Patriots > Freedom Struggle under Mahatma Gandhi > Desai, Bhulabhai
Desai , Bhulabhai ( 1877 - 1946 )
Bhulabhai Desai was born on 13 October 1877. He was the only son of Jivanji who started life as a man of small means and later became Government Pleader, ‘Mukhitiyar’. Jivanji began to prosper and settled down near Bulsar in Gujarat. Bhulabhai once said, “I was born a poor agriculturist and had to walk five miles to school at the age of seven with a view to learn the rudiments of Fujarati characters.” In 1895 Bhulabhai passed the Matriculation Examination and joined the Elphinstone College in Bombay, the premier institution of higher education in the Presidency.

He had a most distinguished University career, taking first-class Honours in the B.A Examination and getting the Wordsworth Prize an Scholarship for distinction in History. Later, his father having died, Bhulabhai decided to take to law, but before graduating in law he accepted the appointment of a Professor of English and History at the Gujarat College inAhmedabad. During the years that he worked as Professor in Ahmedabad he passed the LL.B Examination. Having passed the Advocates Examination of the Bombay High Court, he was enrolled as an Advocate of the Court on 22 December 1905.

His rise at the Bar was phenomenally quick, and, at the relatively young age of seven years at the Bar, he was able to boast of a chamber which had attracted to itself several juniors who were knocking at the “portals of the inner sanctum of the seniors for admission into that charmed circle.” What made for his singular success at the Bar was, more than anything else, “the keenness of his intellect and the persuasiveness of his manner and language.’ His agile brain not only kept pace with the working of the mind of the Judge, but also anticipated in many ways the Judge’s thinking.

His initial efforts in the political field were somewhat slow and hesitant. At one time he joined Mrs. Besant’s Home Rule League and addressed several meetings. He was also a member of the Liberal party for many years.

His first dedicated effort as lawyer in the cause of his country was in connection with ‘No Tax’ satyagraha campaign in Bardoli, initiated by Gandhi in 1922. It was a protest against a revised assessment of land revenue which was totally unjustified. The campaign was led by Sardar Patel. The Government having appointment an Enquiry Committee presided over by Mr. Broomfield, the District Judge, Gandhi wrote a letter to Bhulabhai which the Sardar took to him, requesting him to give all his assistance in he Enquiry.

His masterly presentation of the facts at the Enquiry resulted in recommendations to remit assessments mounting to several lakhs of rupees. Bhulabhai thus made a great contribution to the cause of the agriculturist. The remission in Bardoli were followed by very substantial remissions and suspensions in the Punjab, the Central Provinces and elsewhere. It is said that “Out of this struggle and enquiry Vallabhbhai emerged as Sardar Patel and Bhulabhai emerged as advocate of the people.”

He resigned from the Liberal Party and joined the Congress in the 1930. Convinced of the boycott of British goods, he established the Swadeshi Sabha in Bombay to promote the boycott. On 25 July 1932 Bhulabhai was arrested in Bombay and later sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for his activities in relation to the Swadeshi Sabha. He was detained at the Nasik Jail till 4 July 1933, when he was released on account of serious of illness.

When the working committee of the Indian National Congress was reorganized in 1934-35, Bhulabhai became a member of the Committee. He took a leading part in the formation of the Swara Party and in the election campaign I 1934. He was elected to the Central Assembly from Gujarat Constituency in November 1934.

Bhulabhai’s labours for the country were not able in tow fields of activity. One of them was law, where he rendered signal service in the Bardoli Enquiry and later in the I.N.A Trial. The other was his leadership of the Congress Party in the Legislative Assembly from early 1935. In the Assembly he earned the respect and even the admiration of his opponents.

As a leader of his party, he acted with restraint and dignity, leaving his able lieutenants in the Assembly to shoulder the burden of many a debate. His career in the Assembly has been compared to those of pre-eminent layer-politicians who carved out names for themselves as Parliamentary success in the early decades of the twentieth century, such as Asquith, Edward Garson, E. E. Smith and Sir John Simon. On the declaration of the Second War in 1939, the Congress withdrew its representatives from the Assembly.

Bhulabhai was not a believer in non-violence, except as an instrument to be used on suitable occasions. However, as a leading soldier in the congress fight he was in the vanguard of individual satyagraha. As President of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee and a member of the Working Committee, he offered individual satyagraha on 1 December 1940 and was arrested and imprisoned. On this Occasion he remained in prison till 16 September 1941.

