Speeches & Writings
Seditious Meeting Act
At a meeting of the Imperial Legislative Council, held on Saturday, the 6th August, 1910, the Hon. Mr. Jenkins introduced the Bill to provide for the continuance of the Seditious Meetings Act, 1907. The Hon. Pandit opposed the motion and spoke as follows:-
My Lord, the measures before the Council is of exceptional importance, and perhaps it is due both to the Government and to the public, a portion of whom at least I claim to represent, to state the reasons why I think it may duty to oppose the motion that the Act for the Prevention of Seditious Meetings should be continued for another five months. My Lord, after the many able and elaborates speeches that have been made against the motion, it will not be necessary for me to take up much of the time of the Council. But I must complain at the outset of the action of the Hon’ble Member who has moved for leave to introduce the Bill in having thrown the burden of making out a case for not continuing this Act upon the non-official Members. My Lord, I understand that it has been the rule in respect of all legislative business which comes before the Government of India, that the Hon’ble Member who introduces a Bill should state clearly the reasons upon which his motion is based, and should set out before the Council the facts and circumstances which would enable Members, non-official as well as official, to decide whether to vote in favour of the Bill or against it. The Hon’ble Member has told us very briefly that all that the Bill aimed at was the continuance of the Seditious Meeting Act for only five months. He has also told us that the Local Governments have unanimously demanded it. So far as he was concerned, he was no doubt free, as he was willing to surrender his judgment to the judgments of the Local Governments, particularly of one which is presided over by a gentleman of the experience and large views of Sir Edward Baker. But he seemed to forget that there were other Members in the Council who were not in the confidence of these Local Governments as he evidently happens to be, who did not know what the circumstances were which had led Sir Edward Baker and the other Local Governor to ask for a continuance of this Act. My Lord, there is certain responsibility resting upon the non-official Members of this Council as well as upon the official Members. It is also given us to think, and we have to satisfy the still small voice that even we feel within us that there is some justification for supporting a motion to saddle the Statute-book of the country with a measure which was described by Sir Harvey Adamson, as many speakers have reminded the Council, as a repressive measure of considerable potency. This exceptional measure, intended for exceptional times and exceptional places, has now been on the Statute-book for nearly three years. The Government of India when they passed it almost offered apologies for introducing it, and for asking that it should be continued for three years- such was the state of the country at the time. Sir Harvey Adamson repeatedly said that the measure was intended for exceptional times and exceptional circumstances only, and he took the greatest care to the point out in the order that the measure might lack the element of permanency, the life of every notification which was to be issued by a Local Government to declare an area to be a proclaimed are was confined to period of six months.
My Lord, the assurance given by Sir Harvey Adamson and the remarks which fell from Your Excellency in concluding the debate, had led the people to believe that unless some very special circumstances which would justify the continuance of that measure were shown to exist, it would be dead on the 31st of October, 1910. It was with much surprise and regret therefore that we learnt that, while the Government was at Simla, a Bill would be introduced to give a new life to this repressive measure even before it is dead. I submit, my Lord, that in the circumstances of the case it lay heavily upon the Hon’ble the Home Member to place before the Council facts and circumstances which would enable the non-official Members to decide whether they should give their support to the measure or oppose it. I may be permitted to say, and I am sure Your Excellency will accept the statement, that is not a pleasure to non-official Members to oppose Governments measures. We feel the very reverse of the pleasure in opposing them. But we feel, my Lord, that we are here to express opinions which we can justify first to ourselves and then to the public. We feel that we are to judged and far more important body of our countrymen who are keenly watching the conduct of non-official Members as well as that of the Members of the Government in dealing with any legislation which affects them.
