Time: 11.40 a m on March 18, 1922.
Place: A ground floor room at the Circuit House in Shahibaug in Ahmedabad.
Scene: Barely 20 minutes before the trial, often compared with that of Socrates, of Mahatma Gandhi on charges of sedition.The court room was filled to the capacity.
The charges were that the three articles published in Young In-dia of September 29 and December 15,1921, and February 23, 1922,titled Tampering with Loyalty, A Puzzle and Its Solution and Shaking of the Manes. After the arguments by the Advocate-General, Sir Thomas Strangman,the court asked Gandhi if he would like to make a statement.
The Mahatma,then 53, stood up,erect and unafraid.The court room was all ears,as if the entire the world were intently listening to what this man who described himself as a farmer and weaver had to say. "...I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me....Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.But I had to make a choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth, when they understood the truth from my lips....I am, therefore, here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act."
Gandhiji then read out the statement in a measured tone,tracing the events of Chauri Chora,the Punjab and other places in the country,which made him become an "uncompromising disaffection-ist and non-co-operator" from a " staunch loyalist".
" I discovered that as a man and an Indian, I had no right. More correctly I discovered that I had no rights as a man, because I was an Indian....The administration of law is prostituted consciously or consciously for the benefit of the exploiter."
Gandhiji said: " Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence."
" I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which in totality has done more harm to India than any previous system. India is less manly under the British Rule than she ever was before. Holding such a belief, I consider it to be a sin to have affection for the system and it has been a precious privilege for me to be able to write what I have in the various articles tendered in evidence against me."
He told the judge: "The only course open to you is either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil and that in real-ity I am innocent; or to inflict on me the severest penalty...."
The statement that sounded like the testament of India's freedom struggle had taken just 15 minutes to read. There was a hush in the court room.
The air was heavy with apprehension. The sessions judge,Mr C.Broomsfield,began slowly : "....The law is no respecter of per-sons.Nevertheless it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to try. It would be impossible to ignore the fact that in the eyes of millions of your countrymen are a great patriot and a great leader. Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and of even saintly life.I have to deal with you in one character only."
The judge handed the Mahatma an imprisonment of six years adding that " if the course of events in India should make it possible for the government to reduce the period and release you, no one will be better pleased than I."
As the judge left the room, followers crowded around Gandhi. Some fell at his feet,others were sobbing.Gandhi was smiling and cool.The Great Trial of Gandhi had taken 100 minutes.
TIME MARCHES ON And, an eternity of casualness follows.Here is a scene frozen in memory.
Time: Around 3.45 in the afternoon on a humid July day in 1997,barely four weeks before the 50th anniversary of India's Independence.
Scene: Circuit House in Shahibaug.
Despite being state guest house frequented by VIPs,the lawn gives an impression of poor maintenance,an impression that would strengthen inside the historic room.The place is quiet, with only a handful of bearers and other minions on government payroll,are bustling around,wearing the patented bureaucratic look of being purposeful without being meaningfully so.In short, not doing much. Nobody has time to answer queries related to the past, pre-occupied with the mundane matters of the present. " The manager saheb has gone out for work" comes the pat reply from a bored clerk,manning the telephone-cum-reception desk. A limousine slides into the portico and he does not have time even for a bored non-reply. A chhota-make-believe VIP, i.e. a political hanger-on of a leader,has arrived.
All along the four wall,stacked are smaller chairs,numbering more than 35. Some one dozen more chairs, of moulded plastics are piled up at one place. The general idea appears to be that no one, but no one should, run short of a chair, at least in this room,if not in the state and the country at large.
Everyone appears blissfully unaware of the real significance of the room,where Gandhiji was tried.It faces the dining hall on the ground floor and is used now as a lounge for visitors and as a place where occasionally politicians of all hues hold press conferences. "You see, the place is really inexpensive as compared to a hotel", says a worker, explaining why politicians choose the lounge to tell the media on-record untruths, right under the mournful glance of the Bapu,whose life-size oil painting adorns the far-side wall.Mercifully, the politicians generally sit with their back turned on the historic Gandhi trial documents.
The floor tiles wear a dirty look,as if it has only been sparingly and grudgingly swept all these days. Three-piece sofa sets,each one complete with side and front tables are in front of all the four walls.There are several doors but only one is open; two neon tube-lights throw pools of eerie fluorescent light.Three fans are turning in true government-fashion,going round and round without cooling the room.
On another wall is a large painting ,depicting the scene of Gan-dhi's trial but hardly anyone seems interested.Next to it is another oil-painting,with Gandhi sitting in his famous posture.The next wall has the honour of having a bust each of the Mahatma and Sardar Patel.So much for the effort to render the place beautiful.It has the signature of PWD all over.
The actual documents-- or,truthfully,photostat copies of these -- are housed in display panels,numbering nine and mounted on steel tubings,pushed into the room corners in clusters of threes and twos.The first panel,mounted on a black paper says boldly, The Judgement,but the first page of the judgement that should be under it is missing. The second page (see the photograph) has been eaten into by moths.The tube lights on each panel are resolutely switched off,lest someone reads the historic documents.
Outside the room are two plaques,one in Hindi and the other in English,telling visitors of the historic importance of the room. An employee is half-dozing on a chair,presumably doing his duty to-wards the government and the state it rules,thanks to the Ma-hatma.
It all looks like an ill-kept,unkempt place honouring the apostle of cleaninless in personal and public life, a stark reminder of how far we have come to his ideal of Swaraj after half-a-century.If it is a determined effort designed to make one forget about Gandhi, it succeeds eminently.
The eternity of indifference persists, with minor modifications visualised by the Babudum.
MAHATMA GANDHI AMAR RAHO.