Spectacular Justice: Aesthetics and Power in the Gandhi Murder Trial

Chapter 15
Spectacular Justice: Aesthetics and Power in the Gandhi Murder Trial

Kanika Sharma

On 30 January 1948, as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi walked towards his daily public prayer meeting in New Delhi a man suddenly blocked his path. Facing Gandhi, Nathuram Vinayak Godse bowed with folded hands, said ‘Namaste, Bapu [Greetings, Father]’, and then fired three shots at point blank range.

The conspiracy to kill Gandhi had begun to take shape in December 1947. At its core were Nathuram Godse and Narayan Dattatreya Apte. These two, close friends and colleagues, had started a newspaper titled Agrani to further the cause of two right-wing Hindu organisations – the Hindu Mahababha and the Hindu Rashtra Dal, of which they were members. The men firmly believed in a united India and were vociferously against the partition of the country, the blame for which they attributed to the Indian state in general and to Gandhi in particular. What began as a series of half-baked conspiracies ranging from destroying the Indian Parliament, to firing mortars at Pakistani Cabinet meetings, to attacking Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and H.S. Suhrawardy,1 finally concretised into the plan to assassinate Gandhi.

Godse was caught on the spot, and nine of the other 12 accused were rounded up within the next month. The last three accused were never apprehended, and one of the accused turned King’s evidence. The trial R v. Nathuram V. Godse and the other accused became the first spectacular trial to be held in independent India and unfolded at the suitably grand location of the Red Fort in Delhi. In the words of Tapan Ghosh, in 1948 this trial was ‘the longest and costliest murder trial this ancient subcontinent ha[d] ever known, the trial for the murder of its First Citizen was itself a historical event’.2

The trial began on 27 May 1948; it was a Special Court held under the aegis of a single judge, Judge Atmacharan. The case was made against the 12 accused under 11 different categories of charges of the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Arms Act 1878. After almost 10 months – during which 149 prosecution witnesses testified, and reams of evidence were collected – the judge delivered his sentence on 10 February 1949. Godse and Apte were sentenced to death. V.D. Savarkar, Accused No. 7, a prominent Hindu nationalist leader, was acquitted and the rest of the conspirators got life imprisonment.

Under the rules of the Special Court, the accused had the right to appeal to the High Court within three weeks. The appeal was heard at the Punjab High Court held in Shimla. If the first trial was held at a national monument in Delhi, for the second, an iconographic building in Shimla was pressed into action. The appeal court was held at Peterhoff, the Viceregal Residence in Shimla, and was presided over by three judges, Justices Achchruram, A.N. Bhandari and G.D. Khosla. This trial largely upheld the verdict of the Special Court, but they acquitted two of the defendants, Shankar Kistayya and Dr D.S. Parchure.

Before beginning an analysis of the trial, it is important to briefly explore the categories of the political trial and the spectacular trial. This chapter is premised on the belief that the oft posited binary between law and politics reduces the term ‘political trial’ to a pejorative marker of the trial; and thus acts an obstacle against using the term as an analytical tool that helps us to understand the intersection between law and politics. The Gandhi Murder Trial can only be understood if we keep in mind the politics of the time. As Judith Shklar asserts, ‘A trial, the supreme legalistic act, like all political acts, does not take place in a vacuum. It is part of a whole complex of other institutions, habits, and beliefs’.3

In an attempt to reclaim the term, I define political trials as trials that are orchestrated by the state against those who not only challenge a particular law of the state, but rather seek to undermine its very existence. In his seminal work on political trials, Otto Kircheimer identified three different types of political trials, and we find that the Gandhi Murder Trial fits firmly in the first category. This category focuses on the type of political trials that result from a common crime committed for political purposes. At first glance this looks like a trial whose political nature is determined by the defendant and not the prosecution; however Kircheimer qualifies this definition by including that such trials ‘are conducted with a view to the political benefits which might ultimately accrue from successful prosecution’.4 Such trials are usually given their political overtones by the state which seeks to use trials of corruption, murder or other criminal offences for the purposes of mud-raking and discrediting its political foes. Often in these cases the state resorts to the use of conspiracy theories, where the crime committed is sought to be linked to a larger conspiracy that is portrayed as a threat to the state.

