Biographical details of Bhagat Singh’s life have been the main concern of the very valuable work of many scholars and activists who want to portray him as a fearless revolutionary of the highest order. Only in a scholarly work such as that by S Irfan Habib (not the historian Prof Irfan Habib), To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades, Bhagat Singh has been admirably studied as a thinker. India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and Promise of Bhagat Singh by Dr Chris Moffat, a Senior Lecturer in South Asian History at Queens Mary University, London, also dwells on the thought of Bhagat Singh and its subsequent influence on radical politics.
A. G. Noorani’s The Trial of Bhagat Singh remains a pioneering work in exposing legal flaws in colonial governance, the political bankruptcy of the British Labour Party government under whose tenure the execution of Bhagat Singh took place and the compromising politics of Mahatma Gandhi in not putting the full pressure of Congress-led movement for national independence in opposing the execution of Bhagat Singh. A recent book The Execution of Bhagat Singh: Legal Heresies of the Raj by Dr Satvinder Juss, Professor of Law at Kings College London is a remarkable work in carrying further Noorani’s work. Its merit lies in not only exposing the fundamental legal flaws of the trial of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev but also in working out the many political dimensions of the trial.
Juss employs the concept of ‘Coercive Colonial Legalism’, to highlight the legal flaws in Bhagat Singh’s trial. The politics behind the trial was not to explore and weigh the scales of justice but to ensure punishment of the highest order. A Special Tribunal was set up whose judgement could not be appealed against in the High Court, the defence lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine the witnesses by the prosecution, and so glaring was the flouting of legal procedures that the Ordinance setting the Special Tribunal was never approved by either the Central Assembly in India or by the British Parliament.
Though the focus of Juss’s work is on the legal dimensions of the trial, it also highlights many political dimensions of the trial. The revolutionary socialism of Bhagat Singh and associates was seen as dangerous with global implications in ways that Gandhi and his Congress Party never were and this had an impact on the nature of the trial leading to the execution of Bhagat Singh. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had proclaimed the revolution as the beginning of a new world order which included the smashing of the colonial empires. The trial had attracted the attention of British socialists. A communication by the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Great Britain to fellow ‘Comrades’ in Britain had drawn their attention to the Lahore Conspiracy trial and had appealed to them to organise meetings and demonstrations of protest to demand that ‘Comrade Bhagat Singh should not be executed by the Labour Government’. The fear of such global ramifications of Bhagat Singh’s political thought led the colonial rulers to speed up the trial to convict and execute him and his associates.
Mohammad Jinnah who was India’s highest-paid lawyer had stepped in to defend Bhagat Singh. His stellar defence in the Central Assembly had defeated the legal manoeuvre of the colonial government’s to try the revolutionaries in absentia when they were on hunger strike and physically so weak that they could not be brought to the court. The political establishments in India and Pakistan have, for different reasons, ignored the magnificent legal performance of Jinnah in defending Bhagat Singh.
Juss’s book brings to light the admirable contribution of Justice Agha Haider, an Oxford graduate, who was one of the Indian judges involved at one stage of the trial. He showed exemplary bravery in dissenting from his fellow judges on the way the trial was being conducted especially the beating by police of Bhagat Singh and his associates on the premises of the court itself. Unsurprisingly, he was later sacked from the Special Tribunal. It really is a matter of shame that no memorial of Agha Haider exists today in either India or Pakistan. Along with Justice Agha Haider, another person whose life story Juss brings to light is that of Amolak Ram Kapoor who had a troubled and financially difficult life but decided to defend Bhagat Singh out of a sense of patriotic revolt against imperialism.
One legal contribution that emerges out most admiringly in Bhagat Singh’s trial is of D.N. Pritt, a left-wing lawyer from London, who argued the appeal against the Special Tribunal’s judgement, to the Privy Council in London. Pritt was a legal luminary of the highest standing. Pritt had defended Ho Chi Minh in 1931-32, Jomo Kenyatta who became independent Kenya’s first President in 1952, the veteran socialist Tom Mann in the UK in 1934, National Unemployed Workers’ Movement against the UK police in 1934, the National Council for Civil Liberties in the UK in later years and the University Socialist Club in Singapore in 1954 in the first sedition trial in post-war Malaysia and Singapore. When he died in 1972, his record of having defended anti-colonial leaders from Ho Chi Minh to Jomo Kenyatta was emblazoned in headlines in The New York Times but there was no mention of Bhagat Singh because the history of his defence of Bhagat Singh had not been written then. Juss’s work can be considered a vital correction in the written history of the legal career of this great defender of Bhagat Singh.
The importance the colonial rulers attached to this trial can be judged also from the generous rewards given to ‘approvers’ and those who were present at the time of the execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev on the evening of 23 March 1931. One Deputy Superintendent of Police Sudarshan Singh who disposed of the bodies of the three revolutionaries after they were taken down from the gallows, was promoted to Additional Superintendent of Police and retired as Superintendent of Police. Of the four ‘approvers’, Hans Raj Vohra was given sponsorship to study at the London School of Economics, Jai Gopal was rewarded with Rs 20,000 and Phonindra Nath Ghosh and Manmohan Bannerji were given a largesse of 50 acres of land in their home area of Champaran in Bihar. There was also a punishment for one individual present there. He was Khan Sahib Mohammad Akbar Khan, the Deputy Jail Superintendent, who had broken down and wept bitterly after watching the execution of Bhagat Singh and his two companions. For the colonial rulers, the display of human sympathy such as weeping at such a critical moment in colonial governance amounted to an act of disloyalty to the rulers. Coercive colonial legalism was enacted in its most naked form.
The travesty of justice in the trial and execution of Bhagat Singh and his companions exploded the myth that the British introduced the rule of law in colonial India. The conduct of Bhagat Singh and his companions during the trial demonstrated their intellect and bravery in the way they denounced the colonial law and the politics of British imperial rule.
A shorter version of this has been published Punjabi Tribune
Pritam Singh, Professor Emeritus, Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford, UK.