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Confluence of ThoughtMohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.$

Bidyut Chakrabarty

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199951215

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199951215.001.0001

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Articulation of a New Ideology: Gandhi’s Approach to Human Equality

Articulation of a New Ideology: Gandhi’s Approach to Human Equality

(p.122) Chapter 3 Articulation of a New Ideology: Gandhi’s Approach to Human Equality
Confluence of Thought

Bidyut Chakrabarty

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter is an in-depth analysis of the movements that catapulted Gandhi to the centre-stage of India’s freedom struggle against British colonialism. This is where I have shown the importance of grassroots political mobilization in the nationalist movement. That non-violent civil disobedience was an effective political instrument became evident in the movements that Gandhi had launched in India against a well-entrenched colonial power. Gandhi had launched three pan-Indian political movements against the British: the 1920-22 Non-Cooperation Movement was an act ‘omission’ which meant that the Indians were asked to withdraw from the government and other sources of institutionalized power to harm those in political authority; the 1930-32 Civil Disobedience was an act of commission in which Gandhi gave a call to challenge the government by undertaking the various kinds of protest movements both at the national and local levels; the 1942 Quit India Movement or the open rebellion was the last Gandhi-led pan-Indian movement in which Gandhi asked the British to quit India which deviated, on various occasions, from the well-established Gandhian path of non-violence.

Keywords:   Non-violence, civil disobedience, Indigo Rebellion, peasant mobilization, workers’ struggle, nationalism

Because he found himself virtually “a brief less” lawyer in India, Gandhi left his native country for South Africa in 1893. His South Africa sojourn not only gave him financial security, it also prepared him for a bigger role in human civilization. As a lawyer, Gandhi became a savior for the local Indians, who were being abused as coolies or “samis” by the Europeans. Gandhi gave them a voice of protest through a unique means of political action known as “satyagraha.” His success in South Africa earned him the reputation of a leader who mobilized the religiously fractured Indians. By dint of sincere efforts, Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis came forward to fight against the racist government in South Africa. It was a unique achievement for an Indian who hardly knew the social characteristics of the local Indians. Within a short period, Gandhi brought them together despite differences of various kinds among them. Gandhi’s political struggle in South Africa was significant in two ways: first, it enabled the Indians, who until then remained the target of racism, to fight against it under Gandhi’s stewardship. Second, the protest was articulated in a unique fashion, by means of satyagraha, which was conceptualized and appeared in an embryonic form during the struggle against the racist South African regime.

Gandhi went to South Africa for a fixed assignment. But he spent twenty-one years (1893–1914) there and came back to India when he had already made a mark as a political leader who had forced the government to concede to his demands for equality for Indians in South Africa. There was no doubt that he (p.123) was politically baptized in a society that saw the worst kind of racist torture by the white elites. Gandhi was persuaded to stay in South Africa by the local Indians, who found in him an able and articulate spokesman for their grievances. The South African Indians were relatively better off than the blacks, since they controlled local trade and business. Yet they were not treated on par with the whites. By joining hands with Gandhi, these local businessmen of Indian origin came together to challenge the government. So Gandhi became a symbol of protest against the humiliation of the local Indians, who were never socially recognized as equal outside the Indian fraternity. By challenging the authority, Gandhi spearheaded a campaign against the racist South African government that thrived, obviously, on various types of discrimination against the nonwhites.

His success in organizing the masses in South Africa convinced him of the importance of local issues in political mobilization. It was not, therefore, surprising that after he returned to India, Gandhi organized the peasants of Champaran (Bihar) and Kheda (Gujarat) and the workers of Ahmedabad based on their grievances against the landlords and industrialists, respectively. Gandhi launched successful campaigns against vested interests; by involving the local organizers, the strategist Gandhi sustained the movement beyond comprehension. These movements were different from those Gandhi conducted in South Africa, at least in one significant sense: these were grassroots movements seeking to redress the grievances of the peasantry and workers, who were to become major constituencies of nationalist politics. While these movements were organized against local vested interests in Champaran, Kheda, and Ahmedabad, Gandhi’s campaign against the 1919 Rowlatt Act was an all-India movement that challenged the British government. The anti-Rowlatt agitation was the first movement to extend beyond the familiar domain of nationalist politics. Gandhi was anointed as the leader who mobilized the masses regardless of ethnic division. A new era of India’s freedom struggle began, and new idioms of politics were articulated.

Gandhi in South Africa (1893–1914)

Once in South Africa, Gandhi began confronting the racist government. Within a week of his arrival in May 1893, while he was traveling from Durban to Pretoria, he was thrown out of a first-class railway compartment despite having a genuine ticket. It was a very cold night, and he suffered terribly in the waiting room at Maritzburg station. In his words, “[D]oubt took possession of my mind. Late at night, I came to the conclusion that to run back to India would be cowardly. I must accomplish what I had undertaken.”1 He was bewildered at the outset, but was determined to fight. His experience at Charlestown, a rail terminus, was not very different. He took a stagecoach to reach Standerton. Here, too, the white officials forced him to sit on the floor, instead of on the seat for which he paid. His refusal to move out of his seat angered the officials and they physically assaulted him. He had borne the beating, but did not concede the demand. On arrival in (p.124) Standerton, he narrated his experience to his Indian friends, but was disappointed by their responses. According to them, what had happened to him was not very unusual for the Indians in the Transvaal. He reported the incident to the agent of the coach company knowing full well that no action would be taken against the assailants. He continued his journey to Pretoria. He was denied a first-class ticket by the station master of Johannesburg, who allowed Gandhi to buy a first-class railway ticket only after he defended his case by reference to railway rules and regulations. An argumentative Gandhi won the battle and began his journey for Pretoria. Here, too, he was confronted with racist white South Africans and was about to be pushed out the compartment, but for the intercession of a European fellow passenger. This lone incident of kindness was significant in shaping Gandhi’s attitude toward racism. It would be wrong to dismiss the entire white population as racist, he felt. One needed to put moral pressure on the white leadership to recognize the legitimate needs and demands of the colored population.

The five-day journey from Durban to Pretoria seemed to Gandhi one of the most creative experiences of his life. He saw racism in action. He was appalled by the fate of the Indian merchants who had learned to swallow humiliation without protest. He pondered over his experience and decided not to accept injustice as part of the natural or unnatural order of South Africa. He would challenge the atrocious policies of the government simply because they had no place in the “graceful” British Empire. Racism in South Africa had been perfected by rulers who took full advantage of the Indians, who were ignorant of their rights and duties under the empire. Gandhi realized that the Indian settlers suffered largely due to the fact that they were illiterate. He felt that they needed basic English education. Moreover, Indians lost on a number of counts because they were not organized as a group and thus failed to fight the government. Gandhi translated his ideas into practice once in Pretoria. He organized a meeting of the Indians to present to them a picture of their conditions in Transvaal. It was a grand success. He broached the idea of forming an organization and volunteered to teach English to the Indian merchants.

Gandhi was preparing the Indians for a showdown with the government. However, the scene was not favorable for two reasons: (a) Transvaal, ruled by the Dutch, was a Boer state and hence was outside the orbit of the British Empire; and (b) the Boer government had already chased a large contingent of Indian settlers out of the Orange Free State. Gandhi supported the British during the Boer War because this gesture, as he thought, would strengthen the case of the Indians in South Africa to demand a fair deal in return. Hence, despite his strong opposition to the racist South African government, Gandhi articulated his bitterness during the 1890s in very mild language, which upset his colleagues who had joined him in his movement. He defended his stance as a loyal subject of the British Empire by saying that

[I]f an unflinching devotion to duty and extreme eagerness to serve our sovereign can make us of any use in the field of battle, we trust, we would not fail….

(p.125) The motive underlying this humble offer is to endeavour to prove that, in common with other subjects of the Queen Empress in South Africa, the Indians too, are ready to do duty for their Sovereign on the battlefield. The offer is meant to be an earnest of the Indian loyalty.2

… The English-speaking Indians came to the conclusion that they would offer their services unconditionally and absolutely without payment … in order to show the colonists that they were worthy subjects of the Queen.3

What is evident here is that Gandhi, who grew up in the tradition of loyalist discourse, justified his argument by reference to the duty of the subject race to the empire in crisis. But at the same time, Gandhi demanded rights for South African Indians because, as British subjects, they were entitled to rights. This is probably a watershed in Gandhi’s political thinking, because it showed that he was no longer prepared to be unconditionally loyal to the British Empire. What can be argued here is that the South African experience appeared significant in identifying the limitations of a racist administration vis-à-vis the subject race. Here began Gandhi’s transformation from a loyalist to a most effective political leader challenging the continuity of the Indian Raj through an organized and oppositional nonviolent mass campaign. He did this by asserting, though within the constraints of bargaining and pressure politics, the subjects’ right to rebel.

