Republic of dissent: Gandhi’s sedition trial9 min read . Updated: 25 Jan 2019, 08:49 AM IST
- A recounting of the trial in 1922 that marks the conflict between obedience of the law of the land and obedience to one’s moral duty
- Academician Harmik Vaishnav observes, “It was a trial not on the standpoint of law, but on the standpoint of morality”
NEW DELHI : The news had spread all over India that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was facing punishment for voicing people’s demand for freedom. Gandhi was charged with sedition under section 124-A for writing three politically sensitive articles in his weekly journal Young India. The charges against him were of “bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India".
The trial took place in one day—18 March, 1922 —in Ahmedabad. It wasn’t an ordinary trial. The profile of the accused, the nature of the offence, the political situation, ensured all eyes were set on what would happen at the end of the day. Because of security concerns, the Government Circuit House was fixed as the venue of the trial instead of the Sessions Court at Bhadra in the centre of the city. Only those with passes were allowed inside the premises, limiting the number of people to around 200.
At around noon, Gandhi wearing his usual white loincloth, walked to his seat, followed by Shankarlal Ghelabhai Banker, editor, printer and publisher of Young India and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. Recalling the moment, Sarojini Naidu, who was in the room, later wrote: “A convict and a criminal in the eyes of the law! Nevertheless, the entire Court rose in an act of spontaneous homage when Mahatma Gandhi entered."
As soon as Gandhi sat, Naidu added that he turned to her and said, “So you are seated near me to give me your support in case I break down." Looking around the room, he smiled and said, “This is like a family gathering and not a law court."
An Indian discontent
Gandhi wasn’t just any other political agitator, and his disillusionment wasn’t without a context. In the 1920s, particularly after the Rowlatt Act (which extended emergency measures like detention without trial), the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the imposition of martial law in Punjab, there was a large-scale discontentment among Indians. On 1 August, 1920, Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation movement, the first nation-wide mass movement against British rule.
“His (Gandhi’s) failure to move that Empire in which he had at one-time faith turned him into a civil resister against it and its unjust laws. It was a conversion born out of the womb of a deep disillusion," writes J. M. Shelat, chief justice of the high court of Gujarat in 1965, in the book Trial of Gandhiji.
Soon, sessions judge R. S. Broomsfield took his seat, and the charges were read out by the registrar. After both Gandhi and Banker pleaded guilty, the judge who wanted to immediately pronounce the judgement was stopped by Sir Thomas Strangman, the Advocate General (AG), who wanted to show that the three articles were not isolated, but formed a “part of an organized campaign". Strangman said that the accused was a man of high educational qualifications and evidently from his writings a recognized leader, and so the harm that was likely to be caused was considerable.
Addressing the court, the AG said that the court should take into account the occurrences in Bombay, Malabar and Chauri Chaura leading to “riots and murders." He said that in the articles in question “You find that non-violence is insisted upon as, an item of the campaign and of the creed" and turning to Gandhi, asked, “Of what value is it to insist on non-violence, if incessantly you preach disaffection towards the Government and hold it up as a treacherous Government, and if you openly and deliberately seek to instigate others to overthrow it?"
After the AG spoke, the Judge asked Gandhi if he had an opinion on the sentencing. Gandhi replied that he wanted to say something before reading out his statement. Gandhi began by saying that he agreed with what the AG said about him being a man of responsibility, and that he should have known the consequences of every one of his acts.
“I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth, when they understood the truth from my lips. I know that my people have sometimes gone mad. I am deeply sorry for it, and I am, therefore, here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty," Gandhi said.
Justice Shelat writes, “The similarity of attitude adopted by Socrates and Gandhiji towards the tribunals which tried them is at once manifest, for, each placed truth above law and sought the punishment which the breach of the law warranted."
Gandhi then read out his written statement, beginning with listing out how he gave the empire a chance before finally openly showing disaffection towards it. He said it was in 1893 that Gandhi, a 24-year-old freshly qualified lawyer, arrived in South Africa, and realized that he had no rights because he was an Indian. But this wasn’t when he gave up hope. Somehow the young lawyer believed in the “intrinsic" goodness of the system.
Initially Gandhi supported the British Government and laws in Africa as well as India, be it by raising Ambulance Corps during the Boer war, raising stretcher-bearer party during the Zulu revolt of 1906 or raising corps for war as per the appeal of Lord Chelmsford. All this, he did to somehow “gain a status of full equality in the Empire for all Indians".
But then, the first shock came for Gandhi—the Rowlatt Act—followed by the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.
Reading out his statement, Gandhi said: “I came to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. She has become so poor that she has little power of resisting famines….No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye….The law itself in this country has been used to serve the foreign exploiter…My experience of political cases in India leads me to the conclusion that in nine out of every ten, the condemned men were totally innocent. Their crime consisted in the love of their country…"
The prince of IPC
Calling section 124-A, the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen", Gandhi said, “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr. Banker and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime…I have studied some of the cases tried under it (section 124A) and I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section."
While Gandhi openly accepted the charges, he made sure he also put forth his reasons on why he believed that affection to such a system was a sin, and that “non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good."
“I have no personal ill-will against any single administrator, much less can I have any disaffection towards the King’s person. But I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a Government which in its totality has done more harm to- India than any previous system. India is less manly under the British rule than she ever was before. Holding such a belief, I consider it to be a sin to have affection for the system. And it has been a precious privilege for me to be able to write what I have in the various articles..."
Gandhi went on to say: “In fact, I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England by showing in non-co-operation the way out of the unnatural state in which both are living. In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. But in the past, non-cooperation has been deliberately expressed in violence to the evil-doer. I am endeavouring to show to my countrymen that violent non-cooperation only multiplies evil, and that as evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence."
“I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the judge, is either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil, and that in reality I am innocent, or to inflict upon me the severest penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country...," Gandhi said.
Lessons from the trial
Harmik Vaishnav, senior faculty at the School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gujarat, who specifically teaches the trial to his law students, says, “This trial showed the world that the British law was weak, and they were on the wrong side. It was a trial not on the standpoint of law, but on the standpoint of morality. The way he admitted to the charges, and gave logical arguments for everything, while insisting on the importance of morality is perhaps something only Gandhi could do..."
Delivering the judgment and passing a sentence of six years imprisonment, judge Broomsfield said: “The Law is no respecter of persons. Nevertheless it would be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try. It would be impossible to ignore the fact that in the eyes of millions of your countrymen, you are a great patriot and a great leader…It is my duty to judge you as a man subject to the law, who by his own admission has broken the law and committed what to an ordinary man must appear to be, grave offence against the State…. And I should like to say in doing so, that if the course of events in India should make it possible for the Government to reduce the period and release you, no one will be better pleased than I."
Gandhi, addressing the Judge, then said: “So far as the sentence itself is concerned, I certainly consider that it is as light as any judge would inflict on me, and so far as the whole proceedings are concerned, I must say that I could not have expected greater courtesy."
The tone of this trial that lasted 100 minutes was such that it didn’t seem like a trial or even an argument. All parties, the lawyers, the AG, the accused and the judge maintained the decorum of the court throughout and even though, the political situation of the country was tense, no untoward incident took place after or during the proceedings. As the judge left the court, as Naidu recalls the “slow procession moved towards him in a mournful pilgrimage of farewell," and friends and followers surrounded Gandhi—some touching his hands, others falling on his feet. Bidding everyone goodbye with smiling faces, Gandhi and Banker were taken out of the Court to the Sabarmati Jail.
Compiled and paraphrased by Ashwaq Masoodi from Justice Shelat’s book Trial of Gandhiji, and Sir Thomas Strangman’s book Indian Courts and Characters