On our platform in Hyde Park we must remember that three English comrades are among the thirty- one prisoners of British Imperialism now awaiting trial in Meerut in India. These British and Indian comrades are threatened with twenty years’ imprisonment in barbarous conditions, for no more heinous a crime than that of openly and legally organising workers and peasants in India … Let May Day be a pledge of our determination to rid the world of Imperialism, breeder of war, poverty and pestilence.
Shapurji Saklatvala, May Day speech in Hyde Park, 1929
On the morning of 20 March 1929, the young British journalist and labour organizer Lester Hutchinson was disturbed twice: the first time, as usual, by his tiresome milkman, and then by ‘a posse of armed police headed by a European inspector and an Anglo- Indian sergeant in occupation of my front garden’. Hutchinson, who would shortly become editor of the left- wing journal the New Spark, after the Indian editor of its predecessor, The Spark, was arrested that day, only had his house searched that morning – an experience he described as a rather romantic one; he too would be arrested a few months later.
But, that same morning, no fewer than thirty- one labour activists were detained and imprisoned across half a dozen towns in British India, as the Warwickshire Regiment spread out all over Bombay – where the majority resided – to avert any trouble. They included twenty- nine Indians and two Britons, Philip Spratt and Ben Bradley. All were transferred to a jurisdiction none of them resided in, and twenty- four of them had never even been to: the cantonment town of Meerut, which would lend its name to the most infamous colonial ‘conspiracy case’ of the time. Charged under Section 121A of the Indian Penal Code with conspiring to ‘deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India’, the detainees would controversially be refused bail and subjected to trial without jury. In addition, Section 121A carried a proviso whereby no actual illegal act had to take place in order for a conspiracy charge to be levied.
The arrests had been in planning for several months, as a rattled imperial government assessed the threat of the Soviet Union to the British Empire and attempted to stem intensifying waves of labour unrest and increased violence by groups such as the Hindustan Republican Association (modelled on the IRA).
Early in 1929, protesting the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, the association’s Bhagat Singh and two accomplices threw bombs onto the floor of the Indian Legislative Assembly; he would be caught and hanged, becoming a shaheed, or martyr. The Public Safety Act would have also prevented foreign communists from coming to India and working there with Indian labour organizers. Part of a wave of colonial repression, the arrests of the Meerut defendants also took place – not by accident – as the government braced for the release of the Fawcett Report, commissioned in the wake of the Bombay General Strike of 1928, which was expected to be unfavourable to worker demands, and therefore to generate more militancy and strikes. As Saklatvala had been warning in his parliamentary speeches, ‘reforms’ as a response to genteel petitioning were no longer going to staunch the colonial wound.
Indeed, a note to senior government officials, sent in June 1927, warned that among ‘the lower classes in India’, both in town and rural areas, post- war inflation had ‘induced a feeling of restlessness, making them discontented with conditions which previously they bore patiently’. In turn, repressive legislation which had been put in place to pre-empt and punish resistance was routinely invoked – and wound up producing the long- running international drama that became the Meerut Trials, described by one prisoner as ‘a war of attrition, a trial of endurance’. Their aim was to staunch the spread of communism in India – certainly a major contributing factor to the strikes in the textile mills; the Girni Kamgar Union for millworkers was a hugely successful communist- led endeavour, and the Millowners’ Association had petitioned the British government ‘to rid them of the nuisance’.
News of the arrests spread immediately, and the ensuing protests encompassed work stoppages in fourteen Bombay textile mills, public meetings, demonstrations, and processions which resulted in clashes with the police. Many Indian leaders – eight of the accused also held posts in the Indian National Congress – spoke up immediately against the arrests, arguing quite rightly that the real motive of the colonial government was to kill the labour movement at an early stage, and so obstruct the growing momentum towards full independence. Rather than attempt to make the case for the existence of an actual conspiracy, in his lengthy opening statement prosecutor Langford James notoriously dwelt on the dangers of the Russian Revolution, Soviet politics, the perniciousness of communism, and the manifold problems with Marxism, using his readings of various general left- wing texts as ‘evidence’ against the accused. James averred that these were relevant to those in the dock because their object was ‘to replace the Government of His Majesty King George in India, and in its place to put the Government of the Third Communist International’.
Irrespective of whether Bolshevism was ‘a cruel and tyrannous autocracy’ or ‘a paradise on earth’, James claimed:
‘The hard fact still remains that if Bolshevism and that system is to be introduced into India the government of His Majesty must as a preliminary be smashed in pieces. There is no room for both of them’.
The incompatibility between capitalism and communism – on which the defendants agreed with the prosecution – was in itself deemed to prove ‘conspiracy’ on the part of the accused, who criticized capitalism. Partly to drive a wedge between the defendants and the mainstream nationalist movement, James would later insist that his problem was with ‘perpetual revolution’ and not with ‘a national revolution’. The defendants, he pointed out with alacrity, were in fact deeply critical of the ‘leaders of Nationalist thought in India’, and ‘stigmatised’ the Indian National Congress ‘as a misguided bourgeois body’. The first half of his speech took great pains to insist that ‘there is no question of their being nationalists’; the professed internationalism of the defendants was, in effect, anti- nationalism.
As the Bolsheviks he deemed them to be, they shared certain characteristics:
‘You do not love your country, you are anti- country, you are anti- God, and you are anti- family.’
Meanwhile, the magistrate, R. Milner-White, argued that those nationalists who sought to petition the king through the ‘usual civil channels’ to ‘give independence to India’ were not, unlike the defendants, in breach of Section 121A, which only punished those who would forcibly deprive the monarch of sovereignty. Mendicancy was acceptable; even imagining alternative possibilities, on the other hand, was punishable. Most Indian nationalists were not, however, fooled, or easily available for sowing dissension on this basis – at least not immediately. Gandhi – no communist sympathizer and himself the frequent subject of communist criticism – was prompted to note that the ‘farce of a trial’ had exposed the British colonial government’s ‘red claws which usually remain under cover’.
Nehru, who would become involved in the international Meerut campaign, observed trenchantly:
‘this cry of communism is meant to cover a multitude of sins of the Government’.
Hutchinson noted that serious riots broke out, and that
‘the peasants became restive and began to demand the initiation of a movement for refusing to pay rents and taxes, a movement that would have changed the whole basis of Indian nationalism’.