His first major encounter with the colonial government came a year after his arrival in Durban, in 1894. Gandhi found out that the Natal government was pushing legislation to deprive Indians of the right to vote on grounds of race. He prepared his brief by reference to well-established British conventions and other canons of British jurisprudence. Conceding that property qualifications were not adequate to “disenfranchise” the Indians in South Africa, Gandhi argued that the denial of voting rights to the Indians was illegal and thus indefensible. He even suggested that the government might consider the scheme adopted in Cape Colony, where voting rights were granted to those possessing property worth 75 pounds and an annual income of 50 pounds. Despite the strength of the argument, Gandhi failed to persuade the Natal legislature to adopt the bill. He never conceded defeat. Gandhi decided to send a petition to the colonial secretary in London. The petition had 10,000 signatures from almost the entire population. Several copies of the petition were sent to prominent British politicians. Gandhi brought the event before the media both in Britain and in Natal. The bill was finally blocked at Westminster, and the Queen declined to give her consent. So the goal for which Gandhi fought was achieved. Two unique developments took place simultaneously. First, was the launching of the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. Despite having political goals, this was an organization that was devoted to the moral and social uplift of its members. Gradually, the Natal Congress became a lively forum for the Indian settlers, and Gandhi was undoubtedly its galvanizing force. In fact, the reduction of the annual poll tax imposed on the indentured Indian laborers from 25 pounds to 3 pounds was the first successful political achievement of the Natal Congress. The amount was enormous, given the average income of the laborers. The second development was indicative of Gandhi’s (p.126) rise as a strategist. Gandhi was not allowed to practice in the Supreme Court because the Bar Society of Natal prevented him from doing so. After Gandhi proved that this denial was reflective of racist bias against the Indians, the chief justice of the Supreme Court admitted him, but, in keeping with the etiquette of practicing barristers, ordered him to discard his turban in the courtroom. One could notice a change in Gandhi’s attitude at this time. Just a year earlier he would have walked out of the courtroom rather than be subjected to these conditions, but now he conceded the restriction. Justifying his action as most appropriate, Gandhi thus argued,

I saw my limitations. The turban that I had insisted on wearing in the District Magistrate’s Court I took off in obedience to the order of the Supreme Court. Not that if I had resisted the order the resistance could not have been justified. But I wanted to reserve my strength for fighting bigger battles.4

On his return to Durban in December 1896, after a brief visit to India, Gandhi experienced another racist attack, leveled against him and those with him in the same ship. A crowd of more than 3,000 congregated to prevent him and his fellow Indian passengers from landing in the port. The crowd resolved to “burn Gandhi [since] he has vilified [white South Africans] in India and wants to flood Natal with Indians.”5 Gandhi was saved by the wife of Mr. R. C. Alexander, the “old” and “popular” superintendent of police of Durban. The scene was so inflammatory that Gandhi had “almost given up the hope of reaching home alive.”6 Finally, with the support of Mrs. Alexander, he escaped in the disguise of a constable.

The more Gandhi experienced racism, the stronger his resolve became. When in 1906, the colonial government sought to reimpose the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, which required all Indians to register with the government, Gandhi immediately resorted to action. This particular ordinance was a continuity of the 1885 Boer legislation that set up a register of Asiatics. According to this legislation, Indians were legally bound to give a “thumb-print” to obtain the right of residence. The 1906 Ordinance was more draconian than its earlier counterpart in the sense that it insisted on fingerprinting of all ten fingers; the failure to register would immediately lead to a fine, jail, or deportation. Not only was the proposed step most humiliating to the Indians, it also disillusioned Gandhi, who thought that his support of the British in the Boer War would at least change the government’s attitude toward the Indians. In order to register their protest, Indians in Johannesburg gathered in the English Theatre on September 11, 1906. It was resolved that nobody would submit to this legislation. Gandhi was inspired, as he was formulating his idea of satyagraha. Interestingly, Gandhi did not lose faith in British jurisprudence as he challenged the legislation on grounds of fair play to the subjects of the crown. His statements in the September 11 meeting, moreover, also revealed his increasing sense of rebellion against colonial rule. This was evident when Gandhi welcomed imprisonment for his protest against the Immigration Restriction Act of 1907. Once the act was (p.127) made a law—it came to be known as the Black Act—he launched a protest movement by refusing to register. After he was released, he went to London to persuade the government to allow at least the educated Indians to enter Transvaal. But the racist South African government would not relent. Gandhi became disillusioned, as he now saw that the empire offered slavery, not partnership.

The opposition to the Black Act contributed to Gandhi’s conceptualization of satyagraha. During the Transvaal civil rights campaign (1907–1913), he had an opportunity to test and refine his unique protest movement, which had already gained momentum. Two issues figured prominently during this phase of satyagraha: (a) abolition of the Black Act and (b) removal of restrictions on the entry of Indians into Transvaal. The colonial government reacted immediately by providing verbal assurance that it would review the Black Act provided Indians registered voluntarily. Trusting the government, Gandhi thus urged his fellow Indians to register by saying that “we must register voluntarily to show that we do not intend to bring a single Indian into the Transvaal surreptitiously or by fraud.”7 Gandhi was befooled. Indians registered, but the Black Law was not outlawed. In a famous response to the government’s betrayal, Gandhi led a group, on August 16, 1908, to burn thousands of registration certificates, old as well as new, outside the Haminia Mosque in Johannesburg.

A controversy arose when the Cape Supreme Court decided in 1906 to derecognize Indian marriages since they were not registered as they were in South Africa. There was no law for the registration of ordinary marriages in India, but validity of these marriages was never questioned. With Justice Malcolm Searle’s judgment, Indian marriages were made null and void since they were outside the pale of legal marriages in South Africa. The judgment was disastrous because, as Gandhi argued, it “nullified in South Africa all marriages celebrated according to the Hindu, Mussalman and Zoroastrian rites.”8 The many married Indian women thus “ceased to rank as wives of their husbands and were degraded to the rank of concubines while their progeny were deprived of their right to inherit the parents’ property.”9 Such an insulting judgment was bound to provoke moral outrage. As a lawyer, Gandhi petitioned the government for reconsideration of this judgment. No respite was forthcoming. The rebel Gandhi preferred satyagraha against “this unspeakable insult.” Women voluntarily joined the movement against the judgment. Newcastle miners in Natal, especially indentured Indian laborers, went on strike. Gandhi’s satyagraha had a new constituency. On November 6, 1913, more than two thousand protestors began their journey from Charlestown and crossed the frontier into the Transvaal to reach the Tolstoy Farm, which housed the civil resisters arrested for defying the Black Act and the immigration ban. They were arrested in Transvaal and brought back to Durban for imprisonment. This was a grand success for Gandhi’s satyagraha, in which women took the leadership. So terrorized was the government that it “could not now any longer leave the Transvaal sisters,” argued Gandhi, “free to pursue their activities. They too were sentenced to imprisonment for the same terms—three months—and were kept in the same prison as their male counterparts.” This was a revelation to Gandhi, and prompted a radical change in his approach to (p.128) gender. By agreeing to involve women in political movements as equal partners, the “orthodox” Gandhi showed appreciation for their contribution in the wider struggle against the racist government. The transformation in his views was probably due to the influence of Western feminism, given the fact that gender equality was more strongly addressed in the West than in India.10

Gandhian satyagraha eventually jolted the racist South African government into passing the Indian Relief Act of 1914, which abolished the requirement for the Indians to register and carry passes. It also shelved the poll tax of 3 pounds. The system of indenture was discontinued, and Indian marriages were recognized. Despite having conceded some of the principal demands of the satyagrahis, the racist government still stuck to its policies of immigration—both between states and into South Africa. South African experiments catapulted an unemployed barrister—as Gandhi was when he reached Durban—to the center stage of political movements among the disenfranchised.

What did Gandhi achieve in South Africa? First, there is no doubt that the South African experience made Gandhi confident and perhaps prepared him for his future struggle against British rule in India. He might not have achieved what he strove for, but he “returned home with a new method of action and a long-mediated programme for India’s regeneration.” Satyagraha was a new mode of protest that Gandhi crafted and tested in his struggle against racism in South Africa. The strength of satyagraha lies in human suffering. As Gandhi himself elaborated, even before satyagraha was started, satyagrahis knew that they would have to suffer even unto death, and they were ready to undergo such suffering.11 Since the spirit of revenge was alien to satyagraha, it was best for a satyagrahi to hold his peace when he encountered extraordinary difficulties in proving the fact of his suffering. The second significant achievement was his success in mobilizing the disparate Indians in South Africa who were divided on various ethnic counts. The Indian Ambulance Corps that he created during the 1899 Boer War was illustrative of his effort in bringing the deeply divided Indians together. Given its multicultural character, the corps was characterized as “a microcosm of all classes and creeds…. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, Madrasis and upcountrymen [sic], free Indians as well indentured labourers.”12 This tradition was firmly established in Phoenix Farm in Natal and later Tolstoy Farm in Johannesburg.13 However, Gandhi’s focus on the Indian cause prevented him from involving the non-Indian Africans as potential political allies. In defense, one can argue that Gandhi was primarily concerned with the Indians, and hence he concentrated on them. Moreover, he believed that color prejudice was something “quite contrary to the British tradition and only temporary and local.”14 He perhaps missed the serious structural implications of racism for South African society. Third, the South African experience also helped Gandhi understand the nature of Western racism in its most brutal form. By avoiding cross-cultural communications, the South African whites sought to preserve the distinct nature of their civilization. However, in Gandhi’s opinion, no civilization would ever lose its dynamics simply because of contact with others; in fact, (p.129) cross-cultural borrowing would enrich its contents. He was critical of the idea that “nations which do not increase their material wants are doomed to destruction.”15 This remained at the root of the Western nations’ expansionist strategy. It was in pursuance of this strategy that “Western nations have settled in South Africa and subdued the numerically overwhelmingly superior races of South Africa.”16 The opposition of the Indian indentured laborers caused consternation among the white settlers who felt threatened economically by the growing importance of the Indian businessmen in trade and commerce. There was no doubt that “trade by Indians hits the British traders hard” and as a result, “the dislike of the brown races had at present become part and parcel of the mentality of the Europeans.” Finally, South Africa offered a unique environment in which Gandhi made several social and political experiments which he probably could not have done in India. For instance, the Phoenix Farm that was established in Natal in 1904 translated Gandhi’s vision of a society that was free from caste, clan, and ethnic prejudices. This is where Indian women were really free from patriarchal bondage; they were relatively “free” compared to their counterparts in India. Phoenix thus became

a nursery for producing the right men [and women] and right Indians…. whatever energy is put forth in Phoenix,” as Gandhi wrote, “is not so much taken from India, but it is so much given to India…. Phoenix is a more suitable place for making experiments and gaining proper training. Whereas in India there may be undesirable restraints, there are no such undesirable restraints in Phoenix. For instance, Indian ladies would never have come out so boldly as they are doing at Phoenix. The rest of the social customs would have been too much for them.”17

Tolstoy Farm, which came into being in 1910, continued with the same tradition. These farms were testing grounds for Gandhi’s ideas. So dear was the idea of a farm that he founded Sabarmati Ashram (near Ahmedabad) after his return to India. In India’s freedom struggle, the Sabarmati Ashram continued to remain an important center of social and political activities seeking to translate Gandhi’s ideas into practice.