An important dimension of every political trial is its spectacular nature, how it impresses upon the audience the authority of the state, even at the moment when this authority is at its lowest. Mark Findlay argues that political trials are an example of the ‘use of legal institutions to bolster state authority, where that very authority which normally legitimises such legal institutions is itself widely condemned’.5 The authority of these legal institutions is bolstered through trials that take the form of spectacular events – they are always created with the spectator in mind. Thus, I will employ the category of the spectacular trial to analyse the Gandhi Murder Trial.

This chapter will focus on the spectacular dimension of the political trial, and seeks to examine the visual tropes of power utilised during such trials. I begin by discussing the importance of spectacular events and images to law, arguing that they do not obscure law, rather they are an integral component of establishing law. I then seek to analyse the aesthetics of the building used to hold the trials and the way rituals were employed to visualise authority within the courtroom during the Gandhi Murder Trial.

Lastly, I argue that while the trial spectacle may be orchestrated by the state it always has some room for subversion. Political defendants are aware of the publicity that the spectacular trial may provide for them and their cause, and thus actively seek to use the trial process to undermine the legitimacy that the state seeks to create for itself. In the Gandhi Murder Trial we discuss how Godse and Savarkar attempted to subvert the spectacular trial.

Importance of the Visual within the Trial

Law has always enjoyed a peculiar relation with the ornamental and with spectacular images. During the colonial period, proponents of a codified positive law in India, such as T.B. Macaulay and William Bentinck, sought to replace the ‘corrupt and barbaric native system’ with the Western style rule of law, ‘which would be efficient rather than ornamental’.6 Here, we find an attempt to posit law in opposition to the ornamental; the latter is believed to distract the subject from law and hence reduce law’s power and efficiency. In contrast to this, I argue that the spectacular is an inextricable part of the law – it is evident in the everyday process of law and is especially magnified in spectacular trials.

As Peter Goodrich asserts, the ceremonial is not merely ornamental or hedonistic; ceremonies of law do not merely accentuate law, they create and help to establish it. The ceremonial gives ‘credence to law, and effect to rule’,7 it marks out a prior space of social approbation within which law can be displayed and enacted. The spectacular trial, then, becomes a tool that is established by law and yet in turn establishes law itself.

While discussing the Gandhi Murder Trial as a spectacular trial, three dimensions of the word spectacle are of importance for us: it is a specially prepared or arranged public display; it presents something of a striking or unusual character; and it acts as an illustrative instance or example. Therefore, the visualness of an event is key to designating it a spectacle. What then is the relationship between the spectacle and the images it employs?

Lawrence Bryant asserts that:

As [a] historical object, a spectacle must be twice constructed: first as a series of performances, and then as a historical event. We cannot disassociate the performances from the ‘historical event’ of which they are a component part; spectacles cannot be taken as transparent and unproblematic descriptions of historical events.8

This becomes crucial to the understanding of the political trial as spectacle. The images deployed by law, the location of the court and all that occurs within the courtroom is part of the performance of the spectacle; this performance cannot be separated from the larger trial event. The decision to try the defendants, the charges laid against them, the judgment made, and how all of these are affected by and, in turn, affect the outside world are part of the ‘historical event’ of the trial. These two aspects come together to form the spectacle that seeks to influence the minds of the public.

The spectacle is designed to imprint an event on public memory, to assert legitimacy and therefore reinforce authority, and most importantly function as a propaganda exercise; while the form of the spectacle may have changed with the modern state, the essence of the spectacle has not. However, the relation between spectacle, state and power is not fixed or constant; at different times states can make use of the spectacle for various purposes. The role of the spectacle can range from magnifying the appearance of power – and thus increasing it – to merely reaffirming the presence of a particular form of power in society.

Thus, we see that law enjoys a close relation with spectacular events and images. They help law to establish itself and to create ‘historic events’. Importantly, such images do not simply display the power that the state has; they also help to actuate it. In the case of the Gandhi Murder Trial, the creation of the spectacle is based upon earlier image-creating exercises of the state by the use of the Red Fort.

