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Lawyers in the Indian Freedom Movement

With the selfless guidance and statesmanship of the legal profession, the Indian national movement gained participation and its impact reached far beyond immediate political consequences.

The movement that began in 1857 as a sepoy mutiny took the shape of a nationwide struggle for Independence from the British Raj. It incorporated various national and regional campaigns, agitations and efforts of both non-violent and militant philosophies.

Humble beginnings of the Indian National Congress

After the First war of Independence in 1857 and its aftermath, the formation of Indian National Congress in 1885 marked the beginning of a new era in the national movement. The era was of moderates like Dadabhai Naoroji and Sundernath Bannerjee while Madan Mohan Malviya and Motilal Nehru, amongst others, were important moderate leaders who were lawyers by profession. The moderates believed in the system of constitutionalism. They functioned more as a debating society that met annually to express its loyalty to the British Raj and passed numerous resolutions on less controversial issues such as civil rights or opportunities in government which were submitted to the Viceroy’s government and occasionally to the British Parliament. But none of this made any substantive impact.

In 1905, the British announced the partition of Bengal on communal lines. This was opposed by the Congress and the nationalist leaders who adopted policies like Swadeshi wherein they boycotted British goods and promoted Indian goods. This created a faction in the Congress and brought to light the underlying forces of antagonism that was prevalent in the Indian National Congress due to the opposite ideologies of Moderates and emerging group of the extremists.

The extremists – Lal, Bal, Pal

Lawyers like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was an extremist, gave a new direction to the INC. Tilak began a new phase of more radical thought within the organization. He put forth new ideas and methods of opposing the imperialist rule and advocated stronger actions like the boycott of foreign goods and the policy of swadeshi (self reliance). He did not believe that the British rule was beneficial and instead felt that their rule was extremely harmful. He introduced the idea of Swaraj (complete independence) way back in 1897 with his famous statement,”Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”.

After the partition of Bengal he emerged as an important leader of the extremist faction. In the 1906 session he was able to get his ideas of swaraj, swadeshi and boycott adopted despite the opposition of the moderates. After the split of the Indian National Congress in 1907, the British began cracking down on extremist leaders. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned and deported to Mandalay for six years. During this time he wrote two books, Gita Rahasya and the Artic Home in the Vedas. He was released in 1914 and started the home rule league two years later in 1916, which inspired the youth to fight against the foreign occupation of the country. Sir Valentine Chirol rightly described him as one of the most dangerous pioneers of disaffection and truly the father of Indian unrest.

Other eminent lawyers who supported the extremist ideology were C. Rajagopalachari and Lala Lajpat Rai.Lala Lajpat Rai was popularly known as the Punjab Kesari and Sher-e-Punjab and was also the founder of Punjab National Bank and Lakshmi Insurance Company. He formed the extremist faction of the congress along with Tilak and Bipin Chndra Pal, the trio was popularly called “Lal, Bal, Pal”. Later, Lajpat Rai presided over the first session of the All India Trade Union Congress in 1920. He also went to Geneva to attend the eighth International Labour Conference in 1926 as a representative of Indian labour. His journals Bande Mataram and People, contained his inspiring speeches to end oppression by the foreign rulers.

Fighting the British in court

A cycle of violence and repression had ensued in some parts of the country as a result of the partition of Bengal, and Alipore Bomb Case was a famous controversy which arose at that time. Aurobindo Ghosh and 37 other revolutionaries were suspected to have been engaged in illegal activities and sedition and were arrested. However, the eminent lawyer CR Das came to the rescue, who through his brilliant handling of the case got Aurobindo and many others was acquitted. This case brought Das to the forefront professionally and politically. Also called Deshbandhu, CR Das, used his legal knowledge to save many other nationalists and revolutionaries from the clutches of the British. He was the defence counsel in the Dacca Conspiracy Case (1910-11) as well and was famed for his handling of both civil and criminal law.

Meanwhile, in 1909, the British Government announced certain reforms in the structure of Government in India, known as Morley-Minto Reforms. But these reforms came as a disappointment as they did not mark any advance towards the establishment of a representative Government. The provision of special representation of the Muslims was seen as a threat to the Hindu-Muslim unity on which the strength of the National Movement rested. Thus these reforms were vehemently opposed by all the nationalists. The disgust with the reforms announced in 1909 led to the intensification of the struggle for Swaraj. While, on one side, the extremists waged a virtual war against the British, on the other side, the revolutionaries stepped up their violent activities. There was a widespread unrest in the country. To add to the already growing discontent among the people, Rowlatt Act was passed in 1919, which empowered the Government to put people in jail without trial. This caused widespread indignation, led to massive demonstration and hartals.

