Changing Perspective of Nationalism in British Official Documents

Abstract : The paper examines the official documents of the Raj to investigate the structure of feelings of the British colonisers at any given point in time during their occupation of India. A limited scrutiny of British official communication in connection with the governance of India, in the period preceding and following 1921 when Gandhi assumed the leadership of Indian National Congress, have afforded certain insights into the official reaction to the national movement, which is here interpreted as a discernible shift in the response of British officialdom to nationalism in colonial India once Gandhi assume charge of the movement.

Keywords: Gandhi, British colonisers, British official communication, Indian National Congress, national movement, imperial enterprise, colonial apparatus, colonial authority, sedition act, legal system, colonial discourse, political philosophy, modern civilisation, ideological interpretation, identity claims, superior / inferior identity

The concern of this paper is with the impact of Gandhi’s ideological intervention into the politics of national movement and on the British authorities. There emerges from the documents indications of an ideological dilemma in the coloniser which is symptomatic of an ambivalence in his perception of both his own identity and his claims of superiority for his culture which, he begins to suspect, were constructions informed by the compulsions of the imperial enterprise.

The purpose of this paper is to show that the official documents of the Raj will yield surprise results to a researcher conducting an investigation into the structure of feelings of the British colonisers at any given point in time during their occupation of India. The documents are as much a repository of information as other forms of texts which, hitherto, were the staple fare of those who have tried to plumb the minds of that category of people who inhabited the most salient site of modernity, namely, the British Imperial project in India which grew from strength to

strength from the 17th century and got, by the end of the 19th century, firmly entrenched into the British consciousness.

A limited scrutiny that I undertook of British official communication in connection with the governance of India, in the period preceding and following 1921 when Gandhi assumed the leadership of Indian National Congress, have afforded certain insights into the official reaction to the national movement, which I interpret as a discernible shift in the response of British officialdom to nationalism in colonial India once Gandhi took over the movement. The nationalist aspirations, hitherto labeled as seditious, were grudgingly accorded certain legitimacy during the Gandhian phase. The transformation of the Indian National Congress from an organisation preoccupied with the narrow interests of an anglicised elite group to a socially concerned mass organisation has, no doubt, contributed to this mutation in the coloniser’s perception of the freedom movement. My concern, however, is with the impact of Gandhi’s ideological intervention into the politics of national movement, on the British authorities. There emerges from the documents indications of an ideological dilemma in the coloniser which, I presume, is symptomatic of ambivalence in his perception of both his own identity and his claims of superiority for his culture which, he begins to suspect, were constructions informed by the compulsions of the imperial enterprise.

I have made an effort to analyze what it is about the Gandhi phenomenon that destabilised, if it did, the authority of the colonial discourse about India. Can it be interpreted in terms of the process of the psychological and ideological decolonisation of the coloniser?

My search for the answers to this question caused me, inevitably, to focus on the two players in this colonial performative act – the colonial apparatus and Gandhi. In the first part of this paper, this issue is debated. The second half explores how the aforementioned documents can be subjected to a synchronic and diachronic analysis to trace the process of the weakening of the imperial machinery in India.

Two episodes that can be viewed as subversive intervention of Gandhi or Gandhism in the colonial site are 1. Gandhi’s South African experiment with Satyagraha to contest the foundational racial thinking implicit in the concept of colonisation and 2. The publication in 1908 of

Hind Swaraj which puts not just the Empire and Europe, but modernity itself in the dock. Acknowledged by Gandhi as his manifesto, the Hind Swaraj would be a convenient starting point to explore the ideological discourse that specifically addressed the coloniser’s critique of Indian society. Poised between Gandhi’s experimentation of political philosophy in South Africa and his entry into the politics of nationalism in India, the Hind Swaraj was perceived by the British as a threat to the imperial apparatus, and the book was banned in India.