The Use of the Red Fort

As the political trial attempts to impress upon its audience the power and legitimacy of the state, it utilises various symbols of power available to it. Large imposing spaces or monuments, such as grand palaces, court buildings and public squares, are often utilised for such displays because they speak to ‘law’s architectural ambitions’.9 The use of such impressive edifices marks out a ceremonial space for the trial, the grand display awes the subject with the power that the state has at its disposal, and may also provide the state with a link to the previous historical event that had taken place at the location.

Holding the Gandhi Murder Trial at the historic Red Fort allowed the Indian state to establish two important ideological constructs: first, it sought to stress the continuity between the various states that had ruled over India in the recent past – the Mughal Empire and the British Raj – by using the same architectural symbol of power that had been used by these states. In doing so, the newly independent Indian state also sought to underscore the legitimacy of its succession. Second, the use of the Red Fort helped to highlight the secular credentials of the state, as it sought to posit Gandhi’s assassin as a communalist. The palace built by a Muslim King, and later utilised by the Christian ruling class, stood as a symbol of syncretic India, devoid of any religious overtones.

Guaranteeing the Continuity of the State

The Red Fort has witnessed three of the most spectacular trials in India. The first trial held at the Red Fort was staged by the colonial state in India in 1858. The Qila-i-Mubarak (The Blessed Fort) was built by Shah Jahan (also known for the Taj Mahal) in 1648, its red sandstone walls lending themselves to its name as the Lal Qila or the Red Fort. The Fort served as the Mughal Palace until the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was captured in Delhi during the first large-scale armed revolt against the British Forces, i.e., the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Despite the presence of British courthouses in Delhi and the presence of large government houses in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai) – both towns unaffected by the Mutiny – the British state chose to hold the trial of the last Mughal King in his own palace situated in rebellion ravaged Delhi.

Pramod Nayar refers to this trial as ‘a carefully plotted spatial “event”‘, where there was a re-appropriation and transformation of space itself.10 One such attempted transformation was the bid to uncouple the image of the Fort from the idea of the Mughal Empire, and instead make it serve as an image of the Indian state. This uncoupling was in keeping with the wider British policy of portraying themselves as natural successors to the Mughals.11 The Red Fort provided the colonial empire with a link to the Indian past and a tool to legitimise their presence in the subcontinent. In addition to this, the trial was able to portray the dominance of the new Empire. Clifford Geertz argues that rulers take possession of their realms through ceremonial forms, ‘In particular, royal progresses locate the society’s centre and affirm its connection with transcendent things by stamping a territory with ritual signs of dominance’.12 This is precisely what the British sought to achieve by trying the king in his own palace: they established in the eyes of the Indian population that they now ruled the country and made its laws. After the trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the British Forces systemically reduced the power of the Fort until it remained a shadow of its former self; the Fort itself had been designated the Military Police Headquarters.

The British faced the second significant armed threat against their authority in India from the Indian National Army (INA). This army mostly consisted of the Indian soldiers taken hostage by the Axis powers in Malaya during the Second World War. Helped by the Japanese, the INA fought against the British Army on the eastern frontiers of India in 1944–5, but eventually lost and most of its members were captured. The Red Fort featured heavily in the INA imagination; its slogan was ‘On to Delhi’, and its monthly propaganda magazine published under the same name carried above the masthead the picture of the Indian flag in the foreground and the Red Fort in the background. The aim of the INA was to capture the Red Fort and rid it of the British Forces. On 5 July 1943, the leader of the INA Subhas Chandra Bose announced in Singapore, ‘[O]ur task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on another graveyard of the British Empire – the Lal Qila, or “Red Fortress”, of ancient Delhi’.13

The only reason why the senior INA leaders were able to reach the Red Fort was because, in their desire to mock the INA for its ambitions towards the Fort, the British decided to try the INA leaders on its premises. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was later to become the first prime minister of India, was a part of the Defence Counsel during the INA trial. He wrote:

Every stone in that historic setting tells a story and revives a memory of long ago. Ghosts of the past, ghosts of the Moghuls [sic], of Shah Jahan, of Bahadur Shah, proud cavaliers pass by on prancing horses, processions wend their way. You hear the tramp of armed men, and the tinkling of silver bells on women’s feet … There was a hum of life and activity, for this was the hub of a vast and rich empire.14

As is evident by this statement, the participants at the INA trial, who soon became leaders of independent India, were clearly aware of the previous trial held at the same arena. Once again, we find a stress on the continuity of the state through the trope of the Red Fort.

