Martyrs of Punjab: Sukhdev Thapar
Son of Ram Lal, Sukbdev was born at Lyallpur (Now in Pakistao)~ He was an active member of the Revolutionary Party in Lahore and a close associate of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Like Bhagat Singh, he helped a lot in organizing revolutionary cells in the Punjab and outer areas of North India. He was privy to the plot of shooting which resulted in the death of Saumlees, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Lahore on December 17, 1928.
He was arrested at Delhi on April 15, 1929 after the bomb explosions in the Central Legislative Assembly Hall by Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dam He was tried as one of the principal accused in the Second Lahore Conspiracy Case and was srntcooed to deaUL He was hanged in the Lahore Jail on March 23, 1931 along with Bhagat Singh and Rajguru.
Sukhdev was born in Ludhiana, Punjab.
Sukhdev was famous Indian revolutionary who played a major role in the India’s struggle for Independence. Sukhdev Thapar was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), and organised revolutionary cells in Punjab and other areas of North India. A devoted leader, he even went on to educate the youth at the National College in Lahore. He along with other renowned revolutionaries started the ‘Naujawan Bharat Sabha’ at Lahore that was an organisation involved in various activities, mainly gearing the youth for the struggle for independence and putting an end to British Imperialism and communalism.
Sukhdev himself took active part in several revolutionary activities like a prison hunger strike in 1929; however, he would always be remembered in the chronicles of the Indian Freedom Movement for his attacks in the Lahore Conspiracy Case (18 December 1928). Sukhdev was the accomplice of Bhagat Singh, and Shivaram Rajguru who were involved in the assassination of Deputy Superintendent of Police, J.P. Saunders in 1928 in response to the death of veteran leader, Lala Lajpat Rai owing to excessive police beating in the Conspiracy case. After the Central Assembly Hall bombings in New Delhi (8 April 1929), Sukhdev and his accomplices were arrested and convicted of their crime, facing the death sentence as verdict.
To speed up slow trial, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, declared an emergency on 1 May 1930, and promulgated an ordinance setting up a special tribunal composed of three high court judges for this case. The ordinance cut short the normal process of justice as the only appeal after the tribunal was at the Privy Council located in England The Tribunal was authorised to function without the presence of any of the accused in court, and to accept death of the persons giving evidence as a concession to the defence. Consequent to Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance No.3 of 1930, the trial was transferred from Rai Sahib Pandit Sri Kishan’s court to the tribunal composed of Justice J. Coldstream (president), Justice G. C. Hilton and Justice Agha Hyder (members).
The case commenced on 5 May 1930 in Poonch House, Lahore against 18 accused. On 20 June 1930, the constitution of the Special Tribunal was changed to Justice G.C. Hilton (president), Justice J.K. Tapp and Justice Sir Abdul Qadir. On 2 July 1930, a habeas corpus petition was filed in the High Court challenging the ordinance and said that it was ultra vires and therefore illegal, stating that the Viceroy had no powers to shorten the customary process of determining justice. The petition argued that the Act, allowed the Viceroy to introduce an ordinance and set up such a tribunal only under conditions of break down of law-and-order, whereas there had been no such breakdown. However, the petition was dismissed as ‘premature’. Carden-Noad presented the government’s grievous charges of conducting dacoities, bank-robbery, and illegal acquisition of arms and ammunition amongst others. The evidence of G.T.H. Hamilton Harding, the Lahore superintendent of police, shocked the court, when he stated that he had filed the First Information Report against the accused under specific orders from the chief secretary (D.J. Boyd) to the governor of Punjab (Sir Geoffrey Montmorency) and that he was unaware of the details of the case. The prosecution mainly depended upon the evidence of P.N. Ghosh, Hans Raj Vohra and Jai Gopal who had been Singh’s associates in the HRSA. On 10 July 1930, the tribunal decided to press charges against only 15 of the 18 accused, and allowed their petitions to be taken up for hearing the next day. The tribunal conducted the trial from 5 May 1930 to 10 September 1930. The three accused against whom the case was withdrawn included Dutt, who had already been awarded a life sentence in the Assembly bomb case.
The ordinance (and the tribunal) would lapse on 31 October 1930 as it had not been passed in the Central Assembly or the British Parliament. On 7 October 1930, the tribunal delivered its 300-page judgement based on all the evidence and concluded that participation of Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru was proved beyond reasonable doubt in Saunders’ murder, and sentenced them to death by hanging. The remaining 12 accused were all sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment. The warrants for the three had a black border.
Appeal to the Privy Council
In Punjab, a defence committee drew up a plan to appeal to the Privy Council. Singh was initially against the appeal, but later agreed to it in the hope that the appeal would popularise the HSRA in Great Britain. The appellants objected to the ordinance that created the tribunal as invalid. The government again plead that the Viceroy was completely empowered to create such a tribunal under the said Act (Section 72 ). The appeal was dismissed by Judge Viscount Dunedin.
