The Vaidya sedition trial

Print edition : April 15, 2016

C.R. Das. The conduct of the upright judge in the trial of Narayan Kashinath Vaidya in which Das acted as counsel is in stark contrast to attitudes displayed today. Photo: The Hindu Archives

THIS trial received less notice than it deserves. The fearless advocate C.R. Das truly excelled himself. Narayan Kashinath Vaidya was a member of the Nagpur Bar and Secretary of the Provincial Home Rule League. He had gone to Damoh to defend one Bhaiyalal who was charged under the Defence of India Rules with dissuading persons from entering military service. The hearings over, he addressed a meeting in a temple in the town on the evening of June 6, 1918, along with two other lawyers. Three weeks later, Vaidya was arrested on a charge of sedition and placed on trial. He was charged under two broad heads: for sedition and for dissuading persons from entering military service.

The first was in respect of statements like these: “Does anybody consult you when [revenue] settlement is being done, as to how you maintain yourself, and what are your circumstances, how much you spend, and how many dependants you have, and what rent ought to be assessed? Without any enquiry rent is assessed according to their sweet will, and a Tahsildar is deputed to make realisations. What is to be done? The stream of money flows to England.”

Secondly, “Even in commerce the English have taken away everything… The idea is that the European may flourish and India may fall into a well”.

C.R. Das argued Vaidya’s appeal before Sir Henry Drake-Brockman, Judicial Commissioner of The Central Provinces and Berar, now Madhya Pradesh. His main defence was that the Indian legislature could not take away the “primary rights” of the citizen. Only the British Parliament could. Second, that a plea for swaraj or Home Rule did not amount to sedition. He said: “I rely upon the constitutional rights which are all those rights upon which the allegiance of the subjects depends. There are many rights of the common law which are not rights upon which the allegiance of the subject depends.”

At one stage Das said: “I hope your honour has not made up your mind, and I submit, if your honour has, your honour ought not to have.”

Court: What particular benefit does he expect to the British people from Home-rule?

Das: I am afraid, your honour is not in touch with the politics of this country [laughter].

Court: That is not my business.

Counsel: No, that is not; but by keeping in touch with the political thought of the day, you could understand the people. The speaker says it will benefit both. It is not only he [Vaidya] who says that. R.C. Dutt, one of the shining lights of the Civil Service, said that. Dadabhoy Naoroji, Mr Montague have said that. So, it is not so very comical that the establishment of Home-rule, the introduction of responsible government will really mean far greater prosperity of India as well as of England.

While C.R. Das was trying to explain the meaning of these words, the Court lost its temper and, on counsel asking the Court for a patient hearing in order to be able to explain what he meant, said, “I have already listened to a long lecture, I have already spent a great deal of time.” On this, Das offered to sit, if the Court did not wish to hear him.

At another stage C.R. Das said: “Your honour’s observation fills me with trepidation for my client, if upon this you come to the conclusion that is a malignant lie.”

Court: That is my view.

Counsel: If your honour has formed views, your honour should not try this case at all. It is a very slight exaggeration.

Court: I cannot agree with you.

Counsel: But I do protest against those observations when you said that this is a malignant lie. It is a perfectly honest criticism.

Court: It cannot be honest criticism.

Counsel: That may be your honour’s view, but my submission is that it is a perfectly honest statement, probably a little exaggerated.

C.R. Das argued that the flow of money from India to England had long been a matter for complaint among Indians who had not only voiced the opinions of many followers in this country but had earned the esteem of their political opponents. “I refer particularly to the late Messrs. Dadabhoy Naoroji and G.K. Gokhale. The same point is dwelt upon in the chapter entitled “India’s Economic Problems” in Sir Henry Cotton’s New India, published in 1907. More to the same effect will be found in Indian Trade Manufacturers and Finance, written by the late Mr. R.C. Dutt, published in 1905.

“That the martial spirit of India has declined as stated by the appellant is a fact which has been noted by prominent Englishmen and in this connection I would quote the remarks of Sir Richard Temple, which would be found reproduced at page 221 of Sir Henry Cotton’s New India.” In his judgment the judge made scathing remarks on the magistrate before acquitting Vaidya. “In this as in other respects the Magistrate’s judgment appears to be to make every possible presumption against the accused and to omit any consideration of what the accused himself had to say by way of explaining his utterances. Where there is room for doubt it is the accused person, and not the prosecution, who must have the benefit of that doubt.”

This upright judge’s conduct is in stark contrast to the petty vindictiveness of some judges who, when faced with assertive counsel, wreak revenge on his client. The trend began 50 years ago when that fearless advocate, K.M. Munshi, deplored the spectacle of “frowning judges and fawning counsel”. Munshi once ticked off the abrasive Justice M. Munir of the Lahore High Court.

A.G. Noorani

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