The Special Courtroom of the Allahabad High Court was packed to its capacity. The front rows were occupied by a galaxy of eminent lawyers who had come from all parts of India to defend the accused in the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case, the greatest conspiracy unearthed against the British Government since the national upheaval of 1857. The lawyers who had volunteered themselves to defend the highly educated accused, numbering more than 100, included Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Mr Bhola Bhai Desai, Sir Srinivasa Iyengar, Mr B. K. Das, Mr P. L. Bannerji, Mr Asif Ali and Dr Kailash Nath Katju. The Court was presided over by the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman, assisted by Justice Young.
The case which had taken two years in the Magistrate’s Court and four in the Sessions Court was expected to last for months in the High Court. But, to the astonishment of all, the hearing of the appeal and the judgement was all over in eight days. The judgement delivered by Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman stands out as a landmark in the history of judicial administration in India. Speaking of this judgement in Federal Court case No. 1 of 1938, Mr H. J. Morgan KC, an outstanding constitutional lawyer of Britain, while delivering the Tagore Law Lectures at the Calcutta University said: “Now I have just been reading the judgement of the Federal Court at Delhi in that important case. One of those judgements stands out conspicuous and pre-eminent and may well prove to be the “Locus Classicus” of the law on the subject. It is a judgement 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 judgement of Mr Justice Sulaiman. In-depth of thought, in breadth 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.”
Shah Muhammad Sulaiman was born into a distinguished family of lawyers and scientists of Jaunpur district (U.P.). One of his ancestors was Mulla Mahmood, a notable physicist, author of Shams-i-Bazigha, and a contemporary of Newton in India. Shah Sulaiman’s father, Muhammad Usman, was a leading member of the Jaunpur Bar.
Young Sulaiman was immensely devoted to his studies. He graduated from the Allahabad University in 1906 and topped the list. He was awarded the Provincial Government Scholarship to study abroad. He joined the Cambridge University and obtained Mathematical Tripos in 1909 and Law Tripos in 1910. In 1909 he sat for the Indian Civil Service examination and was luckily not selected, otherwise, the boredom of the Civil Service would have deprived India of one of its greatest legal and scientific talents. He did not make a second attempt to appear in the Civil Service examination and prepared to be called to the Bar. He was awarded, LL.D. by the University of Dublin (Ireland) in 1910.
Shah Muhammad Sulaiman returned to India in 1911 and started his legal practice as a junior to his father in Jaunpur. In 1912, he shifted to Allahabad to practice in the High Court. Here he embarked on his meteoric career which remains unique in the annals of Indian jurisprudence. He was endowed with a proverbial memory and an extraordinary sense of understanding things. He possessed a keen eye and a rare grasp of subjects which made him successful in whatever field of activity he took part. He achieved distinction in many spheres of life and his career, in fact, is a catalog of great achievements. At Allahabad High Court where he had to compete with such legal giants as Pandit Moti Lal Nehru, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Maulvi Ghulam Mujtaba, Sir Sunder Lal, Sir Ross Alestan and Pandit Ajodhya Nath Kunzuru, he soon made his mark. The Rani of Sherkot’s case, the Bamrauli case, the Dharampur case, and the Bhilwal case, were his early legal triumphs. He impressed the English Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court so much that he was offered a seat on the Bench at an early age of 34.
Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman acted as Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court when he was 43 and at the age of 46, he was made the Permanent Chief Justice of this Court. Five years later, he was elevated to the Federal Court, “a record in the British Commonwealth and perhaps in the judicial world”. As Chief Justice, he delivered that memorable judgment in the Meerut Conspiracy Case which stands out as a landmark in the history of jurisprudence.
Sir Shah maintained the independence of the judiciary in those troubled times when the British bureaucracy was considered supreme. He never allowed the Government and the legislature to intervene or interfere with the independence of judiciary which he guarded with enviable jealousy.
Sir Shah was a versatile genius and he distinguished himself in diverse fields of human activity and different aspects of learning. He was an institution by himself. He was an outstanding educationist who took keen interest in the administration and advancement of several educational institutions where he left distinctive marks. He was founder President of several educational institutions and a member of the Courts and Executive Councils of Allahabad and Aligarh Muslim Universities for a number of years. As President of the United Provinces Educational Conference at Badaon in 1924, he revived the conference. In 1928, he presided over the All-India Muhammadan Educational Conference at Ajmer and in his address, he advocated a revolutionary and progressive change in the educational system by stressing the practical, technical, and vocational sides of education. He delivered masterly convocation addresses at the universities of Dacca, Aligarh, Hyderabad, and Agra, which are characterized by their lucidity of expression and clarity of practical thinking.
Sir Shah was elected Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University at a critical period of its history and held that post in honorary capacity with distinction. He introduced several beneficial reforms and laid down policies of far-reaching importance which extricated the University out of its financial and administrative crisis and placed it on the road to progress. He gave an impetus to education of women in the University and introduced Urdu as an independent subject in B.A. classes. He improved the finances of the University, helped execution of scheme concerning Water Works, Agricultural and the Technological Institutes. His dynamic leadership infused a healthy spirit of competition among the students in beneficial spheres of educational activity which enabled the Aligarh Muslim University to compete successfully in the All-India competitive examinations in larger numbers. He made the University a center of higher scientific research.
Sir Shah had agreed to become Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh University at a considerable inconvenience to himself. He was a Judge of the Indian Federal Court at Delhi and used to visit the University at the weekend without any remuneration. At the University he took the ordinary food served in the hostels on payment.
His association with Aligarh Muslim University gave a fresh impetus to higher scientific and historical research in this highest Muslim educational institution of India and established it on a sound footing, educationally and financially.
Sir Shah was also the President of the famous Anglo-Arabic College of Delhi for a number of years. In his inaugural address at the Hindustani Academy, Allahabad, and in his Presidential Address at the All-India Adult Educational Conference at Delhi, he dealt with the practical solution of problems facing the subcontinent in the spheres of educational activity.
Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman was a litterateur of great stature. He had a keen sense for poetry and presided over a number of All-India Poetical Symposiums. His delightful remarks, as well as his enlightened Presidential addresses at these gatherings of poets and intellectuals drawn from different parts of the country, were highly appreciated. He edited and wrote an enlightened introduction to the “Alam-e-Khiya!”, the immortal Masnavi of Shauq Qidwai. But, it is in the realm of mathematics and sciences that he has left an ineffaceable impress of his unique and versatile personality. He challenged the validity of Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity. He carried out valuable mathematical research to correct certain misconceptions and miscalculations in Newton’s Theory of Gravity and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In this, he was supported by a number of outstanding scientists from all over the world and the later observations of phenomenon justified his initial conclusions. But, unfortunately, he did not live to complete his research in the matter.
Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman as a man was much greater than Sulaiman as a scientist, judge, educationist and litterateur. He was the very incarnation of courtesy and humility. He always took precedence to pay respects to his juniors, subordinates and even to his peons. He made no distinction between the highest dignitary and a clerk who came to see him.
It was really a sight to see him embracing high dignitaries and poor peons alike, on the Eid Day and personally serving sweets to them. He followed the injunctions of the Prophet of Islam about the equality of man, both in letter and spirit.
Sir Shah breathed his last after a brief illness, on March 13, 1941, at Delhi at the prime of his achievements. He was only 52. His irreparable loss was mourned all over India and in many foreign countries. A large number of mourners, including Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sir Muhammad Yaqub, and Sir Akbar Hydri accompanied his funeral. He was buried at Nizamuddin.