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Independence Day: Bal Gangadhar Tilak's sedition trial and how British strangled freedom of speech

By Vikas
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    Bal Gangadhar Tilak was at the forefront of the Indian Independence Movement and considered most important independence activist before Mahatma Gandhi entered the scene in the early 1900s. He was considered the first leader of the Indian Independence Movement and even the British called him "The father of the Indian unrest."

    Bal Gangadhar Tilak

    Tilak was a strong advocate of Indian autonomy from the British rule. Tilak was one of the first and strongest advocates of Swaraj ("self-rule") and was seen as a radical leader. At that time, the independence activists were divided along the lines the moderates and the extremists, Tilak backed the extremists' faction.

    Also Read | Looking back at India's freedom struggle with centenarian H S Doreswamy

    His speeches strongly opposed the British rule and radical articles urged the Indians to rise and stand up against the British rule. Because of these activities, he had become a thorn in the flesh of the colonial rulers.

    In a series of articles in his Marathi newspaper Kesari, Tilak condemned the use of violence, but wrote, "The rulers who always exercise unrestrained power must remember that there is always a limit to the patience of humanity". And so, "violence, however deplorable, became inevitable".

    During his lifetime, Bal Gangadhar Tilak had been tried for Sedition Charges three times by the British rulers -in 1897, 1909 and 1916.

    In 1897, Tilak was sentenced to 18 months in prison for inciting the people against the British.

    It was the 1909 sedition case, which is worth recalling even though over a century has passed after it.

    Events leading to 1909 trial of Tilak:

    On 30 April 1908, two youths, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, threw a bomb on a carriage at Muzzafarpur, to kill the Chief Presidency Magistrate Douglas Kingsford of Calcutta, but erroneously killed two women traveling in it. While Chaki committed suicide when caught, Bose was hanged. Tilak, in his paper Kesari, defended the revolutionaries and called for immediate Swaraj or self-rule. The Government swiftly charged him with sedition.

    Tilak's sedition trial

    On 24 June 1908, Tilak was arrested from Bombay on a charge of sedition and 153A IPC in respect of two articles carried in Kesari on 12 May and 9 June 1908. The article dated 12 May was titled 'The Country's Misfortune' and that of 9 June has titled 'These Remedies Are Not Lasting'. His house in Poona was searched by the police that found a postcard with the names of two books on explosives written on it. The Chief Presidency Magistrate of Bombay declined an application for bail. Sanction for the prosecution was swiftly granted and Tilak was committed to stand trial at the sessions of the Bombay High Court.

    Tilak was defended by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, later by Joseph Baptista and later by himself assisted by a battery of counsel. The sessions judge was none other than Tilak's counsel in the 1897 trial, DD Davar. He also declined bail to Tilak. The acting Advocate General, who led the prosecution, had also been Tilak's counsel earlier in a different matter. Tilak argued that the articles were written in the course of controversy between the European press and Indian vernacular press.

    He also argued that those articles critique a tyrannous bureaucracy rather than the tyrannous British rule. The special jury comprised of seven Europeans and two Indians. Indian jurors returned a verdict of not guilty while the European jurors adjudged Tilak guilty. Again, the jurors and the judge both had no knowledge of Marathi. Judge Davar asked Tilak if he had anything to say. His reply [Now inscribed on a marble outside Court Room No. 46 in the Bombay High Court unveiled by Justice MC Chagla] deserves to be quoted:

    "All I wish to say is that, in spite of the verdict of the jury, I maintain that I am innocent. Here are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent may prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free."

    Tilak was sentenced to six years of transportation to Burma; three under each section. Leave to appeal to privy Council made by Baptista on behalf of Tilak was declined. Tilak served out his sentence which was commuted to simple imprisonment in Mandalay and later returned to India with even more influence on the politics in the country. (Sedition trial source - www.livelaw.in)

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