On March 18, 1922, Gandhi pleaded guilty and won a moral victory
A watercolour painting of ‘The Great Trial of Mahatma Gandhi’ displayed at the Circuit House in Ahmedabad where Gandhi was tried for sedition on March 18, 1922 (Photo: Alamy)
IT WAS EARLY 1922 and India was in the thick of the non-cooperation (asahayoga) movement that Mahatma Gandhi, who had returned to India as the prodigal son after a long stint of two decades in South Africa, had launched in 1920. He was practically catapulted to the leadership of Congress in 1919 when, in a brilliant if simple and intuitive stroke of political judgement, he orchestrated a nationwide hartal. The disturbances that followed shook the country, nowhere more so than in Amritsar, where the assault of an Englishwoman first provoked the commanding officer to institute ‘the crawling order’ until a few days later it was followed by the wanton murder of nearly 400 unarmed Indians at Jallianwala Bagh. Shortly thereafter, Gandhi led the country in a mass movement of nonviolent non-cooperation which he framed as a dharmayuddha or righteous struggle. He promised Indians swaraj in one year—but only if they adhered rigorously to the principles of satyagraha.
THE INCIDENT OF CHAURI CHAURA
An incident on February 4, 1922 at Chauri Chaura, a dusty market town in the vicinity of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, was to change altogether the narrative that had been scripted by Gandhi thus far. That day, a procession of Congress and Khilafat volunteers, feeling emboldened by their numbers and the appreciable political success of the non-cooperation movement, and similarly enraged by reports that some volunteers had been beaten up by the police, marched towards the local bazaar at Mundera and sought to effect a blockade. Warnings by the thanedar to retreat, followed by dummy rounds fired in the air, were met with jeers and taunts and, more tellingly, by the excited rejoinder that “by the grace of Gandhiji bullets had been turned into water”. When bullets replaced blanks and pierced the flesh, blood poured forth: and there is nothing quite like blood to make people bloodthirsty and incite them to revenge. The large crowd pelted the policemen with stones; then chased them into the police station, the front door of which was then bolted from the outside. Fire was set to the thana; some policemen roasted to death, others were hacked to death: 23 in all died.
This was enough for Gandhi, the de facto generalissimo of Congress. He was inclined to the view that the ‘mob’ violence at Chauri Chaura was unimpeachable evidence of the fact that the country was not yet ready for swaraj. Some in Congress thought that Gandhi tended to be dictatorial, and the next step that he took confirmed their worst suspicion; though he did not occupy the presidency of Congress, he prevailed upon the Congress Working Committee to suspend the non-cooperation movement. The decision was met with a storm of criticism: some denounced his authoritarianism, others scoffed at his poor judgement, and all bemoaned the fact that India now seemed no closer to independence than it had been before the onset of non-cooperation. But characteristically Gandhi remained firm, issuing a poignant rejoinder in Young India on February 16: “Chauri Chaura is after all an aggravated symptom. I have never imagined that there has been no violence, mental or physical, in the places where [colonial] repression is going on.” Those who could not read the signs were incapable of understanding that the gruesome violence at Chauri Chaura “shows the way India may go, if drastic precautions were not taken.”
THE ARREST AND THE TRADITION OF THE POLITICAL TRIAL
If the country was aggrieved by the withdrawal of non-cooperation, the British were doubtless relieved. To some of the British, Gandhi was a rabble-rouser and sedition-monger, albeit an unusual one—not without the reputation of a saint. He made them uneasy: they found him moralistic, a prolix voice for virtue, but for a people who were themselves intensely moralistic this was akin to the pot calling the kettle black; and though they claimed to be Christians, they recognised that Gandhi was a much better Christian than they could ever hope to be. Moreover, “the cunning bania”, as he was sometimes derided, especially by the non-official British in the country, had pronounced his loyalty to the British Empire within which he sought equal rights for Indians, and he seemed to have the capacity to mesmerise many Britons and Europeans who had sworn their allegiance to him and to the cause of Indian independence. The British reasoned that though Gandhi had lately become the leader of a movement for independence, he was still someone with whom they could dialogue.
