Prashant Bhushan’s case brings to mind the sedition case against Lokmanya Tilak and how it influenced the Indian freedom movement against the British empire.
Prashant Bhushan’s statement after the Supreme Court granted him a two to three day concession to reconsider his tweets has left the Apex court with little choice. They are faced with a choice as to whether to punish him with a monetary fine or with imprisonment. Monetary punishment will mostly be a symbolic act as finances are not a problem for Prashant Bhushan. Not only is he a well to do legal practitioner, but his followers can also band together to collect the necessary sum to deposit in the treasury of the Supreme Court. If they do go down that route, each of the contributors could proudly claim to be a ‘Prashant Bhushan’, standing up to the mighty judiciary. The honourable Supreme Court should evaluate whether such a scenario could be considered as contempt or respect for the court.
The wise judges should also keep in mind the possibility that Bhushan may refuse to pay the fine. After all, the person whom he quoted in his statement of 20th August had refused to pay the bail bond to the court. Not that M K Gandhi was a pauper or that his supporters were not generous enough to collect the bail amount for him! However, Gandhi wanted to take on the judiciary to galvanize public support against the British rule. He had taken a clue from his political guru Bal Gangadhar Tilak, whose political legacy he carried forward since 1st August 1920, the day that Tilak sadly succumbed to his illnesses.
Tilak, popularly known as Lokmanya (recognised by people) was the tallest leader of the freedom movement until Gandhi succeeded him. What roused Tilak to the stature of national leader was a sedition case that was filed against him in the Bombay High Court in 1908. It was probably the first case and one of the top cases prior to 1947 that generated immense public interest all over India.
The sedition case against Lokmanya Tilak was discussed in the public to the extent that the judge overseeing the case had to caution the jury not to be carried away by hearsay. Judge J Davak told the 9-member jury in the court,
“I have no doubt that this case has been discussed before this by your friends, and by yourselves and I think the accused must often have been spoken of in your hearing by your friends and others. But need I tell you-I feel that I need not tell you-that it is your duty to confine the consideration of the questions that are submitted to you in this case entirely to what you have heard and read within the four corners of this room.”
Lokmanya Tilak, on his part, used the proceedings to generate public interest in it. He spoke for not less than 21 hours in total in the Bombay High Court of the then Imperial Majesty pleading not guilty. Tilak brilliantly built up his defences on four grounds. One, he argued the case to defend the freedom of the press in India. The sedition case against him was due to his editorials in his own Marathi daily Kesari. He argued for the rights of journalists and writers to express their opinions. Two, he maintained that nothing he wrote qualified as sedition, as he had not indulged in any violent activities and his writings had not resulted in the inciting of mobs against the government. Three, Tilak claimed to merely be descriptive of his reading of the situation and his prophecies regarding where it would end up. In his articles, he wrote that the apathy of the British government was resulting in the alienation of the Indian people. He also wrote that only bombs compelled the British government to initiate home rule in Ireland and forced the Tzar of Russia to begin the reforms in Duma. Four, he pointed out procedural lapses, particularly gaps in the translation of his Marathi articles into English. In fact, the court had to summon a professional translator, Mr. Joshi, to verify the translation, and Tilak subjected him to a long cross-examination in the court room. Finally, Justice J Davak had to ask his jury members,
“The accused (Mr. Tilak) has told you to accept his translation of certain words and expressions and I say, accept, for the purposes of this case, all his corrections. For instance, for ‘sorrow’ say, ‘pain,’ for ‘white’ say ‘English,’ for ‘perversity’ say ‘stubbornness, ‘for ‘extraordinary’ say ‘strange,’ for ‘madcap’ say ‘fanatic,’ for (sic)”, say, ‘oppressive official class’ and so on.”
Tilak’s arguments had the power to confuse the jury members. Therefore, Judge J Davak told the jury categorically,
“Well, gentlemen, how are we sitting here as Judge and Jury to decide whether the writing of the accused has excited or is calculated to excite feelings of hatred, contempt, ill-will, enmity and disloyalty against Government. Is it possible to prove that by evidence? It is impossible for the prosecution in a case of this kind to prove by actual evidence as to whether if the seed is sown it has fructified or not. Therefore, the true test that you have to apply is to look at the various articles that are placed before you and judge of them as a whole and judge what effect they produce on your minds in the first instance, judge whether they are calculated to produce feelings of hatred, contempt, disloyalty, enmity towards the Government in the mind of the readers of those articles.”
Obviously, the jury members considered Lokmanya Tilak’s writing to be extremely offensive to the prestige of the Empire amongst its subjects, mainly amongst Indians. But not unanimously! Tilak was declared guilty by a majority of 7 to 2 and sentenced to a total of 6 years of imprisonment in Mandalay, Burma. The majority of the jury had fallen prey to the impressions created by Justice J Davak as he maintained that not only inciting violence and unrest but propagating contempt against the government could be tantamount to sedition. Justice J Davak said, “One thing you must keep carefully before your minds. Violence, disorders, murders, cannot take place by the hand of the man who does not entertain feelings of contempt, hatred, disloyalty and violent enmity towards those that are responsible for the order and good Government of the country. If you have disorders, if you have violence, if you have murders, they are the acts of people who bear hatred towards the ruling class and entertain feelings of contempt for those whose duty it is to preserve peace and order in the land. If they had proper respect for Government, if they had proper feelings for the people responsible for the safety of property and life and limbs of the subjects, if they had those feelings in them there would be no disorder, there would be no violence, no trouble, and no bomb throwing.”
However, the imperial prestige suffered a huge blow, perhaps the biggest prior to the Jalianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. The contempt against the British government increased manifold amongst the people. The sentencing of Tilak to 6 years imprisonment did not generate respect for the British government, but instead added to the unrest, resulting in the creation of a fertile ground for agitations. It even caused evolutionaries like Khudiram Bose and Bhagat Singh to lead the revolts that the accused-held-guilty predicted through his writings. The British judiciary did not realise that they were shooting the messenger. Mahatma Gandhi certainly, and perhaps Bhagat Singh too, learnt the power of standing up to the judiciary. The sedition case against Lokmanya Tilak irrevocably altered the British empire, after which it could never stand firm on its feet to maintain the kingdom on which sun would allegedly never set.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
22nd Aug 2020
Read this article published in Asiaville on 22nd Aug 2020