Lawyer cum nationalist, Saifuddin Kitchlew was one of the leaders who protested against this legislation. Kithclew was also a founding leader of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (Indian Youth Congress), which rallied hundreds of thousands of students and young Indians to nationalist causes. He was also among the principal founders of Jamia Millia Islamia.
Mahatma Gandhi

This also marked the entrance of Mahatma Gandhi in the mainstream Indian politics. Gandhi, also a lawyer by profession, had just returned from South Africa, where he had carried out a successful Satyagraha against the racial discrimination and for civil liberties of the people. Meanwhile, Gandhi had made his mark in India already by his success in Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha. Gandhi led organized protests and strikes against the landlords who, with the guidance of the British government, signed an agreement granting the poor farmers of the region more compensation and control over farming, and cancellation of revenue hikes and its collection until the famine ended. In Kheda, Sardar Patel, a lawyer by profession, represented the farmers in negotiations with the British, who suspended revenue collection and released all the prisoners.

Patel subsequently organised the peasants of Kheda, Borsad, and Bardoli in Gujarat in non-violent civil disobedience against oppressive policies imposed by the British Raj; in this role, he became one of the most influential leaders in Gujarat.

Rajendra Prasad, an eminent lawyer and the first President of India, was also involved with Gandhi in the Champaran movement. Bhulabhai Desai, another lawyer and a politician, represented the farmers of Gujarat in the inquiry by the British Government following the Bardoli Satyagraha in 1928. Bhulabhai formidably represented the farmers’ case, and was important to the eventual success of the struggle.

Most lawyers gave their time freely, at the cost of their own legal practice, to the defense of scores of helpless victims of Martial Law implemented by the British, who had been condemned to the gallows or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.There was a shift in ideology as well, from moderate to a more radical one.

The era of mass movements

In December 1921, Gandhi was invested with executive authority on behalf of the Indian National Congress. Under his leadership, the Congress was reorganized with a new constitution, with the goal of Swaraj. Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee. Thus congress, an elitist institution was now open to masses by Gandhi. Gandhi expanded his non-violence platform to include the swadeshi policy — the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially British goods. Linked to this was his advocacy that khadi (homespun cloth) be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles. This was a strategy to inculcate discipline and dedication to weed out the unwilling and ambitious, and to include women in the movement at a time when many thought that such activities were not respectable activities for women. In addition to boycotting British products, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British educational institutions and law courts, to resign from government employment, and to forsake British titles and honours.

Non cooperation Movement also saw the involvement of Jawaharlal Nehru who plunged himself into the Indian freedom struggle during this time. A London educated lawyer, Nehru had spent his time touring the nation and spreading Gandhian ideas and making himself acquainted with the problems of the common people. Rajagopalachari, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malviya, Motilal Nehru, CR Das and Sardar Patel were other lawyers who gave their full contribution to the non cooperation movement. Patel toured the state to recruit more than 300,000 members and raise over Rs. 1.5 million in funds for the non cooperation movement and helped organise bonfires of British goods in Ahmedabad and Gujarat. He also supported Gandhi’s controversial suspension of resistance in wake of the Chauri Chaura incident. He worked extensively in the following years in Gujarat against alcoholism, untouchability and caste discrimination, as well as for the empowerment of women.

With the suspension of the Non-Cooperation Movement, CR Das and Motilal Nehru endeavoured to give a new orientation to Indian politics through his Council-Entry programme, i.e. “Non-Cooperation from within the Councils”. They however met with vehement opposition from Gandhi and the “No-changers”. Thereafter CR Das, Motilal Nehru, the Ali brothers, Ajmal Khan, V. J. Patel, Pratap Guha Roy and others organised the Swarajya Party within the Congress. It was initially known as the Congress-Swaraj-Khilafat Party. Through the efforts of the Swarajists, Maulana Azad was elected President of the Congress Special Session at Delhi, where the programme of Council-Entry was approved. The programme was later confirmed at the Cocanada Session.

The Swarajya Party was the largest Party in the Central Legislative Assembly as well as in some of the Provincial Legislatures. From 1925 onwards it was recognised by the Congress as its political wing.
After the Simon Commission and the violence in its aftermath, an All-Parties Conference was convened by Dr. Ansari, the Congress President, and a Committee, including Tej Bahadur Sapru, an eminent lawyer and headed by Motital Nehru, was appointed to determine the principles of a constitution for free India. The report of the Committee – the Nehru Report as it came to be called – attempted a solution of the communal problem which unfortunately failed to receive the support of a vocal section of Muslim opinion led by the Aga Khan and Jinnah.

