About The Book
On 23 March 1931, Bhagat Singh and two of his associates were hanged at Lahore Central Jail. This was the culmination of the Lahore Conspiracy Case, one o the most controversial trails to take place in India under the Raj. This study reveals how the executive and the legislative branches of the British government in India conspired to ensure the miscarriage of justice. With a new introduction that also incorporates new archival material, this lucidly written, elegantly argued, and erudite book will be invaluable to historians, legal professional, legal historians, political scientists, journalist, and an informed general audience.
A.G.Noorani is Advocate, Supreme Court of India, and a columnist with Hindustan Times. His book include Indian Political Trails 1775-1847 (OUP, 2005), The Muslims of India: A Documentary Record (OUP, 2003), Citizen’ Rights, Judges and State Accountability (OUP, 2002), and Constitutional Questions in India (OUP, 2000).
Bhagat Singh’s trail is one of those episodes in the history of India’s struggle for freedom of which little is known. Historians and his contemporaries’ writing have thrown light on face of his personality and his outlook which is amazing courage and deep commitment tended to overshadow. A man of intense feeling, he was also a man of remarkable intellectual qualities who was ever ready to learn and unlearn.
But far less is known of some dark aspect of the trail. This book seeks to explore them. It raises certain issues which have not received the attention they deserve. The farcical character of the trail was not studied in depth, perhaps because Bhagat Singh’s culpability in the number of John Saunders, Assistant Superintendent of Police, was not in question. But the Lahore conspiracy case merit study for its own sake as a classic case of abuse of the judicial process for political ends. On 1 May 1930 the Governor-General promulgated an Ordinance establishing a Special Tribunal to try the case while talking good care to deprive the accused of the right of appeal to the High Court. The law requires confirmation of death sentences by the High Court. The ordinance robbed them of this precious right.
A little over six months later, the Punjab Government got enacted a special statute to set up a Commission to try certain person on charge as grave and the same Governor-General secured enactment of a central law conferring on the accused those very right of appeal t and confirmation of sentences by the High Court. The animus against Bhagat Singh and his comrades could not have been demonstrated more brazenly.
Nor is that all. The Ordinance expired after six months. This was a unique trail by a Tribunal which was itself under a death sentence, suspended for six months. It therefore, sacrificed justice to dispatch. There was another unique feature which was even more revolting. Half way through the trail, a member of Tribunal, Justice Sayad Agha Haider, was unceremoniously removed from it. His objection to the use of violence by the police on Baghat Singh and his associates and his close questioning of the prosecution witness had alarmed the authorities. They had decided that Bhagat Singh should not be left alive, not even in prison serving a long sentence. It would have been embarrassing to carry out this design if the Tribunal were to split two to one. The Judge hailed from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh.
S.M.A. Kazmi, Dehra Dun correspondent of the Indian Express reported this relatives’ resentment at the films which romanticized that sordid episode very much as Richard Attenborough projected a varnished version of the Hunter Commission on the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in his film Gandhi. It was not the Commission’s English members who grilled the official witnesses; on the country, they tried to protect them. The honour of subjecting those witnesses to a searing cross-examination belongs to Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, one of the greatest Indian advocate of all time. He clashed repeatedly with the English members. Independent India ignores him because to popular heroes.
Justice Agha Haider’s relatives revealed to Kazmi that the President if the Tribunal, Justice John Coldstream, an ICS Judge of the Lahore High Court, informed the Governor of Punjab about his colleague’s ‘non-vo-operative’ attitude. The Government Advocate, Carden Noad, was sent to Justice Haider’s home ‘to pacify him, but the letter turned him out, saying “I am a judge, not a butcher”’ (The Indian Express,19 June 2002). The judge was removed from the Tribunal.
Ironically, though Bhagat Singh had shot Saunders in board day light, it was on the solitary testimony of a witness, who happened to be there by sheer chance, that his conviction at the trail rested. The other witnesses had collapsed. Continuous legal assistance would have made a difference, but the defendants had little interest in their acquittal.
One hopes that the National Archives of India would publish a full account of the trail. Besides the official record, the editor of the work would do well to draw on Sukh Dev’s copy of the transcript lodged in the Private Collection of the National Archives because he made some revealing disclosures and comments in this marginal notes. A man facing certain death, as he did, would not lie. The Tribune covered the trail fully and reported incidents and exchange in court which no official record would report. A full record of Bhagat Singh’s trail must draw on all these three sources. I have reproduced some of the comments Sukh Dev inscribed on his copy of the trail transcript.
