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Book review: The Execution of Bhagat Singh: Legal Heresies of the RaJ

by Satvinder Singh Juss
Publisher : Amberley Publishing , Language : English
Hardcover : 288 pages, ISBN-10 : 1445689766 ISBN-13 : 978-1445689760
Reviewed by Gurinder Singh Mann , Historian and Director of the Sikh Museum Initiative

Satvinder Singh Juss is Professor of Law at King’s College London and a practising Barrister-at-Law of Gray’s Inn, London, UK. He has, against this background of being both an academic scholar and a practising lawyer, produced a detailed and sophisticated critique of the legal process leading upto the execution of one of the great revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement, namely, Bhagat Singh. A name which brings emotive memories of the British Raj and the case to undermine the struggle of the India to shed the country of Colonialism.

Professor Juss’ main sources included visiting various historical archives and searching through documents only for the first time since Indian Independence. The most fruitful one which he mentions is the one at Anarkali, in Lahore, which houses a treasure trove of documents, previously unexamined. This Tomb comprises a building which has played a significant role since the times of the Mughals and the Sikh Empire (as residences of the Firangi soldiers). The book recounts the legislative changes introduced by the British. Of these the most significant is the Lahore Ordinance No. III of 1930. The express purpose of this Ordinance was that ‘in cases of emergency’ an Ordinance may be passed, for the purpose only of “peace, order and good government” , and that too for a period of 6-months only. It was wrongly utilised instead to execute Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. All three had been involved in the shooting of a 21-year-old British police officer and the bombing of the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi.

In my own work, I had long been fascinated by the way the British had enacted laws in the UK Parliament, which were extended to colonial rule in India. Laws such as the Charter Act and the Doctrine of Lapse are little known today , but even the Anglo Sikh War treaties, imposed after annexation of the Panjab, have not been analysed sufficiently for their legal implications. I have discussed some of these in my publication in the British and the Sikhs. Many of these laws remain highly questionable even in their own legal terms. Yet, they are treated if they have unquestionable authority. It is as if they are as good as their weight in gold. This attitude has prevented the must needed scrutiny that is now called for.

Commemorative stamp of Bhagat Singh

The Lahore Ordinance III of 1930 was not approved by the Central Assembly in New Delhi, and nor was it passed by the British Parliament in London. Despite this, under the Ordinance, which the Governor-General Lord Irwin promulgated on 1st May 1930, a three-judge Special Tribunal took over the trial of the accused from a regular Sessions Court judge in Lahore, rushing through the proceedings, with a view to completing them withing 6-months, so that the 457 prosecution witnesses were not allowed to be cross-examined. All three of the accused were then ordered to be hanged on 7th October 1930. So concerned were the colonial administrative authorities with what they were doing, that the schedule for hanging was moved forward by 11 hours. Rather than being put to death at dawn as was the established protocol for executions, the three condemned young men were hanged at 7pm on the evening of 23 March 1931. The authorities hoped in this way to avert any protests. However, this only fanned unrest in the country. There were news reports across the world including in the USA which singled out the mistreatment of the trio and the abuse of legal process in their case.

The author at the archives at Anarkali, Lahore

Many today are still unaware how, as this highly original and comprehensively researched book makes clear, there were pleas for clemency, not only just from the India subcontinent, but also from individual organisations in Britain, demanding the colonial authorities to commute the sentence of death of the three. A particularly noteworthy feature of the book is the appendix at the back, which lists a plethora of Lahore Conspiracy documents, as well as other numerous rare documents, relating to the trial, many of which have never been published before. The book is so well written that it easily allows the non-legal expert to understand how legislation was introduced, challenged by the local Bar in Lahore, despite the determined effort of the colonial authorities to execute the freedom fighters of India which this book so memorably brings alive. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the long march to Indian freedom, and why the name of Bhagat Singh needs to be better known in the West. Professor Juss deserves our congratulations for shedding such much needed light on this icon of India’s freedom movement.

The book is available from Amberley Publishing.


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