The dissenting Indian

Last Updated : 14 August 2010, 12:49 IST
Last Updated : 14 August 2010, 12:49 IST

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The second World War ended at the armistice of 14 August,  1945,  when Japan surrendered after the stunning loss of 21 lakh military personnel.

Japan honours them very devotedly and the relics of nearly two-and-a-half million Japanese war heroes, who died since 1879 are kept at the Japanese National Hero Memorial known as Yasukuni Jinja in Central Tokyo and more than 8 million Japanese visit  the  shrine each year.

But to discover that one of these memorial plaques is for an Indian,  was surprising. It was then, that my Japanese companion solemnly told me that there are only three Indians, whom the Japanese revere. Lord Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Justice Radha Binod Pal.

I could fathom the reverence for the first two, but how did an Indian judicial officer figure in a Japanese Valhalla?  I went to stand in silence near the memorial plaque of Justice Radha Binod Pal (  1886- 1967) and later resurrected his history from Indian and Japanese sources.                     

The War had ended in utter ruin for Japan in 1945. The Allies had decided to try the wartime leaders as criminals via a Tribunal. The trials also differed in that, the judgment against the war criminals was not unanimous. The hearings having  been completed by 1948, the judges gathered around to share their opinions. On November 12, 1948, the former Prime Minister of Japan, Hideki Tojo, and 24 others were sentenced to death for war crimes by the Tribunal.

“Guilty,” pronounced one judge after another, until a voice thundered, “Not Guilty!”
The disbelieving gasps came first and then came the shocked silence and one could hear a needle drop. That voice of dissent belonged to Justice Radha Binod Pal ( 1886 – 1967). A grateful Japan has not forgotten this famous Judge.

Radha Binod Pal believed that the Tokyo Trial was incapable of passing a just sentence. According to him, the trial was  about the moral subjugation of the vanquished by the victorious and such proceedings, even if clothed in the garb of law, resulted in only placating those still hungering for vengeance.

With his lone dissenting voice,  he referred to the trial as a “sham employment of the legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge.” While he fully acknowledged Japan’s war atrocities — including the Nanjing massacre of 1931  — he said they were covered in the  class  B and C class C trials, and not in  this War Criminal Trial which is known as Class A.

To understand what so moved Justice Pal, one needs to know his background. He was a Bengali, born in 1886 when India was still very much a British colony. An event which stirred his political consciousness was the partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India. This  sowed in Pal’s mind, a distaste for imperialism, which was further strengthened  by the Amritsar massacre in 1919, and Gandhi’s non-violent non- cooperation culminating in his “Quit India”campaign of 1942.

This was the attitude that laced Pal’.'s refusal to go along with the unanimous decision of the original 10 judges, who had arrived two months earlier, to rule out dissenting opinions and publish one majority opinion.

In fact, one account has it that Pal expressed a desire to voice a dissenting verdict from the very beginning. It is little wonder, then, that Pal is reported to have dict from the beginning and bowed to the  Japanese defendants each time he entered the court, and later  visited the prisoners in Sugamo and praised them for what they had done for their country.

It is even said that Hideki Tojo the former Prime Minister of Japan and the chief accused  left a haiku written in Pal’s honour before  going to the gallows. All in all, we can see that it was through the prism of Pan-Asianism that Pal viewed the proceedings of the International Tribunal.

Many of Japan’s nationalist leaders and thinkers have long upheld  Pal as a hero, using his dissenting opinion at the Tokyo trials to argue that Japan did not wage a war of aggression in Asia. 

Following the war-crimes trials, he was elected to the United Nations’ International Law Commission, where he served from 1952 to  1966. In  1966, Pal  visited Japan and said that he had admired Japan from a young age for being the only Asian nation that “stood up against the West.”

In 1966 during Pal’s  visit, the Emperor of Japan conferred on him  the First Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasures, Japan’s greatest civilian honour. Justice Pal’s dissent is frequently mentioned by Indian diplomats and political leaders in the context of Indo-Japanese friendship and solidarity. In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made these  remarks at a banquet in New Delhi in honour of the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi: “The dissenting judgement of Justice Radhabinod Pal is well-known to the Japanese people and will always symbolise the affection and regard  India has  for your country.”

Later in 2006, Singh, made a speech in the Japanese Parliament, where he  stated: “The principled judgment of Justice Radhabinod Pal after the War is remembered even today in Japan. These events reflect the depth of our friendship and the fact that we have stood by each other at critical moments in our history.”

Pal is revered by Japanese nationalists and a monument dedicated to him stands on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine. The monument was erected after Pal’s death. Further a memorial known as  the Pal-Shimonaka Memorial Hall was raised in Hakone.

Justice Pal’s son Prosanto along with his wife, Minati were invited to Kyoto in Japan as the guests of honour to inaugurate a statue of  Justice Pal in the hall.  Prosanto donated to the Memorial, the pen with which his father had signed the dissenting judgment in 1948.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a visit to India in 2007, paid tribute to Pal  in a speech to the Indian Parliament in New Delhi and then travelled to Kolkata to meet the judge’s 81-year-old son. Justice Pal’s son Prasanto Pal died in 2009 at the age of 83.

As per his Will, his residence at Dover lane, Kolkata will be converted into an historical library named after  Justice Radha Binod Pal. The archives to be preserved at the house-turned into museum include Radha Binod Pal’s dissenting judgment, related documents, photographs of the legendary judge with the then Prime Minister of Japan, images of the events following the historic judgment and journals written by  Pal himself.  Indeed, this  story about human empathy  is  worth preserving for posterity.

Published 14 August 2010, 12:49 IST

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