Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh

While reading up on Bhagat Singh on his 106th birth anniversary, I came across an interesting article by AG Noorani on Jinnah's defence of Bhagat Singh and his opposition to the 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 was speaking in his capacity as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly, the closest thing British India had to a parliament.

In spite of obvious differences in their political ideology (Jinnah was a classic liberal who believed in constitutional methods; Singh was a communist who favoured armed struggle) Jinnah's speech was forceful and rousing. Drawing out the difference between a common criminal and someone like Singh, Jinnah said:

"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."

This speech was one of many which made sure that the Assembly rejected the government's proposed amendment. It was a illusory victory though. The government bypassed the Assembly altogether and introduced the amendment as an ordinance. Noorani writes:

"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”."

The trail was described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence" because there was no opportunity for the accused to even defend themselves.


Further Reading:

You can read Jinnah's speech in it's entirety here.

Even as Singh remains a minor political figure in his hometown of Lahore, a small but committed band of Pakistanis, fired by Singh's ideals, is bent on reviving his legacy by agitating to rename a chowk widely believed to mark the spot where Singh was executed.

An excellent web archive of all of Singh's work here.