When Mahatma Gandhi pleaded guilty

When Mahatma Gandhi pleaded guilty

It was in the heat of March 1922 in the court of sessions judge C N Broomsfield

Mahatma Gandhi statue in Mumbai. Credit: AFP.

When Mahatma Gandhi voluntarily pleaded guilty to the sedition charges framed against him for “attempting to bring into hatred or contempt, or exciting or attempting to excite, disaffection toward His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India,” the entire world realised how guilty the imperialist British government was.

It was in the heat of March 1922 in the court of sessions judge C N Broomsfield that advocate-general (A-G) Thomas Strangman brought these charges to prosecute Gandhi. The A-G said that a highly educated and recognised leader like Gandhi had in his writings in Young India aimed at a conspiracy against the British government in India. But while making his case, the voice of the A-G was wavering. He sat down, looking at the ceiling, when Gandhi declared that “the A-G was entirely fair to me in all the statements that he has made, because it is very true, and I have no desire to conceal the fact, that to preach disaffection toward the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me.”

Gandhi was charged despite his calling off the civil disobedience campaign after the Chauri Chaura incident as well as some violence in Bombay.

But Gandhi had already sown the seed of freedom and shown his indomitable spirit to shake up the British empire. The ‘Mahatma’ evolved through his years in South Africa. General Smutt, who had imprisoned him, called him a ‘Man of God’ and is said to have wept when Gandhi left South Africa. This was also an epoch-making event -- that sensible good men among the British were feeling guilty of illegally holding India and looting its wealth, though many of them had succumbed to the temptations of empire and later to Churchillian megalomania. This trial of the seditious, skeletal, half-naked, contemptuous Gandhi would ultimately be the beginning of the end of the exploitative British empire.

The courage shown by Gandhi in the trial is possible only for persons with divinity embedded within and who do not care for anything except the truth.

Gandhi told the judge, “The only course open to you, Mr Judge, is either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people.”
Gandhi said that while he was ready to cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that could be inflicted upon him, “I wanted to avoid violence…Non-violence is the first article of my creed. But I had to make my choice.”

Gandhi said that while in South Africa, he fought not only for the rights of the Indians but raised the Ambulance Corps in Keddah during the Boer War and later during the Zulu Uprising. But though he cooperated with the South African government, in India he had to witness the cruelty of the Rowlatt Act, the hypocrisy of Montague-Chelmsford reforms and later, the ruthless, bloody massacre of helpless and innocent men, women and children at Jallianwala Bagh. What more cruelty would have to witness, he asked.

He had also seen the cottage industry of textiles ruined by incredibly heartless and inhuman processes and the semi-starved masses of India were slowly sinking into lifelessness in the hands of foreign exploiters.

Gandhi said he was, “privileged to be tried under Section 124-A of Indian Penal Code, under which even the great patriot Lokmanya Tilak, who declared in the open court that “freedom is my birth right,” had been found guilty. But, he said, he had never broken “the law of God.”

The judge sentenced Gandhi to six years’ simple imprisonment but said, “If the government reduces the period and releases you, no one will be better pleased than I.” This was a trial that could be compared with the trial of Socrates.

Later, when Gandhi was arrested several times, he was not allowed to make any statements as the British were afraid of letting him speak. Winston Churchill and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, for whom Gandhi was anathema as both disliked his very sight -- half-clad, wearing chappals -- secretly wished for Gandhi’s death. They thought that he would die if he fasted for 21 days as he had vowed to, but he did not.

Gandhi, with his several experiments with truth, and ultimately becoming the personification of nirbhaya [fearlessness] represented the conscience of millions and millions of Indians and the world at large.
The British Viceroys could not withstand the upsurge of the masses in support of Gandhi and Churchill himself had to bow to the pressure from US President Roosevelt to release Gandhi from prison during the Second World War, when Gandhi launched the Quit India movement.

Gandhi’s statements in the famous 1922 sedition trial shook dictatorial regimes, but how sad would he have been to witness what is happening in India today – that the Indian Penal Code still has Section 124-A, enacted in 1860 under the British Raj, and Indian citizens protesting against the government of the day are being indiscriminately and arbitrarily booked under the sedition law and dragged into jails.

Every political party professes that it is for democracy, but they all seem to have conveniently forgotten to remove this draconian section or even bring a suitable amendment to it so that our democracy is not subject to the whims and fancies of the rulers of the day.

Gandhi is remembered all over the world today, even by cricketers like David Warner. It is an unpardonable insult to our own great culture and heritage and our democracy that our own society has more or less forgotten him and the ideals he stood for. Failure to return to those ideals will turn India into a banana republic. On the day of his martyrdom, let’s hope and pray that that does not happen to the nation he so loved.

(The writer is a former principal of Seshadripuram College and a former vice president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee)