A little after midnight, Bal Gangadhar Tilak passed away in Bombay after a brief illness exactly 100 years ago. Mahatma Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai were amongst the many leaders who were part of the funeral procession that was attended by an estimated 2,50,000 people. His death brought to an end an amazingly eventful 65-year journey that marked the beginning of a systematic struggle for the country’s freedom. This article is confined to the two trials for sedition that demonstrate how the judicial system was misused to silence the voice of freedom.
Tilak’s first trial for sedition had its origin in the famine of 1896. It is hard to believe that between 1876 and 1900, 18 famines occurred, taking a staggering 19,000,000 lives. Kesari, the weekly newspaper started by Tilak, had a series of articles that criticised the conduct of officials who insisted on collecting land tax even during a famine, and for not implementing the Famine Relief Code. Bubonic plague struck Pune in 1897, which incidentally forced the British administration to enact the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. To stem the spread of this contagious disease, repressive measures were adopted by Walter Charles Rand, who was appointed as a special duty officer. Intense resentment was also caused by the desecration of places of worship. Rand was killed by Damodar Chaphekar, who was convicted and hanged. This provoked more anger, leading to further repression. Tilak had written strong articles condemning the brutality of the measures adopted even before this murder. In addition, Tilak also wrote an article justifying the killing of Afzal Khan by Shivaji. The Anglo-Indian press bitterly criticised the British government for not taking action against Tilak.
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On July 27, 1897, Tilak was arrested and tried for sedition before the Bombay High Court. Ironically, the lawyer who secured him bail, Dinshaw Davar, became the judge who would pass a savage sentence on him 10 years later.
It is a matter of deep regret that when Tilak’s trial was about to begin, none of the leading lawyers of the Bombay HC were willing to appear for him. W C Bonnerjee, a Congress leader, Moti Lal Ghosh, the founder of the Amrit Bazar Patrika, and Rabindranath Tagore collected almost Rs 20,000 from donors and this was used to send two leading English barristers from Calcutta to appear for Tilak.
The trial before Justice Arthur Strachey was a farce. Strachey’s address to the jury was deplorable and it is almost unbelievable that an article on the killing of Afzal Khan by Shivaji could be part of the foundation of a case of sedition. Even more bizarre was Strachey’s ruling that “disaffection” which constitutes the offence of sedition, under section 124A of the IPC, was simply “the absence of affection”. He sentenced Tilak to 18 months’ imprisonment. While the Anglo-Indian press gloated over his conviction, the ruling was criticised in England. One newspaper wrote that there was hardly any evidence that would justify such a severe sentence and observed that if criticism was to be punished as sedition, “the government is on a perilous path”. The British press noted that Strachey’s interpretation of “disaffection” would be unacceptable in England.
The partition of Bengal and the killing of two English women by a bomb hurled by Khudiram Bose led to large-scale repression. The Anglo-Indian press attacked Tilak for provoking the youth to engage in violent protests. Once again, Tilak wrote several articles in Kesari and asked the government to stop repressing freedom. He pointed out that the best way to stop violence and bombs was to grant self-rule to the people of India and, in one article, criticised the Explosives Act. Once again, Tilak was arrested in June 1908 and charged with sedition. Initially, M A Jinnah appeared for Tilak and applied for bail, but this was rejected by Justice Davar, who had appeared for Tilak in 1897.
This second trial was once again a mere formality. Tilak argued his own case. He pointed out that the English translation of his articles had serious errors and asked for a correct version, but this plea was rejected. The most shocking part of the trial was that Tilak’s residence in Pune was searched, but nothing was found except a card on which Tilak had written the names of two books on explosives. Tilak explained that when he was writing an article on the Explosives Act, he came across the names of these two books, but this card was the basis of an allegation that Tilak was manufacturing bombs.
What was regrettable was that the jury consisted of seven Englishmen/Anglo-Indians and two Indians who eventually dissented. Davar accepted the majority verdict and sentenced Tilak to six years imprisonment. His articles, according to Davar, were seething with sedition and approved the committing of murder with bombs. He concluded that Tilak’s journalism was a curse for India. Tilak responded with these immortal words: “I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent is to prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free.”
Tilak was sent to Mandalay jail in Burma and returned in 1914. Justice Davar’s judgment came in for much criticism. An important question raised was that when the High Court’s jury panel contained several Marathi-speaking Hindus, there was no explanation for their exclusion. Davar’s verdict was also criticised by several newspapers in England except for The Times, which welcomed it. One newspaper sarcastically remarked that the trial could hardly be an illustration of the impartiality of the British justice system.
Tilak’s imprisonment by invoking the law of sedition failed to suppress the freedom struggle. The two trials teach us useful lessons in dealing with public protests. A wise government would do well to ascertain the opposite viewpoint and have the grace to correct its path wherever necessary. Suppressing widespread dissent or criticism has always proved counterproductive.
The writer is a Senior Advocate practising in the Supreme Court
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