Judging Political Offence: How this Visionary Handled It in 1933

Sir Shah Sulaiman had said that severe punishment on account of political beliefs defeats the very objective.

5 min read
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The incarceration and persecution of the student protesters and senior academics and intellectuals today should be viewed in the light of a historical judgment by a now-forgotten Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court, Sir Shah Mohammad Sulaiman.

His judgment on what was known as the Communist Conspiracy case in 1933 needs to be read today for certain important lessons. Sir Shah Sulaiman had categorically asserted that, severe punishment on account of political offences or beliefs, defeats the very objective. Today, even calling yourself a ‘comrade’ or reading and referring to Lenin is an offence that can put you behind bars – and even deny you bail.

Sir Shah Sulaiman had said that severe punishment on account of political beliefs defeats the very objective.
Sir Shah Mohammad Sulaiman, Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court (1932-37) 
Image Courtesy: Allahabad High Court

Sir Shah Sulaiman’s Historical Judgment

The Sessions Court in Meerut awarded stringent sentences to the accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case in January 1933. Out of the accused, 27 persons were convicted with various durations of ‘transportation’. While Muzaffar Ahmed was transported for life, SA Dange, Philip Spratt, SV Ghate, KN Joglekar and RS Nimbkar were each awarded transportation for a period of 12 years.

On appeal, in August 1933, the sentences of Ahmed, Dange and Usmani were reduced to three years by Sir Shah Sulaiman, Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, on the grounds that the accused had already spent a considerable part of their sentence while waiting for the trial to begin, and because in the case of political offences, arising out of the beliefs of the accused, severe sentences defeat their objective.

Sir Shah Sulaiman had the conviction and courage – even during the colonial regime – to pass such a judgment in a Communist Conspiracy case. In practice, such sentences confirm the offenders in their beliefs, and create other offenders, thus, increasing evil and danger to the public.


Who Was Sir Shah Sulaiman?

Sir Shah Mohammad Sulaiman was one of those several forgotten Indians who made seminal contributions to diverse fields. His name is familiar to people at Aligarh Muslim University, as one of the hostels is named after him. He was also one of its Vice Chancellors – twice in the1920s/30s. However, even in Aligarh today, not many can recall much about this remarkable Indian.

Sir Shah Sulaiman had said that severe punishment on account of political beliefs defeats the very objective.
Aligarh Muslim University.
(Photo: PTI)

Sir Sulaiman was born in 1886 in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, in an illustrious family of scholars. Jaunpur city also had a glorious past, though the present won’t let you believe that. It remained a centre of art, culture and scholarship from the fifteenth century onwards. Even now, the remnants of the illustrious Sharqi dynasty are visible in its grand monuments.

One of the most distinguished ancestors of Shah Sulaiman was Mullah Mahmud Jaunpuri, the author of the much-acclaimed 17th century Arabic text on mathematics and astronomy, called Shams-i-Bazigha. And his most celebrated descendent today is Rizwan ‘Riz’ Ahmad, famous British actor and rapper, who acted in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.


Sir Shah Sulaiman’s Illustrious Career in Judiciary

Shah Sulaiman studied at Allahabad, and later, did his Mathematical Tripos from the University of Cambridge in 1909. Given the colonial constraints, he was not sure of a career in science and mathematics, so he shifted to law and got his LLD degree from the University of Dublin. He got back to Allahabad in 1911, set up his legal practice, and made a mark very early.

He was offered a seat at the Allahabad High Court at the young age of 34, and became Chief Justice when he was merely 46.

His quickness of mind and mathematical precision helped him to take some fast decisions in important cases like the Meerut Conspiracy Case.

While delivering the Tagore Law Lectures at Calcutta University, Mr J H Morgan, the noted British jurist, said in 1938, that:

“Now I have just been reading the judgment of the Federal Court at Delhi in that important case. One of those judgments stands out conspicuous and pre-eminent, and may well prove to be the ‘Locus Classicus’ of the law on the subject. It is a judgment worthy of the highest traditions of the House of Lords as an Appellate Tribunal and of the Privy Council itself. I refer to the brilliant judgment of Mr Justice Sulaiman. In depth of thought, in breath of view, in its powers alike of analysis and of synthesis, in grace of style and felicity of expression, it is one of the most masterly judgements that I have ever had the good fortune to read. Everyone in India, interested in future development of the Constitution, should study it.”

Sir Sulaiman and Science: His First Love

Though Sir Sulaiman spent most of his life as a legal luminary, his first love was always science, which remained with him always. He pursued developments in physics very closely, and found time to engage with physicist friends at Allahabad University like Meghnad Saha and his student DS Kothari. Saha was always with Sir Sulaiman, whenever both of them were free in the evenings, getting into detailed conversations about the latest developments in scientific research.

Saha published a series of articles in his journal Science and Culture, that were written by Justice Sulaiman regarding his disagreements with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Nobel laureate CV Raman took note of his sudden and unfortunate death in 1941 at the young age of 54/55, when he was at the prime of his career. He wrote an obituary in Nature, one of the most widely read scientific journals even now. Raman observed that:

“His published papers indicate a marked reluctance to accept the ideas of the newer physics as expounded by the leading authorities on the subject. They largely consist of attempts to explain the facts of the newer physics on the basis of classical or semi-classical ideas aided by special hypothesis.”

Even Current Science published a critical review of Sulaiman’s work in 1935, based on two articles he wrote in the Proceedings of the UP Academy of Sciences.

His sudden death on 12 March 1941 shocked the country, and the legal community in particular. Justice RS Pathak very aptly observed: “Within the years given to him, he achieved a versatile excellence and an intellectual brilliance which dazzled the generation in which he lived. Like a meteor blazing its luminous course across the heavens, he left a trail of glory behind.”

(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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