Reactions to the judgement
After the rejection the appeal to the Privy Council, Congress party president Madan Mohan Malviya filed a mercy appeal before Lord Irwin on 14 February 1931. An appeal was sent to Mahatma Gandhi by prisoners to intervene. In his notes dated 19 March 1931, the Viceroy recorded:
“While returning Gandhiji asked me if he could talk about the case of Bhagat Singh, because newspapers had come out with the news of his slated hanging on March 24th. It would be a very unfortunate day because on that day the new president of the Congress had to reach Karachi and there would be a lot of hot discussion. I explained to him that I had given a very careful thought to it but I did not find any basis to convince myself to commute the sentence. It appeared he found my reasoning weighty.”
The Communist Party of Great Britain expressed its reaction to the case:
“The history of this case, of which we do not come across any example in relation to the political cases, reflects the symptoms of callousness and cruelty which is the outcome of bloated desire of the imperialist government of Britain so that fear can be instilled in the hearts of the repressed people.”
An abortive plan had been made to rescue Singh and fellow inmates of HSRA from the jail. HSRA member Bhagwati Charan Vohra made bombs for the purpose, but died making them when they exploded accidentally.
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were sentenced to death in the Lahore conspiracy case and ordered to be hanged on 24 March 1931. On 17 March 1931, the Home Secretary, Punjab, sent a telegram to the Home Department, New Delhi, fixing the execution on 23 March 1931. Singh was informed that his execution had been advanced by 11 hours on 23 March 1931, just a few hours before his execution. Singh was hanged on 23 March 1931 at 7:30 pm in Lahore jail with his fellow comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. It is reported that no magistrate of the time was willing to supervise his hanging. The execution was supervised by the Honorary Magistrate of Kasur, Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri, who also signed Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev’s death warrants as their original warrants had expired. The jail authorities then broke the rear wall of the jail and secretly cremated the three men under cover of darkness outside Ganda Singh Wala village, and then threw the ashes into the Sutlej river, about 10 km from Ferozepore (and about 60 km from Lahore).
Criticism of the Special Tribunal and method of execution
Singh’s trial is generally considered to be an important event in the Indian history, as it went contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence. An ex-parte trial was against the principles of natural justice that no man shall be held guilty unless given an opportunity to defend in a hearing. The Special Tribunal was a departure from the normal procedure adopted for a trial. The decision of the tribunal could only be appealed to the Privy Council located in Britain. The accused were absent from the court and the judgement was passed ex-parte. The ordinance, which was introduced by the Viceroy to form the Special Tribunal, was never approved by the Central Assembly or the British Parliament, and it eventually lapsed without any legal or constitutional sanctity.
It was probably for the first time, that executions were carried out in the evening, by advancing the date of execution. The families of the accused were not allowed to meet them before the execution nor were they informed about it, even the bodies of the three were not given to their relatives after the execution to perform last rites, but were removed by demolishing the rear wall of the jail since there was an angry crowd at the front gate and were disposed off by cutting them into pieces and burning with the help of kerosene after which the remains were thrown into Satluj river.
Reactions to the executions
Front page of The Tribune announcing Bhagat Singh’s execution
The execution of Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were reported widely by the press, especially as they were on the eve of the annual convention of the Congress party at Karachi. Gandhi faced black flag demonstrations by angry youth who shouted “Down with Gandhi”. The New York Times reported:
A reign of terror in the city of Cawnpore in the United Provinces and an attack on Mahatma Gandhi by a youth outside Karachi were among the answers of the Indian extremists today to the hanging of Bhagat Singh and two fellow-assassins.
Hartals and strikes of mourning were called. The Congress party, during the Karachi session, declared:
While dissociating itself from and disapproving of political violence in any shape or form, this Congress places on record its admiration of the bravery and sacrifice of Bhagat Singh, Sukh Dev and Raj Guru and mourns with their bereaved families the loss of these lives. The Congress is of the opinion that their triple execution was an act of wanton vengeance and a deliberate flouting of the unanimous demand of the nation for commutation. This Congress is further of the opinion that the [British] Government lost a golden opportunity for promoting good-will between the two nations, admittedly held to be crucial at this juncture, and for winning over to methods of peace a party which, driven to despair, resorts to political violence.
In the 29 March 1931 issue of Young India, Gandhi wrote:
“Bhagat Singh and his two associates have been hanged. The Congress made many attempts to save their lives and the Government entertained many hopes of it, but all has been in a vain.
Bhagat Singh did not wish to live. He refused to apologize, or even file an appeal. Bhagat Singh was not a devotee of non-violence, but he did not subscribe to the religion of violence. He took to violence due to helplessness and to defend his homeland. In his last letter, Bhagat Singh wrote, ” I have been arrested while waging a war. For me there can be no gallows. Put me into the mouth of a cannon and blow me off.” These heroes had conquered the fear of death. Let us bow to them a thousand times for their heroism.
But we should not imitate their act. In our land of millions of destitute and crippled people, if we take to the practice of seeking justice through murder, there will be a terrifying situation. Our poor people will become victims of our atrocities. By making a dharma of violence, we shall be reaping the fruit of our own actions.
Hence, though we praise the courage of these brave men, we should never countenance their activities. Our dharma is to swallow our anger, abide by the discipline of non-violence and carry out our duty.”