During his incarnation he wrote

occasionally a diary expressing fully his views on many matters. Speaking of Gandhi, he wrote: “The more you examine his ways, vies, theories, practices, his idea is to build a rudimentary society where man is so plain and simple, life is so sparse that then there is little or nothing to quarrel about; a negation of raising the standard of life beyond a cottage and a cow and an acre of land, and charkha above all. For either you use modern science and take the risk of its evils coming with its goods, or remain with charkha and the bullock stage of man’s evolution.”

Like many other intellectual followers of Gandhi, while loyally practicing his doctrines, he remained completely unconvinced of their soundness or benefit to the country. In July and August 1942 the Quit India Resolution was passed by the Working Committee and the All India Congress Committee. Having regard to the manner in which his mind was working when he was in jail, there would appear to be little doubt that he almost emphatically disapproved of these resolutions.

The period of nearly three years, August 1942 to June 1945, which followed Quit India Resolution, was one of grave darkness and doubt for the Congress. Gandhi, who had been released from prison by reason of his illness, was in favour of breaking the deadlock which had arisen, and the Viceroy was willing that an Interim Government should be formed jointly by the Congress and the Muslim League evolved a formula for the formation of an Interim Government, which was approved by Gandhi, and they entered into a pact in writing, known as the ‘Desai-Liaquat Pact’. Indubitable documentary evidence and Gandhi’s own later statements clearly established that in entering into the pact Bhulabahi had Gandhi’s approval and authority.

Notwithstanding this fact, the Working Committee of the Congress after its release in June 1945 took the view that Bhulabhai had entered into the Pact without the approval of Gandhi and in order to obtain an advantage for himself. When later the Congress submitted its names to the Viceroy for the proposed Interim Government, it did not mention Bhulabhai’s name; and when it put forward candidates for the elections, it omitted his name from its list. The public always felt that grave injustice had been done to Bhulabhai. Notwithstanding the manner in which the Working Committee and Gandhi had treated him, he still retained his great popularity.

The crowning glory of Bhulabhai’s career was the part he played in defending the I.N.A prisoners at the Red Fort Trial Towards the end of 1945. Though there were seventeen advocates in the Court Room, including Nehru “wearing a barrister’s gown which he had not donned for thirty years”, the leading counsel for defense was Bhulabahi “whose brilliant searching advocacy and cross-examination rang a bell throughout India.” Even though he was ill and notwithstanding the injustice done to him by the Congress, he responded to the call for service. The trial started on 5 November 1945 and ended on 31 December 1945.

The record spread over 387 closely printed pages, 30 witnesses having been examined for the prosecution, 12 for the defense, and numerous documents having been exhibited. Bhulabahi’s speech for the defense spread over several days. So great were his intellectual powers and so powerful his memory, notwithstanding his age and health, that the whole of his speech for the defense was delivered ex-tempore and without the assistance of any notes. A British Professor of Law, who witnessed the trial, gives his impression of Bhulabhai’s speech in these words:

“Bhulabhai was an aged and sick man at the time. However, he carried the major burden
of the defense, and, at the end, although carried into court in a chair he delivered himself of an oration which may rank with the greatest of addresses in the history of English advocacy. Without a note and without repeating himself, he conducted himself in the most dignified manner imaginable and those who were privileged to hear him will never forget the experience.”

“The honor and Law of the Indian National Army are on trial before this Court,” he thundered, “and the right to wage war on the part of a subject nation for their liberation.” Among the many pleas he urged for the defense, none caught the public imagination more than his contention that members of a subject nation trying militarily to free their country could not be guilty of an offence under the municipal law.

After the trial he returned to Bombay, and soon thereafter he took seriously ill, reaching his end on 6 May 1946. He was survived by his son and daughter-in-law, his wife having died many years before his death.

One would be justified in saying that here was a person who was intensely human, a great intellectual, an erudite lawyer and advocate, an eloquent and skillful parliamentarian and an unstinting and devoted servant of the Mother-land. Many noble and patriotic hands laboured at the erection of the edifice of Free India. Bhulabhai’s contribution to this great task was substantial and significant.

Author : M. C. Setalvad