In this book, Gandhi sharply but without rancour or hysteria critiques the essentialist post-enlightenment positivism – ‘modern civilisation’, as he refers to it -, formulates an alternative worldview drawn from the traditional wisdom and way of life of India and recasts the subaltern history which had been produced by the coloniser. The mass appeal of the Gandhian Utopia that Hind Swaraj offered, and its potential to construct a counter hegemony that could unite the ‘many Indias’ which had been a consistent theory in the British epistemological construction of the culture and politics of the subcontinent, were not lost on the authorities. Gandhi had taken the battle into the enemy camp, and seising the coloniser’s reductive representation of so pluralistic a region as the Indian subcontinent as a homogeneous category, transformed it into an alternative model of civilisation and incorporated it into his ideology of resistance in which subverting modernity was a major project. If ‘Orientalism’ as defined by Edward Said as the West’s way of managing the East ‘by asserting a kind of intellectual authority over the east’ (Said

19) began with the shift in the relationship between Britain and India

from trade relations to imperial ( ‘the protracted sustained national interest in the orient’, as Said puts it in Orietalism (p. 19)), the bold and blatant articulation of the reverse rhetoric by Gandhi – ‘Occidentalism’ as we may phrase it – paved way for subaltern agency in India later in the century. Ashis Nandy holds that Gandhi, liberated from the intimate enemy, spoke from ‘outside the imperium’. It must be remembered that, leave alone the later colonial theorists, the first generation writers like Manoni, Memmi and Fanon were yet to write their seminal pieces, which were published more than four decades after Hind Swaraj. We may safely assume that the success of Gandhi, the theorist as a practitioner and activist both in South Africa and India finally gave credence and a voice to this counter rhetoric which the coloniser recognised as possessing the

potential to dislodge from its all dominant position the hegemonic imperial discourse which had hitherto silenced all other narratives.

The book bluntly addresses the complex ways in which colonialism served to construct the identities of both the coloniser and the colonised, and proposes the ways in which the colonised can isolate himself from the discursive formation within which his subjectivity is formed, articulate his identity and be agentive in the recovery of his ‘self’. Hind Swaraj, no doubt, is utopian but what caused the proscribing of the book by the British is the fearless subversion of the Imperial formations, the forms of governance and the institutions on which colonialism relied. The legal system which upheld the ‘Pax Brittanica’ which was not just the pride of the empire but also the perceived raison d’etre of the ‘imperial destiny of the white race’, is degraded. Railways, the health care system, industrial growth and western education projected by the rulers as ample evidences of the civilising and progressive mission of the colonial project, are trivialised. Medical professionals, lawyers, bureaucratic body – nothing is spared. Every fig leaf which legitimised the economic and commercial agenda of the empire is ruthlessly ripped off.

The choice of the mode of narration of Hind Swaraj is a masterstroke in Gandhi’s mission of reclamation of the ‘self’ of India. In the form of a dialogue between the Reader who is in the grip of Eurocentric colonial thought and ideology, and the Editor who is Gandhi, the technique provides a platform for the exhibition through the Reader, of the Imperial discursive formations which Gandhi, the Editor addresses and debunks. The Reader – the product of Macaulay’s efforts to create ‘mimic’ men – represents the elite westernised Indian, enamoured of modernity’s claims of progress which he is anxious to bring to India after he throws out the British by violent methods, if need be.

At the end of the book, he, however, is convinced that surprise weapons alone can beat the oppressors. Gandhi’s explication of the concept of Swaraj or Self Rule differs from the definition floated by the nationalist leaders of India as political freedom from the British. Theirs was a replication of the ideals of European nationalism rooted in physical and conceptual form of violence. Gandhi’s project of nonviolent nationalism has its roots in the spirituality of the individual. Self –rule is primarily the rule of the self, the individual, the ‘colonised thing’ whose

personality was distorted by the legacy of colonialism and its baggage of modernity. The secular hierarchy of modernity is what is under fire here. The permeation of spirituality in political activity and its successful experimentation in taking on a racist government in South Africa, is textualised in the Hind Swaraj, a fact which the coloniser could not be dismissive about.

