Two Letters on the Case of the Harikishan Trial

(January-February 1931)

Bhagat Singh

Bhagat Singh wrote two letters in reference to young revolutionary Harikishan’s case, who had thrown a bomb on the Governor of Punjab on 23rd December 1930, during the Punjab University convocation at Lahore. Despite being the son of a very rich and influential personality, Gurdas Ram Talwar of Mardan, now in the Khyber Pakhtunwa province of Pakistan, he was bound to get the death sentence, which Bhagat Singh correctly understood. But Harikishan’s lawyers in order to defend him, made some averments in his petition, which did not enhance the respect of a revolutionary. Bhagat Singh was very upset at this and wrote to his unnamed contact about it. The first of his letters did not reach its destination and was ‘lost’, as Bhagat Singh himself mentions in his second letter, almost a repetition of arguments made in first letter. The first letter, till now considered to be lost, was published in the 18th June 1931 issue of Hindu Panch from Calcutta in an Hindi translation, which was sent to this editor courtesy Dr. Raghuvir Singh and Ram Sharma from Beena. Since the original English is yet to be found, here retranslation from Hindi to English has been done by this author. Harikishan was hanged on 9th June 1931 in Lahore jail.

Chaman Lal


Letter Regarding the Harikishan Trial

(January 1931)

Dear Brother,

I was surprised to know that Sh. Harikishan wants to present the same arguments for defence in the court that were used in the Assembly bomb case. I was no less surprised to know that Sh. Asaf Ali was called for arguing the case from Delhi and, apart from charging a fat fee for the case; he was paid double first class rail fare. Though any good lawyer from Lahore would have agreed to take up the case, at a much lower fee. But anyhow the second aspect is not the main reason for writing this letter. I mean here the first aspect.

Possibly I have no right to intervene or meddle with the matter of a young man, who is certain to get the highest punishment in law that is the death sentence. Seeing that it is certain that he would be sentenced to death, I am daring to speak on the political aspect of the matter, leaving behind the issue of personality. At the moment I am writing this letter to you at a personal level, though I don’t know for sure whether you can do something about it or not. I hope that before taking any final decision in this matter, my views will be taken into account.

The incidents of the case are clear, and the consequence is also clear. The accused himself understands this most clearly. He has accepted his crime in the lower court, can give his statement in the session court and he should give the statement.

Whatever I have heard that defence lawyer is advising him to state:

1. He had no intention to kill the Governor.
2. He only wanted to hurt him.
3. And this he wanted to do as a warning.

I request you to please think calmly over this issue. Would not such statements be ridiculous? What would be the meaning of such statements on this occasion? Would it not be repeating the same thing, which has already been stated in an appropriate manner and which has no meaning at present?

After a long careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is no person who could understand and appreciate the complete individual efforts, even if these efforts may be much scattered and disconnected. No one tries to ensure that each such occasion is used to strengthen the movement. Because of a lack of vision in political matters, the defence lawyer has dared to give such advice, or due to his personal ambition, the lawyer has thought of getting such statement. I do not mean that people should not offer defence in the cases, rather my opinion is the reverse. But this also does not mean that lawyers, without understanding the real problems, should intervene to put revolutionaries in confusion and discourage them. Despite participating in public causes, these lawyers – and I am referring to Punjab alone – have not adopted revolutionary thinking at all. They neither understand the viewpoint of the revolutionaries nor their mentality.

Rather than talking in general terms, let me come to the point. In this matter, to state that the aim of Harikishan was only to issue a warning is absolutely inadequate. Just ponder over it; this incident has occurred after the Assembly bomb case, the attempt to blow up the Viceroy’s train, the Chittagong revolt and many such incidents. It is foolishness to say that the accused just wanted to hurt the Governor as a form of protest. For him, a more appropriate statement would be:

1. That, despotic use of power like the lathi charge in Bombay and Amritsar, the arrest of women, beatings and the unprovoked firing on people (here the reference is to the one-sided proceedings of the tribunal in the Lahore conspiracy case and the award of death sentences, which can link this incident to a continuous chain of actions of the whole revolutionary movements, can also be made), motivated him to act in that manner.

2. This is just the beginning; the accused has only given an indication of the resentment prevalent among people, which if it explodes, will bring destruction.

3. This is standard government policy to take the country towards bloodshed.

4. People can become impatient anytime and take to violent methods by renouncing non-violence.

5. The accused does not want the government to stop this policy as it would encourage people to rise against it.

6. Government has already stopped following the rule of law in general.

7. And the aim of the revolutionary movement is to show the people that the British rule is here only through military power and so this government should be overthrown through political action.

After this he can define the socialist programme. He can make an appeal to Lahore students that they should shed their laziness and join the people’s movement. Under the circumstances this is the best statement he can give.

He can state like an idealist that he has not come to kill an individual; he rather wanted to destroy the system. He feels anguished at the killing of a man, but there is no other way. Individuals have to be sacrificed at the altar of revolution. After all he is also an individual.

He can express sorrow at the killing of the senior inspector, whom he had not wanted to kill. He can also congratulate the Governor for surviving the attack. He can also add that to liberate the oppressed people, loss of individuals cannot matter much.

He should say all these things. Does the lawyer think that by saying that he did not want to kill the Governor, he can be saved? This is sheer childishness. It has no advantage but the harm it causes is immense. If an incident is detached from a movement, it loses its significance. When a sacrifice has to be made, then it should be fully utilised for the best purpose. In future also, all such incidents should be linked to the revolutionary movement and other such efforts; the revolutionary movement should be linked to mass movements. The best way in such matters is to invite a panel of lawyers... (Incomplete... .few words/sentences left out.)


