18th February, during the entire period of negotiations. Then Home Secretary, Herbert Emerson, who also attended the discussions, concludes in his autobiography that Gandhi didn’t make any efforts for the commutation of the sentences of Bhagat Singh and others, saying “Gandhi did not appear to me particularly worried on this count”. Gandhi called Irwin “Mahatma” publicly and even ordered the common people of the country to address the Viceroy the same way. Lord Irwin, in his autobiography, explicitly mentioned that during their talk on Bhagat Singh, Gandhi had asked Irwin that would he mind if Gandhi publicly claims that he put the maximum pressure on the Viceroy on this issue. Irwin had replied that he won’t mind that. So, “the best efforts” made by Gandhi “to save the life to Bhagat Singh” were planned in the full knowledge of British administration.

Gandhi was not emotionally involved in saving Singh’s life because of his obsession with his faith in non-violence and rejection of violent means. Gandhi regarded Bhagat’s “mode of militant nationalism” as the most dangerous threat to the cause of independence. Gandhi was so indifferent to Bhagat’s condition that he didn’t care to see Singh even once when the latter was on a 116-day hunger strike (yes, one hundred sixteen) in the jail. He did not wish to identify himself with the revolutionaries because that would have negated his stand. He considered Bhagat a “misguided youth” who had gone wrong.  The hunger strike and Saunders’ murder had aroused a widespread wave of sympathy and support for Bhagat Singh. According to most major historians, Bhagat had become more popular than Gandhi during that time. Gandhi saw Bhagat as a competitor to Congress after India gets independent.  By removing Singh, Gandhi ensured that Congress would get an open field if and when India achieved freedom. And needless to say, he succeeded. In the last 68 years, Congress has ruled for almost 60. Gandhi became the biggest national hero by simply ensuring that others like Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Subhash Chandra Bose, Ram Prasad Bismil etc didn’t survive to tell the tale. Gandhi was quite close to the major industrialists like G.D. Birla, Walchand Hirachand, Purshottam Das Thakurdas etc., who were all major donors to Congress. Bhagat Singh had said in a statement in the court, “what difference it makes to people, if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, or Purshottam Das Thakurdas take the place of Lord Reading or Lord Irwin, if the system does not change?”.  All the more reasons why Congress would have preferred Singh dead! Gandhi considered his own ideologies superior to the freedom the country was striving so hard for. For him, imposing philosophies of non-violence on the countrymen had a clear priority over fighting for freedom. He would have probably even disapproved freedom if it was gained by any means other than non-violence. Sometimes, just sometimes, the ends justify the means.

So, what was the result of all these incidents? Congress super-imposed its history as history of the freedom struggle after the independence. Congress leaders were depicted as heroes while others were ignored.  Mahatma Gandhi became the darling of the western world. From Barack Obama to David Cameron, every political leader visiting India eulogizes him. On the other hand, most historians are not sure about Bhagat’s date of birth. He is not considered a national hero, but a footnote on outer side, a maverick and a deviant. Wikipedia says Bhagat was “attracted to anarchist and Marxist ideologies”. According to Bhagat, anarchism refers to the absence of ruler and abolition of state, not absence of order. Goal of anarchism is complete independence. National Archives of India has 4 pictures of Bhagat Singh, only one of them taken from a camera. The statue which Gandhi refused to associate himself with, was finally unveiled on 15th August 2008, though it resulted in more anger and controversies for its portrayal of Bhagat Singh. Despite all political contradictions between India and Pakistan, Singh is as much loved in Pakistan as in India, actually a lot more. One of the major Urdu writers of Pakistan, Zahida Hina had described Bhagat as “the tallest martyr of Pakistan”. On the flip side, until 17th August 2013, Indian Home Ministry had no record to show whether Bhagat has been declared a martyr.

So, what would have happened if Gandhi had saved Bhagat? Or Bhagat was not so single-minded about sacrificing his life? We will never know that for certain. But I think India would have been a much better nation. India would have achieved freedom a lot earlier than 1947. We would have had at least two political parties, with different ideologies, principles and policies. We would have had some real alternatives.  Indian youth would have been very active in the national politics and contributed a lot more to changing the nation to better. The fact that Rang De Basanti connected with the youth a lot more than Lage Raho Munna Bhai did, seconds my point. Bhagat Singh made his unforgettable speech on 6th June 1929 in a court, emphasising the need to uplift the poor and the needy, eradicating poverty and leading the oppressed sections of society like tribal, workers and labourers to the path of prosperity. Believing it, I think the problems of militancy, naxalism, poverty, communalism, casteism etc. would not have existed on such a large scale in India. The ever-growing gulf between the rich and the poor would have diminished. Capitalists would not have been allowed to run riot with the country’s resources. There would have been no exploitation of the weak. On the contrary, it is also conceivable that India would have been a very impatient, aggressive and in some ways, a hostile nation. India might have been a communist country, similar to present-day Russia.

I know writing about this or discussing it will not change the past or the present. But it is imperative that we know what happened and we draw lessons from it to shape a better future. I strongly believe that answers to our present problems and future opportunities lie in the past, covered with dust and cobwebs.  Let’s shake them up, understand them and move towards a shining future. Two trails are waiting for us…

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