75th Independence Day: Lokmanya Tilak…the editor for whom people came out on the streets, the army had to be called and Mumbai stayed for 6 days

It was late night. It was raining heavily. There was panic of the British mounted police. Yet thousands of people standing on the road were not ready to budge. A newspaper editor was about to be punished for writing against the British government. The next morning the public was on the streets. The anger of the people erupted … and this anger was such that in the midst of heavy violence, Mumbai (then Bombay) was handed over to the army. Then for the next six days, as if Mumbai came to a standstill. During this 15 people lost their lives and many were injured. In this era of decreasing trust on news and journalists, the memory of ‘Kesari’ newspaper and its great editor Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak may seem strange. But when the world of news is surrounded by questions, then the forefathers who believed little for truth should be remembered.

Tilak’s writings, published in ‘Kesari’ on May 12 and June 9, 1908, were considered sedition. This historic trial took place from 13 to 22 July 1908 in the third criminal session of the Bombay High Court. Tilak took all possible measures to attain Swaraj. He made full use of his newspaper to awaken the public. The courts also became the means of their struggle. The verdict of this trial was used 14 years later in Ahmedabad in 1922 as a precedent for punishment in a similar case against Mahatma Gandhi. Tilak’s ‘Kesari’, the proponent of ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it’, and the nationalist writings published in it angered the British government. He was tried for treason for the first time in 1897. Justice Strachey of the Bombay High Court sentenced him to 18 months. But as soon as he came out of jail, he was again on the same path through ‘Kesari’. Dawar, his lawyer, could not save him from punishment. It is interesting that the same Davar heard Lokmanya’s 1908 trial as a judge and sentenced him.

‘Kesari’ was stinging in the eyes of the British
The differences between the moderate and extremist leaders came to the fore in the Surat session of the Congress in 1907. With the two factions blaming each other, the British government had intensified the repression cycle against the extremist leaders. The government was assuming that Lokmanya Tilak was behind the anti-British activities in the country and he needed to be sent to jail. His much circulated ‘Kesari’ newspaper had become a thorn in the eyes of the British. The Governor of Bombay, George Clarke, accused some influential people of the society of spreading hatred and contempt against the government. When he was speaking, people were understanding where is the target? Lokmanya Tilak was arrested in Bombay on the third day of Clarke’s speech on June 24, 1908. A week before this, the case of ‘Kaal’ editor SM Paranjpe was handed over to the sessions court. Tilak came to Bombay to help him. After his arrest, the police locked his house and press in Poona. Then during the search the house and the press were ransacked. The recovery was of a post card, on which the names of two books on explosives were inscribed. During the trial, the prosecution had described this postcard as very important as evidence. When the Bombay government felt that Kesari’s May 12 article would not strengthen the case, the June 9 editorial was also included in the allegations.

Engaged in lawsuits for 40 years, did not pursue the profession of advocacy

Born on July 23, 1856, Bal Gangadhar Tilak passed law in 1880. Took law classes for nine years. Wrote many intellectual articles on law in ‘Kesari’. In his public life of 40 years, he was constantly embroiled in lawsuits and courts. This also included the courts of London. He faced sedition charges three times. The legal skill was such that when he was sent to prison for the first time in 1897 after his conviction in the case of treason, the very next day he prepared a draft of appeal to the Privy Council from prison and handed it over to his lawyers. This appeal was prepared after hearing the decision in the court. The veteran lawyer was taken by surprise. Hardly any leader like him could have made political use of the judicial process. But interestingly, he never practiced law as a profession.

European jury convicted, Indian jury innocent

In this historic case of sedition, Tilak was fully prepared to be punished. A nine-member special jury was constituted, consisting of seven Europeans and two Indian Parsis. Tilak took 21 hours and ten minutes of six working days between the third and eighth day of the trial to present his defense arguments. In support of his side, 71 Indian and Anglo Indian newspapers were filed. Tilak said that do not think of it as a question of one person, who is undesirable for the government and who is anti-government. Rather think of it as a question of freedom of newspapers in India. He appealed to the jury to keep the tradition of their forefathers who fought for freedom of speech and publication of thought. They consider themselves to be the custodians of newspapers in India. They should stand between the newspapers and the government and work to soften the use of harsh laws. It also reminded the jury that it is not bound by the judge’s directions with regard to facts. The verdict was as expected. Seven European members of the jury found him guilty and two Indians considered innocent. Judge Davar, accepting the jury’s decision, severely criticized Tilak. Imprisonment for six years and fined one thousand rupees.

Mill workers went on strike, all markets were closed

The verdict of this case was pronounced at around ten o’clock in the night. It was the belief of the people in Tilak’s personality and his written words that even in the midst of heavy rains, thousands of people stood in front of the High Court till late night. Heavy police force was deployed to keep the crowd under control. Mounted police were running everywhere. The next morning public anger broke out. All the markets were closed. Mill workers went on strike. Bombay stayed for the next six days. Tilak’s name and slogans echoed everywhere in the streets and alleys. The police had to make a lot of effort to stop the demonstrations. The agitators also clashed with the government supporters at many places. Then Bombay was handed over to the army. 15 lives lost. Everyone was injured.

Tilak’s words plaque in the same Central Court after 50 years
After the verdict of the trial, Tilak had said from the courtroom, ‘Even after the verdict of the jury, I claim that I am innocent. There is a supreme power that determines our destiny and it may be God’s will that the purpose I represent has flourished more in my captivity and further torture than in my being free.’ After 50 years, these words of Tilak were put on a marble plaque outside the Central Court of Bombay High Court where he was tried twice for sedition within 12 years in the freedom struggle. Both times he was convicted and sentenced. Still, Tilak did not waver. The occasion of the unveiling of this plaque was considered by the then Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, Muhammad Karim Chagla, as the greatest honor of his life. He had said that the punishments awarded to Tilak in this courtroom were a clear violation of real justice. The purpose of punishing them was to suppress the spirit of freedom and patriotism. But this purpose was not fulfilled, because the human soul cannot be defeated. No matter how much a man is imprisoned, his indomitable soul cannot be conquered.

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