Another Letter Regarding Harikishan

(February 1931)

I am very sorry to note that my last letter in this connection did not reach its destination at the proper time and therefore could be of no use, or failed to serve the purpose for which it was written. Hence, I write this letter to let you know my views on the question of defence in the political cases in general and the revolutionary cases in particular. Apart from certain points already discussed in that letter, it shall serve another purpose too, i.e. it shall be a documentary proof that I am not becoming wise after the event.

Anyhow, I wrote in that letter that the plea that the lawyer was suggesting to offer defence should not be adopted. But it has been done in spite of your, and mine, opposition. Nevertheless, we can now discuss the matter in a better light and can formulate definite ideas about the future policy regarding defence.

You know that I have never been in favour of defending all the political accused. But this does not imply that the beauty of the real struggle should be altogether spoiled. (Please note that the term beauty is not used in the abstract sense but it means the motive that actuated a particular action.) When I say that all the politicals should always defend themselves, I say it with certain reservations. It can be cleared by just one explanation. A man does an act with a certain end in view. After his arrest the political significance of the action should not be diminished. The perpetrator should not become more important than the action itself. Let us further elucidate it with the help of the illustration. Mr. Hari Kishan came to shoot the Governor. I don’t want only to discuss the ethical side of the action. I want only to discuss the political side of the case. The man was arrested. Unfortunately, some police official had died in the action. Now comes the question of the defence; well, when fortunately the Governor had escaped there could be a very beautiful statement in his case, i.e., the statement of actual facts as was made in the lower court. And it would have served the legal purpose too. The wisdom and ability of the lawyer depended on his interpretation of the cause of the Sub-Inspector’s death. What did he gain by saying that he did not intend to kill the Governor and only wanted to warn him, and all that sort of thing? Can any sensible man imagine even for a moment the possibility of such a design? Had it any legal value? Absolutely none, then, what was the use of spoiling the beauty of not only the particular action but also the general movement? Warning and futile protests cannot go on forever. The warning has once been given long ago. The revolutionary struggle had begun in right earnest so far as the strength of the revolutionary party allowed. Viceroy’s train action was neither a test nor a warning. Similarly, Mr. Hari Kishan’s action was part of the struggle itself, not a warning. After the failure of the action, the accused can take it in purely sportsman-like spirit. The purpose having been served he ought to have rejoiced in the lucky escape of the Governor. There is no use of killing any one individual. These actions have their political significance in as much as they serve to create a mentality and an atmosphere which shall be very necessary to the final struggle. That is all. Individual actions are to win the moral support of the people. We sometimes designate them as the ‘propaganda through deed’.

Now, the people should be defended but subject to the above consideration. This is after all a common principle that all the contending parties always try to gain more and to lose less. No general can ever adopt a policy in which he may have to make a greater sacrifice than the gain expected. Nobody would be more anxious to save the precious life of Mr. Hari Kishan than myself. But I want to let you know that the thing which makes his life precious should by no means be ignored. To save the lives at any cost, is not our policy. It may be the policy of the easy-chair politicians, but it is not ours.

Much of the defence policy depends upon the mentality of the accused himself. But if the accused himself is not only afraid of shrinking but is as enthusiastic as ever, than his work for which he risked his life should be considered first, his personal question afterwards. Again, there may be some sort of confusion. There may be cases where the action is of no general importance in spite of its tremendous local value. There the accused should not be sentimental as to admit the responsibility. The famous trial of Nirmal Kant Rai would be the best illustration.

But in cases like the where it is of such political importance, the personal aspect should not be attached greater value than the political one. If you want to know my frank opinion about his case, let me tell you frankly that it is nothing short of the political murder of an incident of historic importance at the altar of professional (legal) vanity.

Here I may point out one thing more, that the people responsible for this strangulation of the case, having realised their blunder and having become wise after the event in not daring to shoulder their responsibility, are trying to belittle the beauty of the marvellous character of our young comrade. I have heard them saying that Mr. Hari Kishan shirked to face it boldly.

This is a most shame-faced lie. He is the most courageous lad I have ever come across. People should have mercy upon us. Better ignored than demoralised and degraded but well looked after.

Lawyers should not be so unscrupulous as to exploit the lives and even deaths of young people who come to sacrifice themselves for so noble a cause as the emancipation of the suffering humanity. I am really...1, otherwise, why should a lawyer demand such an incredible fee as has been paid in the above case?

In the sedition cases, I may tell you the limit to which we can allow the defence. Last year when one comrade was prosecuted for having delivered a socialistic speech and when he pleaded not guilty to that charge, we were simply astounded. In such cases we should demand the right of free speech. But where such things are attributed to one and he has not said and are contrary to the interests of the movement, deny. Though in the present movement the Congress has suffered for having allowed its members to go to jail without defending themselves, in my opinion that was a mistake.

Anyhow, I think if you read this letter along with my previous one, you will come to know very clearly my ideas about the defence in political cases. In Mr. Hari Kishan’s case, in my opinion, his appeal should be filed in the High Court without fail and every effort should be made to save him.

I hope both these letters indicate everything I want to say on this subject.


1. Some words missing

Source: From ‘Selected Writings of Bhagat Singh’ by Shiv Verma

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