On Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan delivered a lecture organised by the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi.
In his remarks, he asserted the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and principles to present-day India, saying Gandhi would have exhorted people at large to “throng the streets in protest against…unjust and discriminatory laws and practices of the [Narendra Modi] government”.
Below is the full text of his speech.
Mahatma Gandhi’s actions and writings during his lifetime tell us a lot about his view of “justice” in society as well as “justice” through courts. At one level, his view of justice was governed by what he felt was the consequence of an action on the weakest, the poorest and the most helpless man in society. At another level, his view of justice was governed by his belief in what was fair and equitable. At yet another level it was governed by what he felt was an act in public interest.
Gandhi’s view of justice for the last man
Gandhi always worked for and strove to provide justice to the weak and immiserated. He expressed this in his Talisman, in one of the last notes left behind by him. He said,
“…Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.”
Here his view of justice is really governed by what is fair to the last or weakest person, rather than the greatest common good. It is because of this view of justice that he stood for the rights of and against the oppression of minorities, at the hands of the ruling majority. It is this view of justice that made him stand against majoritarian sentiments and stand with the deprived minorities if he felt they were being oppressed.
Though Gandhi’s often conflicting views on the caste system and its practice has been the subject of much controversy, and which was also ground for Ambedkar’s strong disagreement with the Mahatma, there is no doubt that Gandhi spent a substantial part of his life in working for the abolition of all forms untouchability and for allowing Dalits access to equal rights in every sphere of activity. Here too, it was his view of the oppression of and fairness towards the Dalits, that guided his actions.
Gandhi: Legal justice and justice of conscience
Gandhi had many encounters with the law and the judicial system and he faced them with an unflinching firmness of principle. He mooted the idea of civil disobedience where he propagated that it was just and principled to disobey laws which were fundamentally unjust and unfair. Gandhi wrote explaining his idea of satyagraha: “The object behind the idea of Satyagrah is to make the people fearless and free, and not to maintain our own reputation anyhow.”
Thus be defied many unjust and excessive laws, two of which mark important satyagrahas by Gandhi which I’d like to mention. Under a harsh colonial law, peasants in Champaran, Bihar were made to cultivate indigo on a portion of their land or pay an enhanced rent to the factory. Further, those who refused to comply would have their land confiscated. When Gandhi visited Champaran in 1917, it was his first encounter with the hardships of the peasants in India. He was ordered to leave the district and even produced before a magistrate, where he only stated that, as a self-respecting man he was bound to disobey the DMs order and continue his stay.
He wrote to the viceroy that the peasants were living under a “reign of terror and their persons and their minds are all under the planters’ heels.” He travelled extensively defying all orders against his public activity and collected almost 7,000 testimonies which led the Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee, whose reports largely favoured the tenants and ended his first satyagraha successfully.
The other important satyagraha that Gandhi led later in 1930 was against the unjust salt tax – the states monopoly over the production and sale of salt. Gandhi wrote on this stating:
“The illegality is in a government that steals the people’s salt and makes them pay heavily for the stolen article. The people, when they become conscious of their power, will have every right to take possession of what belongs to them.”
This then led to the famous Dandi march to the sea to defy the salt law, an event that hailed Gandhi as the law breaker.
Gandhi also disobeyed the British law of sedition. In 1922, he was imprisoned in Yerwada for violating Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, for uttering or writing words exciting disaffection towards the government established by law. Section 124 (A) defines Sedition as:
“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 the government established by law, shall be punished…”
He believed that while disobeying fundamentally unjust laws was just and fair, it was equally incumbent upon the conscientious objector practising civil disobedience to submit to any penalty that could be imposed by the judiciary for such civil disobedience, without indulging in any violence. Gandhi thus spent many years in jail for various acts of civil disobedience. He stated during this trail,
“I wish to endorse all the blame that the leaned advocate general has thrown on my shoulders in connection with the Bombay, the Madras, and the Chauri Chaura occurrences…he is quite right when he says that 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 that I was playing with fire.”