Gandhi in India

Given his South African fame, Gandhi was already known in India even before his return. He landed in India in 1914. As a pragmatic nationalist, he decided to conduct satyagraha in a piecemeal manner in three different locations against local vested interests. While in Champaran and Kheda, he addressed peasant grievances; in Ahmedabad he mobilized the textile workers to voice their legitimate demands. Although these movements were organized around completely different issues, they were identical at least in terms of the mode of (p.130) the struggle, namely satyagraha, which was being tested, for the first time, on the Indian soil.

At Champaran in Bihar, peasants raised their voice against the tinkathia system (according to which, European planters forced the peasants to grow indigo on three-twentieth parts of their land). This movement, which began in the 1860s, gained momentum even before the arrival of Gandhi. Led by the local middle and rich peasant leaders, the pre-Gandhian efforts failed to involve the actual cultivators. This is where Gandhi’s intervention was most effective. A unique political action, the 1917 Champaran satyagraha was the first of its kind in India, and Gandhi led it in accordance with his plan and ideology. Gandhi’s presence in Champaran represented hope for the raiyats18 of the plantations. His act of civil disobedience and determination to endure prison convinced the peasants that the Mahatma was their savior. His extreme simplicity had brought him closer to them than all the erstwhile leaders. How he struck a chord with the peasants was surprising. Even Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who accompanied him during the Champaran movement, expressed that “it is a matter of mystery to me how these people seemed to develop the confidence that their deliverer had come.”19 His arrival in Bettiah in the Champaran region surprised not only his co-workers, but also the British sub-divisional officer, as evident in his report:

We may look on Mr. Gandhi as an idealist, a fanatic or a revolutionary according to our particular opinions. But to the raiyats, he is their liberator, and they credit him with extraordinary powers. He moves about in the villages, asking them to lay their grievance before him, and he is daily transfiguring the imagination of masses of ignorant men with visions of an early millennium.20

To the masses, Gandhi meant a resurrection of hope. His nonviolent resistance provided a viable alternative in the struggle against colonialism, where force had become both illegitimate and ineffective. The Champaran satyagraha forced the government to adopt the 1918 Champaran Agricultural Act, whereby those compelled to let their land for indigo cultivation were given some relief. What Gandhi left was carried forward by local peasants, and Champaran became a strong base for nonviolent political mobilization—though the Congress leadership never allowed them to organize protests against the indigenous landlords. Despite the failure of the peasants to lead movements against the vested interests, the Champaran satyagraha articulated the neglected voice of protests. Gandhi emerged as the supreme leader, and nonviolence gained salience. This was not a subaltern protest, but one in which the subalterns were inducted into the process of political mobilization. In other words, the Champaran satyagraha represented “a battle in which many different levels of consciousness coexisted [presumably because of] the complex perspective of the participants.”21 Apart from projecting Gandhi as a perfect mobilizer, this 1917 movement also contributed to a unique multiclass political platform that prepared the clearly antagonistic classes for the battle against foreign rule. Not only did Gandhi succeed in containing the class (p.131) wrath, he also created a situation in which the struggle against the exploiters coincided with the challenge against colonialism. So, Gandhian nonviolence, as the Champaran satyagraha demonstrates, provided a potent means for a legitimate and effective resistance within the new political dispensation in which the Congress was gaining in importance. The Champaran movement was a watershed in Gandhi’s political life not only in terms of conceptualizing satyagraha as a device but also in terms of its application to building a political platform that transcended class.

Similar to the Champaran experiment, the 1918 Kheda satyagraha was a Gandhi-led no-revenue campaign. Rains had destroyed crops, agricultural wages had risen, there was a high rate of inflation, and there was also an outbreak of bubonic plague, all of which hit the Patidar peasants hard. They organized a movement against the government’s decision not to waive land revenue. Launched by Mohanlal Pandya and Shankarlal Parikh, both of the small town of Kathlal in the district of Kheda of Gujarat, the movement gained momentum as the Gujarat Sabha, an organization under the aegis of the Congress, extended support. Once approached by the Gujarat Sabha, Gandhi arrived in Kheda in March 1918 to launch a satyagraha campaign against the government’s decision to confiscate the properties of the peasants who refused to pay their land revenue. The campaign lasted for four months. In June, the government of Bombay decided not to implement the order, and the defaulters were spared. Like the Champaran satyagraha, the movement, spearheaded by the local Congress activists, continued with local support. Gandhi’s presence was more symbolic than anything else. Even his lieutenants, Vallabhbhai Patel and Vitthalbhai Patel, remained insignificant in the entire movement. Instead, the local leaders were most important. Gandhi was the cementing factor, having brought the satyagrahis together for the movement, but the local leaders set the movement’s agenda in their own terms. In other words, Gandhi was important in the Kheda satyagraha so long as he agreed to support the demands of local leaders. This was evident when the villagers refused Gandhi’s urging for them to join the British army during the First World War.

During the Kheda satyagraha, Gandhi also participated in the Ahmedabad textile mill strike of February-March 1918. What triggered the strike was the withdrawal of plague bonuses to the workers, equivalent in some cases to 80 percent of a worker’s wages. This bonus was paid to workers to dissuade them from fleeing the plague-ravaged towns. Once the epidemic was over, the mill owners decided to discontinue the practice. This decision hit workers adversely due to the spiraling rise in prices at the outbreak of the War. When the workers in Ahmedabad became restive, Gandhi was invited by Anusyya Sarabhai, a social worker who happened to be the sister of Ambalal Sarabhai, the president of the Ahmedabad Mill Owner’s Association, to intervene and resolve the crisis.

Drawing on his belief that there was no major contradiction between capital and labor, Gandhi sought to defuse the crisis through dialogues with the mill owners. The mill owners appeared to be adamant and characterized Gandhi’s intervention as “unwarranted.” On February 22, 1918, the mill owners locked out (p.132) the weavers despite Gandhi’s repeated requests. With the lockout, Gandhi decided to champion the workers’ cause, though he asked them to tone down their earlier demand of a 50 percent wage increase to a 35 percent increase. Although the workers agreed to Gandhi’s suggestion, the mill owners did not relent, and the workers seemed to lose their morale. It was at this juncture that Gandhi began the “first” of his seventeen “fasts unto death” on March 15, 1918. This fast, which lasted for three days, forced the mill owners, who deeply respected Gandhi, to come to an agreement with the striking workers. According to the agreement suggested by the arbitration board, the workers’ demand was partially fulfilled because they received a 27.5 percent wage hike. The compromise was a face- saving formula and a tactical defeat for Gandhi, though he forced the mill owners to accept the principle of arbitration in which workers’ representatives, along with their employers, had a say.

A unique event in Gandhi’s political life, the Ahmedabad strike added a new chapter to the Indian nationalist movement. Though critical of Gandhi’s “obsession” with “passive resistance,” The Bombay Chronicle appreciated the principle of arbitration as “a turning point in labour-employer relations in Ahmedabad” in particular and a unique system of “resolving industrial disputes” in general. The Times criticized Gandhi for “blackmailing” the mill owners, who admired him for his “fast unto death,” though it hailed his role in articulating “arbitration” as “an effective device” to breaking the impasse between the workers and industrialists.

These three movements projected Gandhi as an emerging leader who employed different kinds of mobilizing tactics. What was common to all these movements was that (a) they were organized around local issues and (b) the importance of the local leaders couldn’t be underestimated. There is no doubt that Gandhi’s appearance on the scene gave a fillip to these movements. Yet if we carefully chart the movements, we will discover that Gandhi was invited to lead only after the local organizers adequately mobilized. By his involvement with these localized movements, Gandhi projected a specific kind of leadership: he was not a primary but a secondary organizer. There is no doubt that the movements attained different heights with his intervention. As was evident in Champaran and Kheda, Gandhi’s intervention in elite-nationalist politics established for the first time that an authentic nationalist movement could be built upon the organized support of the peasantry, even though its political object was not what Gandhi endorsed. The peasants were meant to become “willing participants in a struggle wholly conceived and directed by others.”22 Gandhi provided “a national framework of politics in which peasants [were] mobilized but [did] not participate” in the movement’s formulation. This was also true of the Ahmedabad strike, where Gandhi accommodated the interests of the mill owners even at the cost of the workers, who partially conceded their demands. Based on his belief that capital and labor are not contradictory to each other, Gandhi agreed to the negotiated settlements as probably the best solution under the circumstances, even though the workers failed to get what they had asked for. Yet Gandhi’s role was most significant in articulating a form of political mobilization in which the workers (p.133) were also decisive. Just like the Champaran and Kheda satyagrahas that extended the constituencies of nationalist politics by incorporating the peasantry, the Ahmedabad Textile Strike was a watershed, for it accorded a legitimate space to the workers in what was conceptualized as nationalism.

With his involvement in mass movements in Champaran, Kheda, and Ahmedabad, Gandhi forged a new language of protest for India by both building on older forms of resistance and, at the same time, accepting the colonial censure of all forms of violent protest. He emerged as a mass leader who felt the pulse of the people perhaps more keenly than anybody else during the freedom struggle. And the consequence was obvious, because it was Gandhi who transformed the struggle for freedom to a wider nationalist campaign involving various categories of people, including those who remained detached. As Jawaharlal Nehru most eloquently put it,

[Gandhiji] attracted people. They did not agree with his philosophy of life, or even with many of his ideals. Often they did not understand him. But the action that he proposed was something tangible which could be understood and appreciated intellectually. Any action would have been welcome after the long tradition of inaction which our spineless politics had nurtured; brave and effective action with an ethical halo about it had an irresistible appeal, both to the intellect and emotions. Step by step he convinced us of the rightness of the action, and we went with him, although we did not accept his philosophy…. Gandhiji, being essentially a man of action and very sensitive to changing conditions … the road he was following was the right one thus far, and if the future meant a parting it would be folly to anticipate it.