Reading old newspaper and record evokes in one’s mind the atmosphere of a bygone era. One is struck by several feature of those times that bear recalling today. Debates in the Central Assembly were of a remarkably high quality. That breed of parliamentarians is now extinct. Then, as now, Lahore served as a centre of intellectual ferment and political protest. But it has lost its old composite culture, as have many Indian cities. Yet, it is in Lahore that most of the few adherents to the credo of secularism on Pakistan reside today. Morarji Desai and Charan Singh never tried to saying that Urdu was the language of the Pakistan movement. The record show that it was very much the language of revolution (‘Inquilab Zindabad’) and of most revolutionaries in Northern India, not least Bhagat Singh’s.
Bhagt Singh’s life and thinking hold lesson for the terrorist and the state alike. He grew up in an atmosphere in which, disillusioned with the moderates’ politics, many a patriot took to revolutionary politics. We owe to Professors Malwinder Jit Singh and Harinder Singh a full account of the Ghadr movement of 19014-1915 based on the first judgement delivered by the Special Tribunal in what were truly the first Lahore Conspiracy Cases (War Against King Emperor: Ghadr of 1914-15: A Verdict by Special Tribunal , Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh Trust, Ludhiana, 2001).
Bhagat Singh was seven then. He was twenty-three when he was executed on 23 March 1931. The notebook testifies to his vast reading and to his readiness to learn. He was a blind follower of no leader and an uncritical supporter of no ideology. He was no terrorist. It is not possible to say in what direction his study and reflection would have catholic in its selection of quotations. These few reproductions that follow from the notebook provide a flavor of the whole.
Bhagat Singh was secular to the core and parted company with his mentor, Lala Lajpat Rai, when his politics increasingly assumed a communal colour. He wielded the gun himself, consciously, not through another. Unlike such, he never sought clemency and never gave assurances of good behaviour. His letter to Sukh Dev sternly rebuked him for entertaining thoughts of suicide. No. Being progressive and giving up life for great and inspiring ideals can never be termed as suicide. The death of our friend (Yatindranath Das, who fasted for 64 days and died protesting against jail conditions) is unforgettable. Would you call it suicide?
Our suffering has brought positive results. A revolution is going on throughout our country. Our objective has been attained. Deaths in such kind of struggles are the best way to leave this world. Those of us who feel that they would be given a death sentence should patiently wait for that day. This death would still be very beautiful. But to give up life just to avoid the troubles would be very shameful...
We have discussed it many a times that the originality which is omnipresent in Russian literature isn't visible in our literature at all. We used to praise the pains and sorrows depicted in Russian literature. But we could not feel the agony from the core of the heart. We praise their extrovert character that scale new heights but never ever did we think as to why they are ahead of us. Our situation becomes pitiable and laughable when we allow mysticism to enter our life. People like us who call themselves revolutionaries should always be prepared for all the sorrows which we ourselves invite through struggles and that allows us to call ourselves revolutionaries .
... The opportunity to study some big social issues like crime and sin can be availed only in jails. I have studied some literature on this topic, and jail is the best place for self-study. The best part of self-study is-you should yourself bear the pain ...
I would also like to say that the father of socialism, 'Marx,' was not its originator in reality. In fact, Europe's industrial revolution had produced a host of people with the same vision, and Marx was one of them. Though Marx had, undoubtedly, been helpful in giving a push to the time circle to some extent.
Neither I nor you are the fathers of socialism in this country. It is a result of time and circumstances. Undoubtedly, we have done some ordinary and small things to promote this thought. That is why I say that having taken the responsibility of such an important deed, we must continue it and keep moving.
Committing suicide just to get rid of sorrows will not guide the public, rather this will be assumed as a reactive act. We have worked under testing conditions to oppose pressure, depression and violence prevalent in the jail-that too without breaking its norms. When we were doing our jobs we were targeted in various ways ... The pain was so much that even those who called themselves 'great revolutionaries' left us all alone. Were not those conditions highly testing? Then what was the logic ... behind continuing our efforts and revolution? Doesn't this logic, alone empower our thoughts? And don't we have examples of those revolutionaries who are still active even after returning from jail?
Had Bakunin thought the way you did, he would have committed suicide at the very outset. Today, you can see infinite numbers of Russian revolutionaries who have spent most of their lives in prisons, yet they are holding responsible positions. Humans must always stick to their beliefs. Nobody can predict the future ...
.. .I have no doubt whatsoever that I would be sentenced for death. I am not expecting any sort of complete pardon for decent behaviour. Even if there is any kind of relaxation, it won't be complete pardon. Whatever relaxation provided, it would be very limited and complicated. There will be no forgiveness for us ... I wish our freedom ... becomes an integrated and global issue, and just as our revolution reaches the peak when we get hanged ... When the fate of a country is at stake, an individual's fate should be completely overlooked.
In a real sense, Bhagat Singh's intellectual life properly began only when he entered the prison. He had, of course, read avidly before. But the activist had little time for intellectual pursuits. They came to a tragic and abrupt end with his death.
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