Gandhi’s sedition trial of 1922 was one that brought into sharp focus the conflict between obedience to the law of the land and obedience of one’s moral conscience in opposing an unjust law. Gandhi had been charged with sedition for writing politically sensitive articles in his weekly journal Young India.
He went on to say at his trial:
“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 to violence. But the section under which Mr. Banker and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime…I have studied some of the cases tried under it (section 124A) and I know that 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.”
And elsewhere in the trail he said,
“…I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done irreparable harm to my country or to 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. 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 ask for any extenuating act of clemency. I am here to invite and cheerfully submit 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.”
Gandhi thus laid more emphasis on truth and justice of conscience rather than in courts of justice. He said, “There is a higher court than the court of Justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.” This issue came up most starkly when he was charged for contempt of court for having published a letter in Young India written by the district judge of Ahmedabad to the registrar of the Bombay high court. The charge was that the letter was a private official letter forming part of a pending case. When asked by the chief justice of the Bombay high court to publish an apology, Gandhi submitted that he could not conscientiously offer any apology. He stated:
“I regret that I have not found it possible to accept the advice given by His Lordship the Chief Justice. Moreover, I have been unable to accept the advice because I do not consider that I have committed either a legal or a moral breach…I am sure that this Hon’ble Court would not want me to tender an apology unless it be sincere and express regret for an action which I have held to be a privilege and duty of a journalist. I shall therefore cheerfully and respectfully accept the punishment that his Hon’ble Court may be pleased to impose upon me for the vindication of the majesty of law.”
Justice Hayward held that Gandhi’s actions scandalised the judge concerned (Judge Kennedy). He also suggested that Gandhi posed not as a law-breaker but as a passive resistor of the law, and held it sufficient to severely reprimand Gandhi and the editor for their proceedings and to warm them of the penalties imposable by the high court.
Later in November 1922, he was discontinued as a member of the Inn and his name was removed from the rolls. By then it was several years since he had practised as a lawyer. His appearances in court had been as someone who was charged as a law breaker. Gandhi was willing to submit to any penalty that could be lawfully imposed on him for disobeying the courts orders which he felt were unjust and violated his principles/conscience. I may point out here that for Gandhi adherence to ones principles/conscience meant being truthful, fair and just.
Gandhi in today’s context:
Martin Luther King, Jr, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964 said, “Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force that makes for social transformation.” This reference to a peaceful and resistant India many decades ago, inspiring a civil strife-torn US towards freedom, is a startling acknowledgment of the power of Gandhi’s campaigns led by non-violent satyagraha and civil disobedience.
I believe, at no other time is Gandhi and his teachings/principles more relevant to India, than today. We are witnessing today an onslaught on many ideals and principles which were fundamental and very dear to him. There is an onslaught on minorities, on the streets, in the media and by fundamentally discriminatory laws being sanctioned by a bigoted government.
There is an assault on truth, civility, scientific temper and reason itself. There is an assault on dissent by the use of fundamentally unjust laws such as the NSA, UAPA and of course sedition, against dissenters and students such as Devangana Kalitha, Natasha Narwal, Safoora Zargar or Umar Khalid, activists and academics such as Anand Teltumble, Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha and several other framed in the Bhima Koregaon case; eminent activists and academics such as Harsh Mander, Apoorvanand and Yogendra Yadav, who are being falsely implicated in a trumped up conspiracy to have caused the North East Delhi riots, which were unleashed by the right wing to crush a successful and peaceful people’s resistance against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act. There is a further assault on the media and on political opposition, through complicit agencies which pursue their political masters rather than the law.
There is also an assault and an attempt to suborn independent institutions like the judiciary, the Election Commission, the CAG, the NHRC, the CBI, the Lokpal, etc. Police investigative agencies, like the NIA, ED, NCB and the State police organisations, have been made handmaidens of the ruling establishment to harass and victimise innocent people while allowing law breakers to roam free, making a mockery of the rule of law.