The Nehru Report, representing as it did the highest common denominator among a number of heterogeneous Parties was based on the assumption that the new Indian Constitution would be based on Dominion Status. Calcutta Congress (December 1928) over which Motilal presided was the scene of a head-on clash between those who were prepared to accept Dominion Status and those who would have nothing short of complete independence. A split was averted by a via media proposed by Gandhi-ji, according to which if Britain did not concede Dominion Status within a year, the Congress was to demand complete independence and to fight for it, if necessary, by launching civil disobedience. Gandhi had not only moderated the views of younger men like Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, who sought a demand for immediate independence, but also reduced his own call to a one year wait, instead of two. The British did not respond. Mahatma Gandhi led the Civil Disobedience Movement that was launched in the Congress Session of December 1929. The aim of this movement was a complete disobedience of the orders of the British Government. On 31 December 1929, the flag of India was unfurled in Lahore session of the Congress and 26 January 1930 was celebrated as India’s Independence Day by the Indian National Congress.

The President of the historic Lahore session, Jawahar Lal Nehru was prompt to use the platform in order to declare Purna Swaraj or Complete Independence. The monumental Lahore Congress introduced the Civil Disobedience Movement.

This was followed by Gandhiji launching his famous Salt Satyagraha and the Dandi march in Gujarat. During the same time, revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were arrested on the charges of throwing a bomb in the Central Assembly Hall. Asaf Ali, a freedom fighter and a prominent lawyer, defended the revolutionaries but they were hanged on March 23, 1931.
The government, represented by Lord Edward Irwin, decided to negotiate with Gandhi after the civil disobedience movement. The Gandhi–Irwin Pact was signed in March 1931. The British Government agreed to free all political prisoners, in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement.
After the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, Patel was elected Congress president for its 1931 session in Karachi—here the Congress ratified the pact, committed itself to the defence of fundamental rights and human freedoms, and a vision of a secular nation, minimum wage and the abolition of untouchability and serfdom. Patel used his position as Congress president in organising the return of confiscated lands to farmers in Gujarat.

Round table conferences

As a result of the pact, Gandhi was invited to attend the Round Table Conference in London as the sole representative of the INC. The conference was a disappointment to Gandhi and the nationalists, because it focused on the Indian princes and Indian minorities rather than on a transfer of power.

In 1932, another round table conference was organized and Ambedkar, an eminent lawyer and a Dalit leader was invited to attend the same. Ambedkar had been working for the social upliftment of the Dalits and lower caste people and was opposed to the Hindu idea of casteism and social discrimination. Through his campaigning, the government granted untouchables separate electorates under the new constitution. In protest Gandhi began a fast-unto-death while imprisoned in the Yerwada Central Jail of Pune in 1932 against the separate electorate for untouchables only. Ambedkar agreed under massive coercion from the supporters of Gandhi for an agreement, which saw Gandhi end his fast, while dropping the demand for separate electorates that was promised through the British Communal Award prior to Ambedkar’s meeting with Gandhi. This was the start of a new campaign by Gandhi to improve the lives of the untouchables, whom he named Harijans, the children of God. On 8 May 1933, Gandhi began a 21-day fast of self-purification to help the Harijan movement.

Second World War and the Quit India Movement

World War II broke out in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Gandhi promised to extend his support to the British in the war in return of the freedom, while Subhash Chandra Bose advocated taking advantage of the situation to expel the British Raj by any means necessary. This caused a fiction between the two and led to Bose resigning from INC. Leaders like Gobind Bhallabh Pant, who was also a lawyer by profession, acted as the tiebreaker between them.

Gandhi then declared that India could not be party to a war ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom, while that freedom was denied to India itself. In August 1942, Gandhi launched the ‘Quit India Movement’ and a mass civil disobedience movement. The movement was followed, nonetheless, by large-scale violence directed at railway stations, telegraph offices, government buildings, and other emblems and institutions of colonial rule. There were widespread acts of sabotage, and the government held Gandhi responsible for these acts of violence. All the prominent leaders were arrested, the Congress was banned and the police and army were brought out to suppress the movement.

Meanwhile, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who stealthily ran away from the British detention in Calcutta, reached foreign lands like Japan and organized the Indian National Army (INA) to overthrow the British from India but it was only partially successful as Japan lost the World War and Netaji met with an air crash and died.