All this shows that we were by no means clear or certain in our minds. Always we had the feeling that while we might be more logical, Gandhiji knew India far better than we did, and a man who could command such tremendous devotion and loyalty must have something in him that corresponded to the needs and aspirations of the masses.23

Gandhi on the all-India scene

The 1919 Rowlatt satyagraha translated Gandhian deeds into action at the pan-Indian level. Drawing on his faith in the spontaneous resistance of the masses to injustice, Gandhi was confident of the success of the campaign against the Rowlatt Act. Designed to crush the revolutionary movements in Bengal, Maharashtra, and Punjab, the 1919 Rowlatt Act authorized the British government to act sternly against those identified as terrorist groups. The act recommended (a) the amendment of the Indian Penal Code in a manner to enable the government to “check activities prejudicial to the security of the state” and also (b) to invest the ruler with the authority to short circuit “the processes of law in dealing with revolutionary crime.”24 Despite opposition by the Indian members (p.134) in legislative council, the bill was adopted on March 18, 1919. Gandhi was upset with the enactment of such a draconian law and decided to challenge the government on this count. In his letter to V. S. Srinivasa Shastri, he wrote,

I consider the Bills to be an open challenge to us. If we succumb we are done for. If we prove our word that the government will see an agitation that they have never witnessed before, we shall have proved our capacity for resistance to arbitrary or tyrannical rule…. for myself if the Bills were to be proceeded with, I feel that I can no longer render peaceful obedience to the laws of a power that is capable of such a devilish legislation as these two bills, and I would not hesitate to incite those who think with me to join me in the struggle.25

How did Gandhi begin this movement that would catapult him to the center stage of the nationalist struggle? As a constitutionalist, he first wrote a pledge refusing to obey the act that allowed the government to act arbitrarily. He sent a telegram to the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, explaining the reasons for his decision to launch a satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act. Finally, he addressed an open letter to “the People of India,” urging them to join the satyagraha against the act.

The movement was launched on April 6, 1919. It was a watershed moment in Gandhi’s political ideas in two specific ways: (a) Gandhi now realized the potential of the growing mass discontent in the anti-British struggle; and (b) this satyagraha was also a litmus test for the Mahatma, who now was confident of satyagraha as a technique for political mobilization. For Gandhi, “This retention of the Rowlatt legislation in the teeth of universal opposition is an affront to the nation. Its repeal is necessary to appease national honour.” Hence he urged,

[W]hether you are satyagrahis or not, so long as you disapprove of the Rowlatt legislation, all can join and [he was confident] that there will be such a response throughout the length and breadth of India as would convince the Government that we are alive to what is going on in our midst.”26

The Rowlatt satyagraha was “the first country-wide” agitation against the British and it not only “transformed nationalism in India from a movement representing the classes to a movement of the masses,” but it also paved the way for Gandhi’s emergence as a dominant figure in Indian politics.

The movement officially began with a nationwide hartal27 on April 6, 1919. It was a peaceful hartal with no reported untoward incidents. The movement, however, became violent once Gandhi was arrested on April 9. Gandhi’s arrest was a preemptive measure that provoked unprecedented mass violence. For the government, it was a testing time, for it had never confronted a movement of this nature before. To contain the agitation, it therefore unleashed a reign of terror. The worst incident was the massacre of innocent people on April 13 in Jallianwallabagh in Amritsar. In order to terrorize the people participating in the movement, martial law was imposed on towns in Punjab. On this fateful (p.135) day, a peaceful unarmed crowd, consisting mainly of villagers who came for a fair and had not been told of the ban on meetings, was brutally gunned down by Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, who was a British Indian army officer.28 The killings provoked mass outrage. But Dyer’s only regret before the Hunter Commission29 was that he ran out of bullets and the narrow lanes prevented him from bringing an armored car, for “it was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a moral effect not only on those present but more specifically throughout the Punjab.”30

The unprecedented scale of the British response seems to have quelled the situation, and the movement showed signs of dissipation. Yet the movement caused concern to the British authority for two reasons: first, it put the British authority, for the first time, on the defensive. Second, the movement did not seem to have run out of steam even after Gandhi’s arrest. Defending the spontaneous outburst against the brutal authority as “natural,” a pamphlet was circulated, especially in the cities, that exhorted the people to participate in the movement against the Black Bill (the nationalists’ term for the Rowlatt Act). Urging the people not to sit “idle” because

the Black Bill has been set in motion [and] the leader of the Satyagraha and a great man of action—Mahatma Gandhi—has been arrested…. Now is the time to show how much inherent power the Indian possess. When man has got power to avert his own calamity, then what difficulty can there be in abrogating the Black Bill…. [S]o long as the Rowlatt Bill is not repealed, every Indians should take the vow of satyagraha … and be ready to sacrifice for the cause.31

The movement was stronger in cities and larger towns than in rural areas. The April 6 hartal was observed most enthusiastically in almost all the Indian provinces. But the places where the movement took off were Amritsar, Gujranwala, and a number of smaller towns in Punjab; in Ahmedabad, Viramgam, and Nadiad in Gujarat; and in Delhi, Bombay, and, to a lesser extent, Calcutta. What surprised the government most was the relative tranquility in Calcutta, which was always the epicenter of the nationalist assault on the British. In a communication to the secretary to the Government of India, the chief secretary of Bengal, J. H. Kerr, wrote,

The main features of the recent disturbances have been the insignificant part played by the Bengali element, the intervention of the Marwaris, and the fraternalization of Muhammadans and Hindus, of which the most striking illustration in Calcutta was the attendance of Hindus at the meeting in the Nakhoda Mosque. [The evolution] of the Movement point[s] to the existence of some general organization … but the indications seem to be that the disturbances were organized from outside Bengal, and the attempts to rouse the mass of people against Government have certainly been less successful here than elsewhere.32

(p.136) How did Gandhi mobilize people? Gandhi gave the Indian masses a new mantra—the mantra of satyagraha. While challenging the British during the Rowlatt satyagraha, he was supported by the Home Rule League, founded by Annie Besant and Bal Gangadhar Tilak and their followers. He also drew upon the support extended by his Muslim friends. Nevertheless, before embarking on action, Gandhi set up his own organization. The Satyagraha Sabha was constituted with its head office in Bombay on February 28, 1919. The Sabha was vested with the responsibility of conducting the campaign against the Black Bill. Yet the success of the Rowlatt satyagraha in those selective areas was largely attributed to the enthusiastic participation of the local leaders. In Bihar, Bengal, and Delhi, prominent local leaders were involved from the very beginning. Without Hasan Imam’s participation in Bihar, the movement would not have gained momentum; similarly, the role of C. R. Das and Byomkesh Chakrabarti in Bengal was most significant in sustaining the momentum of the satyagraha. In Delhi, Swami Shraddhananda played a crucial role in political mobilization during the campaign. Apart from these lieutenants, who had organic links with the locals, Gandhi’s success in galvanizing the masses could be attributed to his skillful exploitation of popular religious symbols. But this does not conclusively explain Gandhi’s surge in popularity, for Tilak in Maharashtra and Aurobindo in Bengal before him had resorted to religious symbols for political mileage, but with limited success. What was distinctive about Gandhi was his intelligent application of symbols, religious and otherwise, that were meaningful to a cross-section of the Indian population, located at various levels of social hierarchy. Moreover, instead of endorsing the much-hyped idea of a “composite culture,” Gandhi always believed that Muslims were a distinct social community. Since religion was the dominant key to loyalty among Indians, he believed that it would be politically inappropriate to dismiss it as “divisive.” This is what explains the increasing participation of the Muslim leaders and their followers in the Rowlatt satyagraha and other Gandhi-led pan-Indian movements that followed. Muslims joined the movements spontaneously in Bengal, Bihar, and Punjab largely because the local Muslim leaders urged them to do so. As is evident, Gandhi emerged as an effective strategist. Not only did the campaign spread the nationalist message across the country, it was illustrative of Gandhi’s capacity to draw the masses, irrespective of caste, community, and religion.

The rise of Gandhi as a pan-Indian leader: the noncooperation and civil disobedience movements

Gandhi inaugurated a new era in India’s freedom struggle by involving people from various level of society. He was also instrumental in transforming the Indian National Congress from an urban-based organization dominated by lawyers mainly from the metropolitan cities of Calcutta and Bombay into a political (p.137) party with an organizational network that reached even into villages. Gandhi’s democratization of the Congress lay in extending its influence into the villages, which was essential for revitalizing the nationalist movement. The Congress, which was at first just a platform for the ventilation of grievances, became a mass organization to challenge the British government. There is no doubt that it was only under the aegis of Gandhi that the Congress metamorphosed into a giant organization whose tentacles reached all over the country. As Jawaharlal Nehru most eloquently put it,

The whole look of the Congress changed; European clothes vanished and soon only khadi was to be seen; a new class of delegate, chiefly drawn from the lower middle classes, became the type of Congressmen; the language used became increasingly Hindustani, or sometimes the language of the province where the session was held, as many of the delegates did not understand English, and there was also a growing prejudice against using a foreign language in national work; and a new life and enthusiasm and earnestness became evident in Congress gatherings.33

The freedom struggle thus acquired a mass base in an unprecedented way. Furthermore, despite internal ideological divisions within the Congress, its nationalist goal was never compromised. Gandhi became the supreme leader, and satyagraha emerged as an effective mode of nationalist protest.

