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Historical Trials  

The Trial of Bhagat Singh


Bhagat Singh is one of India's greatest freedom fighters. The youth of India were inspired by Bhagat Singh’s call to arms and enthused by the defiance of the army wing of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association to which he Sukhdev and Rajguru, belonged. His call, Inquilab Zindabad! became the war-cry of the fight for freedom. Bhagat Singh was executed by the British after a sham trial for his involvement in the Lahore Conspiracy Case at the age of twenty-three on 23 March, 1931.

On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly "to make the deaf hear" as their leaflet described the reason for their act. As intended, nobody was hurt by the explosion as Bhagat Singh had aimed the bomb carefully, to land away from the seated members, on the floor. The bomb, deliberately of low intensity, was thrown to protest the repressive Public Safety Bill and Trades Dispute Bill and the arrest of 31 labour leaders in March 1929. Then a shower of leaflets came fluttering down from the gallery like a shower of leaves and the members of the Assembly heard the sound of, ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ and ‘Long live Proletariat!’ rent the air.

Bhagat Singh and B.K.Dutt let themselves be arrested, even when they could have escaped, to use their court appearances as a forum for revolutionary propaganda to advocate the revolutionaries’ point of view and, in the process, rekindle patriotic sentiments in the hearts of the people. Bhagat Singh surrendered his automatic pistol, the same one he had used to pump bullets into Saunder’s body, knowing fully well that the pistol would be the highest proof of his involvement in the Saunders’ case.

The authorities believed that in Bhagat Singh they had caught a big fish and that he was the mastermind behind all revolutionary activity in India. The government was, however, intrigued by the two revolutionaries giving themselves up so easily. The British did not want to take any chances, so even the summons to the two revolutionaries were delivered to them in jail.


The style and format of the writing in the handbills struck British intelligence as suspiciously familiar. The format and style in these handbills was similar to the style and format of the handwritten posters that announced the murder of Saunders and which had been plastered on the city’s walls. The British began to suspect that Bhagat Singh was one of Saunder’s killers. He was singled out as the author of the text on the leaflets as well as on the posters. Bhagat Singh was charged with attempt to murder under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code. Asaf Ali, a member of the Congress Party was his lawyer.

The Trial started on 7 May, 1929. The Crown was represented by the public prosecutor Rai Bahadur Suryanarayan and the trial magistrate was a British Judge, P.B Pool. The manner in which the prosecution presented its case left Bhagat Singh in no doubt that the British were out to nail him. The prosecution’s star witness was Sergeant Terry who said that a pistol had been found on Bhagat Singh’s person when he was arrested in the Assembly. This was not factually correct because Bhagat Singh had himself surrendered the pistol while asking the police to arrest him. Even the eleven witnesses who said that they had seen the two throwing the bombs seemed to have been tutored.

Some of the questions asked in court were:

Judge: ‘Were you present in the Assembly on the 8th of April, 1929?”

Bhagat Singh: ‘As far as this case is concerned, I feel no necessity to make a statement at this stage. When I do, I will make the statement.”

Judge: ‘When you arrived in the court, you shouted, “Long Live Revolution!”. What do you mean by it?’

As if it had already made up its mind, the court framed charges under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of the Exposive Substances Act. Bhagat Singh and Dutt were accused of throwing bombs ‘to kill or cause injuries to the King Majesty’s subjects’. The magistrate committed both of the revolutionaries’ to the sessions court, which was presided over by Judge Leonard Middleton. The trial started in the first week of June, 1929. Here also, Bhagat Singh and Dutt were irked by the allegation that they had fired shots from a gun. It was apparent that the government was not limiting the case to the bombs thrown in the Assembly. It was introducing extraneous elements to ferret out more information about the revolutionary party and its agenda.

However, Judge Leonard Middleton too swallowed the prosecution story. He accepted as proof of the verbal testimony that the two had thrown the bombs into the Assembly Chamber and even said that Bhagat Singh fired from his pistol while scattering the leaflets there. The court held that both Bhagat Singh and Dutt were guilty under Section 3 of the Explosive Substances Act, 1988 and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Judge Middleton rules that he had no doubt that the defendant’s acts were ‘deliberate’ and rejected the plea that the bombs were deliberately low-intensity bombs since the impact of the explosion had shattered the wood of one and a half inch thickness in the Assembly.

The two were persuaded to file an appeal which was rejected and they were sent for fourteen years. The judge was in a hurry to close the case and claimed that the police had gathered ‘substantial evidence’ against Bhagat Singh and that he was charged with involvement in the killings of Saunders and Head Constable Chanan Singh and that the authorities had collected nearly 600 witnesses to establish their charges against him which included his colleagues, Jai Gopal and Hans Raj Vohra turning government approvers.

Bhagat Singh was sent to Mianwali Jail and Dutt to Borstal Jail in Lahore and were put on the same train though in different compartments on 12th March, 1930 but after requesting the officer on duty to allow them to sit together for some distance of the journey, Bhagat Singh conveyed to Dutt that he should go on a hunger strike on 15th June and that he would do the same in Mianwali Jail.  When the Government realized that this fast had riveted the attention of the people throughout the country, it decided to hurry up the trial, which came to known as the Lahore Conspiracy Case. This trial started in Borstal Jial, Lahore, on 10 July, 1929. Rai Sahib Pandit Sri Kishen, a first class magistrate, was the judge for this trial. He earned the title of Rai Sahib for loyal service to the British. Bhagat Singh and twenty-seven others were charged with murder, conspiracy and wagering war against the King.

