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Home > 2021 > Bhagat Singh Hanging: A Travesty of Justice | M R Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 18, New Delhi, April 17, 2021

Bhagat Singh Hanging: A Travesty of Justice | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 16 April 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

The Execution of Bhagat Singh: Legal Heresies of the Raj
by Satvinder Singh Juss
Publishers: HarperCollins Publishers India; Pages: 289; Price: Rs 699

BHAGAT Singh shot dead British police officer J.P. Saunders, mistaken for his boss J.A. Scott, who was blamed for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. From just the time Saunders died on December 17, 1928 till he was hanged with Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh became a national idol and the ultimate rationalist in the Indian revolutionary struggle. He remains a cult figure, his slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” still heard wherever there is a whiff of defiance.

This is not a biography of Bhagat Singh. A Professor of Law at King’s College in London, the author provides a fascinating insight into what turned out to be British Raj’s most controversial trial. It was a travesty of justice. As he remarks, the trial and execution of Bhagat Singh represents a much neglected historiography of colonial violence in India.

Bhagat Singh was not the only one to take to the gun against the British. Innumerable others did – and paid an equally terrible price. Why did Bhagat Singh stand out? Unlike most contemporaries, Bhagat Singh drew from a far wider and deeper source for his convictions, more than even Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote over 130 documents in seven years, totalling some 400 pages. He penned letters, essays, pamphlets and numerous court statements. Many have been lost. Satvinder Singh Juss saw all 135 files related to Bhagat Singh at the Punjab Archives in Lahore. With a wealth of previously unpublished material, he makes it amply clear that the British blundered, legally, by sending Bhagat Singh and his comrades to death. The British knew that the young revolutionaries were dangerous in a way that Gandhi and the Congress never were.

With a legal bent of mind, Juss argues vehemently that the trial that sent Bhagat Singh and others to gallows was a sham which ignored recognized standards of legality and justice. An accused must have the right to prepare his defence. This minimum was denied to Bhagat Singh and Co. Those in the Lahore Conspiracy Case were denied their rights. When they protested, they were given degrading and humiliating treatment. Most were mercilessly caned and beaten up. Shiv Varma and Ajoy Ghosh became unconscious. It was legally sanctified violence in the courtroom.

But Bhagat Singh’s and others’ spirit could not be broken. They refused to attend the court. Lala Duni Chand, a senior member of the Lahore High Court Bar, was not allowed to take his seat with defence counsel, not even as a member of the Bar. “Whatever is happening is nothing but a farce,” roared Bhagat Singh. “Let the civilized world know what the government is doing. We are prepared to be hanged.”

On May 1, 1930, Governor-General Lord Irwin promulgated an ordinance to extricate the case from the Magistrates’ Court and sent it to a Special Tribunal. These would have three judges appointed by the High Court Chief Justice. Gone were the safeguards of evidence and procedure and even the pretence that the rule of law was being maintained. The Lahore Bar Association alleged that the ordinance brought the administration of law and justice into contempt. Lawyers for Bhagat Singh and B.K.Dutt declared the Tribunal had no jurisdiction over them.

Of the three judges picked for the Tribunal, one was an Indian. But Justice Agha Haider was no puppet. When he saw violence perpetrated in the very court which was meant to dispense justice, he stunned his two British judges by disassociating himself from the mayhem. In the absence of the accused and their lawyers (who boycotted the proceedings), Justice Haider challenged the prosecution witnesses, picking holes in their evidence. By the time he was finished, six of the seven eyewitnesses’ testimonies collapsed! The Raj hit back by dumping Justice Haider and one of the British judges, citing their poor health for their removal!

From the beginning, the Tribunal judges deferred to the police. Those on trial were not referred to in the judgment as “accused” but as “murderers”. Words like “possibly”, “probably” and “presumably” proliferate throughout. The judges gave up the need for criminal standard of proof. On June 25, 1930, the Tribunal passed orders to dispense with the attendance of the accused. Two months later, the prosecutor astonishingly closed the case after only 457 of its own witnesses had been examined at breakneck speed, with scant regard to the right of the defence to cross-examine them. A total of 256 witnesses were just let go.

Bhagat Singh and the others were convicted on the strength of statements from “approvers”, who would have ripped them apart had they been cross-examined. Bhagat Singh never denied shooting Saunders; but a court ruling is based on evidence, of which there was none which could get past legal scrutiny.

Bhagat Singh was to be hanged on October 27, 1930. The execution day was later put off until March 24, 1931. But on the evening of March 23, 11 hours ahead of time, the deed was done. Bhagat Singh kissed the hangman’s noose. Sukhdev and Rajguru followed. After they died, their bodies were dragged along the dirty passageway, chopped into pieces and stuffed into sacks. These were thrown into a funeral pyre at night on the banks of the Sutlej. The charred remains were hurled into the river. Villagers who saw it all retrieved the body parts and gave a reverential cremation.

Several British and Indian police officers as well as “informers” were rewarded for their role – with promotions, money and land. The Lahore Deputy Jail Superintendent, Khan Sahib Mohammad Akbar Khan, who wept after watching the execution of Bhagat Singh, was suspended. He was reinstated but he lost the coveted honorific ‘Khan Sahib’. The Raj hanged the three it considered a potent danger. All lawyers and Bhagat Singh fans must read this book.

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