Now, my Lord, we might all of us agree in the view that when the circumstances which gave rise to this legislation ceased to exist, this measure should have been allowed to die a natural death. Let us see therefore what those circumstances were and whether they exist in the country to-day. When the Regulation of Meetings Ordinance of 1907, which was a prototype of the Act which is under consideration, was issued, it was stated in the Statement of Objects and Reasons which accompanied it that the ‘acute disorder’ which prevailed in the Punjab and in parts of Eastern Bengal had led to the passing of the Ordinance. My Lord, that acute disorder had almost died before that Ordinance was issued; it certainly did not exist when in November, 1907, the Government decided to pass the present Act. But even assuming that there were circumstances in 1907 which justified the passing of the Act, or at any rate satisfied the members of the Government that it was necessary in the interests of good government, in the interests of the preservation of the public peace, that a strong measure like that should be continued or be placed on the Statute-book, the Hon’ble Member who has put forward the motion under consideration before the Council was bound to satisfy this Council that these circumstances or conditions similar to them exist to-day when he seeks to give a new life to the measure. When piloting the measure through the Council the Hon’ble Sir Harvey Adamson said that he had no desire to disguise the fact that the measure was one of considerable potency. He justified, it however on the ground that in his opinion in the then condition of India such a measure was necessary. My Lord, what are the conditions which exist now? Do they make even the faintest approach to the conditions which existed in 1907 Sir Harvey Adamson complained at that time that the scheme of constitutional reforms which the Government had formulated had not brought about such a change in the public mind as had been expected, and that the Government felt that they had to deal with a section of irreconcilables. But we know that the scheme of reforms originally put forward has, after undergoing many important changes, been carried out since; and notwithstanding the fact that there have been some serious complaints about the regulations framed under the new Councils Act, no one can deny that the reforms as a whole have been received with a feeling of gratitude and have greatly improved the political situation. I believe that there has been a consensus of official and non-official opinion that the reforms carried out have brought about a marked change for the better in the attitude of the general public towards the Government. Is that change to count for nothing in determining whether a repressive measure should be allowed to die its natural death or should be kept alive by fresh legislation?
We have been told that the Local Governments have asked for the Act. With due respect to the Local Governments we cannot blindly substitute the judgments of Local Governments for our own. My Lord, it is difficult for us to understand why, while all that is open and visible to the public eye indicates an absence of those conditions in the country which should justify the reenacting of a repressive measure like the one before us while it is undeniable that there is a world of difference between the conditions which obtain in some Provinces and those which prevail in others, all the Local Governments are unanimous in recommending that such a measure should be brought on the Statute-book for the whole of this vast Indian Empire.
My Lord, the political situation in India was carefully assumed up not long ago in the letter which the Government of India addressed on the 14th March last to the Government of Bengal and to the other Local Governments. In that letter Your Lordship in Council was pleased to recognize that nowhere in India was any considerable proportion of the population imbued with the spirit of disaffection towards the British rule; that there was a party, small in numbers, though of considerable influence, in the opinion of the Government, which was opposed to the continuance of British rule; that among this small party also there was a class which was opposed to a resort to violence; that the other class which advocated and practiced the methods of terrorism consisted for the most part of youths who are still at school or College, and of young men who have not long passed that period of life.’ The letter went on to say that these active revolutionaries were most prominent in parts of Bengal and Eastern Bengal and Bombay; that their movement had spread to the Central Provinces and Berar and to the Punjab; but that it had made little headway in Madras and in the United Provinces; and that the Government of India had received no information of its existence in Burma and in the North-West Frontier Province. That being so, I appeal to Your Lordship, I appeal to every Member of the Council, to judge what change has been brought about since March last which should justify the saddling of my Province, the United Provinces, or of Madras, or of Burma or the North-West Frontier Province with this repressive measure. My Lord, one event has no doubt happened, and that a very sad one too, namely, the death of our beloved King-Emperor. But the demonstrations of grief which that event called forth should have satisfied even the most exceptional mind that the heart of the people is sound; that they mourned the loss of the King-Emperor with as much sincerity as their fellow-subjects in any other parts of the Empire; that they would not have done so if they did not appreciate the British connection and did not want the British rule to continue. What else, my Lord, could be the meaning of the great demonstration that took place in Calcutta, where a hundred thousand Hindus walked a long distance in a burning sun, bare-headed and bare-footed, in order to give united and public expression to their grief? My Lord, there have been manifestations of similar grief all over the country and there are movements going on at present in all Provinces to raise suitable memorials to the revered memory of Edward the Peacemaker. With these evidences of a strengthening of the feeling of loyal allegiance to the Crown that has long existed in the minds of the people, is this the time for the Government of India and for the Local Government to ask for a continuance of a repressive measure, the life of which is to expire by efflux of time in October next? One should have thought, my Lord, that the Government would at such a time have welcomed the removal by natural death of a measure which it has seldom, if ever, found it necessary to use, but which must always be a source of irritation and complaint to the great body of the loyal and law-abiding population of the country, particularly as there is nothing special in the existing circumstances which would justify an opposite course.
It may be said, my Lord, that the Government cannot ignore the existence of the band of the terrorists and anarchists. Your Lordship was pleased, in that same letter to which I have referred, to deal also with the case of these misguided enemies of their country and of its Government. I need not repeat what several other Members have said before me, that every sensible man who has the interests of this country at heart must deeply deplore all anarchical outrages and all unconstitutional action. But it cannot be said with any reason that the prevention of public meetings of twenty persons and more all exercise any restraining influence upon evil conspiracies, on the action of those who hatch their plots in secret, and who must, by the very nature of things, always endeavor to carry out their diabolical design without all avoidable publicity. It is important to remember in this connection that the existence of the Act in question has not evidently hampered terrorists in their action during the last three years. This Act cannot therefore be claimed to be a remedy for that disease.
