They still call it Warden Road. That’s the name you give Bhulabhai Desai Road if you somehow forget you’re heading to Breach Candy. The sea-hugging stretch from St Stephen’s Church to Cadbury Junction has its fair share of history and is named in the honour of the Congressman, freedom fighter and eminent lawyer Bhulabhai J Desai. The road is synonymous with the historic Breach Candy Club, the shopping establishment Amarsons and at its northern end, the Mahalaxmi Temple. Apart from the blue metal signs, no trace of Desai remains on the street after the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute gave way five decades ago to the skyscraper Akash Ganga. The institute housed theatre great Ebrahim Alkazi’s School of Dramatic Art, the working space of the artist V S Gaitonde, among others, and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Kinnara School of Music.
Desai is revered for his contribution to the freedom movement in spite of his rocky position in the Congress in 1944. He started off as a professor of English and History at Gujarat College in Ahmedabad in the early 20th century, though his ambition had always been to become a lawyer.
N H Pandia, a former editor of the Bombay Law Journal and a student of Desai at the college, lavished praise on him in the journal’s June 1946 edition. Praising Desai’s “massive intellect”, “unequalled quality in draftsmanship” and “knack of felicitous presentment”, he said Desai had a “complete mastery over law”.
Narrating Desai’s first lecture at the college, Pandia wrote that there had been a lot of excitement among first-year students. They greeted Desai with a chorus of catcalls, throughout which he stood unaffected. “Instead of the inevitable flattering and cajoling on his part, there came from Mr Desai the cold, incisive words — ‘I want to treat you as gentlemen and I expect you to treat me as one!’.”
Over the next two years, Desai saved enough to move to Bombay, where he studied for his advocate’s exam, all the time torn over giving up his secure position as professor.
M C Setalvad, India’s first Attorney General and a close friend and biographer of Desai, went into greater detail describing Desai’s fallout with the Congress in 1945, by which time he had become a prominent leader of the freedom movement.
In his biography My life, law and other things, Setalvad wrote about Desai’s secret discussions with Muslim League leader Liaquat Ali Khan in 1944 on the possibility of forming an interim government with the consensus of Hindus and Muslims at a time when most Congress leaders were imprisoned.
After those discussions became public, the Congress Working Committee disowned Desai for inking the Desai-Liaquat Ali pact. Desai was also overlooked by the party as a candidate for the central legislature. Setalvad, who was subsequently offered Desai’s seat and refused, wrote that, clearly for personal reasons, Bhulabhai was not acceptable to some of the members of the working committee.
Before long, however, the Congress turned to Desai when three soldiers of the Indian National Army were put on trial in New Delhi by the British government on charges of treason.
Desai, who had been entrusted by Mahatma Gandhi with organising a free legal aid movement throughout the country, was asked to lead the defence.
Desai, Setalvad wrote, “conducted the trail brilliantly, it gripped the public imagination and became the sole topic of conversation”, adding that, “Bhulabhai was far from well during the trial but his handling of the trial and the publicity restored his reputation.”
“The soldiers were convicted but did not receive the death sentence,” said advocate Rajan Jayakar, who curated the Bombay High Court exhibition.
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