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Bal Gangadhar Tilak – Sedition cases – Dissent

Bal Gangadhar Tilak – Sedition cases – Dissent

UPSC CSE Mains Syllabus: GS-1-   Modern Indian history from about the middle of the eighteenth century until the present- significant events, personalities, issues.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak – Sedition cases – Dissent

First sedition case:

  • G. Tilak’s first trial for sedition had its origin in the famine of 1896.
  • Between 1876 and 1900, 18 famines occurred, taking a staggering 19,000,000 lives.
  • Bubonic plague struck Pune in 1897, which incidentally forced the British administration to enact the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.
  • To stem the spread of this contagious disease, repressive measures were adopted by Walter Charles Rand, who was appointed as a special duty officer.
  • Intense resentment was also caused by the desecration of places of worship.
  • Rand was killed by Damodar Chaphekar, who was convicted and hanged.
  • This provoked more anger, leading to further repression.

Tilak’s criticism:

  • Kesari was the weekly newspaper started by Tilak.
  • It had a series of articles that criticised the conduct of officials who insisted on collecting land tax even during a famine, and for not implementing the Famine Relief Code.
  • Tilak had written strong articles condemning the brutality of the measures adopted even before this murder.
  • In addition, Tilak also wrote an article justifying the killing of Afzal Khan by Shivaji.
  • The Anglo-Indian press bitterly criticised the British government for not taking action against Tilak.

Support for Tilak:

  • On July 27, 1897, Tilak was arrested and tried for sedition before the Bombay High Court.
  • It is a matter of deep regret that when Tilak’s trial was about to begin, none of the leading lawyers of the Bombay HC were willing to appear for him.
  • W C Bonnerjee, a Congress leader, Moti Lal Ghosh, the founder of the Amrit Bazar Patrika, and Rabindranath Tagore collected almost Rs 20,000 from donors and this was used to send two leading English barristers from Calcutta to appear for Tilak.

The judgement:

  • The trial before Justice Arthur Strachey was a farce.
  • An article on the killing of Afzal Khan by Shivaji could be part of the foundation of a case of sedition was unacceptable.
  • Even more bizarre was Strachey’s ruling that “disaffection” which constitutes the offence of sedition, under section 124A of the IPC, was simply “the absence of affection”.
  • He sentenced Tilak to 18 months’ imprisonment.

Criticism on the judgement:

  • The ruling was criticised in even in England.
  • One newspaper wrote that there was hardly any evidence that would justify such a severe sentence.
  • It observed that if criticism was to be punished as sedition “the government is on a perilous path”.
  • The British press noted that Strachey’s interpretation of “disaffection” would be unacceptable in England.

Second sedition case:

  • The partition of Bengal and the killing of two English women by a bomb hurled by Khudiram Bose led to large-scale repression.
  • The Anglo-Indian press attacked Tilak for provoking the youth to engage in violent protests.
  • Once again, Tilak wrote several articles in Kesari and asked the government to stop repressing freedom.
  • He pointed out that the best way to stop violence and bombs was to grant self-rule to the people of India and, in one article, criticised the Explosives Act.
  • Once again, Tilak was arrested in June 1908 and charged with sedition.

The judgement:

  • This second trial was once again a mere formality.
  • Tilak argued his own case.
  • He pointed out that the English translation of his articles had serious errors and asked for a correct version, but this plea was rejected.
  • What was regrettable was that the jury consisted of seven Englishmen/Anglo-Indians and two Indians who eventually dissented. 

“I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent is to prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free.”

Criticism on the judgement:

  • The judgment came in for much criticism.
  • An important question raised was that when the High Court’s jury panel contained several Marathi-speaking Hindus, there was no explanation for their exclusion.
  • The verdict was also criticised by several newspapers in England.
  • One newspaper sarcastically remarked that the trial could hardly be an illustration of the impartiality of the British justice system.

Way forward:

  • Tilak’s imprisonment by invoking the law of sedition failed to suppress the freedom struggle.
  • Instead it created uproar among the Indians. Workers in Bombay took to the streets to protest the verdict.
  • By claiming innocence, Tilak sowed the seeds of satyagraha. This was repeated by Mahatma Gandhi when he was given Jail term, post Non-cooperation movement.
  • Gandhi welcomed the verdict in the same way Tilak did.
  • Dissent is the basic tenet of all successful democracies.
  • The two trials teach us useful lessons in dealing with public protests.
  • wise government would do well to ascertain the opposite viewpoint and have the grace to correct its path wherever necessary.
  • Suppressing widespread dissent or criticism has always proved counterproductive.

Source:”The Hindu”.


The sedition trials of Balgangadhar Tilak shows that, in dealing with public protests suppressing widespread dissent has always proved counterproductive.