The Noncooperation Movement (1920–22)

The mobilization of the masses during the Rowlatt satyagraha was unprecedented and convinced Gandhi of the growing popular discontent against the British rule. It was not, therefore, surprising that he launched another anti-government campaign in 1920, which lasted for two years. Known as the Noncooperation Movement, it was inspired by the brilliantly simple but politically dangerous idea that, since the colonial state in India owed its sustenance to the cooperation of Indians, it would disintegrate if they withdrew support and set up alternative institutions to replace the existing ones. Following his usual style, Gandhi began the Noncooperation Movement with advance notice to the viceroy. The movement

had several stages. Participants initially resigned from government services and refused to use the institutions of government and schools. Later they refused to pay taxes or serve the armed forces, and they burned foreign clothes. Gandhi was forced to adopt such stern measures as a last resort. “I can retain,” argued Gandhi, “neither respect nor affection for a Government which has been moving from wrong to wrong to defend its immorality.”34 Gandhi was electric. Thousands of people, whether formally associated with the Congress or not, plunged into action against “the satanic” government. Gandhi was hailed as “a saviour” even by Rabindranath Tagore, who, despite critiquing Gandhi’s strategy of burning foreign clothes, admired “the Mahatma,” the title that he (p.138) coined for Gandhi. Tagore said that “it is fortunate that this movement is headed by a man like Gandhi whose saintly life has made him adored all over India. As long as he is at the helm I am not doubtful of the safe arrival of the ship at the port of destination.”35Gandhi promised swaraj (independence) within a year if noncooperation was total and widespread. Was Gandhi unrealistic in making such a promise, as many apprehended? It was a hollow and utopian promise if we interpret it literally, as the British remained firm and strong in every respect as they had during the period of agitation against the Black Act. What was the message then? With this slogan, Gandhi sought to articulate his dream of a strong India that was capable of winning independence. For him noncooperation was (a) a way of demonstrating the hollowness of the colonial state without the cooperation of the average Indians and (b) proof that Indians were capable of managing their business with ease and comfort. There was another dimension as well. His assurance of swaraj within a year also inspired the masses to involve themselves in the anti-British movement despite the adverse consequences. He injected “freedom from fear.” A new zeal of the masses was evident. Not cowed by the brutalities of the British government, the masses ventured into a “world of imagined communities” to attain the goal of independence. “The essence of his teaching was,” argued Jawaharlal Nehru, “fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view…. It was a psychological change, almost as if some expert in psycho-analytical methods had probed deep into the patient’s past, found out the origins of his complexes, exposed them to his view, and thus rid him of that burden.”36

The campaign began in June 1920. The first step was a hartal (strike) on August 1. The strike was successful, as it coincided with the death of Tilak. The Congress had, by then, a well-laid-out organizational network in the country. The Muslims had also emerged as a separate block in Indian politics. By 1920, Gandhi executed a masterstroke in going for an alliance with the Muslim leaders to strengthen the nationalist platform. The three stance that he adopted was: Punjab wrong, Khilafat wrong, and attainment of swaraj in one year. Punjab had become an emotive issue, especially after the killing of innocent people in the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre; the Khilafat issue also gained momentum because of the decision of the British government to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and to undermine the spiritual and temporal authority of the Ottoman sultan as caliph of Islam. Finally, swaraj, though ill-defined, created hopes among those fighting the British in response to Gandhi’s call.

The Nocooperation-Khilafat merger was testimony to Gandhi’s ability to temper rivalries and to secure cooperation among the Hindu-Muslim political leadership. As he himself explained,

I hope by my “alliance” with the Mohamedans [sic] to achieve a threefold end—to obtain justice in the face of odds with the method of Satyagraha and to show its efficacy over all other methods, to secure Mohamedans’ (p.139) friendship for the Hindus and thereby internal peace also, and last but not least to transform ill-will into affection for the British and their constitution which in spite of its imperfections has weathered many a storm.37

This statement clearly suggests the growing importance of elite Muslims as an important constituency of nationalist politics. As a true liberal, Gandhi expressed his unflinching faith in the British constitution and in the peaceful methods of satyagraha. He also realized that Hindu-Muslim unity was a prerequisite for India’s future as a nation. Muslims joined hands with Gandhi to gain political mileage. Once they were recognized as a critical minority in India, neither the British nor the Congress could afford to ignore them in any negotiation for future India. Realizing the politics of “presence,” Muslims also agreed to extend support to the Congress agenda that included satyagraha against the British government for “Punjab wrongs.” So, for both Gandhi and the Ali brothers,38 the brains behind the merger, the Nocooperation Movement was a master strategy for uniting Hindus and Muslims for a nationalist cause. The unity was, however, shortlived because the nucleus of politics shifted with the growing mass participation in movements against the British.

While the association with the Khilafat Movement was strategic, Gandhi’s arguments against the “wrongs” in Punjab were emotionally charged. Hurt by the brutalities perpetrated in Punjab at the behest of General Dyer, he was pushed toward noncooperation as possibly the most appropriate means to challenge the government. He was appalled by the rapid deterioration of British rule, which had once epitomized fair play and justice. In 1919, he “pleaded … for cooperation with the Government” and he did so because he

honestly believed that new era was about to begin, and that the old spirit of fear, distrust and consequent terrorism was about to give place to the new spirit of respect, trust and goodwill. [He sincerely] believed that the officers that had misbehaved during the martial law regime in the Punjab would be at least dismissed and the people would be otherwise made to feel that a Government that had always been found quick (and rightly) to punish popular excesses would not fail to punish its agents’ misdeeds.39

However, his optimism was in vain, as it soon became clear that the British government did not find the massacre in Amritsar unjustified. He minced no words while condemning the ruling authority in terms of basic human values. Defending his decision to go ahead with the noncooperation agenda even without the support of his colleagues, he argued,

Government be a source of an insufferable wrong, if the report of Lord Hunter’s Committee and the two dispatches be a greater wrong by reason of their grievous [condoning] of these acts, it is clear that we must refuse to submit to this official violence. Appeal to the Parliament by all means if necessary, but if the Parliament fails us and if we are worthy to call ourselves a (p.140) nation, we must refuse to uphold the Government by withdrawing cooperation from it.40

On another occasion, he expressed his disillusionment with the government for having lost the moral authority to rule. He unambiguously condemned the British government when he stated,

But to my amazement and dismay, I have discovered that the present representatives of the Empire have become dishonest and unscrupulous. They have no real regard for the wishes of the people of India and they count Indian honour as of little consequence. I can [thus] no longer retain affection for a Government so evilly manned as it is now-a-days.41

Gandhi was thus persuaded to believe that the British government in India was brutal and had “no intention of enacting the ideals of [the British] constitution.”42 He was a constitutionalist only in a limited sense: he made a representation to the government before he embarked on the campaign. In this sense, there was continuity between the style he adopted in South Africa and the one he used in India in the context of the Rowlatt satyagraha. But the comparison ends there because the aim of the Noncooperation Movement in India was to harm the British socially, economically, and politically. Gandhi had reasons to be confident that he would succeed for four reasons. First, the Indian masses had supported him in his campaign against the Black Act. Despite his failure to repeal the act, Gandhi emerged as an undisputed leader who involved the masses in the movement against the ruler. What separated Gandhi from his erstwhile nationalist colleagues was his success in setting a common political agenda for the people at large and thus expanding the constituencies of nationalist politics. Second, although it was a strange coincidence, Gandhi drew political capital out of the Muslim grievances against the British for demeaning the caliph. By appreciating the Khilafat cause, the Mahatma created conditions for Hindu-Muslim amity, at least for a political goal. There is no doubt that the Khilafat campaign gained significance through its merger with the Noncooperation Movement and also by Gandhi’s endorsement of the Khilafat cause. Third, by the time the noncooperation movement was to be launched, Gandhi had already become a nationalist leader with a considerable following across the country. The people had followed the wide publicity that he received after successful satyagrahas in Champaran, Kheda, and Ahmedabad. These experiments also drew to Gandhi a group of local leaders who were inspired by and committed to Gandhi’s political ideology. Not only did they provide Gandhi with adequate organizational support, they also created conditions for Gandhian values to strike roots even in areas where Gandhi had hardly visited. Fourth, by revitalizing the Congress, Gandhi had prepared a strong organizational network to pursue the nationalist goal. From a mere political platform, active only on the occasion of the annual sessions, the Congress became a movement organized around well-defined principles and strategies. It would (p.141) not be wrong to suggest that by the time the Noncooperation Movement was launched, the Congress became Gandhian in the sense that other competitive ideologies were either peripheral or extinct for all practical purposes. It is true that the Congress translated the nationalist vision into practice by undertaking various programs in which the role of the masses was significant, but Gandhi always remained its steward.

The Noncooperation Movement: Consolidation of Gandhi

What alarmed the administration was the impact of the boycott slogan on the government institutions as a whole; almost 80 percent of them were seriously affected between 1919 and 1921. While explaining this phenomenon, an official report admitted,

There was something in the movement that appealed to most diverse types of minds…. Imagination has been fired and a spiritual uplift initiated. Something that had been wanting in our college life had been supplied…. the situation presented possibilities of romance and adventure that irradiated [otherwise sterile] student life. Picketing and procession were [therefore] as irresistible to such minds as a bump supper and a “rag” to Oxford undergraduates. [Students] became for the first time conscious that they were wasting time over a kind of education not suited to their needs and leading them to an office stool.43

Compared with the erstwhile Congress campaign, the NonCooperation Movement demonstrated that the old closed shop of limited politics had been thrown wide open. Far greater numbers than before, from all parts of India, were participating in an overt political campaign, using a far wider range of techniques than earlier politicians had ever used simultaneously. The political nation was thus expanded to accommodate various kinds of interests that had been peripheral in the past.

An important dimension of nationalist politics unfolded with its incorporation of the working-class struggle. In 1921, there were 396 strikes involving 600,351 workers and a loss of 6,994,426 man days. Postwar recession had forced factory owners to cut production to four days a week, provoking the strikes. The C. R. Das–led Bengal Congress immediately took up the cause of the workers to sharpen its attack on the colonial state. The chain of strikes in Bengal that followed the Chandpur firing was partly attributable to the involvement of leading Congressmen like C. R. Das and J. M. Sengupta and partly due to a spontaneous uprising of the entire population, especially the lower classes, who expressed through the strikes their acute sense of economic exploitation and racial abasement under white rule. A disturbed Ronaldshay, who appeared panic stricken in view of the widespread nature of the strike, wrote, (p.142)

The most disquieting feature is the extent of the hold which events have shown they have already acquired over large classes of people. They have been able to call strikes in the inland steamer lines and the Assam-Bengal Railway, and they have been able to call hartals in a number of east Bengal towns simultaneously.44

The “strike fever,” as it was characterized in the official discourse, was endemic and affected primarily the industries of eastern India. Part of the reason for this lay in the fact that the leadership succeeded in attributing workers’ misery principally to the European and American ownership.45 The fact that they were generally insensitive to the grievances of the Indian workers made them an easy target for the nationalist protest. Besides, the local Congressional leadership was crucial in organizing the disparate workers, providing both ideological direction and material help. For leaders like C. R. Das and J. M. Sengupta, labor was increasingly becoming an important constituency of nationalist politics, recognized later in the 1922 Gaya Congress; and thus by championing the workers’ cause, they initiated a process that signaled and articulated various contradictions in the Gandhi-led movement and widened the social base of the freedom struggle. Because strikes did not fit within his plan of nonviolent noncooperation, Gandhi, while condemning the strike fever, argued,

