Justice Agha Haider: Courtroom comrade of Bhagat Singh

By Saquib Salim

“I was not a party to the order of the removal of the accused (Bhagat Singh & his associates) from the court to the jail and I was not responsible for it anyway. I disassociate myself from all that took place today in consequence of that order.” Justice Sayyad Agha Haider, May, 12th,1930.

The above order passed by Justice Sayyad Agha Haider as a member of the Special Tribunal at Lahore to try Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, and other Indian Revolutionaries for waging the war against the Empire, will always be written in golden letters in the annals of the Indian Freedom Struggle.

Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt fired the imagination of nationalists in April 1929 after they threw smoke bombs inside the Central Legislative Assembly, Delhi, for which both were tried and sentenced. While they were in jail Bhagat Singh was made a co-accused of Saunders, an English Police officer, murder case. The British Government wanted to create a spectacle out of the trial to terrorize nationalist youth from taking part in revolutionary activities. A special tribunal was made by the Viceroy by introducing Lahore Ordinance No. III of 1930. The aim was to bypass the ‘due judicial procedures’ and award capital punishment to Bhagat Singh and his associates for challenging the mighty British Crown.

The ordinance was introduced on 1 May and Chief Justice Shadi Lal was vested with powers to ‘duly pick’ three judges for the ‘Special Tribunal’. Shadi Lal was fully confident that Justice Sayyad Agha Haider, along with two English judges Colsdtream and Hilton, would understand the motives of the special tribunal and deliver ‘English Justice’ in time. The tribunal started its ‘work’ on 5 May and the same day lawyers representing the revolutionaries wrote a letter stating, “We decline to be a party to this farcical show and henceforth we shall not take part in the proceedings of this case”.

However, little did anyone know that Agha Haider had an Indian heart beating inside his chest. On 12 May, the revolutionaries were produced before the tribunal. They raised the slogans of Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution) and started singing Sarfaroshi ki tamanna…. (An Urdu revolutionary song) after which police, at the orders of Justice Coldstream, beat them up in court causing serious physical injuries. Agha Haider could not tolerate it and registered his protest.

In his book, The Execution of Bhagat Singh: Legal Heresies of the Raj, Satvinder Singh Juss writes, “he (Agha Haider) signaled his complete dissociation from the violence of the courtroom, which was instigated at the behest of the Tribunal’s president, Justice Coldstream. His actions must have come as a complete shock to the other judges. It must also have left the Chief Justice of Lahore (Shadi Lal) stunned. He had appointed Justice Agha Haider as a safe pair of hands. But the man was no one’s fool. Here was one Westernised Indian grandee not willing to be a stooge.”

After the violence of 12 May, the revolutionaries and their counsels boycotted the proceedings of the tribunal. Throwing away all the pretensions of justice out of the window the tribunal started its proceedings in absence of ‘accused’ or ‘defense counsels’. Agha Haider could not tolerate it and took up the role of ‘defense’ from the chair of the judge. He started cross-examining all the witnesses being produced by the police. The police produced Jai Gopal, Pohindra Nath Ghosh, Manmohan Banerjee, and Hans Raj Vohra as witnesses. Agha Haider did not accept their testimonies at face value, unlike the other two English judges. He pricked holes in the statements that police gave these approvers to ‘recite’ in front of the tribunal. Juss writes, “in the absence of legal representation on behalf of the accused, he had taken it upon himself to ensure that the ends of justice were not sacrificed”.

The whole drama of the tribunal was exposed by Agha Haider on 30 May when he started cross-examining Ram Saran Das. Das had to admit in front of the tribunal, “I wish to put in a document which shows how approvers are tutored. I hand in the document. I do not wish to remain in the custody of the police. This document was given to me by a police officer who told me to learn it by heart. This was shown to me off and on by the officer who was with me. It passed on from officer to officer as they changed. I hand in the document.”

The impact Agha Haider had on the trial can be gauged from the fact that out of the seven eye-witnesses produced before the court, six turned hostile after facing cross-examination from him.

The last day for the tribunal was 20 June and it was already clear that Agha Haider was not going to award the death penalty to the Indian revolutionaries. The English Government was in a fix. The whole theatrics they created in the name of the Special Tribunal was set to end up in a disaster. Because, if not all three judges agree upon the death penalty then it could not be awarded.

The government sent a representative to ‘pacify’ Agha Haider in its support but the man was turned out of home by telling, “I am a judge, not a butcher.”

As a course correction, Agha Haider was sacked from the tribunal “for reasons of health” by Chief Justice Shadi Lal and the tribunal was reconstituted. This time the judge did not have the spine to stand against the Empire and the ‘English Justice’ was done by sentencing capital punishment to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru.

Agha Haider left the job, came to Saharanpur (U.P), and represented his constituency after the 1937 Provincial Elections. Still his great-grandchildren remember him as:

 “Merah Taluk Us khandhan Seh Hae/Jiske Bazoorgon neh, Angrez Keh Samneh kalam Tordee thee”

 ‘Do not threaten me for I hail from that dynasty, whose forefathers did not hesitate, even under orders from their British masters, to break the pencil in their hand, rather than sign an Order which offended against their conscience’

Saquib Salim is an historian and writer .

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