When Mahatma Gandhi refused to apologise to Bombay High court for ‘contempt’

Prashant Bhushan famously quoted Mahatma Gandhi in a sedition case of 1922 when he told court that he did not seek mercy. But 100 years ago in 1920 he had refused to apologise for contempt of court

When Mahatma Gandhi refused to apologise to Bombay High court for ‘contempt’


It was on April 13, 1919 that troops had opened fire at unarmed Indians at Jallianwala Bagh under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. The then Governor of Punjab Michael O'Dwyer is remembered for his role in the formulation of Defence of India Act and in 1919 the Rowlatt Act.

The anti-Rowlatt Act agitation raged across the country and many were killed or injured, thousands were incarcerated in jails and millions participated and suffered in the Satyagraha Andolan called by the Congress.

On 22 April 1919, the District Judge of Ahmedabad B. C. Kennedy wrote a "private-official" missive to the Registrar of the Bombay High Court, informing him that two advocates, Kalidas J. Jhaveri and Jivanlal V. Desai had signed a pledge and, as per judge Kennedy, such an action was not in keeping with their responsibilities towards the court.

The Bombay High Court issued a notice to the duo on July 12, 1919, and a copy of the District Judge Kennedy's letter was handed over to Jivanlal V. Desai, one of the advocates, who, in turn, gave a copy to the other respondent, Kalidas J. Jhaveri.

Advocate Kalidas J. Jhaveri handed over a copy of the letter to Mahatma Gandhi, then the Editor of Young India, whose publisher was Mahadev Desai. Mahatma Gandhi published the letter on the front page of Young India, under the provocative headline "O'Dwyerism in Ahmedabad". On page 2, Mahatma Gandhi wrote an editorial saying that District judge Kennedy had betrayed himself as someone who was guilty of prejudging the issue, and had pronounced the judgement in advance. "His imputation would be ungentlemanly in a stranger and is unpardonable in his case," he added.

The editor of Young India was asked by Bombay High Court to explain why the semi-official letter and his comments were published even as the case was sub-judice, adding that such action amounted to interference in the judicial process. This amounted to contempt of court, the High Court held. The Registrar of the HC wrote to Gandhi that he may offer his explanation before the Chief Justice in his Chambers and not in the open court.

But Mahatma Gandhi chose to send his clarification in writing. "In my humble opinion, I was within the rights as a journalist in publishing (Justice Kennedy's) letter and making comments thereon. I believed the letter to be of great public importance and one that called for public criticism."

The High Court offered to let Gandhi off provided he published an apology. Gandhi refused to publish any apology. He reiterated that he had performed a useful public duty (by publishing Justice Kennedy's letter) at a time when there was great tension and when even the judiciary was being affected by popular prejudice. He added for good measure that "in similar circumstances, he would not act differently”.

When the matter came up for hearing on February 27, 1920, Mahatma Gandhi declared, “I have been unable to accept the advice (given by the Chief Justice) because I do not consider that I have committed either a legal or a moral breach by publishing Mr. Kennedy's letter or by commenting on the contents thereof." He also made it clear that the Young India had indeed published the letter at his instance, thus assuming direct responsibility. Mahadev Desai, too, refused to apologise, and said the court might punish him if it so desired.

Their refusal to apologise to the court unnerved the court. It dwelt on case laws in great detail, citing judgements of British courts , going all the way back to 1746, and concluded that publication of judge Kennedy's letter, when the matter was still being heard in the Bombay High Court, was an interference in judicial proceeding, and thus, amounted to contempt of court. Both, Gandhi and Desai, were held guilty as charged. Eventually, the Bombay High Court decided to issue a "severe reprimand" and asking Gandhi and Desai not to repeat such behaviour again.

Prashant Bhushan in his statement to the Supreme Court repeated words that Mahatma Gandhi had uttered in a different case on March 18, 1922, in the District Court of Ahmedabad while facing charges of sedition (along with Shankarlal G. Banker) before C. N. Broomfield, District and Sessions Judge, Ahmedabad.

"I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to cheerfully submit to any penalty that can lawfully be inflicted upon me for what the Court has determined to be an offence, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen."

The norms that leaders of our freedom struggle set for public life and the bar they fixed for moral courage, serve us as a beacon till this day and time.

We are passing through a difficult time in history today. We need leaders and journalists the likes of Gandhi who can call out the bluff of "O'Dwyerism" of our times. We must never forget that followers of the spirit of O'Dwyerism had murdered the Mahatma.

(The author is a Sahitya Akademi Award winner and editor of Punjabi Tribune)

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Published: 31 Aug 2020, 12:37 PM