The Hind Swaraj, therefore sets forth on a course of systematic destruction of what is axiomatic to modernity and imperialism – the concepts and institutions that rationalised the colonial presence. The book, both politically and culturally subversive, had the effect of destabilising the imperial ideology, causing chinks in the formidable edifice of Orientalism’s hegemonic episteme, through which surfaced the contradictions inherent in the essentialist colonial discourse – a condition which left the coloniser with no choice but to acknowledge the ambivalence of his position vis-a-vis the colonised.

Gandhi’s desire to universalize the alternative order that he posits in the Hind Swaraj, causes him to take pains to protect his utopian vision from allegations of extreme parochialism born of the nationalist zeal of his oppositional politics. In the appendix to the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi gives a list of twenty books under the title SOME AUTHORITIES, and explains that ‘the following books are recommended for perusal to follow up the study of the foregoing’. The list includes, among others Tolstoy, Thoreau, Ruskin and Mazzini. In the preface to Hind Swaraj, Gandhi acknowledges his indebtedness to them. ‘Whilst the views I expressed in Hind Swaraj are held by me, I have but endeavoured but humbly to follow Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson and the other writers besides the masters of Indian philosophy’ (Gandhi 120). Again, addressing the Reader’s skepticism of his views, Gandhi says within the text of the Hind Swaraj, ‘These views that I have submitted are those I have adopted. They are not original. Western writers have used stronger terms So you will

see that the views do not come right out of my mind but represent the

combined effort of many.’ This ‘many’ form part of that constituency in the west – the ‘other west’ – comprising dissenters with whom he identifies, and who, like him failed to be dazzled by the promises of modernism and the grandeur of the imperial enterprise. He establishes that there are those who belong to the dominant race who exist outside

the Imperium and modernity’s discourse, who see themselves and the west as victims of ‘modern civilisation’. This constituency included a small group of Englishmen ‘who wholly opted out of their colonising society and fought for the cause of India’ (Nandy 36). Marginalised from their western life style, their search for an alternate lifestyle ‘outside technocratic utopias and outside modernity……found in the Indian version of religiosity, knowledge and social intervention not merely a model of dissent against their own society, but also some protection for their search for the new models of transcendence, a greater tolerance of androgeny and a richer meaning as well as legitimacy for women’s participation in social and political life’ (Nandy 36). The reference here is to Sister Nivedita, Annie Besant and Mira Behn. Nandy feels that the most relevant connection that Gandhi had with this constituency is with the cleric C. F. Andrews because ‘he [Andrews] never became marginal to the West, but found a richer meaning for Western Christianity and a new endorsement of traditional Christian virtues in some strands of anti- colonialism in India’ (Nandy 36-37). ‘His Christianity sought to authenticate Gandhi’s faith…that the east and the West could – and did- meet outside the bounds of modernity’ (Nandy 48). Nandy goes on to point out that this constituency of the West that subscribed to and endorsed Gandhism represented the saner strain that lies latent in ‘every homogeneous culture that goes rabid’ (Nandy 49). About this rabidity of modernity, Gandhi was explicit. ‘This civilisation is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self –destroyed…it is eating into the vitals of the English nation’ (Gandhi 102). ‘Civilisation is not an incurable disease, but it should never be forgotten that the English people are at present afflicted by it.’ But he does not put them beyond redemption. He is confident they can cast off the evil called modern civilisation because they are not ‘inherently immoral. Neither are they bad at heart. I therefore respect them.’