Your Lordship’s Government was pleased in the letter of March last not only to analyze the political situation but also to suggest some suitable remedies, if I may say so, with the eye of a statesman. The Government expressed its belief that the seditious movement is in the main due to ignorance and misapprehension of the natural consequences of British rule in India; that though there existed in the ranks of those who were hostile to that rule a reside of implacable hatred of all alien intrusion, ‘all the information which has been placed before the Governor-General-in-Council supports the view that the majority of the advocates of nationalism have been misled by shadow arguments and prejudices statements.’ The obvious remedy for this state of things was that the other side of the case should be put before these young men. Your Excellency therefore wisely called upon all officers of Government, and indeed all supporters of law and order, ‘to do his best, each in his own sphere, to combat misrepresentation and to remove misapprehension regarding the character and results of British rule.’ The officers of the Education Department were rightly asked to check the spread of seditious views among their wards by sympathetic discussion and kindly guidance; the attention of all District officers was directed to the necessity of taking leading men in the each district into their confidence, and of cultivating a courteous and considerate demeanor towards all with whom they brought in contact. The concluding portion of the letter said:-
“The Governor-General-in Council believes that there is every reason to expect success for a policy on the lines described in the foregoing paragraphs. There is much ignorance and misunderstanding on the subject of British rule in India, and thence has arisen a spirit of disaffection. The spirit has not spread far, and the wrong impression on which it rests are capable of removal by conciliatory discussion and earnest remonstrance. Many supporter of this so-called nationalist programme have taken alarm at the development of what they regarded as a permissible political movement into the fanatical outrages of the terrorist section. The moment is favourable for detaching them from the party of disaffection and for convincing all but the most extreme of the danger to the general welfare of persistent attacks upon the foundations of the established Government. The great bodies of the people are entirely loyal and prepared to join with the officers of the Government in this mission against disaffection.”
I submit, my Lord, that that was clear and statesman like pronouncement on the policy which the Government should pursue at the present time. It supplied the true remedy for the disease from which the country has in parts suffered and is unfortunately still suffering. But these methods of conciliation require that a free and public discussion of grievances and views should be encouraged rather than discouraged, cases of any serious abuse of the liberty of the speech or meeting being left to be punished by the ordinary laws of the land. At any rate the policy of sympathetic guidance and conciliation which the Government of India deliberately decided upon but a few months ago will be to a large extent stultified if this fetter on the freedom of speech and action is continued, if this repressive measure is given to a fresh lease of life. This being my view of the situation, I submit, with great respect, that the Government should not go on with the proposed legislation. I full realize how vain it would be to hope that the Hon’ble Member in charge of the Bill will drop the motion. But, my Lord, I consider it my duty to say that it very unfortunate that he should not be able to do so. There is nothing more important at this juncture for the good government of this country than that there should be a feeling abroad maong the people that the Government are willing more than ever to listen with sympathy to the representations of Indians, to give due consideration to the wishes and opinions of representative Indians, who are quite as much anxious to uphold law and order, as being the sine qua non of peaceful progress, as any official member can be. Your Lordship has seen that there is a large body of unofficial opinion almost begging that the Government should not proceed with this measure. In these circumstances, unless the Hon’ble Member can lay before the Council the opinions of the Local Governments that he has received and relied on, unless he can disclose facts and circumstances which show that there is a danger that, if meetings are allowed to be held freely as they used to be held before this Act was passed, this circumstance will tend to disturb the cannot be dealt with by the existing enactments, I submit, it cannot but be deplored that the Bill should be proceeded with and passed.
I do wish to dwell at length upon the existence of other provisions in the law which place ample power in the hands of the Government to suppress meetings which are likely to promote sedition or to lead to a disturbance of the public tranquility. Some speakers who have spoken before me, including the Hon’ble Mr. Madge, have said that the existing law is not sufficient. My Lord, it is not necessary for me to enter into a discussion with these gentlemen as to whether that is so or otherwise. My lawyer friends have presented the correct view of the situation. Besides, an ounce of fact is better than a ton of argument. The Council has had a few such facts placed before it, facts which go to show that meetings of 50,000 persons and more in Calcutta, and other large meetings in Nagpur and Eastern Bengal, have been dispersed quietly under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It may be said that if it is a fact that both in that section and in the section relating to unlawful assemblies there is ample power given to the Executive to disperse any assembly which it considers to be objectionable, then why should we object to a measure of this character, which merely gives the same power to Government which it already possesses under other Acts? The reason for this is this. We submit that while the powers which the Government possesses under the other Acts are amply sufficient to deal with every individual case or cases of the abuse of the right of meeting that may arise, the conferring of this general power of proclaiming an area, by which the voice of the whole population there may be silenced, is most dangerous and unjust. My Lord, what is it that may happen under such an Act? As some of my friends have pointed out, some mischievous miscreant or some misguided young man talks a little nonsense in a place, the police send up long reports of danger to the state or to the public peace, and the whole district is proclaimed. I do not say that the Lieutenant-Governors and Governors of Provinces do not fully weigh the situation; but they are after all human, and therefore liable to err. They have to act upon the reports of the man on the spot, who in his turn must act upon the reports of the Police or of the Criminal Investigation Department. And we have had sufficient instances of the abuse of the powers given under the Act.
