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51. The Amritsar Appeals

[Editor's Note: On July 24, 1919, the Privy Council had granted leave of appeal to 21 citizens of Amritsar convicted by the Court Martial at Lahore in connection with the Amritsar riots of April 1919. They appealed on the ground that the Viceroy had no power to issue the Martial Law ordinances and that the procedure followed by the Summary Courts was irregular.]

So these appeals have been dismissed in spite of the advocacy of the best counsel that was obtainable. The Privy Council has confirmed lawless procedure. I must confess that the judgment does not come upon me quite as surprise, though the remarks of the judges, as Sir Simon was developing his argument on behalf of the appellants, led one to expect a favourable verdict. My opinion, based upon a study of political cases, is that the judgments even of the highest tribunals are not unaffected by subtle political considerations. The most elaborate precautions taken to procure a purely judicial mind must break down at critical moments. The Privy Council cannot be free from the limitations of all human institutions which are good enough, only for normal conditions. The consequences of a decision favourable to the people would have exposed the Indian Government to indescribable discredit from which it would have been difficult [for it] to free itself for a generation.
Its political significance can be gauged from the fact that as soon as the news was received in Lahore all the preparations that were made to accord a fitting welcome to Lala Lajpat Rai were immediately cancelled and the capital of the Punjab was reported to be in deep mourning. Deeper discredit, therefore, now attaches to the Government by reason of the judgment, because rightly or wrongly the popular opinion will be that there is no justice under the British Constitution when large political or racial considerations are involved.
There is only one way to avoid the catastrophe. The human and especially the Indian mind quickly responds to generosity. I hope that without the necessity of an agitation or petitions the Punjab Government or the Central Government will immediately cancel the death sentences and, if at all possible, simultaneously set the appellants free.
This is required by two considerations, each equally important. The first is that of restoring, public confidence which I have already mentioned. The second is fulfillment of the Royal Proclamation (of December 1919) to the letter. That great political document orders the release of all the political offenders who may not by their release prove a danger to society. No one can possibly suggest that the twenty-one appellants will, if they are set free, in any shape or form constitute a danger to society. They never had committed any crimes before. Most of them were regarded as respectable and orderly citizens. They were not known to belong to any revolutionary society. If they committed any crimes at all, they were committed only under the impulse of the moment and under what to them was grave provocation. Moreover, the public believe that the majority of the convictions by the Martial Law Tribunals were unsupported by any good evidence. I, therefore, hope that the Government, which have so far been doing well in discharging political offenders even when they were caught in the act, will not hesitate to release these appellants and thus earn the goodwill of the whole of India. It is an act of generosity done in the hour of triumph which is the most effective. And in the popular opinion this dismissal of the appeal has been regarded as a triumph for the Government.
I would respectfully plead with the Punjab friends not to lose heart. We must calmly prepare ourselves for the worst. If the convictions are good, if men convicted have been guilty of murders or incitements to murder, why should they escape punishment? If they have not committed these crimes as we believe most at least have not, why should we escape the usual fate of all who are trying to rise a step higher? Why should we fear the sacrifice if we would rise? No nations have ever risen without sacrifice and sacrifice can only be spoken of in connection with innocence and not with crime.

Young India, 3-3-1920