In March 1922, a Bombay Sessions Court judge, sentencing, under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code (‘attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India’) an accused who had declared his profession as ‘farmer and weaver’, concluded that he would be happy if the government reduced the six months’ imprisonment awarded. On the entry of this ‘farmer and weaver’ into the court room to face trial, all present had stood up and remained standing until he was given a seat near the judge.
The judge was an Englishman, C Broomfield; the accused an Indian by name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A G Noorani, in his Indian Political Trials, observes: ‘Never in the annals of the law has a judge spoken more nobly to a prisoner in a political trial’.
While drafting the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Lord Macaulay had meticulously incorporated provisions enabling his country to suppress any uprising by the people of the slave nation groaning under its yoke. These were religiously pressed into service to pin Gandhiji, his offence being publication in Young India of four articles.
Gandhiji unhesitatingly pleaded guilty. Before the sentencing proper, he was allowed to make a few oral introductory remarks and read a detailed written statement — both resonant with the courage of his convictions and his indomitable will never to capitulate, however disastrous the consequences.
At the outset, Gandhiji clarified that ‘to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government had become almost a passion with him’. He charged that ‘in 99 cases out of a hundred, justice had been denied to Indians as against Europeans in the courts of India’ and that ‘administration of the law was prostituted consciously or unconsciously for the benefit of the exploiter.’ He dubbed the section under which he was charged as ‘the prince among the political sections designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen’ and added that ‘affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law’. Continuing, he said that it was a “sin to have affection for the system” and that “non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good”.
Broomfield sat through it all — polite, attentive, receptive, unobstructive. While concluding his judgment, he stated, “…I should like to say….that if the course of events in India should make it possible for the government to reduce the period (of imprisonment) and release you, no one will be better pleased than I.”
With the accused pleading guilty, only pronouncing the punishment remained. Expectedly, the judge did not have to examine whether the government that had authorised him to administer the law he did — a foreign government that sought to wrest through force loyalty from a people subjugated by it through force — was a ‘government established by law’, but had merely to apply it mechanically, leaving untouched questions of its ethical justifiability. However, despite constraints, he did show, through his celebrated conclusion in the judgment, how his mind worked. Further, in one way, the whole trial indicated that Gandhiji’s accusation of courts being unfair to Indians shed a tiny part of its harshness — a thin pencil of light ‘amid the encirc’ling gloom’.