When Gandhi stood trial for sedition
On the occasion of the centennial birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Hindustan Times published a special supplement on October 2, 1969, which had essays by political thinkers, eminent journalists, Gandhians and writers. Fifty years on, we republish a piece from the supplement titled ‘Statement at the great trial of 1922’, which details the events of the year when the Father of the Nation was tried under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code — the sedition charge — for causing disaffection against the colonial government. The first part of this article offers a report of the trial. The second part is Gandhi’s oral submission. Gandhi also read out a written statement in court. The original piece has been edited for brevity:
The historical trial of Mahatma Gandhi and Shri Shankarlal Ghelabhai Banker, editor, and printer and publisher respectively of Young India, on charges under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code was held on Saturday, 18th March, 1922, before Mr C. N. Broomfield. J.CS., District and Sessions Judge, Ahmedabad.
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J. T. Strangman, Advocate-General, with Rao Bahadur Girdhartal Uttamram, Public Prosecutor of Ahmedabad, appeared for the Crown. Mr A. C. Wild, Remembrancer of Legal Affairs, was also present. Mahatma Gandhi and Shri Shankarial Banker were undefended. Among the members of the public who were present on the occasion were: Kasturba Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Pandit M. M. Malaviya, Shri N. C. Kelkar, Smt J. B. Petit and Smt Anasuyabahen Sarabhai.
The Judge, who took his seat at 12 noon, said that there was a slight mistake in the charges framed, which he corrected. The charges were then read out by the Registrar. These charges were of “bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India, and thereby committing offences punishable under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code,” the offences being in three articles published in Young India of September 29 and December 15 of 1921 and February 23 of 1922. The offending articles were then read out: The first of them was, “Tampering with Loyalty”; the second, “The Puzzle and its Solution” and the last, “Shaking the Manes.”
The Judge said that the law required that the charges should not only be read out but explained. In this case it would not be necessary for him to say much by way of explanation. The charge of each case was that of bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India. Both the accused were charged with the three offences under Section 124A, contained in the articles read out, written by Mahatma Gandhi and printed by Shri Banker.
The charges having been read out, the Judge called upon the accused to plead to the charges. He asked Gandhiji whether he pleaded guilty or claimed to be tried.
Gandhiji said: “I plead guilty to all the charges. I observe that the King’s name has been omitted from the charge, and it has been properly omitted.” The Judge asked Shri Banker the same question and he too readily pleaded guilty.
The Judge wished to give his verdict immediately after Gandhiji had pleaded guilty, but Sir Strangman insisted that the procedure should be carried out in full. The Advocate-General requested the Judge to take into account “the occurrences in Bombay, Malabar and Chauri Chaura, leading to rioting and murder.” He admitted, indeed, that ‘ in these articles you find that non-violence is insisted upon as an item of the campaign and of the creed,” but he added “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?” These were the circumstances which he asked the Judge to take into account in passing sentence on the accused.
Court: Mr Gandhi, do you wish to make any statement on the question of sentence?
Gandhiji: I would like to make a statement.
Court: Could you give me a writing to put it on record?
Gandhiji: I shall give it so soon as I finish it.
Gandhi then made an oral statement (...)
“Before I read this statement I would like to state that I entirely endorse the learned Advocate-General’s remarks in connection with my humble self. I think that he was entirely fair to me in all the statements that he has made, because it is very true and I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me, and the Advocate-General is entirely in the right when he says that my preaching of disaffection did not commence with my connection with Young India but that it commenced much earlier, and in the statement that I am about to read. it will be my painful duty to admit before this court that it commenced much earlier than the period stated by the Advocate-General.
It is a painful duty with me but I have to discharge that duty knowing the responsibility that rests upon my shoulders, and I wish to endorse all the blame that the learned Advocate-General has thrown on my shoulders in connection with the Bombay occurrences, Madras occurrences and the Chauri Chaura occurrences. Thinking over these things deeply and sleeping over them night after night, it is impossible for me to dissociate myself from the diabolical crimes of Chauri Chaura or the mad outrages of Bombay.
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He is quite right when he says that as a man of responsibility, a man having received a fair share of education, having had a fair share of experience of this world, I should have known the consequences of every one of my acts. I know them. I knew that I was playing with fire. I ran the risk and if I was set free I would still do the same. I have felt it this morning that I would have failed in my duty, if I did not say what I said here just now. I wanted to avoid violence. Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an 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. I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit 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, as I am going to say in my statement, either to resign your post, or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and law you are assisting to administer are good for the people. I do not expect that kind of conversion. But by the time I have finished with my statement you will have a glimpse of what is raging within my breast to run this maddest risk which a sane man can run.”
He then read out the written statement:
“I owe it perhaps to the Indian public and to the public in England, to placate which this prosecution is mainly taken up, that I should explain why from a staunch loyalist and co-operator, I have become an uncompromising disaffectionist and non co-operator. To the court, too, 1 should say why I plead guilty to the charge of promoting disaffection towards the Government established by law in India.
My public life began in 1893 in South Africa in troubled weather. My first contact with British authority in that country was not of a happy character. I discovered that as a man and an Indian, I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian. But I was not baffled. I thought that this treatment of Indians was as excrescence upon a system that was intrinsically and mainly good. I gave the Government my voluntary and hearty co-operation, criticising it freely where I felt it was faulty but never wishing its destruction. Consequently, when the existence of the Empire was threatened in 1899 by the Boer challenge, I offered my services to it, raised a volunteer ambulance corps and served at several actions that took place for the relief of Ladysmith (...)
The first shock came in the shape of the Rowlatt Act, a law designed to rob the people of all real freedom. I felt called upon to lead an intensive agitation against it. Then followed the Punjab horrors beginning with the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh and culminating in crawling orders, public floggings and other indescribable humiliations. I discovered too that the plighted word of the Prime Minister to the Musalmans of India regarding the integrity of Turkey and the holy places of Islam was not likely to be fulfilled. But in spite of the forebodings and the grave warnings of friends, at the Amritsar Congress in 1919, I fought for cooperation and working of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, hoping that the Prime Minister would redeem his promise to the Indian Musalmans, that the Punjab wound would be healed, and that the reforms, inadequate and unsatisfactory though they were, marked a new era of hope in the life of India. But all that hope was shattered.” (...)
In fact I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England by showing in non-cooperation the way out of the unnatural state in which both are living. In my opinion non cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good. But in the past non co-operation has been deliberately expressed in violence to the evil doer. I am endeavoring to show to my countrymen that violent non-cooperation only multiplies evil and that an evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence. Non violence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for non-cooperation with evil. I am here therefore to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you the judge and the assessors is either to resign your posts 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 on me the severest penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are good for the people of this country and that my activity is therefore injurious to the common wealth.”