In 1964, a small book for children and teenagers was published in Mumbai. Bahuroopee Gandhi, authored by Anu Bandopadhyaya, was written with the intention of better educating children and teenagers about the man India called “father of the nation”.

Jawaharlal Nehru penned the foreword and wrote positively about the book’s ambitions. As he explained, though Gandhi’s status as a “legend” with “superman” powers was well enshrined in national memory, the texture and complexity of his life had already begun to fray. This was no small concern when it came to Gandhi, a thinker and practitioner whose most essential politics were rooted in the everyday and the ordinary.

When the story of Gandhi the legend is told, as it still often is, his performance in court 100 years ago (on March 18, 1922) is no doubt worth a chapter. After leading the Non-Cooperation Movement in pursuit of Indian independence, this period marked Gandhi’s arrival as a truly national political figure. Having built precarious bridges between religious communities, and drawing on support from across society, he had managed an unprecedented mobilisation in support of political freedom. This was a democratisation of politics that did not wait for formal suffrage.

The great trial

By the early weeks of 1922 morale and momentum had been waning. With prominent leaders thrown behind bars, and following the violence of Chauri Chaura, Gandhi called off the movement. Already a marked man at this stage, on March 10, 1922, he was arrested for sedition. As he was escorted to jail from his ashram, he carried copies of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Quran to his cell.

Attended by some of the luminaries of the national movement, the trial would be a short affair. Once proceedings had begun, Gandhi identified himself not as a political leader but a “weaver” and a “farmer”. Pre-empting the prosecution, he declared that when the time came, he would plead guilty.

Left a somewhat unusual task, the prosecutor still worked to impress the scale of sedition at hand. With the accused listening on quietly, when they had finished only one correction was offered. The timeline was wrong, he had in fact turned seditious earlier than they had suggested.

Instead of offering a defence, Gandhi described to the court the political journey that had culminated in this moment. He discussed how for a long period he had been a “staunch loyalist and co-operator”, a man who had received official medals for service and believed deeply in the rights promised in the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858.

A series of events had, however, irrevocably changed him. The extension of the Rowlatt Act into peacetime, the humiliating crawling orders in Punjab, and the public floggings had shaken him. His faith would be destroyed though when the Khilafat promises were broken, and the culprits of the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre left unpunished.

Mahatma Gandhi during the Salt Satyagraha of 1930. Photo credit: Pixabay (Public domain)

With reports of a silent courtroom, as he reached a crescendo he gave the judge two choices – punish him with the most severe sentence possible or resign. Leaving the judge with little option, Gandhi was found guilty and sentenced to a six-year term of imprisonment.

Non-violent revolution

The story of a legend would probably leave us here, with Gandhi packed off for another stay in “His Majesty’s Hotel” – one more sacrifice made in the name of a nation not yet free. A more pertinent question though is what was it, precisely, that made Gandhi so seditious? At this time Gandhi’s propensity for political criminality was largely rooted in somewhat of an irony, a persistent argument that freedom from British colonial rule alone would not equate Swaraj, nor was it even a worthy political goal.

In imagining a new political horizon in which the British were neither problem nor a solution, he focused attention on a wider range of issues. It was this that enabled a broadening of what India as a political nation might look like, and who could lay claim on it. In this context, the obliteration of communal violence lay at the very centre of his political world. It had been visible in the books he had carried to his jail and was prominent in the declared breaking point of his imperial loyalty.

Gandhi’s path to this future was envisioned through a violence-less revolution, one that argued pre-existing hierarchies could be transformed from within. This was a transcendent politics that hoped to avoid the violence that conventional revolutions demanded, as well as the struggles of managing differences between communities that so often plagued liberal political arrangements.

Putting aside debates about whether Gandhi’s solutions to these political and social problems would have brought about the changes he hoped for, what is clearer is the irrevocable change that now marks the relationship between the nation, the state and sedition in contemporary India.

If in 1922 the colonial state deployed this law to target the ambition of a non-violent nation seeking to incorporate religious communities as equals, it is now wielded by a postcolonial state in the name of a nation demanding unequal terms of membership.

Politics of sedition

The database of sedition charges produced by Article-14 has charted the breathtaking scale of sedition in recent years in tremendous detail. To take the experience of Uttar Pradesh, since the beginning of Adityanath’s term as chief minister in 2017 the number of sedition charges have spiralled, with over a thousand Indians booked under the offence.

These have primarily related to issues of “nationalism” and to individuals accused of making “anti-India” remarks. This new iteration of sedition is targeting more women and is particularly sensitive to criticism of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. From daily labourers to Opposition politicians, an accusation often brings with it a police beating, detention and months in jail. Conviction rates are very low.

Now, as then, the politics of sedition is not shy. Operating along demonstrably communal lines, the majority of the accused have been Muslims, with an increasing number of these accusations originating from Hindutva activists. The remaining charges have been levelled primarily at Dalit and Other Backward Class communities. These are trends that will no doubt continue.

In this context, it might seem jarring that Gandhi, a leader who fought consistently for communal harmony, continues to receive intermittent praise from Narendra Modi. What is long underway is the sort of dangerous disconnect that the publishing of Bahuroopee Gandhi sought to avoid.

A century from his famous courtroom speech, Gandhi’s life as an anticolonial legend limps on. Blunted of its radical edge, the productive messiness of his political ideas are largely reduced to trite quotes.

In its wake, Gandhi remains of some value, a recognisable historical reference handily evoked during speeches to international audiences, a ghostly presence standing awkwardly alongside visiting political leaders keen to take a spin on his charkha. All the while sedition continues to find work easy to come by, now acting in broad daylight for the political end Gandhi was willing to die to prevent – the establishment of a “Hindu Raj”.

Alastair McClure is a historian of modern South Asia and the British Empire.