Bhulabhai Desai was an Indian Independence Activist, famous lawyer, and parliamentary leader. He was a trusted aide of Mahatma Gandhi. He is well remembered for his defense of Azad Hind Fauj commanders, Shahnawaz, Dhillon, and Sehgal accused of treason during World War II, spread his fame not only in India but also abroad.
Bhulabhai Desai was born on 13 October 1877 in Valsad, Gujarat. His father was a government lawyer. He was initially schooled by his maternal uncle. Desai Ji further studied in Valsad at the Avabai School. In 1895, he matriculated from the Bharda High School attaining the first position in his school.
Desai Ji married Ichchhaben while still in school. They had one son, Dhirubhai. In 1923, Ichchhaben died of cancer.
He then attended Elphinstone College Mumbai, from where he graduated at a high level in English literature and history. He won Wordsworth Prize and scholarship for attaining the first position in History and Political Economy. He did his MA in English from the University of Bombay.
Desai Ji was appointed Professor of English and History in the Gujrat College, Ahmedabad. While teaching, Desai Ji also studied law. In 1905, Desai Ji joined as an advocate at the Bombay High Court. Soon, he was counted among leading lawyers in the city and later in the nation.
Bhulabhai Desai began his political career by joining the All India Home Rule League lead by Annie Besant. He had joined the Indian Liberal Party, supportive of British Influence. But he came out in opposition to the all-European Simon Commission established in 1928 by the British to form constitutional reforms in India.
His connection with the Indian National Congress started when he expressed the farmers of Gujarat in the inquiry by the British Government following the Bardoli Satyagraha in 1928. The satyagraha was a campaign by the farmers of Gujarat protesting harsh taxation policies in a time of famine, under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Bhulabhai formidably represented the farmers’ case and played an important role in the success of the struggle
Desai formally joined the Congress in 1930. He formed the Swadeshi Sabha and convinced 80 textile mills to join in, to create a boycott by Indian companies of foreign goods. In 1932, the Sabha was announced illegal and he was arrested for his activities.
Desai Ji was sick when he was in jail. He was freed on health grounds. For the treatment, he went to Europe. When the Congress Working Committee was reorganized, he was included in the committee at the demand of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
In November 1934 Desai was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly from Gujarat. The Government of India 1935 approved provincial autonomy. The question asked whether Congress should participate in legislatures. Pointing towards greater autonomy and political rights to Indians, Bhulabhai supported the Congress’ participation. When the Congress entered the Central Assembly, he was elected the leader of all the elected congressman, thus becoming the majority leader. He raised a lot of respect and reputation, fully supporting the first elected representative of the Congress.
At the beginning of World War II, Congress debated the arbitrary inclusion of India and Indian soldiers in the war effort. Desai Ji viewed the Central Assembly as a way to clarify the attitude of the Congress towards the world. Desai Ji addressed the House on 19 November 1940, making a strong plead which read “…unless it is India’s war, it is impossible that you will get India’s support.”
On 10 December 1940, he engaged in Satyagraha started by Mohandas Gandhi, he was arrested under the Defense Of India Act and sent to Yerwada Central Jail. He was released in September 1941 on grounds of poor health. It also affected his participation in the Quit India Movement.
From 1942 to 1945 when the Quit India Movement was at its peak, Mohandas Gandhi and the entire Congress Working Committee were arrested, Desaiji was one of the few Congress leaders who were free. Demanding the immediate release of political prisoners, Desai began secret talks with Liaquat Ali Khan, the second most important leader of the Muslim League.
This claim was seriously challenged by other famous people like Sir Chiman Lal Setalvad who said that Gandhi was fully aware of the negotiations going on. They aimed to negotiate an agreement for a future coalition government, which would allow a united option for Hindus and Muslims for India’s independent government.
In the deal, Liaquat called for a separate Muslim state for Muslim-to-Hindu equality in the Council of Ministers. Accepting the League as the representative of Muslims and equating a minority community with majority Hindus, Desai tried to form an ideal Indian alliance, ending India’s Quit India and to accelerate the struggle for independence. When Desai was working without the knowledge of Gandhi, Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, or any other Congress leader, Khan kept the deal secret from his superior, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
The respective parties were alarmed by the press report, leaking the planned deal in 1945. Desai gave full details to Gandhi, Jinnah, and the League and denied any agreement, while Liaquat Ali Khan denied that such an agreement was being negotiated. League mocked on Desai’s statement that a deal had been reached. Congress leaders were offended by him for carrying such negotiations without notifying them. Bhulabhai Desai would lead a major force in March 1945 to get the House to defeat the unpopular war budget, but he had lost political status in his party owing to the result of the Desai-Liaquat pact.
He was not given a ticket to contest elections for the Constituent Assembly of India on grounds of his ill-health. But also due to feelings in the Congress that Desai had been developing his power and popularity while the Congress leadership was jailed.
People like Sir Chiman Lal Setalwad said that Gandhi had full awareness of the Desai-Liaquat pact and was the silent force behind the negotiations.
When Desai was on his death bed, Gandhi went to meet him and did not speak a single word citing his “Maunvrata” (a fast wherein people do not speak for a designated period).
INA Soldiers Trial
When three officers of the Indian National Army (Azad Hind Fauz) were captured, namely, Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal, and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and were put on trial for treason, Congress established a Defense Committee of 17 advocates including Bhulabhai Desai.
In October 1945, the court-martial trial began at the Red Fort. Bhulabhai was the leading counsel for the defense. In defense of charged soldiers, Bhulabhai made a notable and strong argument undeterred by poor health. He cited international law in his arguments, arguing that the accused were allowed to obtain arms for their country under the laws of the Provisional Government, founded by Subhash Bose and approved by some sovereign governments, and their The Indian Penal Code did not apply in the case.
The judge but pronounced the three officers guilty and sentenced them to transportation for life. The accused were however released and during the trials reignited the Indian freedom struggle leading to complete independence in 1947.
Bhulabhai Desai died on 6 May 1946. His large capital led to the formulation of the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute in Bombay.