45. Lala Labhu Ram

Bad as are the cases from the Punjab which it has been my misfortune to examine from time to time, that of Lala Labhu Ram is no better. Isolated cases of injustice will happen in the best regulated society and under a model Government. But when injustice becomes the order of the day, it is time for honest men not merely to protest against it but to withdraw their support from a system of Government under which such organized injustice is possible, unless that system is changing and systematic injustice becomes an impossibility. I have no desire to exaggerate the picture. Nothing can be further from my intention than to exacerbate the relations between the two races. And if I could prevent exacerbation by remaining silent, I should do so with the greatest gladness. But I should fail in my duty if I did not draw the attention of the Government to injustices as they come under my notice. They are like poison corrupting the whole system. The poison must be expelled or the body perishes.
What is this case of Lala Labhu Ram then? The evidence for the defence does not appear to be complete and yet it seems to be the whole of the evidence received by Lala Labhu Ram's solicitors. It is quite possible that that evidence was not recorded; for does not the judgment of the court commence with the pregnant sentence: "The evidence for the defence is worthless" ? In one place the notes of evidence contain the remark, "Cross-examination for accused No. 9. Nothing relevant"! The Judges might have considered the defence evidence too as irrelevant. Fortunately one has the exhaustive petition of Mrs. Labhu Ram to fall back upon. It must be accepted as a correct statement of the evidence in the absence of contradiction.
Mr. Labhu Ram is not a poor student lad like Karamchand or a petty trader like Jagannath. He is a Civil Engineer, he belongs, says Malandevi, "to a. very respectable and loyal family of Lahore. Several relations of his occupy responsible position in the service of Government." He finished his studies in Glasgow. He returned from England in 1912. He was for some time State Engineer in the Poonch State, "where he not only discharged his professional duties to the entire satisfaction of his superiors but materially helped the authorities in recruiting work. He was not a member of any political society or of any Samaj or Sabha nor did he even take part in any propaganda of any kind whatsoever. He was not in the habit of attending any lectures even. He took no part whatever in the recent hartal." I have dealt with Mr. Labhu Ram's position in society somewhat fully, because the case at the worst turns upon the credibility of witnesses. Several of the accused, of whom Lala Labhu Ram was one, pleaded an alibi and, as I have had to remark in connection with one case, courts always look upon the defence of alibi with considerable distrust. It is therefore necessary to dispose of the case at its worst and give the court credit for fairness in weighing evidence. I submit then that unless the court has overwhelming and unimpeachable testimony against that of Lala Labhu Ram, who said he was not present at the Badshahi Mosque meeting and who was respectably supported, the court was bound to accept his evidence and grant him an honourable discharge. In such cases the status of the accused is a material consideration in coming to a decision and I claim that Lala Labhu Ram enjoyed a status in society which should have stood him in good stead.
But the reader may dismiss the plea of respectability from his mind. It would not be perhaps an unfair reasoning on the part of the opponents—the up-holders of the Punjab proceedings—to say that when the very best of men in the Punjab were under severe suspicion and were drawn into the turmoil of April last, the question of respectability should be ruled out of account. But the Punjab Commissions have gone infinitely further and in many cases, as the readers of these pages have by this time seen, ruled out practically the whole of the defence. Mr. Labhu Ram was arrested on the 20th April, i.e. eight days after the day of the alleged offence. He is supposed to have been one of the hundred men who were charged with a simultaneous assault on one of the police officers. He was not known to this officer before, nor was there a single prosecution witness who had known the accused at all intimately before. Identification is difficult at best of times. It is most difficult, if not almost impossible, when it is a matter of picking out men from an excited crowd of several thousands. Mr. Labhu Ram's name does not occur in the police diary in which the names of the assaulters were noted down. Out of 11 prosecution witnesses 6 had nothing to say about the accused Mr. Labhu Ram. "Witnesses," says Mrs. Labhu Ram, "who identified the petitioner's husband are police employees or interested in them. Most of them have appeared as prosecution witnesses in other Martial Law cases also." This is a most damaging statement, if it is true. It means that they were professional witnesses. One would think that as the accused was arrested eight days after the event, there would be some explanation given by the prosecution of the delay. This is what the petitioner says about it : "The name of the petitioner's husband not having been entered in the diary of the complainant, it is not stated how and when the police came to know of his complicity." This is a sample of the case for the prosecution. The case for the defence is overwhelming. "Dr. Bodhraj, a well- known physician of Lahore, Dr. Bholaram and his compounder gave evidence that Labhu Ram was busy with them in connection with the treatment of his ailing son at the time of the alleged assault."
The reader will be shocked to know that Mr. Labhu Ram's sentence of transportation, with forfeiture of property has been commuted to fourteen years. Though I can appreciate and fully share a wife's sorrow and agony over an unmerited separation from her husband and therefore while I understand Mr. Labhu Ram's position in asking for a commutation, if a complete discharge might not be possible, I am unable to derive the slightest satisfaction from the fact of the commutation. Mr. Labhu Ram is not a child. He is a man of the world, of culture and fully aware of his responsibility. If he took part in a cowardly assault on an inoffensive man who was but doing his duty he deserves stern justice and no mercy. For to the crime of an assault he had added that of deliberate perjury. If therefore his case is not true, it is not one for mercy, and if it is true, justice would be hardly satisfied when he is discharged.
I do not deal with the monstrous method of the court in taking judicial notice of a "state of rebellion". It is really an abuse of legal terms to consider the state of Lahore on the 12th of April as one of rebellion and a martial proclamation of the Government to be a document for judicial notice in the manner it has been. The evidence before the court does not sustain a charge of waging war against the King. Only recently the people of Liverpool went much further than the Badshahi Mosque meeting. But the long expected Commission has now been appointed, and if the reference includes the power to revise the sentences, the members of the Commission will have an opportunity of pronouncing upon cases like Mr. Labhu Ram's. But I submit to the Punjab Government as also to the Government of India that in cases where the recorded evidence itself shows a patent miscarriage of justice, they are bound in honour to discharge the accused without hiding themselves behind the Commission.

Young India, 10-9-1919