In October 1930, Jawaharlal Nehru, fresh from his release from prison after serving a sentence for breaking salt laws, called for a no-tax campaign at a meeting of the United Provinces Congress Committee. He called upon landlords and peasants alike to participate in the campaign.
On 12 October, while addressing a large gathering, Nehru said:
We have adopted the policy of nonviolence because we believe in it and wish to give it the fullest trial in all honesty… The first phase of the great struggle has come to an end. It has been marked by a national awakening to which the world has been an admiring witness. Now the second stage is beginning, the stage of our laying the foundations of a future, free India. Every city, every mohalla, every village must now play its part in this effort by making itself ready to become a living, self-dependent entity in free India. We must be prepared not only to pay any taxes to the British Government but also to do without any service which they may render to us.
Thereafter, Nehru was forbidden to speak in public by the police, but he defied orders and addressed a mass gathering of peasants at Allahabad on 19 October and decided to start the no-tax campaign from Allahabad itself. However, before he could even reach home from the rally, he was arrested for sedition and taken to prison.
In the true spirit of non-cooperation, even Nehru refused to defend himself and pleaded guilty to the charge under Section 124A of the IPC. In his statement to the magistrate, he said, ‘There can be no compromise between freedom and slavery, and between truth and falsehood. We realized that the price of freedom is blood and suffering—the blood of our own countrymen and the suffering of the noblest in the land—and that price we shall pay in full measure… To the Indian people I cannot express my gratitude sufficiently for their confidence and affection. It has been the greatest joy in my life to serve in this glorious struggle and to do my little bit for the cause. I pray that my countrymen and countrywomen will carry on the good fight unceasingly till success crowns their effort and we realise the India of our dreams.’ On 24 October 1930, he was sentenced to two years in prison for sedition under Section 124A and for breaking other laws. However, he was released after serving ninety-seven days.
Nehru’s second tryst with sedition was to occur three years after his release from prison after his first conviction for sedition. In January 1934, Nehru travelled to Calcutta in solidarity with the repressed masses of Bengal. During his four-day stay there, he had addressed some meetings, out of which three speeches formed the basis of the sedition charge against him.
The first speech was delivered at Albert Hall in Calcutta on 17 January on ‘The Character of the National Struggle’. After apprising the gathering of the nationalist movements across India, Nehru criticized the British government for the brutal, disgusting and vulgar mentality with which it was governing India. He said:
It is an extraordinary vulgarity of imperialism. Why is that so? Because imperialism of today, in spite of the strength that it seems to possess, is in a tottering condition, and when a great system like this totters, when it is afraid of failing, then it loses all control, its culture and education and everything else goes. It becomes vulgar and it becomes abusive… these are the signs of a decadent system. The system is utterly decadent. Therefore you find utter cruelty, utter vandalism. That is what is happening specially in Bengal and the Frontier Province… Therefore, do not expect anything from appeals to chivalry or appeals to justice or the like. We are today in the midst of a historic struggle, which all nations have to face at a particular time and from that there is only one escape—victory of one side or the other. I hope you will realise that and work for that.
The next speech was also delivered at Albert Hall the very next day on ‘The Futility of Terrorism and the Nature of Mass Movement’. As the title suggests, Nehru was critical of terrorism as a form of nationalist movement and called it weak, futile, harmful and completely out of date. However, he preached disloyalty and said:
In the Congress we have nothing to do with loyalty. We are disloyal… and it is our business to preach disloyalty… Are you going to be loyal to those people who humiliate your people, who degrade your country, or are you going to be loyal to your own country, to your own people? … Indian nationalism and British imperialism are at close grips with each other. British imperialism may succeed in suppressing Indian nationalism, but remember this also: that while Indian nationalism will grow again, but British imperialism will be suppressed once for all by Indian nationalism.
The third speech was delivered in Hindi at Maheshwari Bhawan on 18 January. However, according to Nehru, the translation of the speech was grossly inaccurate, conveyed the wrong impression and misrepresented what he had actually said. The speech has not been published in Nehru’s selected works for this same reason.
Nehru was arrested from Allahabad on 12 February on warrants issued by the Calcutta police. He was produced before the chief presidency magistrate on 13 February, who charged him with sedition under Section 124A and offered to hold the trial in private to protect Nehru’s feelings!
Nehru refused the offer and conveyed his preference of being tried in public. His trial was held on 15 February before the chief presidency magistrate. He refused to take part in the proceedings, just like his earlier sedition trial, and did not enter any defence, thereby pleading guilty. He admitted that his activities had been seditious for years, that is, if sedition meant the desire to achieve the independence of India and put an end to foreign domination. He further admitted having attempted to put an end to British rule in India and therefore being guilty of sedition. He condemned the British government in Bengal and its brutalities. He concluded his statement by saying, ‘It is a terrible thing when brutality becomes a method of behaviour.’
Thanks to his guilty plea, Nehru was sentenced to two years’ simple imprisonment under Section 124A of the IPC on 16 February 1934. In fact, Sushil Kumar Sinha, who was the chief presidency magistrate, felt regret for the trial and conviction and thought Nehru would be wasted in prison. He suggested that if Nehru would express some form of regret, he could put an end to the matter and save himself from incarceration. He offered to adjourn the sentencing hearing and also offered to see the governor himself to speak on behalf of Nehru. Though moved by the earnestness of the gesture, Nehru refused to show any remorse or regret. He felt that any such move would result in a win for the government. Therefore, Sinha was forced to impose the sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
Again, Nehru did not have to serve the full sentence but was released after serving 565 days. The remainder of the sentence was suspended by the government on compassionate grounds as his wife, Kamala Nehru, was seriously ill.
This excerpt from The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India by Chitranshul Sinha has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.