THE ROLE OF LAWYERS IN INDIA’S FREEDOM STRUGGLE
1885 was a remarkable year in the history of India, a year which would determine the future of India, a new chapter in the freedom struggle started as a mass movement in 1857 by the ‘sepoy mutiny’.
With the joint efforts of A.O. Hume and W.C. Bonnerjee, the Indian National Congress was established. This brought the Indian intelligentsia into the main stream of the movement for freedom. This gave people a platform to discuss and share their grievances and in turn device a plan of action.
This was the first time that Indians realized that violence was not the only means of fighting a battle and in the years to come ahimsa and satyagraha would become the two pillars on which the freedom struggle rests.
How different would the history of India be, had the intelligentsia not taken over the freedom struggle. It was a war of independence from the shackles of enslavement of two centuries. It was a war of rights and liberties. It was a war for establishing one’s independent identity. It was a war against injustice and inequality; against racialism and cruelty. The war against the British was not a war of arms but a war or strategy and mental strength. Most of all it was a war of ‘words’.
Who better to fight such a war but the magicians of words, those who have words for tool, just words to earn their livelihood – lawyers.
The Indian freedom struggle was won by the army of lawyers who used words for ammunition.
Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer so was Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Pt. Nehru was a lawyer and so were Sardar Wallab Bhai Patel and Dr. Rajendra Prasad. The list is never ending.
So what was it that drew all these lawyers into the freedom struggle leaving behind a life of comforts and riches?
The British valor could not have been matched by the Indians if they were to rebel and violently agitate. For every British man killed 10 Indians had to lay down their lives. India even in another century could not have gathered enough to make an army stronger than the British.
The rich were too busy match fixing the future of India with the British and the poor were too poor to put together two square meals forget about a rebellion against the mighty British Empire.
This was the time when the educated middle class came to the fore. It was these, educated men and women who decided to fight the empire for they needed to get jobs, they worried for the future of their children and the future of India, they needed to be independent, they were in contact with the west and they were the so called “enlightened” ones. These constituted lawyers, teachers, doctors, civil servants etc.
Their only strength was their education and they decided to play a game of wits and not of weaponry to get Indians their long due freedom. They realized that what India needed was direction, an understanding of rights, unity, a new form of warfare, which was non violent, leaders and focus.
Of this intelligentsia lawyers were the ones who led the struggle from the front, the reasons for this were many.
First of all they were not government employees unlike the teachers, doctors and civil servants, so there was no obligation to follow directions from the government.
Secondly, if lawyers could boycott courts, it would be a directly defying the British government and law and in turn it would directly imply that the rest of the population were not obliged to follow these laws.
Thirdly, most of the lawyers had studied in England and they were aware of the English legal system and of the position people had in an independent nation. Also, they knew how to talk their way through to the English.
They knew their weaknesses and strengths, and could successfully device a way to play the weaknesses of the British to their advantage.
They were aware of the common law system keeping rights and duties on a pedestal and thus they used the cruelty and in humanity of the British in India to gain sympathy and in turn get the British in England to detest their own people and their conduct in India.
Besides fighting cases in the law courts for the extremists who would regularly invite prosecution against themselves, most lawyers formed a group of moderate freedom fighters.
They knew that India was not ready for immediate freedom and if India was to attain independence instantaneously, if would crumble without a strong center and there was no system and definitely no individual who could hold the country together.
Since the lawyers had supreme understanding of the complicated and intricate laws that were being sent to India for the formation of government and for the administration of justice, they were best suited to discuss their implication and to repeal them as well as draw the English lawmakers to a point of making the law as pro Indians as possible.
All these lawyers were of the view that an unjust law must be defied and repealed. Most of all, they advocated for social justice, equality and human rights.
Soon, law courts became the preferred battlefield for Indians. Even an extremist revolutionary like Bhagat Singh took the help of a trial to send his message across. Infact, he deliberately invited a trial against him by throwing smoke bombs in the legislative assembly and surrendering himself to the police.
The purpose that such court trials served was that they gave the freedom fighters an opportunity to come in contact with the media. The media would report the pleadings and comments in the local as well as the newspapers in England, this served a dual purpose – the Indians got their leader’s messages and the masses got provoked also, a sense of shame, regret and disapproval was spread amongst the British nationals in England.
Though it is not preferred to earmark a single leader of the independence struggle but, if this was to be done, the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi would top the list. A lawyer by profession studied in England and worked in South Africa. He was the first leader to fight the inhuman practice of apartheid in South Africa. On his return to India, he devised a practical approach. He first decided to tour through India and then come into the movement. This shows the typical trait of a lawyer, first put together the facts and investigation and then take up the case. Or differently put, when I don’t know the laws of the land how do I fight a case?
Then he took the movement head on. He advocated the disobedience of unjust laws, peaceful demonstrations, boycott of foreign goods and the peaceful picketing of shops selling foreign goods. His ideas eventually found shape in a non-cooperation launched later. His aim was to make the British administration come to a standstill, a point from which they would have to negotiate. He believed that a peaceful struggle was far more productive then a violent one. A peaceful struggle cannot be suppressed easily and is always sustainable in the long run. Mahatma Gandhi was able to take the freedom struggle to the masses and was a major advocate of social justice and unity amongst all sections of the Indian people.
Finally talking of the biggest contribution of the British to India we cannot ignore the role played by the lawyer turned freedom fighters. Besides winning independence, these men extracted a lot from the British. Most important being: their administrative policy, their form of governance and their laws.
Most of the English laws have formed the basis of our statute books and the parliamentary form of government was also due to the British influence. The Indian Penal Code, one of the most intricate and elaborate penal law books in the world can be considered a gift from the British.
Talking of the form of government, the efforts of Nehru committee and Sapru committee on how to accommodate both the Hindu and Muslim representatives in the government posts was an effort worth applauding.
Finally, on 15th August 1947, India won independence and at the same time India was divided and Pakistan was born. But, it was not over for the lawyers yet, on either sides. They still had to carry the two divided nations through the poisoning after effects of the partition.
Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of independent India and across the border M.A Jinnah held the reins of Pakistan in his hands.
Dr. Rajendra Prasad became the President of India and Dr. B. R Ambedkar headed the team of constitution makers.
The most remarkable contribution of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at this time in history was undoubtedly his efforts of unifying India as India was divided amongst provinces and princely states. Also, he tried to break the communal barriers that the Indians had created amongst themselves.
Besides the political responsibilities carried out by the lawyers, they had to carry out certain legal responsibilities as well.
The first and foremost being, framing the constitution of India, followed by ascertaining the structure of the future legal system of the country.
Also, partition brought with it many disputes over land, industry and property. These men were to take responsibility and carry out the necessary actions to make it peaceful.
To conclude I would like to say that lawyers held an incomparable position in the freedom struggle and they were indispensable. They made a remarkable contribution to the pre independence Indian society the effects of which carried on even after independence.
But, it seems to me that the new age lawyers are not as aware or socially responsible as those sixty years ago. We hardly see lawyers now a days who stand up for social causes, who are ready to dedicate their lives to the cause of social justice.
The new age lawyers should take a leaf out of the history books and take inspiration from their predecessors and not restrict their ability to contribute.
India needs leaders and men with foresight, lawyers who have in the past contributed so richly should continue with the same.
As Jawaharlal Nehru said on 15th August, 1947 – “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
It is the responsibility of the people of India today to keep the dream of Nehru from fading out.
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