In India throughout 1928 and 1929 there was a strong wave of strikes, on the railroads, in ironworks and in the textile industry. 31 million working days lost in 1928, through industrial disputes. Trade union numbers and organisation grew rapidly during this period. The British Government initiated a Committee headed by Sir Charles Fawcett. The arrests of prominent trade unionists and socialists were part of the preparation for the issue of the report.
The Meerut arrests
(From "The Meerut trial: facts of the case")
[...] In this campaign of terror, the central place is occupied by the Meerut trial, both because of the character of the men concerned and because of its immense political significance for the Indian working class movement.
The Meerut trial concerns 33 persons (three of them Englishmen), most of them well-known figures in the trade union and working class movement in India. The arrest of these men took place on or about March 20th, 1929, and was accompanied by wholesale raids and house searches. These arrests and raids were made the occasion of imposing military demonstrations in various places throughout British India.
The majority are well-known officials of trade unions, including the present Assistant Secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress, the Secretary of the Federation of Trades Unions in Bengal, and practically all the members of the Executive of the largest textile trade union in Bombay. The arrested include also eight members of the All-India Congress Committee (the Executive Committee of the Indian National Congress), and practically every member of the Executive Committee of the recently founded All-India Workers' and Peasants' Party.
Attempts are made to justify the present case by denouncing the arrested men as Communists. Undoubtedly, some of them are Communists, as they have themselves openly declared, but many of them have had no connection with the Communist movement. For example, Kishorilal Ghosh, the Secretary of the Bengal T.U. Federation, has never taken part in other than trade union activity. Lester Hutchinson, who was arrested as an afterthought when he took up the task of carrying on some of the trade union and agitational work after the arrest of the others, was a journalist on the Indian Daily Mail and unconnected with the Labour movement. The attack is being made against all those who have been prominently connected with labour or peasant activity of any kind.
The Meerut prisoners are being charged under Section 121A of the Indian Penal Code, which declares:- "Whoever within or without British India conspires to commit any of the offences punishable by Section 121 or to deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India or any part thereof, or conspires to overawe, by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force, the Government of India or any local Government, shall be punished with transportation for life or any shorter term, or with imprisonment of either description which may extend to ten years.
The charge against the prisoners is of particular interest. The following is the official statement:
"The complaint of Mr. R. A. Horton, Officer on Special Duty under the Director, Intelligence Bureau, Home Department, Government of India, showeth:
1. That there exists in Russia an organisation called the Communist International. The aim of this organisation is, by creation of armed revolution, to overthrow all the existing forms of Government throughout the world and to replace them by Soviet Republics subordinate to, and controlled by the central Soviet administration in Moscow.
2. That the said Communist International carries on its work and propaganda through various committees, branches, and organisations, controlled by and subject to itself, e.g., the Executive Committee of the Communist International (E.C.C.I.), and various sub-committees of the same, including a sub-committee concerned with Eastern and Colonial affairs (Colonial Bureau); the Communist Party of Great Britain (C.P.G.B.), which is a section of the Communist International; the Red International of Labour Unions (R.I.L.U.), the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, the League Against Imperialism, the Young Communist League (Y.C.L.) and various other bodies.
3. That the ultimate objective of the said Communist International is the complete paralysis and overthrow of existing Governments in every country (including India), by means of a general strike and armed uprising. It bas outlined a programme or plan of campaign which should be followed for the achievement of this ultimate objective. Among the methods so ordained are:
- The incitement of antagonism between Capital and Labour.
- The creation of Workers' and Peasants' Parties, Youth Leagues, Unions, etc., ostensibly for the benefit of the members thereof, but in fact for the purpose of propaganda: the domination of such parties by Communists pledged to support the aims of the Communist International and the unification of such bodies under one control subservient to the Communist International.
- The introduction of fractions or nuclei of such Communists with illegal objects as aforesaid into existing Trade Unions, Nationalist bodies and political and other organisations, with the object of capturing the same or obtaining their support in the interests of the Communist International.
- The encouragement of strikes, hartals, and agitation.
- Propaganda by speeches, literature, newspapers, the celebration of anniversaries connected with the Russian Revolution, etc., etc.
- The utilisation and encouragement of any movements hostile to the Government.
4. That in the year 1921 the said Communist International determined to establish a branch organisation in British India, and the accused Sripad Amrit Dange, Shaukat Usmani and Muzaifar Ahmad entered into a conspiracy with certain other persons to establish such branch organisations with a view to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty of British India.