The revolutionaries’ strategy was to boycott the proceedings. They showed no interest in the trial and adopted an attitude of total indifference. They did not have any faith in the court and realized that the court had already made up its mind. A handcuffed Bhagat Singh was still on hunger strike and had to be brought to the court in a stretcher and his weight had fallen by 14 pounds, from 133 to 119. The Jail Committee requested him to give up their hunger strike and finally it was his father who had his way and it was on the 116th day of his fast, on October 5, 1929 that he gave up his strike surpassing the 97 day world record for hunger strikes which set by an Irish revolutionary.

Bhagat Singh started refocusing on his trial. The crown was represented by the government advocate C.H.Carden-Noad and was assisted by Kalandar Ali Khan, Gopal Lal, and Bakshi Dina Nath who was the prosecuting inspector. The accused were defended by 8 different lawyers. The court recorded an order prohibiting slogans in the courtroom. The government advocate filed orders by the government sanctioning the prosecution under the Explosive Substances Act and Sections 121, 121 A, 122 and 123 of the Penal Code relating to sedition.

When Jai Gopal turned approver, Verma, the youngest of the accused, hurled a slipper at him. After this incident, the accused were subjected to untold slavery. The case built by the prosecution was that a revolutionary conspiracy had been hatched as far as back as September, 1928, two years before the murder of Saunders. The government alleged that various revolutionary parties had joined together to forge one organization in 1928 itself to operate in the north and the north-east of India, from Lahore to Calcutta.

The case proceeded at a snails pace and hence the government got so exasperated that it approached the Lahore High Court for directions to the magistrate. A division bench of the Lahore High Court dismissed the application of Carden-Noad. Through March, 1930, the proceedings were relatively smooth. The magistrate could not make any headway without the cooperation of the undertrials. On1 May, 1930, the viceroy, Lord Irwin, promulgated an Ordinance to set up a tribunal to try this case. The Ordinance, LCC Ordinance No.3 of 1930, was to put an end to the proceedings pending in the magistrate’s court. The case was transferred to a tribunal of three high court judges without any right to appeal, except to the Privy Council.

The case opened on 5 May 1930 in the stately Poonch House. Rajguru challenged the very constitution of the tribunal and said that it was illegal ultra vires. According to him, the Viceroy did not have the power to cut short the normal legal procedure. The Government of India Act, 1915, authorized the Viceroy to promulgate an Ordinance to set up a tribunal but only when the situation demanded whereas now there was no breakdown in the law and order situation. The tribunal however, ruled that the petition was ‘premature’. Carden-Noad, the government advocate elaborated on the charges which included dacoities, robbing money from banks and the collection of arms and ammunition. The evidence of G.T. Hamilton Harding, senior superintendent of police, took the court by surprise as he said that he had filed the FIR against the accused under the instructions of the chief secretary to the government of Punjab and he did not know the facts of the case. Then one of the accused J.N Sanyal said that they were not the accused but the defenders of India’s honour and dignity.

There were five approvers in total put of which Jai Gopal, Hans Raj Vohra and P.N.Ghosh had been associated with the HRSA for a long time. It was on their stories that the prosecution relied. The tribunal depended on Section 9 (1) of the Ordinance and on 10th July 1930, issued an order, and copies of the framed charges were served on the fifteen accused in jail, together with copies of an order intimating them that their pleas would be taken on the charges the following day. This trial was a long and protracted one, beginning on 5 May, 1930, and ending on 10 September, 1930. It was a one-sided affair which threw all rules and regulations out of the window. Finally the tribunal framed charges against fifteen out of the eighteen accused. The case against B.K.Dutt was withdrawn as he had already been sentenced to transportation for life in the Assembly Bomb Case.

On 7 October 1930, about three weeks before the expiry of its term, the tribunal delivered its judgement, sentencing Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru to death by hanging. Others were sentenced to transportation for life and rigorous imprisonment. This judgement was a 300-page one which went into the details of the evidence and said that Bhagat Singh’s participation in the Saunders’ murder was the most serious and important fact proved against him and it was fully established by evidence. The warrants for the three were marked with a black border.

The undertrials of the Chittagong Armoury Raid Case sent an appeal to Gandhiji to intervene. A defence committee was constituted in Punjab to file an appeal to the Privy Council against the sentence. Bhagat Singh did not favour the appeal but his only satisfaction was that the appeal would draw the attention of people in England to the existence of the HSRA. In the case of Bhagat Singh v. The King Emperor, the points raised by the appellant was that the ordinance promulgated to constitute a special tribunal for the trial was invalid. The government argued that Section 72 of the Government of India Act, 1915 gave the governor-general unlimited powers to set up a tribunal. Judge Viscount Dunedin who read the judgment dismissed the appeal. Thus from the lower court to the tribunal to the Privy Council, it was a preordained judgement in flagrant violation of all tends of natural justice and a fair and free trial.

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