When three captured Indian National Army (INA) officers, Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon were put on trial for treason, the Congress formed a Defence committee composed of 17 advocates including Bhulabhai Desai. The court-martial hearing began in October 1945 at the Red Fort. Bhulabhai was the leading counsel for the defense. Afsal Ali also came to be the convenor of the INA defence team. Another prominent lawyer defending them was Kailash Nath Katju  who also defended the accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case in Allahabad High Court in 1933. The successful release of all 3 officers was a great achievement on the part of the Indain lawyers.

Cabinet Mission and Partition

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the Labour Party, under Prime Minister Clement Richard Attlee, came to power in Britain. The Labour Party was sympathetic towards India‚Äôs freedom and a Cabinet Mission was sent to India in March 1946, which proposed the formation of an interim Government and convening of a Constituent Assembly comprising members elected by the provincial legislatures and nominees of the Indian states. An interim Government was formed headed by Jawaharlal Nehru who was an obvious choice given that he was the then President of the INC. Jawaharlal Nehru’s rise within the Indian National Congress (INC) was dramatic in the years following the Non-Cooperation movement.

A Constituent Assembly was formed in July 1946, to frame the Constitution of India and Dr. Rajendra Prasad was elected its President. The new Congress-led government invited Ambedkar to serve as the nation’s first law minister, which he accepted. Ambedkar was also appointed as the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, charged by the Assembly to draft India’s new Constitution. Ambedkar won great praise from his colleagues and contemporary observers for his drafting work.

However, the Muslim League refused to participate in the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly and pressed for the separate state for Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India, presented a plan for the division of India into India and Pakistan, and the Indian leaders had no choice but to accept the division, as the Muslim League was adamant.

As a rule, Gandhi was opposed to the concept of partition as it contradicted his vision of religious unity.  He conducted extensive dialogue with Muslim and Hindu community leaders, working to cool passions in northern India, as well as in Bengal. Gandhi’s arrival in Delhi, turned out to an important intervention in ending the rioting, he even visited Muslims areas to restore faith of the Muslim populace. He launched his last fast-unto-death on January 12, 1948, in Delhi asking that all communal violence be ended once and for all, Muslims homes be restored to them and that the payment of 550 million rupees be made to Pakistan.

It was feared that instability and insecurity in Pakistan would increase their anger against India, and violence would spread across the borders. He further feared that Hindus and Muslims would renew their enmity and that this would precipitate open civil war. After emotional debates with his life-long colleagues, Gandhi refused to budge, and the Government rescinded its policy and made the payment to Pakistan. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh community leaders, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha assured him that they would renounce violence and call for peace. Partition was also resisted by Muslim leaders like Kitchlew who called it a blatant “surrender of nationalism for communalism”.

Vallabhbhai Patel was however one of the first Congress leaders to accept the partition of India as a solution to the rising Muslim separatist movement led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Following Gandhi’s and Congress’ approval of the Cabinet plan, Patel represented India on the Partition Council, where he oversaw the division of public assets, and selected the Indian council of ministers with Nehru. Patel later took the lead in organising relief and emergency supplies, establishing refugee camps and visiting the border areas with Pakistani leaders to encourage peace. Patel publicly warned officials against partiality and neglect.

The Constitution of India was finally adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26th November 1949. On January 26, 1950, the Constitution came into force and Dr. Rajendra Prasad was elected the first President of India. C. Rajagopalachari became the first Indian Governor General after Lord Mount Batten in 1948. Both Prasad and Rajaji were the recipients of Bharat Ratna, the Indian government’s highest civilian award.

C. Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel also formed the triumvirate which ruled India from 1948 to 1950. Prime Minister Nehru was intensely popular with the masses, but Patel enjoyed the loyalty and faith of rank and file Congressmen, state leaders and India’s civil services. Patel was a senior leader in the Constituent Assembly of India and was responsible in a large measure for shaping India’s constitution.  Patel was a key force behind the appointment of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee, and the inclusion of leaders from a diverse political spectrum in the process of writing the constitution.

As the first Home Minister andDeputy Prime Minister of India, during the partition, Patel organised relief for refugees in Punjab and Delhi, and led efforts to restore peace across the nation. Patel took charge of the task to forge a united India from the 565 semi-autonomous princely states and British-era colonial provinces. Using frank diplomacy backed with the option (and the use) of military action, Patel’s leadership enabled the accession of almost every princely state. Hailed as the Iron Man of India, he is also remembered as the “Patron Saint” of India’s civil servants for establishing modern all-India services. Patel was also one of the earliest proponents of property rights and free enterprise in India.

Thus the saga of Indian freedom came to an end as India woke up to freedom in the midnight of 14th August, 1947. The contribution of the lawyers and jurists in this struggle for liberty, equality, justice and truth however remains unparalleled.

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