The relevance of Gandhi’s involvement with this ‘other west’ in the present context is that it raises him from a nationalist leader to a theoretician who could pull out from his repository of wisdom solutions to the maladies of the West – solutions that were acceptable to this group of British followers. It appeared as though ‘the battle he was fighting for the minds of men was actually a universal battle to rediscover the softer side of human nature, the so called non-masculine self of man relegated

to the forgotten zones of the western self’ (Nandy 49). To the colonial officials this internationalisation of Gandhism, his unfearing and blatant devaluing of modernity, the endorsement of the ‘other west’ and the absence of enmity towards the oppressors had the effect of intensifying the self-doubt that was the bane of every coloniser.

Gandhi’s iconoclastic anti-modern ideology and his inclusion of the unfamiliar tool of ahimsa in his politics of resistance intersect this ambivalent predicament of the coloniser in the colonial site as part of the administrative and political machinery. Inherent in the colonial situation is the seed of its own destruction. The coloniser continually reinvents strategies to legitimise the colonial apparatus. Memmi’s theory of the Usurper’s Complex or Nero Complex highlights the inconsistencies that inform the coloniser’s assumption of himself in the colonial situation:

Human relationship in the colony would perhaps have been better if the colonialist had been convinced of his legitimacy.…accepting the reality of being a coloniser means agreeing to be a non-legitimate privileged person, that is, a usurper. To be sure, the usurper claims his place and, if need be, will defend it by every means at his disposal….at the very time of his triumph, he admits that what triumphs in him is an image which he condemns [emphasis added]….To possess victory completely, he needs to absolve himself of it and the conditions under which he had attained it. This explains his strenuous insistence, strange for a victor, on apparently futile matters. He endeavours to falsify history, he rewrites laws, he would extinguish memories – anything to succeed in transforming his usurpation into legitimacy. (Memmi 51-52)

The outcome of this effort at self-justification – this dabbling with ‘futile matters’ – is the production of knowledge within which is constructed the images of the coloniser, the colonised and the geo-political space they occupy, which eventually became academised into hegemonic, durable systems of knowledge, and the establishing of that inevitable and lasting bond between knowledge and power by invading European epistemic space.

The coloniser’s subjectivity too is produced within this imperial discursive formation. ‘The manner in which the colonialist wants to see

himself plays a considerable role in the emergence of his final portrait’ (Memmi 55). The coloniser is never free from the ambiguity of his position in the colonies. To quote Memmi again:

Nothing and no one can give him the high praise he so avidly seeks as compensation: neither the outsider …not his native land where he is always suspected and attacked; nor his own daily acts which would ignore the silent revolt of the colonised. In truth, put under accusation by the others, he scarcely believes in his own innocence. Deep within himself, the colonialist pleads guilty [emphasis added]. (Memmi 57)


From Sedition to Legitimate Political Activity

In this section, I have attempted to see if, through a scrutiny of the official papers and documents of the colonial government, I can trace and determine the quality of change in the British perception of the Indian Nationalist Movement. The classified notes and correspondence record the debates and deliberations, the decision and the flurry of activities in the corridors of power of the colonial authority of India, and as such can be taken as indicators of the anxieties and puzzlement of those who inhabited the colonial administrative system and wielded authority.

I have looked at The Sedition Act under Section 124-A IPC as a case in point to show how these papers can give insight into how an important instrument of the Administration of the Empire i.e. the Sedition Act under Section 124-A IPC, which was used to maintain law and order by preventing sedition against the government, and also to arm the Govt. against anti -government activities, was steadily weakened in a period of 25 years – from 1907 to 1922. And I have also found that the emasculation of the Sedition Act can be ascribed not only to the situation going out of control in India, but, equally important, to growing misgivings in the minds of the authorities of colonial India about the legitimacy of the concept of sedition in the colonial context. Rupert Prescot in ‘Sedition and Political control: The Ideological Paradox of British responses to Indian Nationalism, 1890 to 1910’ rightly describes this predicament of the British thus: ‘The bureaucracy had not resolved the inherent ideological tension between a theoretical adherence to

democratic ideas and an ultimate recourse to repression.’(http:// The Government’s soft pedaling on Gandhi’s openly seditious activities by looking for loopholes of law to avoid arresting him can be ascribed to this ideological tension, and I interpret this hesitation as Gandhi’s success in activating the conscience of the Empire which expedited the process of the subversion of a powerful legal tool in the Imperial machinery of British India.

