That the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) decided to use violence at Ramjas College, one of the oldest colleges of Delhi University, to oppose an alleged ‘anti-national’ speaker is hardly surprising. This is what ABVP does. But before pelting stones inside campus, the parishad would have done well to read up on the history of DU and its association with words like ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-national’, the body’s pet prop.
People may associate these words with JNU in current times, but in history, the words were very closely associated with a former office holder of the Delhi University. A discussion on the history of sedition law in India, would in fact, be incomplete without talking about Maurice Gwyer, after whom the famous Gwyer Hall, the varsity’s oldest hostel is named. Maurice Gwyer was the Vice Chancellor of the Delhi University from 1938 to 1950. The VC, still remembered as the “maker of Delhi University”, took interest in its development even while the British were leaving India.
The Hindu noted on his death in 1952 that “numerous improvements brought about in Delhi University including the introduction of the postgraduate teaching courses and the establishment of laboratories were entirely due to the efforts of Sir Maurice. He was also responsible for a substantial increase in the salaries of librarians and lecturers”.
Others too have written about Gwyer’s contributions. Here for instance, in a paper on DU’s undergraduate programme, a history professor records the role played by him in the formation of the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA). The changes in degree programmes brought about in DU under his tenure were later emulated by universities across India.
What many people don’t know is his views on sedition. Around the time Gwyer was officiating as DU’s VC, he also held another public office. When the Government of India Act of 1935 brought the Federal Court of India into existence, Maurice Gwyer, who had also helped in drafting the Act, was made its Chief Justice. The Federal Court was the highest court in the country before the Supreme Court came into being in 1950. People differ on whether it was the nature of the judicial institution or the people working in it that brought this result but most agree that this “Court asserted jurisdiction most forcefully and controversially in its rulings in cases involving civil liberties issues” against the colonial government.
The most prominent altercations this Court had with the government of the time related to the Defence of India Act of 1940, an act that was brought as a “wartime necessity to maintain order and crush sedition”. A famous judgment given by Gwyer at the time also related to a charge under a section of the Defence of India Act that read the same as the infamous section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The government argued for punishing Niharendu Dutt Majumdar, then a member of the Bengal legislature, for making a speech that criticised it for its role in the Dhaka riots. They said that the speech incited “hatred or contempt”, excited disaffection with the crown and influenced public attitude in a manner that hurt the “defence of British India or the efficient prosecution of war“. Gwyer rejected this argument on the ground that the language for these sections and the IPC section on sedition was the same, and acquitted Majumdar.
To be sure, Gwyer was not light on sedition. But he did make some noteworthy comments on sedition that hold a lot of relevance in the current Indian scenario. For instance, he said, “The time is long past when the mere criticism of governments was sufficient to constitute sedition, for it is recognized that the right to utter honest and reasonable criticism is a source of strength to a community rather than a weakness”.
While he did not lay down explicit legal directions for judging sedition cases, Gwyer made another important direction for future judgments. He called upon judges to take equal care of the preservation of order, “a thing in which all citizens have an interest”, as well as “the maintenance of freedom of speech and the right to criticise all matters of public interest”. The advocate and historian AG Noorani adds that this judgment made the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow hate Maurice so much, he wanted to “brainwash the Chief Justice”.
There is, in fact, sufficient evidence out there to prove that that the very campus of Delhi University, even the physical form of it, was created by a person who wanted enough room for dissent and debate, before labelling anything seditious. After all, who was Niharendu Dutt Majumdar criticising but an oppressive British government, that did not even envision human rights for its subjects? If the British gave space for criticism, surely the Government of the Republic of India, that prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, can endure harsher criticisms. If the ABVP can’t stomach this, it should just drive by Gwyer Hall, grab a snack and chill.