History revisited

'The man who goes on a hunger strike has a soul': When Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh

On the freedom fighter’s 85th death anniversary, an account of how the founder of Pakistan called his trial a 'farce'.

Much has been written about the Mohandas Gandhi-Bhagat Singh dynamic. Many Leftists see Gandhi’s refusal to intervene on behalf of Bhagat Singh as a betrayal. Yashpal, a comrade-in-arms of Bhagat Singh, wrote: “Gandhi considered it moral to put government pressure on the people for prohibition but he considered it immoral to put people’s pressure on foreign government to commute the sentences of Bhagat Singh etc.”

Less is known, though, of the dynamic between Mahomed Ali Jinnah (as he spelt he name) and Bhagat Singh. Jinnah and Singh did not interact much, given that they moved in widely differing political circles. Jinnah in 1931 was a politician who had missed the bus as far as Congress-style mass politics would be concerned. He was still at the high table of Indian politics, but largely as a technocratic liberal, much in the mould of his close friend and colleague Tej Bahadur Sapru. Like the other Indian liberals at the time, Jinnah strongly believed in constitutionalism, reposing faith in the institutions of Empire such as legislatures, courts and even the British Parliament to deliver progress to India. Marxist-Leninist Bhagat Singh was, of course, the polar opposite, believing that violent armed struggle was a legitimate way to overthrow the Raj.

The Assembly debate

Nevertheless, for a brief moment, their worlds intersected as Bhagat Singh was in jail for throwing bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi in 1929. Singh’s punishing hunger fasts though were making in very difficult to proceed with a normal trial. In response, the British administration, which was hell-bent on judicially murdering Singh by then, proceeded to get a bill through the Central Legislative Assembly that allowed 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”. This was unprecedented since a trial ­– by law and common sense – always required the accused to be present and defend himself.

In September 1929, Jinnah representing Bombay city in the Assembly, spoke powerfully, opposing this bill. Calling the trial a “farce” and a “travesty of justice”, he said that if the trial continued in the absence of the accused he “stands already condemned”. He also pointed out that Singh was a political prisoner and how the government was making a mistake by treating him a common criminal.

“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 hunger strike 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.”

Unlikely allies

Even as he spoke, the Assembly’s closing time neared and Jinnah was asked to resume the next day. Madan Mohan Malaviya, a modern Hindutva icon and one-time Congress President, came to Jinnah’s support. “Sir, cannot we go on for another 15 minutes?” Malviya asked the speaker urgently, only to see his request be rejected. (Two years later, Malaviya would also file Singh’s final mercy petition with the Viceroy).

The next day, Jinnah, the highest-paid lawyer in India at the time, took the Raj to task on the legality of Singh’s trial:

“It seems to me, Sir, that the great and fundamental doctrine of British jurisprudence, which is incorporated and codified in the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code has very wisely not made such an absurd provision in the criminal law of this country and I am not satisfied that there is a lacuna in our system of criminal law.”

The outrage over the show trial of Singh made the Assembly reject this bill. This rejection by a puppet Assembly didn’t really mean much in actual terms though. The British Indian government simply ignored the House and introduced the amendment as an ordinance.

Judicial murder

Bhagat Singh researcher AG Noorani described the legal farce that followed after this:

“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’.”

Bhagat Singh was secretly hanged on March 23, 1931 in Lahore. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India, echoing Jinnah, said that Singh’s trial was “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence” since there was no opportunity for the accused to defend themselves.

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