It is not my intention to contest the prevailing theory regarding the kid-glove treatment meted out to Gandhi, the nationalist movement and leaders during the period he headed the movement. The following extract from The Second Tilak Trial posted in < libweb/historicalcases/cases/Second_Tilak_Trial_-1909.html> encapsulates the accepted, obvious theory on this issue:

One can hardly help contrasting this trial of Tilak by Davar J. with the later trial of Mahatma Gandhi before Judge Broomfield. Both were tried for publication of seditious articles in their papers. Both were convicted, and both were given the same sentence. But a dozen years had made a world of difference between the political atmospheres of the two periods. The World War and its aftermath had made, in the course of less than a decade, an immense and amazing difference between the temper of the people, and the tempo of political unrest and agitation in India. This is reflected in what Tilak wrote in 1908 and what Gandhi wrote in 1921. Tilak’s sedition, such as it is, is guarded, cautious and veiled. It is on the whole moderate in terms and tone. Gandhi’s is open, strident, flagrant, and virulent. Tilak demands change in the methods and attitude of Government. Gandhi preaches open overthrow and destruction of the British Raj. Yet, Tilak left the court with the stigma of a dangerous convict, reprimanded and admonished by the judge in strong scathing terms. Gandhi took his departure in an odour of sanctity and a blaze of glory. The latter, though a worse sinner from the standpoint of law, was treated both by the prosecuting counsel and the judge with restraint and respect, bordering on veneration. Such is the difference in treatment which the

personality of the accused persons and the spirit of the times make even in the administration of law, which professes to be no respecter of persons.

That a veritable metamorphosis had come over the British attitude to the nationalist movement and the leaders between 1908 and 1921 (emphatically revealed in the extract cited above) cannot be and was not missed by even a casual observer of those times. This explanation for this change too – the World War and its aftermath, the spirit of the times and the changed tempo of the political unrest in India – are wholly acceptable. My concern, however, is with another observation made in the same article:

But apart from the change of atmosphere at the two relevant periods, Davar J. belonged to the old school of ”die-hards”, who sincerely believed in the beneficence of British rule in India. Besides, he had the one-track, unjudicial mind of the militant advocate, which he carried with him from the Bar to the Bench.

I have endeavoured to trace this dimension of the colonial experience, this evolution of the British colonial experience through the official administrative documents of the Raj. The documents, collected from The National Archives in New Delhi, are but a sample, which, despite their inadequacy, evidence the angst of a category of people who lived a lie in the service of their motherland, but, owing to a confluence of events in which Gandhi’s intervention too was a major one, had to inevitably give up that lie in a process of soul searching which fully or partially liberated them from the structures of colonial thinking.

The threat perception or the mutiny psychosis of the colonial authorities which remained very high after the 1857 rebellion peaked by 1907, fifty years after the uprising. To complicate matters, Indian publication industry had become a potent player in disseminating nationalist sentiments. The sedition law was initially introduced to address this situation created by the mushrooming indigenously owned newspapers and other publications. But in 1870, the Section 124A, a ‘sedition’ clause was passed, which extended the jurisdiction of the law to seditious actions too, actions that caused ‘disaffection’. Tilak was slapped with this charge and sentenced to six years imprisonment in 1908.

Section 1124A Sedition

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards. 2[* * *] the Government established by law in 3[India], 4[* * *] shall be punished with 5[imprisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Explanation 1-The expression ‘disaffection’ includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

Explanation 2-Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Explanation 3-Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

In June 1907, Lala Lajpat Rai was arrested for sedition though not under the Sedition Act. Falsely implicated in the protests of the Punjab farmers, he was arrested from his home and deported to Mandalay without trial.

