Pakistan: When Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh

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On a recent visit to Pakistan, a controversy surrounding the renaming of a roundabout in Lahore after Bhagat Singh caught my attention, not least because the freedom fighter was the subject of a book I had authored.

My thoughts though focused on a different aspect: Jinnah’s staunch defence of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues in the Central Legislative Assembly which met in Simla.
No two persons could have been more dissimilar in their political views, culture and personal traits than Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Bhagat Singh. But they shared a deep commitment to freedom from British rule and a firm resolve to fight for it; Jinnah constitutionally, Bhagat Singh by recourse to violence.

On December 17, 1928, Bhagat Singh shot dead an assistant superintendent of police, John Saunders, tragically mistaking him for the superintendent of police, J.A. Scott, who was believed to have struck fatal blows on Lala Lajpat Rai during a procession in Lahore on October 30, 1928. Bhagat Singh and his colleagues decided to avenge the death.

Bhagat Singh and his colleague Rajguru made good their escape. Taunts by Sukh Dev, a member of the group, drove Bhagat Singh and a colleague, Batukeshwar Dutt, to throw a bomb each in the chamber of the Central Assembly on April 8, 1929. (Jinnah was present in the House when the bombs exploded.) There was no hope of escape now.

In court, Bhagat Singh and his colleagues made reasonable requests to the court for certain facilities. When they were refused, they went on hungerstrike. Violent methods to feed them forcibly failed. They were disabled from participating in the court’s proceedings.

The government moved an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code empowering the court to proceed with the case even in the absence of the accused if he “has voluntarily rendered himself incapable of remaining before the court”.

Jinnah attacked the amendment on September 12, 1929 in the Central Assembly for introducing a vicious rule which enabled the court to proceed ex-parte against an accused and convict him on the basis of testimony untested by cross-examination and documents he had not seen.

The object was, of course, to break the hungerstrike. Jinnah’s remarks on this aspect bear quotation in extenso: “You want this house to give you a statute laying down a principle generally in the criminal jurisprudence for this particular case, so that you may use it for breaking the hungerstrike in the case.

Well, you know perfectly well that these men are determined to die. It is not a joke. I ask the honourable law member to realise that it is not everybody who can go on starving himself to death. Try it for a little while and you will see… The man who goes on hungerstrike has a soul. He is moved by that soul and he believes in the justice of his cause; he is not an ordinary criminal who is guilty of cold-blooded, sordid, wicked crime.”

“I do not approve of the action of Bhagat Singh… I regret that, rightly or wrongly, youth today in India is stirred up, and you cannot, when you have 300 and odd millions of people, you cannot prevent such crimes from being committed, however much you deplore them and however much you may say that they are misguided. It is the system, this damnable system of government, which is resented by the people.”

He had worked hard in the library and copiously cited English law: “Is there today in any part of the globe a civilised government that is engaged, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, in prosecuting their people?… Do you not realise yourself, if you open your eyes, that there is resentment, universal resentment, against your policy, against your programme?… Don’t you think that, instead of trying to proceed with an iron hand and pursuing a policy of repression against your own subjects, it would be better if you realised the root causes of the resentment and of the struggle that the people are carrying on?”

“And the last words I wish to address the government are, try and concentrate your mind on the root cause and the more you concentrate on the root cause the less difficulties and inconveniences there will be for you to face, and thank heaven that the money of the taxpayer will not be wasted in prosecuting men, nay citizens, who are fighting and struggling for the freedom of their country.”
There was no mistaking Jinnah’s high esteem for Bhagat Singh and his comrades.

The Tribune’s special correspondent reported: “Mr Jinnah created a profound impression by the excellent form in which he argued the case… winning applause after applause from the spellbound House when the president adjourned the House…”

Having lost in the Assembly, the governor-general promulgated an ordinance, which was not subject to approval by the Assembly and expired after six months. It set up a tribunal to try the case. The entire trial was vitiated by flaws. A member of the tribunal, Justice Syed Agha Haider, was removed from the tribunal because, unlike the two European judges, he questioned the witnesses closely and repeatedly dissociated himself in writing from their orders.

The tribunal which pronounced death sentences on the accused was itself under a sentence of death. The judges lost their office after six months. The accused were largely unrepresented by counsel and there was no right of appeal. The high court bar association set up a committee to consider the validity of the ordinance. Its report on June 19, 1930, found it to be “invalid”. Sir Muhammad Iqbal was one of its signatories.

Jinnah’s speech was of a piece with his record in the Assembly. He consistently spoke against imprisonment without trial, now called preventive detention, and violations of press freedom. The imprisonment of Vallabhbhai Patel (1930) was denounced as strongly as that of Maulana Hasrat Mohani (1934).

In prison, Bhagat Singh read and reflected seriously. It led him to renounce terrorism and to advise the young to follow suit; indeed, to counsel moderation and compromise. He was only 23 when he was executed in the central jail on March 23, 1931.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai By arrangement with Dawn

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