This symbolism of the Red Fort was carried forward, and even strengthened, in independent India. On the day after Independence, and on every Independence Day since then, the prime minister of India has addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Fort. As Bernard Cohn notes:

The end of the empire was marked where it might be said to have begun, in 1857, with the desacrilization [sic] of the Mughal’s palace, with English officers drinking wine and eating pork. The moment of transfer of authority from the viceroy to the new prime minister of an independent India was marked at the Red Fort by the lowering of the Union Jack at midnight, 14 August 1947, before a huge crowd of jubilant Indians.15

By the mid-twentieth century, the Red Fort had been accepted as a symbol not only of Delhi, but of India at large. The new prime minister, Nehru, was very aware of the power that the Red Fort had as an icon for all Indians, and he sought to transform the Red Fort from a national icon to an icon of a particular brand of civic nationalism. In a circular to all governors in March 1948, Nehru urged them to direct all cinema houses to put up a picture of the Indian flag at the end of the performance rather than to play what they considered the national anthem.16 However, not just any picture of the Indian flag could be used; Nehru had specifically arranged to supply them with a ‘good picture of the National Flag on the Red Fort in Delhi’.17 According to Partha Chatterjee, this particular image elevates the Red Fort to abstract ideality by keeping the illustration clear of any elements except the bare façade of the Fort and the national flag flying from an impossibly high flagstaff, thereby producing a ‘sacred iconicity of the monument’.18

The iconicity of the Red Fort was such that there was a belief that to raise your flag over the Red Fort was to raise your flag over all of India. In fact the Hindu nationalist organisations frequently accused supporters of Pakistan of attempting to capture the Red Fort and thus proclaim their domination over India. Press reports of the time claimed that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was able to prevent the Muslim Leaguers’ intended coup to kill government officials and thousands of Hindus and ‘plant the flag of Pakistan on the Red Fort and then seize all Hind’.19 Though Nehru rubbished these claims, the incident proves the iconic reverence that the Red Fort demanded not just in Delhi, but all over India. In the national imagination, to control the Fort and to have your flag fly atop its ramparts was a symbol of control over the entire nation.

During the Gandhi Murder Trial the courtroom was a 100’ × 23’ room, situated on the first floor of a newly constructed building within the Fort. The building, erected as a military barrack by the British, reflected the symbolic nature of the laws; an inherently British structure contained within an outwardly Indian façade. The timing of the Gandhi Murder Trial placed it firmly at the juncture of colonial and post-colonial law. The trial was held by the Indian state, yet it was held in the name of the king of England, ‘the Rex’ who finds mention in the very title of the case itself. Thus the case remained an ostensibly Indian case, and yet at its core were British laws and the king of England.

Unlike the first two trials where the Red Fort was in fact in some way linked to the history of the case, in the Gandhi Murder Trial the Palace held no apparent symbolism for the case itself. Indeed, the symbolism of the Fort was established by the actions of the state. Here, the Fort stood as a symbol of the Indian state, and was used to highlight the legitimacy of the new state’s succession to power, and to underscore its authority during its first period of crisis.

Not just the Indian government, the Indian media too was very aware of the symbolism of the building and highlighted it in its coverage of the trial. For instance The Tribune wrote: ‘Fate had destined Delhi’s historic Red Fort to be the venue of a trial of Indians charged with the assassination or conspiracy to assassinate the Father of the Nation soon after India attained independence.’20 In fact, we find that the Red Fort became inseparable from the identity of the trial itself. In daily news reports the trial was alternately referred to as the Gandhi Murder Trial or the Red Fort Trial and headlines such as these were common: ‘Examination of Shankar in Red Fort Trial’,21 ‘Arguments in Red Fort Trial Begin’.22 By stressing on the importance of the Red Fort, these headlines reveal the prevailing view of the time; that this assassination was not simply an attack on a citizen of the state, rather it was an attack on the state itself.

The Question of Secularism

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