The Meerut Conspiracy Case was a controversial court case in British India. It was initiated in March 1929 and decided in 1933.
Several trade unionists, including three Englishmen, were arrested for organizing an Indian railway strike. The British government sentenced 27 leftist trade union leaders under a false lawsuit.
The trial quickly got attention in England, where it inspired the 1932 play Meerut by a Manchester street theatre group, the Red Megaphones, highlighting the damaging effects of colonization and industrialization.
The British government was worried about the increasing influence of the Communist International. It was also fully convinced that all infiltration of communist and socialist ideas was delivered to the workers by the Communist Party of India (CPI).
Its ultimate objective, the government perceived, was to achieve “complete paralysis and overthrow of existing Governments in every country (including India) by means of a general strike and armed uprising”. The government’s quick response was to foist yet another conspiracy case, the Meerut Conspiracy Case.
The trial helped the Communist Party of India to strengthen its position among workers. Dange, along with 32 other persons, was arrested on or about 20 March 1929 and put on trial under Section 121A of the Indian Penal Code:
Whoever within or without British India conspires to commit any of the offenses 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 main charges were that in 1921 S.A. Dange, Shaukat Usmani and Muzaffar Ahmed joined a conspiracy to build a branch of the Comintern in India and were helped by various persons, including the accused Philip Spratt and Benjamin Francis Bradley, who were sent to India by the Communist International.
According to the charges raised against accused persons, their aim was under section 121-A of the Indian Penal Code (Act 45 of 1860):
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.
The Sessions Court in Meerut gave harsh sentences to the accused in January 1933. 27 persons were convicted with various durations of ‘transportation’.
Muzaffar Ahmed was transported for life. Dange, Spratt, Ghate, Joglekar and Nimbkar were given transportation for 12 years. On appeal in August 1933, the sentences of Ahmed, Dange and Usmani were reduced to three years by Sir Shah Sulaiman Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, because the accused had previously spent a substantial part of their sentence while they waited for the trial to be decided and because
in the case of political offenses, arising out of the beliefs of the accused, severe sentences defeat their object. In practice such sentences confirm the offenders in their beliefs and create other offenders, thus increasing the evil and the danger to the public.
The sentences of convicted others were also reduced.
The convictions of Desai, Hutchinson, Mitra, Jhabwala, Sehgal, Kasle, Gauri Shankar, Kadara and Alve were also overthrown on appeal.
Though all the accused were communists, the charges framed against them represented the British government’s fear for growth of communist ideas in India.
In the trial, all of the accused all labeled as Bolsheviks. For four-and-a-half years, the defendants turned the courtroom into a public platform to support their cause.
As a result, the trial saw strengthening of the communist movement in the country. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, a former General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote about the aftermath of the Meerut Conspiracy case:
a Party with a centralized apparatus, came into being only after the release of the Meerut prisoners, in 1933. The Meerut Conspiracy Case, though launched to suppress the communist movement, provided the opportunity for Communists to propagate their ideas. It came out with its own manifesto and was affiliated to the Communist International in 1934.
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