Nevertheless, it had also become manifestly clear that a Gandhi behind bars was in every respect preferable to a Gandhi who was footloose and could galvanise the people into action. Since at least mid-1921, the British had been contemplating putting him under arrest, but British officials had been divided on the wisdom of taking that step and even more so on the timing of his arrest. Archival material, most of it still unpublished, furnishes an extraordinary tale of the protracted exchange of correspondence over several months between the Government of India, the Bombay Government, and the Secretary of State for India in London. One school of thought adhered to the view that Gandhi exercised a restraining influence and that his dominance was such that it had helped to marginalise the revolutionaries who were prepared to use violence and engage in targeted assassinations of British officials. In this view, Gandhi was to be arrested only when his freedom could no longer be tolerated. Some officials found the call for his arrest a risky proposition for other reasons: it seemed that the Mahatma, going back to his days in South Africa, always emerged from prison rejuvenated.
The audience would have been stunned; the judge must have been left speechless. What kind of madman was this who, having conceded his guilt, then invited the judge to either inflict upon him the maximum punishment permissible under the law or tender his resignation? Gandhi’s written statement was yet more powerful; it is a charter of Indian independence
The arguments for arresting Gandhi had never seemed more persuasive than when he suspended the non-cooperation movement throughout the country. His colleagues and associates in the highest echelons of the Congress leadership were unhappy and the anger among the masses was palpable. His influence seemed to be waning and the time seemed opportune for arresting him and seeking his conviction. To some officials, the time had been ripe since at least mid-1921: as one senior official in the Home Department wrote on November 24, 1921, Gandhi and the Congress Working Committee had issued “as direct and forcible a challenge” as it was in their power to do so, and “it is highly questionable whether Government can afford to refuse to take up the challenge.” Gandhi had been preaching sedition, officials argued, and the failure to arrest him was having an adverse effect on the morale of government employees, besides eroding the credibility and prestige of the government.
THE POLITICAL TRIAL IN COLONIAL INDIA
It was under these circumstances, then, that the decision to arrest Gandhi was sanctioned with the expectation that he would be brought to trial. The political trial occupied a remarkable place in the arena of state activities in colonial India. Trials lend themselves to the theatrical, just as historians and moralists have derived pedagogic use from the trials of ‘great men’ (and occasionally women). State trials were never convened without the expectation that, in the dramatic setting of the courtroom, the performance of both the state and the rebels would be received with utmost attention; and though not all trials were accompanied by fanfare, by the loud trumpeting of the triumph of justice, they were each in their own way spectacles to which the nation stood witness. British rule in India was also characterised by the bold claim that the British had instituted, uniquely in the long history of Indian civilisation, a government that adhered to the ‘rule of law’. India, wrote the jurist, historian, and colonial official Henry James Sumner Maine, was singularly “empty of law” before the arrival of the British, and British officials were nearly unanimous in adhering to the view that colonial rule rested on no greater foundation than the promise of the state’s adherence to the ‘rule of law’ and the grant of ‘law and order’ to a people who previously had known only despotism.
Indian nationalists by the early 20th century had, however, succeeded in posing a wholly unanticipated problem for the colonial state: the British represented themselves as presiding over a government instituted under the law and were now bound to give political offenders the benefit of due process under the law, but the bulk of the nationalists had trained as lawyers and some had shown themselves perfectly in command of the law and the protocols of the courtroom. When Tilak had been put on trial on charges of sedition in 1908, his mastery of English common law and juridical skills had embarrassed the prosecution and amply demonstrated that the trial was but a charade to trumpet the idea that the British were a nation characterised by the sense of justice and ‘fair play’. The risk of putting Gandhi on trial was all the greater for another reason: even as the non-cooperation movement had, the British claimed, introduced anarchy and disrespect for the law, Gandhi insisted that the idea of civil disobedience was predicated on a fundamental respect for the law even as it entailed the violation of specific laws that were clearly unjust.