5. That thereafter various persons, including the accused Philip Spratt and Benjamin Francis Bradley were sent to India by the Communist International through the medium of one of its branches or organisations, and with the object of furthering the aims of the Communist International.
6. That the accused named in this complaint reside at different centres throughout British India. They have conspired with each other, and with other persons known or unknown within or without British India, to deprive the King Emperor of the sovereignty of British India, and for such purpose to use the methods and carry out the programme and plan of campaign outlined and ordained by the Communist International, and in fact they used such methods and carried out such plan of campaign with the assistance of, and financial support from, the Communist International.
7. That the accused have met and conspired together as aforesaid at various places within and without British India, and amongst other at Meerut, and in pursuance of such conspiracy as aforesaid, the accused formed a Workers and Peasants' Party at Meerut and there held a Conference thereof.
8. That the above named accused have committed an offence under section 121A of the Indian Penal Code and within the jurisdiction of this Court. It is, therefore, prayed that the Court will enquire into the above named offence."
This illuminating document demonstrates beyond argument that the accused are being charged on account of ordinary working class activities which are not regarded as a crime in Britain or other democratic countries. The complaint is essentially that of "incitement of antagonism between capital and labour," a phrase carrying us back to the old anti-combination laws in Britain 100 years ago.
The judgement, which is contained in six hundred and seventy-six foolscap printed pages is an illuminating document, at the end it contains the following admission from Mr. Justice Yorke
"As to the progress made in this conspiracy its main achievements have been the establishment of Workers and Peasant Parties in Bengal, Bombay and Punjab and the U.P., but perhaps of deeper gravity was the hold that the members of the Bombay Party acquired over the workers in the textile industry in Bombay as shown by the extent of the control which they exercised during the strike of 1928 and the success they were achieving in pushing forward a thoroughly revolutionary policy in the Girni Kamgar Union after the strike carne to an end."
"The fact that the revolution was not expected actually to come to pass for some years seems to me to be no defence whatever. No one expects to bring about a revolution in a day. It is in the light of all the above facts that I have endeavoured to assess the relative guilt of the different in this case and to ' 'make the punishment to fit the crime."
"Convicting these twenty-seven accused as stated in each of the individual chapters I sentence them as follows:
Muzafiar Ahmad, accused, transportation for life.
Dange, Spratt, Ghate, Joglekar and Nimbkar accused, each to transportation for a period of 12 (twelve) years.
Bradley, Mirajkar and Usrnani accused, each to transportation for a period of 10 (ten) years.
Soban Singh Josh, Majid and Goswami accused, each to transportation for a period of 7 (seven) years.
Ajodhya Prasad, Adhikari, P.C. Joshi and Desai accused, each to transportation for a period of 5 (five) years.
Chakravarty, Basak, Hutchinson, Mittra, Jhabwala, and Sehgal accused, each to 4 (four) years Rigorous Imprisonment.
Shamsul Huda, Alve, Kasle, Gauri, Shankar and Kadam accused, eacb to 3 (three) years Rigorous Imprisonment."
On appeal, in July 1933, the sentences were reduced. Ahmed, Dange and Usmani receiving 3 years Rigorous Imprisonment, Spratt 2 years, nine others originally receiving 7-12 years had their sentences reduced to 1 year or less. 5 others were released but with convictions upheld. The remaining 8 were acquitted, after spending nearly four years in prison.
Resources about the Meerut Trial in the Library collection
The Meerut trial: facts of the case, National Meerut Prisoners' Defence Committee (1929) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
The Meerut prisoners and the charge against them (1929) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
Conspiracy against the King by Clemens Dutt (1930) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
India under British Terror, Percy Glading (1930) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
The prisoners' reply: extracts from defence speeches (1931) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
Meerut 1929-1932: statement given in his own defence at Meerut court, India against a charge of 'conspiracy against the King' by HL Hutchinson (1932) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
Trade unionism in India by BF Bradley (ca. 1931) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
Meerut Special, 1932 - Newspaper format collection of reports and articles. Includes a Who's Who of the defendants - Shelfmark: AG Oversized Box 1 (India folder)
Meerut conspiracy case, specially written by a Barrister-at-law (1933) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
Meerut Conspiracy Case, March 1929 to July 1933 (1933) - Shelfmark: AG India Box 3
Allahabad Law Journal Special number on the Meerut Conspiracy Trial (12 Aug 1933) - Shelfmark: AG India Periodicals A-Z