MAHARAJ LIBEL CASE -  1862

 
    The case known as the "Maharaj Libel Case", was tried in 1862 in the Supreme Court, before Sir Joseph Arnould. The plaintiff in the suit was the head of the Vallabhacharya sect of the Vaishnavas. The defendant was one Karsandas  Mulji, who edited a newspaper in which he wrote a number of articles, exposing the abuses that, according to him, prevailed in the Vallabhacharya sect. It seems that something akin to what was known in Roman Law as Jus Primae Noctes, was claimed by or accorded to the religious heads of the sect; and their blind votaries, in their ignorance and credulity, sacrificed young women at the altar of a foul superstition. The articles created a great stir in the community, and threw the parasites of their temples, and the worshippers of the" holy" religious head, into consternation and fury. The hold of spiritual superstitions was so strong upon ignorant people in those days, that it demanded great courage and determination to expose and denounce practices which, if essentially lewd and repulsive, were sacrosanct in the eyes of the ignorant and orthodox classes. Karsandas braved public odium, and persisted in his course in the face of threats and persecution. The result was that the head priest, the subject of the attacks, sought legal redress. He filed a suit for defamation against Karsandas. In doing so, he threw himself unwittingly into the arms of an enlightened court, and a fierce and fearless advocate. Karsandas was lucky in securing for his defence the services of Anstey.  Anstey's brain was inflamed by the tale of trickery, fraud, and filth, which was placed before him; and he came to court determined to expose the foul practices, and crush a dangerous delusion. Few could withstand the scathing and relentless cross-examination of Ansteyleast of all anybody with a dark and dubious record. It is not necessary to narrate the tale of credulity and corruption, licence and degradation, elicited in the course of the evidence; nor is it necessary, as Edwardes puts it, "to trace the gradual conversion of the high-toned mysticism of early Hindu religion, into a debasing anthropomorphic superstition."   The case excited great public interest; and the contemporary press referred to its result as "triumph over public immorality".   The true significance of the case is stressed in the concluding portion of the judgment of Sir Joseph Arnould:   "This 'trial is spoken of as having involved a great waste of public time; I cannot agree with that. No doubt, much time has been spent in hearing this case; but I would fain hope it has not been all wasted. It seems impossible that this matter should have been discussed thus openly before a population as enlightened as that of the natives of Western India, without producing its results. It has probably taught some to think; it must have led many to inquire. It is not a question of theology that has been before us. It is a question of morality. The principle for which the defendant and his witnesses have been contending is simply this that what is morally wrong cannot be theologically right that when practices that sap the very foundations of morality, which involve a violation of the eternal and immutable laws of Right, are pursued in the name and under the sanction of religion, they ought, for the common welfare of society and in the interest of humanity itself, to be publicly denounced and exposed. They have been exposed and denounced. At a risk and a cost which we cannot adequately measure, these men have waged determined battle against a foul and powerful delusion.  They have dared to look custom and error boldly in the face; and proclaim before the world of their votaries that their evil is not good, that their lie is not truth. In thus doing, they have done bravely and well. I may be allowed to express a hope that what they have done will not have been in vain; that the seed they have sown will bear its fruit; that their courage and consistency will be rewarded by a steady increase in the number of those whom their words and their example have quickened into thought and animated into resistance, whose homes they have helped to cleanse from loathsome lewdness, and whose souls they have set free from a debasing bondage."   It seems that the public conscience had indeed been stirred to its depths by the exposures in the case. Karsandas Mulji's brave example emancipated the minds of many, and redeemed them from debasing and defiling beliefs and practices. He illuminated Carlyle's maxim that" a lie cannot live ".
 
    The story goes that as Anstey entered  the court-room on the first day of the trial, he brushed past a man who was standing there, and his gown touched the man. The man shouted in vernacular,   "do not contaminate me with your touch."  Anstey turned round and asked what the man was saying. He was told that it was the plaintiff; and  "His Holiness"  felt contaminated by the touch of an alien.  Anstey retorted fiercely,  "Tell the foul beast that I won't touch him with a pair of tongs".  That was the beginning of a battle which ended in the complete defeat and discomfiture of the plaintiff.
 

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