In India we want no political strikes…. we must gain control over the unruly and disturbing elements…. we seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the relations between capital and labour. We want to harness capital to our side. It would be folly to encourage sympathetic strikes.46 (emphasis added)

The Noncooperation Movement also brought the peasants to the forefront of nationalist politics. By prioritizing village reconstruction through self-help, Gandhi articulated his plan for an economic revival “through spinning wheel and hand-woven cloth (charkha and khadi), panchayats or arbitration courts, national schools and campaign for Hindu-Muslim unity and against the evils of liquor and untouchability.”47 Although these programs may not have been uniformly effective as strategies for political mobilization, they nonetheless unfolded a new process by involving a hitherto neglected section of society in a struggle that, despite its pronounced political content, was equally a battle against well-entrenched vested interests in the localities. It was not therefore surprising that the peasants of Kanika in Orissa challenged the local zamindars48 for having demanded extra rent. Invoking Gandhi, the militant section of the Orissa Congress leaders organized the peasants for the establishment of “Gandhi Raj,” when no one would have to pay rent; so convinced were the peasants that they boycotted and intimidated, on occasions, those who were inclined to pay rent to the zamindars. The movement, though led by the Orissa Congress, did not receive Gandhi’s approval, and it was later unconditionally revoked. Gandhi was, however, inclined to encourage a no-revenue campaign in a rayatwari (p.143) settlement area like Bardoil and not in any zamindari region, where it would inevitably involve “no rent.” By trying to contain “no rent” campaigns, Gandhi projected a specific type of leadership that mobilized peasants exclusively and on the basis of the so-called unifying issues that transcended even well-defined boundaries among the antagonistic classes. So it was logical that Gandhi deprecated all attempts to create discord between landlords and tenants and advised the tenants to suffer rather than fight. The peasants had to join forces to fight the most powerful zamindar, namely, the government.

The civil disobedience movement (1930–32)

Gandhi launched the civil disobedience movement in 1930 to challenge both British rule, which appeared to him “a perfect personification of violence,” and the growing hatred toward the agents of this rule, which took the form of casual assassination’ “The call of 1920,” he further wrote, “was a call for preparation. The call in 1930 is for engaging in the final conflict.”49 Gandhi launched the civil disobedience movement by sending a charter of demands to the viceroy on March 2, 1930, which was as follows:

(1) total prohibition; (2) reduction of the rupee ration to Is 4d; (3) reduction of land revenue by at least 50 percent and making it subject to legislative control; (4) abolition of the salt tax; (5) reduction of military expenditure by at least 50 percent; (6) reduction of the salaries of the highest grade service to one half or less so as to suit the reduced revenue; (7) imposition of protective tariff on foreign cloth; (8) passage of the Coastal Tariff Reservation Bill; (9) discharge of all political prisoners save those condemned for murder, withdrawal of all political prosecutions and abrogation of Section 124-A, Regulation III of 1818 and the like and permission of all Indian exiles to return; (10) abolition of the CID or its popular control; and (11) issue of licenses to use firearms for self-defence, subject to popular control.

Gandhi’s eleven-point ultimatum to the viceroy disappointed many leading Congressmen, including Nehru, since it contained no demand for any change in the political structure, not even the dominion status. “Bewildered” at Gandhi’s charter of demands, which ultimately boiled down to a campaign for salt preparation, Nehru thought that it was a sad climb down from the Purna Swaraj resolution.50 As Nehru argued, “Salt suddenly became a mysterious word, a word of power. The Salt Tax was to be attacked, the salt laws were to be broken. We were bewildered and could not quite fit in a national struggle.”51 Irwin, the viceroy, was not perturbed at all: in a letter to the secretary of state, Wedgewood Benn, he wrote, “At present the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night.”

Gandhi’s eleven points incorporated the demands of almost every section of Indian society. By choosing salt as the central issue, he strove to organize (p.144) an anti-British campaign in which the participation of a majority of the people was ensured, since salt was essential for everyday survival. He also included the boycott of foreign cloth as a strategy because of its effectiveness in the earlier Congressional campaigns. Hence the civil disobedience movement revolved primarily around attacks on the government salt monopoly and the boycott of foreign cloth.

On March 12, 1930, Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha began with a carefully organized month-long march covering 240 miles from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the west coast of Gujarat. The Dandi March lasted until April 5 and included seventy-eight chosen volunteers. It was a campaign for freedom, following from the 1929 Lahore Congress’s adoption of the complete independence resolution and authorization of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) to launch civil disobedience. For deciding to breach the Salt Act, the government saw Gandhi as “a laughing stock involved in a kindergarten state of political revolution.”52 Salt could never become, the government was emphatic, “an issue of concern.”53 The most that could happen was that small quantities of inferior salt would be sporadically produced in some coastal areas and consumed locally—which would neither threaten the government nor affect the price of salt adversely. Nevertheless, the movement gained momentum. As Subhas Chandra Bose commented, “At every step the Mahatma received an unexpectedly warm welcome and that made the Government realize that the coming campaign would be a much more serious affair than they had thought at first.”54 Gandhi reached Dandi on April 5. With “the consummate showmanship of a great political artist,”55 he picked up a palmful of salt in open defiance of the government and signaled his opposition to the unlawful Salt Act. In order “to cope with the emergency,” the government finally arrested Gandhi on May 5 under the archaic Bombay Regulation xxv of 1827 that legalized detention without trial. Instead of dampening the enthusiasm of the participants, the arrest of the Mahatma stimulated the resistance against the government. The Congress Working Committee left with the local leadership to decide the course of action once the Mahatma was interned. In order to sustain the spirit of civil disobedience, the newspaper Young India thus exhorted,

Each town, each village may have … to become its own battle field. The strategy of the battle must then come to be determined by local circumstances and change with them from day to day. The sooner the workers prepare for this state of things, the earlier shall we reach the goal. They should need little guidance from outside. They know that there must be no deviation from the principles of civil disobedience as laid down by Mahatma Gandhi or from the main programme of action as fixed by the Congress.56

It has been argued that there was no all-India blueprint for civil disobedience in 1930–1 as there had been in the 1920–22 Noncooperation-Khilafat campaign, and as a result, the movement in practice became a series of loosely coordinated local conflicts. There is no doubt that the success of the civil disobedience (p.145) campaign was largely due to the importance of salt as an emotive issue. Once the scope of the movement was extended to the breach of forest laws, the nonpayment of taxes to ryotwari areas, and the boycott of foreign clothes, banks, shipping and insurance companies, it took the form of a well-orchestrated campaign against British rule. No part of British India escaped, though the intensity differed widely in proportion to which the campaign addressed the local grievances.

Although the 1930 civil disobedience movement began with the breach of the salt laws, civil resistance spread to other fields. As the Mahatma marched in the villages, an intense propaganda was carried on by those involved in the campaign, who asked the people to give up service under the British government and to prepare for nonpayment of tax as well. It was not therefore surprising that the violation of the Salt Act soon became just one activity, and resistance to the government took various forms. Jawaharlal Nehru attributed this to

the promulgation of various ordinances by the Viceroy prohibiting a number of activities. As these ordinances and prohibitions grew, the opportunities for breaking them also grew and civil resistance took the form of doing the very thing that the ordinance was intended to stop.57

At every village where Gandhi stopped he spoke briefly. On one occasion, while reiterating the famous eleven points, he attacked the Salt Act by saying,

Who can help liking this poor man’s battle? The cruel tax is not respecter of persons. It is therefore as much the interest of the Mussalmans as of the Hindu to secure its abolition. This is a fight undertaken in the name of God and for the sake of millions of paupers of this country.58

Besides highlighting the inhuman nature of the British government, Gandhi, in his speeches, always couched his arguments with issues relevant to village life, such as khadi,59 cow protection, hygiene, and untouchability. He also appealed to those serving the government. By the time the Dandi March came to an end, about one-third of the 760 village headmen had resigned. This might not have seriously affected the British administration, but it was symbolically significant in the face of a seemingly strong governmental authority.

As a strategist, Gandhi succeeded in infusing popular misery with political content by attributing such misery to the oppressive nature of the Raj. Astonished by the immense popularity of the civil disobedience campaign, the moderate Tejbahadur Sapru candidly admitted,

The Congress has undoubtedly acquired a great hold on popular imaginations. On the roadside stations where until a few months ago I could hardly have suspected that people had any politics. I have seen with my eyes demonstrations and heard with my ears the usual Congress slogans. The popular feeling is one of excitement. It is fed from day to day by continuous and persistent propaganda on the part of the Congressmen—by lectures, delivered (p.146) by their volunteers in running trains and similar activities…. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that there is the most intense distrust of the Government and its professions. Indeed I have little doubt in my mind that racial feeling has been fanned to a very dangerous extent…. It seems to me that the Congress is really fighting for its own supremacy in the country.60 (emphasis added)

With a gradual expansion of its organizational network, the Congress certainly became stronger than before. For Gandhi, the violation of the salt law was the last throw of a gambler,61 and he insisted that the risk of violence was worth it. The movement appeared inevitable given the government’s refusal to concede the most humane demands of its subjects. This was unfortunate, as Gandhi himself said, because “on bended knees I asked for bread and received stones instead.” Hence he repudiated the salt law and regarded it as his “sacred duty to break the mournful mandatory of compulsory peace that is choking the heart of the Nation for want of free vent.”62

Do or Die: Gandhi’s articulation of freedom

The Quit India Movement was not merely another instance of the civil disobedience campaign; it was also “an open rebellion.” All the past satyagraha movements, wrote the Harijan, were protests against “the unwanted or unapproved acts” of the Raj, the authority of which was, however, conceded. Hence, the Congress “registered protests by breaking the salt laws, forest regulations, the enforcement of section 144 Indian Penal Code, curfew orders, executive bans on meetings etc. and [we] bowed our heads to lathis of the police who represented the collective self of the people—the government, or underwent sentences of imprisonment as model prisoners etc.”63 The situation, however, changed, for as soon as “even the tacit recognition of the government by the people is consciously withdrawn, a government ceases to have any sanction and persons who attempt to exercise governmental authority are usurpers and no obedience is due to them and any punishment meted out having no sanction became the acts of ruffian.”64 The AlCC resolution of August 8, 1942, demanding, in Gandhi’s words, “that the British authority should end completely irrespective of the wishes or demands of various parties”65 is certainly a significant departure from the earlier practices, when the authority of the government had political sanctions to carry out the laws such as they are, and hence was legitimate. With.the onset of the Quit India Movement, the political equation between the government and Congress underwent a radical change, with the Raj being identified as “a usurper of authority and power.”66