Broomfield sentenced Gandhi to six years, adding that no one would be more pleased than him if the government found the opportunity to reduce his sentence
THE TRIAL OF GANDHI, OR TRIAL OF THE STATE?
Before Gandhi could be brought to trial, he had to be charged with a particular offence. As the editor of Young India, a journal published by Shankarlal Banker, Gandhi had given the colonial state material galore with which they could charge him, to cite from the chargesheet, “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”. Three articles penned by Gandhi were deemed defiantly seditious, among them ‘A Puzzle and Its Solution’, published on December 15, where Gandhi wrote in an unmistakably strident tone that “we seek arrest because the so-called freedom is slavery. We are challenging the might of this Government because we consider its activity to be wholly evil. We want to overthrow the Government. We want to compel its submission to the people’s will.” In ‘Tampering with Loyalty’ (September 29, 1921), Gandhi had offered an intolerable provocation in enjoining Indian soldiers to renounce their allegiance to the British crown: it is “sinful for anyone, either as soldier or civilian,” he wrote, “to serve this Government which has proved treacherous to the Mussulmans of India and which has been guilty of the inhumanities of the Punjab”. Gandhi claimed God on his side, and so left a Christian power without its last line of defence.
On the afternoon of March 11, 1922, Gandhi and Banker were arraigned before the magistrate; when asked to list his profession, Gandhi wrote down: “weaver and farmer”. We do not know with what countenance the clerk received this information. One is tempted to say that as Gandhi had sown the seeds of sedition, he was perhaps within his rights in characterising himself as a farmer, but we do him the injustice of failing to recognise that at his ashrams Gandhi farmed vegetables. It is in yet a more profound sense that Gandhi could well call himself a farmer: he had a deeply ecological view of the world and his abhorrence of waste points to his impulse to husband resources. With his self-ascription as a “weaver” one is similarly inclined to interpret this metaphorically, to suggest the intricate web of morality and politics that Gandhi spun around a beleaguered colonial regime. But that recognition should not obfuscate the fact that the icon of the spinning wheel was an inalienable part of Gandhi’s identity, the very soul of his life and a testament to his belief in the integrity of labour. A humble farmer and weaver, and only incidentally, it seems, the author of the doctrine of satyagraha, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, was now pitted against the might of an empire.
One week later, at noon on March 18, Gandhi was wheeled into the Circuit House at Shahi Bagh. The courtroom was full: in attendance were some of Gandhi’s closest associates in Ahmedabad and at Sabarmati Ashram, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu. Everyone “rose”, Naidu wrote, “in an act of spontaneous homage when Mahatma Gandhi entered” the courtroom. CN Broomfield, ICS, the District and Sessions Judge, presided: his engagement diary scarcely hints at the world-historical event that would unfold before him, recording only the following:
Golf before breakfast
The prosecution was conducted by the Advocate-General for the Bombay Presidency, Sir Thomas Strangman; the accused were, by their own choice, undefended. The charges were read out; when asked how they pleaded, both replied: “Guilty”. There is sometimes no keener way of contesting than refusing to contest; besides, nationalist rebels are not known to proclaim their guilt, and perhaps Gandhi had already succeeded in disarming his persecutors.