There is no doubt, that Gandhi would have been aghast and dismayed at seeing the India of today. Could he have imagined that having freed India from British rule, more than 70 years later, our country and society would be reduced to a different form and more venomous servitude to falsehood, hatred and violence.
It is not clear if he would have fasted against all these malpractices in our society or what exact form his agitation would have taken, but there is no doubt that he would not have been at peace or rest with what is being witnessed in our country. His sense of justice would have led him to implore those propagating Hindutva/rabid media houses/the BJP and it’s IT Cell, to understand that vilifying Muslims by spreading this communal hatred is not only unjust and unfair but is causing harm to all humanity by shaking the foundation of brotherhood and love that our diverse society is built on.
He would have told them that the religious, linguistic and cultural diversity of our society is our asset and that any attempt to create a Hindu rashtra will be catastrophic of all. He would have told those who attack scientific temper by promoting superstition and blind beliefs that this is creating a society without knowledge and understanding; that the effort by this government to blunt and prevent critical thinking, discussion and debate in universities will prevent the quest for truth and progress in society; that the creation of a post truth society where people cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood would sound the death knell.
Gandhi who called Section 124-A, the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”, would have been dismayed and appalled to see an independent India still persisting with the colonial sedition law that he outrightly opposed, where people are still being jailed for speaking out against the oppressive actions of the government or any authority.
He would have been appalled by the colonial law of contempt by scandalising the court still being used in India to punish people who speak the truth about the faults and failings of the judiciary, which is today barely able to give justice to a vast majority of those suffering and oppressed in this country today.
He would have been revolted by laws such as the National Security Act, which allows the government to keep in detention political leaders and others for months together, on the ground that the government feels their liberty would be a threat to national security. He would be appalled by the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the manner in which it has been used to persecute and incarcerate some of the finest human rights activists in the country – a law which does not even allow bail till you are proved innocent and thus enables the government to keep innocent citizens rotting in jails for decades together while delaying trials.
He would have found all of these laws and practices a complete travesty in the name of justice. He would also have been appalled by the economic policies of the government which are mindless and cruel such as demonetisation or the manner of imposing the lockdown – so fundamentally opposed to the interests of the poor and designed to benefit the few crony capitalists.
I have no doubt he would have been against the recent farm Bills which are designed to eliminate the minimum support price for crops and abolish any regulation of the unequal trade between the farmers/middlemen/corporates. All these would, from a Gandhian perspective, militate against every sense of fairness and justice.
Does Gandhi have anything for such an abusive, violent, intolerant and diminished society as we have become today – terrorised, communally torn and governed by a despotic regime? Would his non-violent satyagraha and disciplined call for mass protest be relevant at all against bigoted authorities, powered by cronyism, violence and loot? I have no doubt Gandhi would have given a call for massive civil disobedience against such an unjust system with laws and practices that are oppressing the masses today. He wrote, “Everyone should realise the secret that oppression thrives only when the oppressed submit to it.”
Just as he told our people that in resisting the British rule they must lose the fear of jail, COVID-19 or not, he would have exhorted the people today to throng the streets in protest against these unjust and discriminatory laws and practices of the government. He would have lauded and led the anti-CAA protests and would surely have launched a Jail Bharo Andolan, daring the government to incarcerate millions of peaceful protesters from across the country.
It is this courage in adversity that Gandhi would have displayed in leading India today, and as Gopalkrishna Gandhi has written in his introduction to a collected works of Gandhi, such courage becomes popular when “the two have served consciences, not constituencies.” Today, we take our cue from Gandhi’s courage. Gandhi’s courage invited wrath and incarceration. But he never sacrificed the cause of justice for fear of persecution. He said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity but from an indomitable will.” It is the indomitable will of the suffering masses that must galvanise us to stand up against this constitutional fascism that has suffocated our country today. Gandhi’s legacy of non-violent resistance, defiant satyagraha, obstinate adherence to a belief in justice and fairness, unflinching courage in the face of repression, are our call to action, even today.
Thank you. Jai Hind.
Prashant Bhushan is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court.