The Government of India —were satisfied that, while keeping himself in the background, he was the chief organiser of a wide spread seditious movement. (Telegram from the Government of Burma June 7, 1907 to the Secretary to the Govt. Of India, Home Dept) [context- supplying newspaper to Rai and the sopoys salaaming him in the prison]

From Viceroy to Secretary of State (London) – 29 July 1907.

—I received a memorial from Lajpat Rai in which he denied that he had ever done anything to cause commotion in the king’s dominions, asserted that he was the victim of false and malicious information, and asked for the particulars of the charges. He was informed that no particular charges could be given, as he had been previously told the reasons for his arrest – – –

Rai’s memorial inheres a faith in the legal system of British India. More significant in this context here is the fact that implicit in the Sedition concept is a summational statement about the colonial dynamics which empower the British authorities in India to discard the liberal ideals to which they are fanatically committed to back home in England in order to deal with nationalists activism which was often represented in the official communication as terrorism. This emboldens them to strengthen this act in order to empower the colonial authorities to deal better with the unrest. Gokhale problemetises the ‘sedition’ concept as can be seen in this excerpt:

Extract from the proceedings of the Council of Governor General of India, assembled for the purpose of making Law & Regulations under the provisions of the Indian Councils Acts, 1861 & 1892. The Council met at the Viceregal Lodge, Simla 1st Nov, 1907. Gopala Krishna Gokhale took his seat as the Additional Member of Council.

‘The Hon’ble Sir Harvey Adamson moved that the Report of the Select Committee on the Bill to make better provision for the prevention of meetings likely to promote sedition or to cause a disturbance of public tranquility to be taken into consideration.’

Gokhale’s contribution to this discussion is significant. He refers to the elasticity of the term which enables its indiscriminate and unjust application to undefined activities. There is more than a hint at the anomaly of the colonial situation which expects the natural heirs of the country to pay obeisance to the British officials.

My Lord, when the officials of this country talk of sedition, they do not always mean the same thing. There are those who think that unless an Indian speaks to them with ‘bated breath and whispering humbleness’ he is seditious. There are others who do not got so far, but who still think that any one who comments adversely on any of their actions or criticised the administration in any way or engages in any political agitation, is guilty of sedition. Lastly, there are those who take a larger view of the situation and recognize that the term sedition should be applied only to those attempts that are made to subvert the government…the responsibility for sedition used by the third

class…rests mainly, if not entirely on the Government or rather the official class.

The law of sedition was pressed into service to gag the press, which again went against the British liberal ideals of freedom of speech. Elaborate rationale was laboriously worked out to reconcile repressive measures against the press and with the liberal ideals claimed by the empire.

Liberty of the Press means liberty of discussion, liberty for the free expression of thought and opinion. But liberty does not mean unbridled license. It does not mean unlimited permission to let loose on the land a never-ending stream of abuse of all institutions by aid of which society is held together; abuse of those things respect for which is indispensable for the preservation of the lives and property of everyone; abuse of the government, of the administration of justice, of the whole English race, and of all it does or desires to do. (W. R. Donogh, A Treatise of the Law of Sedition and Cognate Offences, (Calcutta, 1911). qtd. in Prescot 198.

The press, theatre and even posters of goddesses which portrayed allegorically the victory of Indian Gods and Goddesses over the oppressors were targeted by the Sedition Act and its powerful provisions for the suppression of sedition. ‘The discourse of sedition is a key area through which the state, citizens, and other organisations and aggregations came to be imagined. Instead of treating sedition as a legal term, it can be seen as a mechanism through which the ‘state’ itself was discursively constituted’ (Prescot).