The juxtaposition of law with exploitation, of sophistry with evidence, and of jugglery with the naked eye—all this suggests a masterful command of rhetoric, the idioms of English, and philosophical reasoning, and a piercing awareness of the courtroom as a performative space. And yet, the indictment is equally characterised by the sheer simplicity of the prose and the force of direct speech
Since the defendants had pleaded guilty, the need for a lengthy trial had been obviated and Broomfield proposed to pass sentence. Strangman objected, briefly describing the circumstances that had led the government to believe that Gandhi was a seditionist who should have known that, whatever his own commitment to nonviolence, his actions and pronouncements had instigated others to violence. The charges were serious enough that the public had a right to have a full understanding of the case. The majesty of the law seemed somewhat diminished if the prosecution could not indulge in a theatrical demonstration of power. The judge, however, was equally within his rights to accept their plea, and he proceeded to do so but not without offering the accused an opportunity “to make a statement on the question of sentence”. Gandhi had brought a written statement with him, but before reading it he stated that the advocate-general had been “entirely fair” to him and had erred only in that preaching disaffection towards the existing system of government had become a passion with him “much earlier than the period stated by the advocate-general.” He knew, Gandhi told the court, that he was “playing with fire”, but he would have failed in his duty—a word that resonates insistently throughout the proceedings, ironically questioning the modern and highly overwrought discourse of ‘rights’—if he had not inspired his people to refuse “to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country”. He took responsibility for the violence—including the diabolic crime of Chauri Chaura—that had taken place and announced himself as prepared to accept “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,” Gandhi concluded his extempore presentation, “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.”
The audience would have been stunned; the judge must have been left speechless. What kind of madman was this who, having conceded his guilt, then invited the judge to either inflict upon him the maximum punishment permissible under the law or tender his resignation? Gandhi had already invited many Englishmen and women to become moral traitors to their own race, and many had accepted; and now he seemed to be prepared to advance moral treason as the sine qua non of virtuous conduct among those charged with disbursing justice throughout the Empire. The written statement that followed was yet more powerful; indeed, in its devastating indictment of British rule, it is a charter of Indian independence, a pivotal even founding document in the global history of anti-colonial resistance, and a masterwork of political prose and moral reasoning. Gandhi describes how, from being a loyal subject of the British Empire, he was transformed into a seditionist, convinced that the British connection had rendered India helpless, incapable of resisting aggression, and unable to provide for its people. “Little do they realize,” Gandhi says of well-intentioned British officials, “that the Government established by law in British India is carried on for the exploitation of the masses. No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye.” His emphasis on the British rhetoric of “fair play”; the juxtaposition of law with exploitation, and similarly of sophistry with evidence, and of jugglery with the naked eye—all this suggests a masterful command of rhetoric, the idioms of English, and philosophical reasoning, and a piercing awareness of the courtroom as a performative space. And yet, the indictment is equally characterised by the sheer simplicity of the prose and the force of direct speech, as evidenced by this sparkling line: “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.”
The law can criminalise hate speech, but it cannot make you love others.
Gandhi was inclined to the view that the ‘mob’ violence at Chauri Chaura was unimpeachable evidence that the country was not yet ready for Swaraj. Some in Congress thought that he tended to be dictatorial, and the next step that he took confirmed their worst suspicion; he prevailed upon the Congress Working Committee to suspend the Non-Cooperation Movement
Gandhi had said that he did not expect “conversion” on the part of the judge, but Broomfield was clearly moved—and more. “The law is no respecter of persons”, he stated, but he could not ignore the fact that Gandhi was “in a different category from any person” that he had ever tried or was likely to try. He could not ignore the fact that “in the eyes of millions” Gandhi was viewed as a great patriot, a great leader, indeed as “a man of high ideals and of noble and of even saintly life.” Nevertheless, as a judge, he had but one duty to perform, to judge Gandhi “as a man subject to the law” who by his own admission had violated the law. Broomfield proceeded to sentence Gandhi to six years of simple imprisonment, adding that no one would be more pleased than him if the government found in the course of events in India the opportunity to reduce his sentence. The proceedings had been marked by extraordinary civility, and the judge was applauded even as, in the words of Sarojini Naidu, “the emotion of the people burst in a storm of sorrow as a long, slow procession moved towards him [the Mahatma] in a mournful pilgrimage of farewell”. The crowd milled around Gandhi; some sobbed and fell at his feet. The reporter for The Bombay Chronicle—an English-owned newspaper firmly allied to the nationalist cause—felt that the trial of the “Greatest Man of the World” brought to mind a “moving scene recalling the sentence of Socrates, “cool and smiling” to the last moment amidst his pupils.” Spectators at the trial could have been forgiven for thinking that the state itself
had been on trial.