Seeking freedom fighter's pension for the past 30 years, 84-year-old Jagannath has instead been tagged as a "murderer". Perceiving it as "injustice", he had filed a writ petition in 2001 in the Punjab and Haryana high court, which has now asked the Indian authorities to obtain through the Pakistan consulate-general copies of the verdicts delivered by Gujranwala and Lahore courts before Independence, convicting him of the murder of a British woman.
Curiously, the Indian National Army veteran, who claims to have participated in the Quit India Movement, was awarded the "Tamra Patra" and an I-card recognising him as a freedom fighter by then Punjab chief minister Giani Zail Singh in 1972. One of his sons was even granted a government teacher's job out of the quota for freedom fighters, but when he applied for freedom fighter's pension, the central government rejected his claim, citing his conviction in a murder case.
Interestingly, the local administration had also been regularly inviting him to Independence Day and Republic Day functions in the capacity of a freedom fighter, but not any longer.
"Had I been a murderer, why did the then state home secretary, through a letter (10210-27-50-5465), dated October 14, 1950, order my release from Ferozepur central jail?" Jagannath asked in a choked voice while talking to HT on Sunday.
Recalling the incident, Jagannath said that he, along with some other freedom fighters, had boarded a train to Lahore in March 1943, and during the journey, they had an altercation with a British woman, Capt Heren, and her companion Noora, who had made derogatory remarks against Indians. "Unable to bear the insult of my country, I threw them out of the train," said Jagannath.
Capt Heren died on the spot and the British police arrested him in Lahore. He was sentenced to death by the Lahore sessions judge in 1946. The Gujranwala sessions judge, in March 1947, commuted the death penalty to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment.
"When we approached the Centre seeking recognition for him as a freedom fighter, the ministry of home affairs replied that my father was not entitled to freedom fighter's pension as he was a murderer and dacoit. It said the 'commission of such a heinous offence does not and cannot relate to the freedom movement'. Another letter issued by the ministry, however, stated that a register pertaining to the records of freedom fighters was missing," said Jagannath's son Rishi.
A high court bench headed by Justice Surya Kant had, on September 13, directed the Centre to invoke its diplomatic channels through the consulate-general of Pakistan to obtain copies of the courts' verdicts.
The bench said the main issue was whether Jagannath had committed the British woman's murder with the perception that "Independence could be achieved through violent means or was it simply a case of murder, with or without the motive of robbery, of a hapless woman irrespective of her nationality".
The court ordered that after going through the judgments, the Centre should reexamine the claim within six months.