The strategy adopted by Gandhi in dealing with this powerful tool of the Government was consistent with the philosophy that informed his political activity, and it exhibited a practical wisdom rooted in his insight into the ideological tension of the British coloniser. His refusal to take recourse to legal measures is not just a realisation of its futility. It is a loud and clear statement to the Raj that the British legal system had lost its relevance in India. Submission to procedures of the legal system was an acknowledgement of its validity. So he deliberately indulges in ‘seditious’ acts, challenging the Government to arrest him. Between 1920- 22, Gandhi’s calls for nationwide non cooperation movements, his distribution of new prints of the proscribed Hind Swaraj, his call for boycott

of elections to be held under Montague-Chelmsford Reforms and boycott of various Government activities – all actions clearly falling under sedition law – did not invite hasty arrests under the Sedition Act. Between Jan 2, 1922 and April 18, 1922 ( a period of three and a half months), as many as seventy two telegrams on the issue of Gandhi’s arrest were exchanged between Home Government, Viceroy and Governor of Bombay. Given below is an excerpt:

If Gandhi is arrested at present, a prosecution, however the charges may be framed, would be regarded by moderate opinion…as an attack on these rights and as indeed the final proof that Government has embarked on a policy which aims at suppressing legitimate political activities. (Telegram from the Government of Bombay to the Viceroy, 2nd January 1922)

The facts that emerge in this communication are 1. The anxiety to maintain the liberal image of Britain 2. An admission of awareness of the legitimacy of the national movement and 3. A grudging acknowledgement of being disadvantaged by the inability to gauge the person of Gandhi who criminalised the foundational creed of colonialism with the greatest ease and élan. Gandhi’s political philosophy disproved the colonisers discursive relegation of India’s glory to the past. The success story of Satyagraha in South Africa which was being reenacted in India proposed an alternative to the military might that modernity swore by, and this novel tool of resistance with its high moral rectitude acquired an authority that comes from being derived not only from the traditional thought of India, but also of Christianity, the religion of the west. The cat and mouse game Gandhi played with the colonial apparatus undermined its efficiency, which caused exasperation, impotent rage and extreme caution in the colonial authorities, which are reflected in the private notes and comments on confidential communications. ‘It is impossible to predict how so unstable a mind may oscillate’ (Telegram from the Governor of Bombay to the Viceroy, 7th January, 1922). Again, a letter from the Viceroy to the Governor of Bombay dated 10th January 1922, he says

Your proposal that Gandhi should be prosecuted at once has been carefully considered by us. We fully appreciate the dangers inherent in the activities of Gandhi. Moderate opinion, as you know, is

much exercised over the action taken under the Seditious Meeting Act

and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which large number of moderates regarded as an infringement of the rights of free speech and political association. We have in these circumstances come to the conclusion that the immediate prosecution of Gandhi…would be a tactical error.

The empowering sedition law is admitted to be rendered toothless in dealing with the openly seditious protestors. What is at stake is, admittedly, the colonial discourse in which the colonisers themselves were trapped – the discourse which projected the imperial enterprise as a benevolent, liberal and democratic project.

The communications also are a give away of the moral dilemma of the authorities of practicing violence – incarceration – on a person who swears by nonviolence. The Governor of Bombay fears Gandhi is biding his time and may resort to violence and that the Government will be caught off guard. But the Viceroy, dragging his feet on the issue, repeatedly asks for proofs, evidences from Gandhi’s speeches to support this conjecture, which they are unable to provide. In these missives that were exchanged back and forth, Viceroy Reading comes across as a Pontius Pilate like figure. Gandhi was an enigma that could not be located in any niche of the imperial epistemology. The centrality that Gandhi gave to non-violence in his political philosophy, his uncompromising commitment to ethics in politics and his refusal to avail himself of its systems of the colonial apparatus constituted the ‘unknown’ factors that neutralised the symbols of dominance of the empire.

Under pressure from The Home Government in London, Lord Reading ordered Gandhi be arrested (March 19, 1922) for sedition for 3 articles published in Young India 1. Tampering with Loyalty 2. The Puzzle and its Solution 3. Shaking the Manes.