We have seen how far the faults, more imaginary than real, of a few men or a small coterie of men, the population of a whole district, the great bulk of whom must, as the letter quoted before has told us, be regarded as undoubtedly loyal to the Government, have been deprived of the right, which they enjoy under the British Government, of free public meeting and of giving free expression to their opinions and their sentiments, to their grievances and desires in relation to public questions which affect or interest them. It cannot be regarded as a serious public grievance that, for the misconduct of a few individuals, the whole community in a loyalty should be prevented from freely exercising a privilege which they have never abused.
My Lord, not only has no necessity been shown for the measure before us, but there is also the fear, as my friends the Hon’ble Mr. Gokhale has pointed out, that a repressive measure may itself, by being abused in its working, lead to promoting the evil which it was intended to cure. The Seditious Meetings Act and the Press Act have both already given illustrations of the truth of the old adage that the sight of means to do ill-deeds often makes ill-deeds done. Look for instance at the action of the authorities in Eastern Bengal in suppressing three District Conferences and the meeting which sought to help the depressed classes. I venture to doubt if the said Conferences or the said meeting would have been stopped if the Seditious Meetings Act had not been in existence. Look again at the action taken in several places under the Press Act in contravention of the pledge given by the Government when it was going through the Council, and think of the irritation which the abuse of its provisions must cause in the public mind. So long as the Government will keep these two measures on the Statute-book, I regret to say, but I feel it my duty to say it, so long will all efforts to conciliate public opinion generally be heset with unnecessary difficulties, will continue to be unnecessarily difficult at accomplishment.
I do not wish to detain the Council any longer. But I cannot help referring in this connection to the action taken under the Press Act with regard to Mr. Mackarness pamphlet. I know that several Local Governments have thought it wise to suppress that pamphlet. I have no doubt that they believe that they have acted rightly in the matter. But with due deference to these Governments, I venture to think that if the new Press Act had not given them the indefinitely wide powers which it has given them, not one of them would have ever thought of suppressing the pamphlet. None of them perhaps would even now think of prosecuting Mr. Mackarness for it. The pamphlet might not have done full justice to the efforts of the Government to improve the Police. But what did it aim at except a suppression of the evil practice which it exposed? It has been said, my Lord, that the Government of India have been denouncing the practice of torturing accused persons with a view to extort confessions from them at least ever since they enacted the Indian Penal Code, which has laid down that any person who would so put people to torture would be liable to be punished with imprisonment which may extend to seven years. But the existence of such a provision has not evidently proved to be a sufficient deterrent, and in view of the facts brought to light in some recent cases, it was clearly necessary in the public interests to draw public attention to the evil with a view to have special measures taken to effectually discourage it.
His Excellency the President:- o am afraid that I must interrupt the Hon’ble Member. Mr. Mackarness pamphlet has got nothing whatever to do with the present discussion.
The Hon’ble Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya:- I bow to your Lordship’s ruling. I wished to point out how easily a repressive measure may be abused, and may give rise to great irritation, when the object of the Government is that cause for irritation should not be given.
I will now conclude. I think I have said enough to show that no justification has been made for proposing an extension of the life of the Seditious Meeting Act; that the powers which the Government possess under the existing provision of the law are amply sufficient to effectively prevent as well as to punish any attempt to promote sedition or to disturb the public tranquility, which might be made by persons who are hostile to Government and whose number is small; that the great bulk of the people are loyal to the core, and are more than ever inclined to co-operate with Government in maintaining law and order; that the policy of conciliation is in these circumstances the only safe and wise policy; that it should be steadily and earnestly pursued; that unless some overpowering causes intervene, nothing should be done which is likely to interfere with the success of that policy. I believe that no such causes demand a continuation of an Act of an abnormal character, which must operate against the return of normal relations between the Government and the people. For these reasons, I beg humbly to oppose the motion which is now before the Council.