If ever we reverse course and attain to a degree of sanity (an expectation unwarranted by recent history), March 18 will surely be celebrated as one of the most important anniversaries in our calendar.
On March 18, 1922, Mahatma Gandhi addressed the courtroom of the District and Sessions Judge, Ahmedabad, India. He was being charged with “bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India”, the offences being in three articles published in Young India (Gandhi’s journal).
When, after the charges were read out, Judge CN Broomfield asked Mahatma Gandhi how he would plead, he replied, “I plead guilty to all the charges”.
The prosecuting counsel, JT Strangman, insisted that the judge take into account “the occurrences in Bombay, Malabar and Chauri Chaura, leading to rioting and murder. Mr. Strangman stated that “in (Gandhi’s) 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?”
Gandhi’s statement in reply (after having pleaded guilty) is a timeless classic, ranked by many as equal in tone, wisdom and eloquence to Socrates’ statement before his accusers over 2000 years before.
Before we study Gandhi’s answer, however, it is instructive and necessary to survey the events leading up to the trial.
When Gandhi’s Satyagraha (non-violent, non-cooperation) movement was in full swing in 1921-22, a group of non-violent protesters was beaten up by some policemen in the small town of Chauri Chaura in Northern India. Such beatings were scarcely uncommon, but the instructions to the satyagrahis (protesters) was very clear — they would take the beatings but not respond in kind.
For whatever reason, in this instance the protesters were provoked enough to chase the policemen who, finding they were outnumbered, locked themselves in their police station. The crowd then set fire to the police station, killing 22 policement.
Gandhi, without even consulting with the Congress Working Committee, called off the national civil disobedience movement. He took personal responsibility for the atrocity. In doing so he earned the criticism (and the wrath, in some cases) of many of his associates, who believed this was a small blot on an otherwise peaceful movement. Besides, many felt that the momentum was so much in favor of the freedom fighters that but for Gandhi’s precipitate action, freedom would have been theirs by year end.
But Gandhi was neither an Arafat nor a Sharon. He genuinely believed that a freedom won by bad means would be a bad freedom. He has been proved right by every other country freed from colonialism by adopting any means possible (Indonesia, Kenya, Algeria, to name a few). “The guns that are used against the British”, Gandhi once said, referring to those Indian freedom fighters who saw assassination of British officials as a reasonable retort to British oppression, “will tomorrow be turned against Indians”. The need to build a polity where the discourse of ideas, not the discharge of weapons, would win the day, was evident to Gandhi, though not to impatient but shortsighted hotheads across the country. Gandhi wrote, “God has been abundantly kind to me. He had warned me that there is not yet in India that truthful and non-violent atmosphere which can justify mass disobedience which can be described as civil, which means gentle, truthful, humble, knowing, wilful yet loving, never criminal and hateful. God spoke clearly through Chauri Chaura.”
After he had withdrawn the movement, the British Government ordered his arrest. That was what the trial was about. Now to Gandhi’s statement, portions excerpted below:
“…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.”
“…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 Chuara 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. 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 except 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.”
“…I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggressor if she wanted to engage, in an armed conflict with him. So much is this the case that some of our best men consider that India must take generations, before she can achieve Dominion Status. She has become so poor that she has little power of resisting faminies. Before the British advent India spun and wove in her millions of cottages, just the supplement she needed for adding to her meagre agricultural resources. This cottage industry, so vital for India’s existence, has been ruined by incredibly heartless and inhuman processes as described by English witnesses. Little do town dwellers know how the semi-starved masses of India are slowly sinking to lifelessness. Little do they know that their miserable comfort represents the brokerage they get for their work they do for the foreign exploiter, that the profits and the brokerage are sucked from the masses. Little do they realize that the Government established by law in British India is carried on for this 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. I have no doubt whatsoever that both England and the town dweller of India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity, which is perhaps unequalled in history. The law itself in this country has been used to serve the foreign exploiter. My unbiased examination of the Punjab Marital Law cases has led me to believe that at least ninety-five per cent of convictions were wholly bad. My experience of political cases in India leads me to the conclusion, in nine out of every ten, the condemned men were totally innocent. Their crime consisted in the love of their country. In ninety-nine cases out of hundred, justice has been denied to Indians as against Europeans in the courts of India. This is not an exaggerated picture. It is the experience of almost every Indian who has had anything to do with such cases. In my opinion, the administration of the law is thus prostituted, consciously or unconsciously, for the benefit of the exploiter.
“…In fact, I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England by showing in non-co-operation the way out of the unnatural state in which both are living. In my opinion, non-co-operation 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-co-operation only multiples evil, and that as 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-co-operation 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 yourselves 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 assisting to administer are good for the people of this country, and that my activity is, therefore, injurious to the common weal.”
That the atrocity at Chauri Chaura happened despite Gandhi’s efforts to keep the movement peaceful, that such misfirings were rare in a huge national movement involving hundreds of thousands, made no difference to Gandhi. He took total responsibility as the leader of the movement, and staked his entire career upon it. Much as he believed in non-violence, his action here, I believe, was as much about orienting the movement’s sights in a highly visible manner.
One of the main tasks of leadership is to set standards. Every act of a leader does so, consciously or otherwise. Every act of compromise, hidden under some convenient excuse, in the end must lower the standards for all. The fact that not one single statesman today seeks to set standards shows why a Gandhi is rare. But it goes beyond that — far from setting standards, no politician or leader today is even embarrassed by shirking responsibility. And we are so used to this that we hardly notice it any more. So it is Bush continues to defend the attack on Iraq. On the other side, does anyone expect Kerry to say, “Yes, I voted for the Iraq resolution, because I was afraid of Bush’s popularity. I should have sided with Sens. Robert Byrd and Paul Sarbanes to postpone the vote till after the 2002 election. But I lacked the courage then.” Get real. Nor is this an affliction of American politicians alone. India’s Vajpayee will never take responsibility for the Gujarat Carnage, just as Pakistan’s Musharraf will not for the nuclear bazaar run from his (country’s) basement. King Fahd will not accept the blame for 15 of his people causing the world to turn upside down. Nor will Putin for the daily killings in Chechnya.
Stopping the non-cooperation movement following Chauri Chaura was one of Gandhi’s most significant acts — a cleansing of the body politic, in effect. Years later, despite several heapings of criticism, from being called a confused man to being called a British lackey, he did not waver on the correctness of the decision. Writing in 1928, he said, “[to] this date I have felt that I have served the country by calling off the non-co-operation movement. I am confident that history will look upon it as a form of perfect satyagraha and not as an act of cowardice.”
Eighty two years later, after innumerable instances of idealism degenerating into senseless violence, Gandhi’s good sense (and sense of good) stands vindicated.