Trial on 18th March of Gandhi & Mr. Banker, the publisher before Mr. C. N. Broomfield, District & Sessions Judge of Ahmedabad, strikes the death blow to the Sedition Act. The accused chose to be undefended and pleaded guilty. Gandhi was charged with inciting violence in Chauri Chaura, bringing or attempting to bring hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government, established by law in British India. The prosecutor (S.T. Strangman) read out portions of articles

from Young India of May & June and September, 1921 to prove that Gandhi preached disaffection towards the existing Government, to which Gandhi replies:

Gandhi: To preach disaffection towards the existing system of government it has become almost a passion with me….

It is impossible for me to dissociate myself from Chauri Chaura or the mad outrages of Bombay –

I should have known the consequences of every one of my acts. I knew I was playing with fire. I ran the risk, and if I was set free, I would still do the same. Nonviolence is the first article of my

faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make a 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 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. Section 124(A), under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. [Emphasis added]. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite violence. But the section under which Mr. Banker and I are charged is one in which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime….some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section….I hold it a virtue to be disaffected towards a government, which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system…. I consider it a sin to have affection for the system.

I am here…to invite and submit cheerfully 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 either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil and 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….1

These words contain not only a complete and total denial and rejection of the British suzerainty over India, but locate Gandhi in a site where regional boundaries dissolve to include the whole world in the sphere of his concern. In the suggestion to the judge to reject the unethical system in which he functions is an appeal to the shared values that cut across cultural boundaries, and an invitation to share his utopian dreams of the possibility of a brotherhood of man. To quote Nandy ‘not only did he sense and “use” the fundamental predicament of British culture caught in the hinges of imperial responsibility and subjecthood in victory, but implicitly defined his ultimate goal as the liberation of the British from the history and psychology of British colonialism’ (Nandy 48-49). The Judge’s reply has vestiges of one caught in the ideological trap of colonialism, and validates Nandy’s claim that ‘Gandhi was a living anti-thesis set up against the thesis of the English, but that antithesis was latent in the English too’ (Nandy 49).

The Judge: The determination of a just sentence is, perhaps as difficult a proposition as a judge in this country could have to face. The law is no respecter of persons. Nevertheless, it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try….

Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life.

There are probably few people in India who do not sincerely regret that you should have made it impossible for any govt. to leave you at liberty.

The Judge’s difficulty in accommodating the seditious actions of Gandhi who is ‘in a different category from any person’, as an offence in the provisions of the Sedition Act, and his admission of unease– ‘The determination of a just sentence is, perhaps as difficult a proposition’

amount to a delegitimisation of the legal system that demands the conviction of Gandhi, by the dispenser of the law himself. The fate of the Sedition Act in the brief period of twenty five years discussed above signifies that weakening of the ‘intellectual authority over the Orient’ (Said 19) that pervaded the colonial network, thereby sabotaging its very internal consistency.


1 The extracts are from the chapter Great Trial by K. P.K. Menon from The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of his Life and Writings, Ed.Homer A. Jack, Madras: Samantha Books, 1956. The chapter is abridged and reprinted from K.P. K Menon, ed., The Great Trial of Mahatma and Mr.Banker, Madras: Ganesh, 1922. The original detailed report of the court proceedings submitted to the Viceroy is available in the National Archives, New Delhi.


Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Hind Swaraj. Ed. Anthony Parel.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonised and the Coloniser. 1957. UK: Earthscan Publishers, 2003.

Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy. Delhi: OUP, 1983.

Prescot, Rupert. ‘Sedition and Political control: The Ideological Paradox of British responses to Indian Nationalism, 1890 to 1910.’ <http:// Prescot_Rupert.pdf>.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1978. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2001. ‘The Second Tilak Trial.’ <



P. J. KOCHUTRESIAMA. Was Selection Grade Lecturer at Assumption College, Changanassery.

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Was Selection Grade Lecturer at Assumption College, Changanassery.

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