The final countdown began, and the Congress leadership, including Gandhi, appealed to the provincial Congress committees to remain united in the context of the last battle for freedom. Nehru, after his trip to the United Provinces, was convinced that the forthcoming campaign was likely to attain the goal in view of the emotional attachment of the people to the cause of “independence” and the role of Gandhi in galvanizing the masses into action. In his words, (p.147)

The mood of the country had changed, and from a sullen passivity it rose to a pitch of excitement and expectation. Events were not waiting for a Congress decision or resolution; they had been pushed forward by Gandhiji’s utterances and now they were moving onwards with their momentum. It was clear that, whether Gandhiji was right or wrong, he had crystallised the prevailing mood of the people. There was a desperateness in it, and emotional urge which gave second place to logic and reason and a calm consideration of the consequences of action.67

On August 8, 1942, the AlCC met in Bombay and approved what became famous as the Quit India Resolution. Harping on the familiar theme of the final British withdrawal from India, the resolution runs thus:

The perils of today … necessitates the independence of India and the ending of British domination. No future promises or grievances can affect the present situation or meet that peril. They cannot produce the needed psychological effect on the mind of the masses. Only the glow of freedom now can release that energy and enthusiasm of millions of people which will immediately transform the nature of the war.

The AICC therefore repeats with all emphasis the demand for the withdrawal of the British power from India…. The Committee appeals to the people of India to face the dangers and hardships that will fall to their lot with courage and endurance and to hold them together under the leadership of Gandhi and carry out his instructions as disciplined soldiers of Indian freedom. They must remember that non-violence is the basis of this movement.68

For the Congress, India’s independence was contingent on British withdrawal. What was, however, different from the past movements that the Congress had led was the Congress asking the participants to act independently in the forthcoming struggle in case the leaders were arrested. The AICC thus exhorted,

A time may come when it may not be possible to issue instructions or for instructions to reach our people and when no Congress committees can function. When this happens, every man and woman who is participating in this movement must function for himself or herself within the four corners of the general instructions issued. Every Indian who desires freedom and strives for it must be his guide urging him on along the hard road where there is no resting place and which leads ultimately to the independence and deliverance of India.69The message the resolution conveyed was categorical in the sense that the AICC urged the people to take part in what was identified as “the last battle for freedom.” For Gandhi, “this [was] the last struggle of [his] life” and he did not want to wait any longer because “delay is injurious and waiting any further would be humiliation for us.”70 He thus appealed to the people to follow the mantra “Do or Die”:

(p.148) We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressmen or [Congress] women will join the struggle with an inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.71

In a message to the nation just before his arrest, Gandhi described the task more precisely. Reiterating his faith in nonviolence, he elaborated,

Everyone is free to go the fullest length under ahimsa; complete deadlock by strikes and other non-violent means; satyagrahees must go out to die not to live; they must seek and face death; it is only when individuals go out to die that the nation will survive. KarengeYa Marenge [We will do or die].72

Neither the AICC resolution nor Gandhi’s last message was allowed to be reported in the press. So there was less trouble, especially immediately after the incarceration of the entire Congress leadership, including Gandhi, than there otherwise might have been. The government strategy seemed to have worked in snatching the wind away from the Congress’s sail, as Tottenham, secretary to the Government of India (Home-Political) 1942–3, prevented the Congress’s message from getting across to the people. Although there were protest marches in Bombay, Gujarat, and Bengal following the adoption of the resolution, they did not pose a serious threat to the British administration. In other words, the decision to gag the press paid off at least initially and a confident viceroy sought the secretary of state’s permission to deport Gandhi to save India from further crisis. When Linlithgow, India’s viceroy from 1936 to 1943, put the matter before the Executive Council for discussion, the council unanimously and vigorously opposed Gandhi’s deportation, which would have caused bad reactions in India and resulted in Gandhi staging a fast abroad. This would have led to a consequent crop of speculation, rumors about his ill-treatment, and so on. In view of the strong opposition of the majority of the Executive Council members, L. S. Amery, the secretary of state, did not press the issue. There were also differences of opinion at the highest level of the British administration as to whether Gandhi should be released if he undertook a fast unto death. The viceroy held the view that Gandhi should not be set free “even if he fasted to death.” All the governors, except that of Sind, opposed the viceroy vehemently. R. Lumley, the Bombay governor, for instance, was “certain that it would be [the] gravest political blunder to allow him to die in detention.” The governor of the Central Provinces was “emphatically of the opinion that local reactions would be most unfavourable…. We would be left with no friends in India and even some of the Indian members of the Superior Services will turn against us.” Hence, he suggested to the viceroy “that Gandhi should be released and restricted to Sevagram if he embarks on a fast.”73Apprehending the disastrous consequences of Gandhi’s death during imprisonment, Churchill’s war cabinet appeared inclined to shift Gandhi to his ashram in case of a fast, provided “he could still be isolated from the outside world at Sevagram.” As there was no categorical support for his view (p.149) at the highest level of the Raj, Linlithgow had no alternative but to accept that “we must be prepared in the event of a fast to set Gandhi at liberty (leaving it to himself to decide where he wants to go or whether he prefers to remain in Aga Khan’s house at Poona) once [the] fast begins to endanger his life and I feel, in the circumstances, this is the best alternative.”74

The August Revolution: A Radical Movement

The August movement was probably most radical in its attitude toward the British and in terms of the methods it employed. Gandhi’s “Do or Die” slogan was an ultimatum to the British, leaving no space for negotiation at all. Such an attitude was absent in the noncooperation and civil disobedience movements, as the Congress leadership was always keen to settle the disputes through some kind of compromise. Gandhi, too, agreed to accept compromise even at the cost of undermining the cause he fought for; the consequences of this attitude were farreaching. On the one hand, the masses who took part in the anti-British campaign felt betrayed—something that was likely to adversely affect the future Congress mobilization. Just as Gandhi opposed radical social movements that tended to disrupt social equilibrium, he was identified as a conservative political activist who declined to disturb the foreign rule. On the other hand, both the failure of Gandhi’s previous Congress movements and his success in containing them at his will strengthened the Raj in two ways: (a) due to Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence, he steered the political agitation in such a way as not to cause severe disruption in the British rule; and (b) once the political force of the movements was neutralized, the British administration was able to concentrate on controlling other radical sociopolitical movements challenging the continuity of colonialism. So, despite the apparent threat to the Raj, both the noncooperation and the civil disobedience movements let loose a political process that was conducive to the maintaining British rule. This, in turn, shaped, to a large extent, the anti-imperial movement before the onset of the open rebellion.

Whatever the implications of the past Congress-led political movements, their significance in gradually radicalizing the Congress cannot be denied. The Congress had anticipated that the nature of the August movement would be different from previous ones and hence, it was not surprising that Congress workers were instructed to capture the heightened mass radicalism. In fact, the Congress volunteers resorted to open violence in a number of cases. It is debatable whether Gandhi would have allowed such a movement to continue in view of his strong antipathy to violence. The movement became violent gradually, and British provocation played a significant role. In fact, this violence introduced another dimension to the structure of politics during the open rebellion. The movement’s deviation from a true Gandhian path highlighted the autonomous path that it had taken in its articulation of aims and mobilization. These were carried out through different idioms and in the context of a completely different ideological perception. It followed a unique pattern and demonstrated new dimensions of (p.150) the structure of grassroots politics. This argument seems convincing in light of the August 8 resolution and the transformation of the movement after the incarceration of the top Congress leadership.

Concluding Observations

Gandhi’s South African experience was remarkable in the way that it transformed him from a loyalist to a rebel. Once he returned to India, his strategy was different. In Champaran and Kheda, he championed the peasant causes. Supported by the local leaders, Gandhi mobilized the affected peasants against revenue remission. Similarly, in Kheda, he supported the movement of those peasants affected by the decision of the Bombay government to confiscate their property for their failure to pay tax. The Ahmedabad textile strike provided Gandhi with an opportunity to deal with the workers who were struggling for a “plague bonus.” Here, the adversaries were the Gujarati mill owners, who happened to be close to him. He faced a dilemma for obvious reasons. The strategist Gandhi persuaded the workers to slash down their demand for an increase in bonuses and convinced the mill owners to accept the increase. The strike came to an end, and Gandhi gained tremendous nationwide popularity.

By the time the Rowlatt satyagraha was launched, Gandhi was totally transformed. He certainly became a rebel. He challenged the British government in India not because of the draconian nature of the Rowlatt Act, but because it would prevent Indians from seeking legal aid against governmental atrocities in the name of “fair play and justice.” There is no doubt that Gandhi truly built a multiclass platform in which opposition to the British government seemed to have prevailed over other considerations. Satyagraha also became organic to his ideology of nonviolence. A new era began in which Gandhi not only wrote the script for the national freedom struggle, but also became its sole guide, if not arbiter, in the movements that followed the 1919 Rowlatt satyagraha.

