Ahmedabad, the Government has decided, has to pay a fine of nearly nine lakhs of rupees in connection with the April disturbances. This is under the same section of the British Police Act as Nadiad has been dealt with. A law that allows a Government thus arbitrarily to impose a penalty is a bad law. All laws that place a Government above law and enable them to impose their will upon people without consultation with them or without the authority of a properly constituted judicial tribunal are bad, and should not be tolerated where there is an enlightened and liberal Government or where the people are jealous of their freedom. But it is not my purpose to discuss the badness of the law. My object at the present moment is to bring to public notice an unwise and untimely and an almost despotic application of that bad law. The principle that the wanton damage done to life and property by crowds of people should be made good by them is beyond dispute. But acceptance of that principle cannot and does not involve acceptance of arbitrary powers. In the case of the Ahmedabad mill-hands a fine of 176 thousand rupees has been fixed. Recovery is to be made from all mill-hands employed during September 1919, within the municipal limits. Now the disturbances took place in April last. It is a notorious fact that mill-hands have changed somewhat and newcomers constantly come in. Why should those who joined after the disturbances and have no connection with them be made to pay anything whatsoever? Why should women and children of whom there is a considerable number in the mills have to pay? There are probably sixty thousand labourers in the mills. Is it right to fine them nearly two lakhs of rupees?
The manner of collection and the time chosen are still more unfortunate. The order is dated 26th September, 1919 and on the same day the following was served upon the mill-owners:
"The Collector of Ahmedabad hereby calls upon the Agents of the ... mill to pay to the Huzur Deputy Collector, Ahmedabad, on Monday, September 29th before 3-00 p.m. an amount equal to one week's wages of the manual labourers employed during September, 1919 in the mill out of the amount held by him as caution money on their account."
The law contemplates the possibility of an appeal to the Government against such orders by the parties aggrieved. The order has not been served upon the mill-hands. They have not been given the chance of appeal nor have they been given the option of paying the fine themselves. The caution money, that is, the money retained by the mill-owners out of the wages due to the mill-hands, has been summarily attached without notice to or consent of the labourers concerned. Such treatment of labourers debases them, needlessly irritates them and keeps them in a helpless condition. This manner of dealing with the labourers shows that they are not considered responsible human beings.
It is almost like collecting fine from owners of cattle for trespass without reference to the latter, the difference being that the labourers are not dumb like cattle and unlike cattle the burden ultimately falls on their shoulders. It is surprising that the mill-owners have, as I understand they have, become willing parties to such a monstrous procedure.
Information in my possession goes to show that the mill-owners are to recoup themselves for the above payment out of the wages immediately to fall due. This means that the enormous sum of one hundred and seventy-six thousand rupees (Rs. 1,76,000) is to be collected during a festival season common to both the Hindus and Mohamedans. The impropriety of such a step can hardly be questioned. The coincidence is no doubt unintended but the unsophisticated labourers will conclude that the festival season has been intentionally chosen to wound their feelings.
The Collector of Ahmedabad is a gentleman. He has given every satisfaction to the inhabitants of the district. At a time of intense excitement, he acted with remarkable coolness. He is a man full of broad humanity. It is a matter, therefore, of special regret to me to have to criticize his actions and I cannot help saying that if he was not a slave to a system which makes arbitrary procedure possible at almost every step of national life, he could not have helped seeing the absurdity and the injustice of the action taken by him. The matter is now before His Excellency the Governor and I venture to express the hope that the wrong done to the labourers of Ahmedabad will be redressed. The sum apportioned for the labourers is too much for them. It should be reduced. Women and boys should be exempted and the payment received by easy stages. I admit the difficulty of collection by instalment from a large number of labourers but that difficulty is nothing compared to the infliction of a serious injustice upon a large number of human beings. Terrorizing punishment is hardly the best method of weaning offenders from wrong-doing, and in the present instance the punishment will fall upon many innocent shoulders.
The authorities have recognized the delicacy of the situation in that they have drafted special police to Ahmedabad and taken extraordinary precautions in order to avoid unruliness on the part of the labourers and to cow them down into submission.