WHEN revered national leaders show signs of human impulses, they cease to be like statues of themselves, cold, towering, aloof — but become like the rest of us, creatures of flesh and blood and men and women we would like to have known and perhaps even counted among our friends, instead of just standing in awe of them.
Bhimrao Ambedkar. God to millions, false God to some; yet some one suddenly brought closer to the hearts of either category by some stray act on his part such as the one Ihappened to read about in a book of anecdotes compiled to pay tribute to the memory of another national hero, Vinayakrao Savarkar. So far as I know, this incident does not figure in any of the numerous biographies of Ambedkar written either by his worshippers or detractors.
On January, 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. At the time, Bhimrao Ambedkar was the nation’s Law Minister and, as such, in close touch with the decision making processes of the Indian Government at the highest levels.
On February 5, that is, only six days after the Mahatma’s murder, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Vinayakrao Savarkar, was arrested and charged of being implicated in the murder plot. Savarkar spent the rest of the year in jail while the prosecution was building up its case. The trial took place in an improvised courtroom in Delhi’s Red Fort and became known as the ‘Red Fort Trial’. The case was heard by Justice Atma Charan. In his judgement delivered on. January 10, 1949, Savarkar was adjudged ‘not guilty’ and ordered to be set free.
The lawyer who defended Savarkar at this trial was L.B. (Annasaheb) Bhopatkar, from Pune. When, after his successful defence of his client, Bhopatkar returned to Pune, some of his close friends invited him to dinner where Bhopatkar told them the story which was not given publicity at the time. It was not until June 16, 1983, that it appeared in a Pune Marathi newspaper called ‘Kal, edited by S.R. Date, and is reproduced in an English translation in the Savarkar Memorial volume published on February 16, 1989. I quote relevant excerpts from it.
While in Delhi for the trial, Bhopatkar had made the Hindu Mahasabha office his headquarters. It seems that Bhopatkar was trying to work out his defence strategy and found that, “while specific charges had been framed against Savarkar’s co-accused, there were no specific charges against Savarkar himself.” He was ‘pondering’ about how to proceed when he was told that there was a telephone call for him, so he went to the telephone and said: “This is Annasaheb Bhopatkar speaking”. The caller replied, “this is Dr Ambedkar speaking, kindly meet me this evening at 6-30 at the sixth milestone on the (Mathura?) Road.” Before Bhopatkar could say anything more, the caller had put down the receiver.
That evening Bhopatkar drove up to “the appointed place at the appointed time. Babasaheb Ambedkar was already there. He had driven up in his own car and had brought no one else with him. “He motioned to Bhopatkar to get into his car and drove on for another mile or so before stopping. Then he turned to Bhopatkar and said:
“There is no charge against your client. Quite worthless evidence has been concocted. Several members of the Cabinet were strongly of the opinion that Savarkar should not be implicated on mere doubt. But, because of the insistence of a top-ranking leader, he was implicated in this case. Even Sardar Patel could not go against him. You fight the case fearlessly. You will win.”
After that Ambedkar “turned his car, brought me to my own car, and left.”
After recounting this incident, Bhopatkar warned his listeners that “this should not be divulged because it would be a betrayal of Babasaheb Ambedkar.”
It does not need much imagination to identify the person referred to as “a top-ranking leader.” But it is not for me to pass judgement on the veracity or otherwise of this story; either way it raises embarrassing questions as to the motives and methods of national leaders held in the highest esteem. What I wish to stress is the fact that Bhimrao Ambedkar and Vinayakrao Savarkar did not see eye-to-eye on many of the major political and social issues of those times, but that did not detract from the respect which each had for the other. Here Ambedkar was going out of the way to make sure that his being in the nation’s Cabinet did not mean that he necessarily endorsed the questionable practices of some of its members to settle scores with their political opponents.
This particular trait, of not letting your political convictions damage personal relationships was also conspicuously displayed by another hero of Maharashtra, Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
In the year 1908, Tilak was charged with the offence of publishing ‘seditious’ articles in his newspaper. At first the case came up for a hearing in what was called a ‘Police Court’ in Mumbai, and in this court, the lawyer who conducted Tilak’s defence was a young Parsi Barrister named Davar.
From the Police Court, the case against Tilak was sent up to the High Court where the Judge who tried it was none other than Barrister Davar’s father, Justice Davar.
The case against Tilak had aroused intense public interest, and on the day that Justice Davar was due to deliver his judegement, a mob of thousands had gathered in the open yard before the High Court building and spilled out into the streets.
Here in this courtroom, the self-admiring system of the Empire’s justice was at work. A jury had been impanelled to assist the Judge…..of seven Englishmen and two Parsis. The Jury decided against Tilak by a majority of….that’s right…..seven-to-two. Justice Davar pronounced judgement: Six years of imprisonment.
Fearing mob violence the Police had kept a decoy prison van in the porch of the High Court building, and the crowd pressing forward for a darshan of Tilak as he was being taken away to prison, were fooled by it. Tilak was whisked off from the courtroom by a spiral staircase behind the Judge’s chambers.
Justice Davar had not delivered his judgement till well past 5 p.m. And this itself was so unusual that, his son, Barrister Davar, anxious to find out why his father had not come home at his usual time, decided to go to the High Court to find out for himself. Perhaps deterred by the seething mass of people at the main entrance, Barrister Davar was making for the spiral staircase at the back when, in the corner of the back veranda, he saw Tilak and his escort coming down the staircase; and to avoid meeting a man whose innocence he had stoutly defended but who had been found guilty and given a stiff jail sentence by his father, he was about to turn back when he heard Tilak calling out: “Barrister Davar….wait!”
Then Tilak politely asked his guards if he might say a few words to his lawyer, and said to Davar: “You mustn’t take this to heart. You stood by me in a lower court but were helpless to do anything more in the High Court. I understand perfectly. Why should that make a difference to our relationship? We’re friends, and will remain friends when I finish my jail-term.”
A phrase that is often quoted as Tilak’s credo is emblazoned in bold letters in the courtroom where this trial took place: Self-rule is my birthright.
What was Birth-right to men like Tilak, was sedition to the guardians of the Empire. The sad part is that, even after they gave up their offices as the Empire’s keepers, they retained these red-eyed prejudices, and of this the two I give below are typical instances.
The Governor of Bombay at this time was Lord Sydenham. When his Excellency discovered that Barristor Joseph Baptista who was one of the city’s JPs, had accepted Tilak’s brief in this case, he summarily removed Baptista from the bench of JPs.
Twelve years after this trial, Tilak had gone to England where many of Britain’s liberal politicians held him in high esteem. At a tea party given in London by the British India Society, the secretary enthusiastically introduced Tilak to Lord Sydenham. Sydenham himself, now in retirement “betrayed no sign of resentment but Lady Sydenham looked furious. She rushed up to the Secretary and demanded: “How dare you present a convict to Lord Sydenham?”