Remembered today as the advocate of celebrated Urdu writers Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, whom he defended against charges of obscenity in their writings in 1945 in Lahore, late Hira Lal Sibal draws a vivid picture of the Lahore of the 1930s and 1940s in his forthcoming memoirs. Lahore was the city that shaped him into becoming a successful lawyer, but he had to flee it soon after the Partition of the country.
The memoirs to be published shortly were penned by him at the age of 96, two years before his death at 98 in 2012. Significantly, his last appearance in the Lahore District Courts was on August 14, 1947, facing the tribunal defending Hindus and Sikhs on the eve of the Partition. Looking back, Sibal writes: “It was the most important case in my life. Its facts and the favorable verdict are engraved in my mind indelibly because strict compliance with professional standards came into conflict with larger issues involving the right to life of the Hindus and Sikhs who were framed in that case by the police.”
Sibal states that the tribunal to adjudicate this case consisted of three members. Its president was an English barrister, while the other members were a Muslim additional sessions judge of Lahore and a Sikh additional sessions judge named Bhagat Singh. The accused were Hindu and Sikh shopkeepers of Dabbi Bazaar. The Muslims had killed and injured some Hindus and Sikhs there but the case was made out against the latter, alleging that they had attacked the Muslims in Dabbi Bazar and inflicted some injuries on them.
However, the lawyer recalls: “The case was about to start but only a few of the accused reached the court; and when I asked where the others were, the reply was that they may reach if they were not killed on the way.” Sibal says that it was being reported in newspapers that Sikhs and Hindus were being killed by the Muslims and the police were not making any effort to save them. The memoirs state that when the case was called, he appeared for the few present. The public prosecutor insisted that those present should be tried.
Sibal then recounts with passion: “I thought that time had come that I must speak with courage and with whatever force my language would muster. I was young, spirited and driven with the urge to argue with the persuasiveness that I was capable of, to call them into play and strain every sinew to save my innocent clients. Addressing the president, I reminded him that he was barrister and well aware of traditions of British courts. I invoked the responsibility of the judge to protect the rights of the accused to defend themselves.
“The young lawyer argued with energy for about twenty to thirty minutes reminding the president of the tribunal of the sanctity of the rule of law and stressing that Winston Churchill (then ex-Prime Minister of the UK) had said that whether war or peace, the rule of law would be observed. The outcome was that the president adjourned the case and the accused were allowed to leave the court.
“However, a curious situation came up when the Sikh member came to me just outside the courtroom a little later, said that the car that had to pick him up did not come, and asked me if I could arrange one for him. I somehow managed to get him a car and he thanked me because he feared for his life. The lawyer recalls, “Many years later when I was practicing in the high court of Punjab in Chandigarh, Bhagat Singh, by then retired, came to the bar room and again thanked me for helping him in those difficult times.” “In spite of it all,” Sibal adds, “my close friends were Muslims, most of my clients are Muslims, and I had decided in my mind that I would return to Lahore after peace was established and resume my practice.”
However, that was not to be and Sibal was given shelter for over two weeks by Maulvi Mohammad Ebrahim, a magistrate at Lahore. Towards the end of August 1947, Maulvi Sahib took Sibal in a convoy to Amritsar.
The Maulvi was keen to visit Amritsar as he belonged to that city and the dowry made for his daughter had been kept in his house there near Hathi Darwaza. On reaching Amritsar, a British officer told the Maulvi that Muslims were being butchered there. When he went to his house, the Maulvi found out that it had been burnt down with his daughter’s trousseau in it.
The saviour was so perturbed that he first said, “Mr Sibal, if I had known what’s happening to the Muslims and more so the women and children, I would never have brought this convoy to Amritsar.” After a while he calmed down and said, “The Partition of the country had brought out the worst in both sides and that what has happened in Lahore as well as Amritsar is most unfortunate.”