The noncooperation and civil disobedience movements confirmed the growing popularity of the technique and also the acceptability of its creator. So far confined to the educated middle class, the freedom struggle percolated down to the villages during the noncooperation campaign, and Gandhi remained its supreme leader. The period 1920–32 was most significant in Gandhi’s evolution for a variety of obvious reasons. He became the Mahatma and rose to prominence not merely as a nationalist leader, but also as “a great soul” of India. Based on civilizational resources, his ideology of ahimsa breathed fresh life into a nationalist movement that had become fractured due to ideological rivalries among its participants. So the emergence of Gandhi as the undisputed leader of the Congress marked a radical break with the past. Almost all the pre-Gandhian nationalist leaders were skeptical of Gandhi. By involving the masses in the anti-British campaign, Gandhi articulated a qualitatively different ideology that translated the popular grievances into action against the alien state. A new era dawned in Indian politics. N. C. Chaudhuri has commented, (p.151)

The victory of Gandhism, which was the victory of a new kind of nationalism over all previous forms of rational nationalism, preached and practiced in modern India, forces the men of all schools not only into silence but into incomprehension.75

The 1942 open rebellion, or the Quit India Movement, was a confrontation of a different type, for the Congress clung to violence as necessary to counter the British attack. It was a mismatched battle, though, because the unarmed Congress volunteers fought British forces that were equipped with modern weapons. This, inter alia, is indicative of the spontaneity of the participants, who rose in revolt against the British despite adverse consequences. For the Mahatma, the open rebellion was a novel experiment. As shown, he launched it, but he did not guide it, as he was incarcerated once the movement was declared. However, the course of the movement confirms three important points that are linked with the evolution of Gandhi as a mass leader. First, despite his absence from the scene, the movement continued unabated by drawing ideological inspiration from ahimsa. On occasions, there were violent eruptions that too were defended in the name of the Mahatma. This suggests the hegemonic influence of the Mahatma over those participating in “the last war against imperialism.” Second, as evident in the earlier pan-India movements, the open rebellion was sustained by the local Gandhians, who remained most critical in both interpreting Gandhi’s message to the Congress volunteers and then executing it. Their role was thus most crucial in popularizing Gandhi at the grassroots level. Finally, the Quit India Movement was a failure for the Mahatma. The withdrawal of a large section of Muslims, especially those championing the 1940 Lahore Resolution for a separate Muslim state, undoubtedly weakened the nationalist platform. Gandhi failed to defuse Jinnah’s separatist campaign. It would therefore not be ahistorical to suggest that the Quit India Movement made a dent in the Mahatma’s nationalist image because Muslims preferred to support the British government during the open rebellion.

Nonviolence, which was so far a guiding force in the Congress-led freedom struggle, seems to have been largely undermined in the wake of the 1942 Quit India Movement76 due to circumstances that went beyond Gandhi’s control. Although the movement had shown symptoms of a mass upheaval, it collapsed under a fierce imperial retaliation, owing to the military preparedness of the British following the Second World War. In the absence of the major Congress leaders, including Gandhi, the movement, though shortlived, took a violent turn, which inter alia provoked ruthless military intervention by the British.77

The British administration seemed perplexed by the rather quick dissemination of Gandhian ideas in the remote areas, subsequently taking note of the tremendous influence of Gandhi in shaping the popular psyche. That Gandhi was identified as a savior of the poverty-stricken masses was evident in a police report mentioning that “the real power of his name is perhaps to be traced back to the ideal that he who got bedakhli (illegal exaction) stopped in Pratapgarh in UP.”78 Accordingly, the UP peasants were reported to have believed that Gandhi would (p.152) “provide holdings for them through ahimsa.”79 These illustrations indicate and probably justify the role of rumor in underscoring the institutionalized form of politics in the context of a transitional society like India. Underlying this is probably the explanation as to why the Gandhi-type leadership, exemplified, for instance, in Swami Prajnananda in Bengal, Swami Darshanananda in Bihar, or Baba Ramchandra in Pratapgarh, had strong religious overtones. Besides arguing that these outsiders established the crucial link between the upper and lower courses of the nationalist struggle, which had its manifestation in both the organized and unorganized worlds of politics,80 they brought out another interesting dimension of the Gandhi-led freedom movement: the peasants, experiencing a unique period of acute strain and tension, still needed an outsider to organize themselves.

Moreover, the fact that Gandhi, unlike his predecessors, swayed the masses with his well-entrenched Indianness (in his lifestyle and political vocabulary) demonstrated an ability to translate the popular grievances into political action in the face of imperial oppression and atrocities. This is a part of the story narrating the rise of Gandhi in the context of the freedom struggle. In order to grasp the quintessence of the Mahatma as an organic leader of the nationalist movement, one needs to pay attention to the process projecting Gandhism as an ideology developed through a dialogue with rapidly changing socioeconomic and political arrangements. What is noticeable in such a construct is the absence of familiar Gandhian ideas which are justified, in turn, as being in tune with nonviolence and its concomitant value system. So what had happened in Chauri Chaura in 1922 and during the Quit India Movement in 1942, which defied the fundamental precepts of Gandhism, seems to be an offshoot of a peculiar interpenetration between ideology and reality. That Gandhism had a firm grip over the mass psyche despite tendencies otherwise was evident in the unconditional submission of those, believing in violence, to the Mahatma in both the cases. Therefore the eclipse of nonviolence and its subsequent triumph merely identify the relative weakness of the contesting ideologies which, though they posed a serious threat to nonviolence in Punjab, Maharashtra, and Bengal, appeared peripheral at the national level. Hence the historical impact of Gandhism on the evolution of nationalism was immensely significant.

By sincerely championing ahimsa, the Mahatma provided a format for articulating the anti-British sentiments in the form of satyagraha, which was probably the most appropriate strategic method of struggle at that particular juncture of India’s nation-building.81 Unlike other prevalent ideologies, Gandhism thus succeeded in providing, for the first time in nationalist politics, an ideological basis for including the whole people, irrespective of caste, class, and creed, into an imaginary construct called “political nation.” In other words, not only did Gandhian nonviolence put up an effective challenge to the British domination, it also created conditions for the inclusion of the largest segment of the nation, namely the peasantry, into the Indian state that was to emerge with the eclipse of imperialism. Gandhism, with its concomitant value system, however, appropriated the, peasantry only in so far as it contributed to the nationalist (p.153) struggle, conceived and directed by the Indian National Congress. Although Gandhi introduced new constituencies in the anti-British political campaign by including both the peasantry and the workers, his endeavor in an otherwise elite-dominated freedom struggle did not aim to train the masses in self- conscious attainment of power by themselves, but to solicit their cooperation in the Congress-led struggle for swaraj. That Gandhi succeeded in reinvigorating the “otherwise sterile” nationalist movement despite the ideological limitations of what he offered through nonviolence indicated the extent to which “national democracy” triumphed and other ideologies were marginalized. Notwithstanding the anti-Gandhi wave in independent India, Gandhi appeared invincible in whatever he undertook between 1920 and 1942, primarily because of the Mahatma’s physical and mental affinity with the traditions and temperament of the Indian masses, which yielded results in the context of a volatile socioeconomic and political order.


(1.) M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1928). This discussion is drawn on this tract unless otherwise stated.

(2.) MK Gandhi, ‘The Indian Question’, 23 February, 1901, CWMG, vol. 3. pp. 113–14.

(3.) MK Gandhi to the Colonial Secretary, 1 August, 1903, CWMG, vol. 3. p. 129.

(4.) Quoted in Krishna Kripalani, Gandhi: A Life (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2000), p. 32.

(5.) M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1927), p. 177.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, p. 145.

(8.) Ibid., p. 252.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, pp. 258–9.

(11.) Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 26.

(12.) Surnedra Bhana and Goolam Vahed, The Making of a Political Reformer: Gandhi in South Africa (New Delhi: Manohar Books, 2005), p. 95.

(13.) The Phoenix Farm in Natal (1904) and the Tolstoy Farm in Johannesburg (1910) were Gandhian experiments of communal living that sought to (a) train new passive resisters(b) experiment in communal living(c) take care of the family of prisoners involved in passive resistance(d) evolve a mind-set for multicultural existence.

(14.) Gandhi’s interview to The Natal Advertiser, January 13, 1897, CWMG, vol. 2, p. 6.

(15.) Gandhi’s letter to Dadabhai Naoroji, January 30, 1903, CWMG, vol. 3, p. 21.

(16.) Ibid., p. 23

(17.) M. K. Gandhi, “Note on Ourselves,” Indian Opinion, December 24, 1904, CWMG, vol. 4, pp. 144–46.

(18.) In the Indian agrarian context, a raiyat was someone who had acquired a right to hold land for purpose of cultivating it, whether alone or by members of his family, hired laborers or partners.

(19.) Rajendra Prasad, At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1961), p. 7.

(20.) A report of the subdivisional officer, Bettiah, on September 23, 1917—quoted in Jacques Pouchepadass, Champaran and Gandhi: Planters, Peasants and Gandhian Politics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 217–18.

(21.) Ibid., p. 234.

(22.) Partha Chatterjee, “Gandhi and the Critique of Civil Society,” in Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha, vol. 3, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 189.

(23.) Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (London: The Bodley Head, 1941), pp. 254–55.

(24.) M. V. Pylee, Constitutional Government in India (London: Asia Publishing House, 1965), p. 29.

(25.) Gandhi to V. S. Srinivasa Shastri, February 9, 1919, CWMG, vol. 15, pp. 87–8.

(26.) Gandhi’s speech on the satyagraha movement, Trichinopoly, March 25, 1919, CWMG, vol. 15, p. 155.

(27.) Hartal in Indian parlance means “strike.”

(28.) Dyer commanded the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the Punjab in 1919, killing several thousands of people who gathered there to protest against the imposition of the draconian 1918 Rowlatt Act.

(29.) Headed by Lord William Hunter, the purpose of the Hunter Commission (appointed on October 14, 1919) was to investigate the political disturbances in Bombay, Delhi, and Punjab and to find out the causes for them. It also sought to study the effectiveness of the administrative steps that were taken to cope with them.

(30.) Editorial in Amrita Bazar Patrika, October 18, 1919.

(31.) “An Appeal to the Public: Mahatma Gandhi Arrested—Friends Wake Up”—quoted in Essays on Gandhian Politics: The Rowlatt Satyagraha of 1919, ed. Ravinder Kumar (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 337–8.

(32.) J. H. Kerr to the Secretary of State, Government of India, April 14, 1919—quoted in Kumar, Essays on Gandhian Politics, p. 328.

(33.) Nehru, An Autobiography, pp. 65–6.

(34.) M. K. Gandhi to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, June 22, 1920, CWMG, Vol. 20, p. 415.

(35.) Amrita Bazar Patrika, July 18, 1920.

(36.) Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 358–9.

(37.) M. K. Gandhi, “The Khilafat Question,” Young India, April 28, 1920, CWMG, vol. 21, p. 114.

(38.) Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali—two brothers who worked hard for the merger of the noncooperation movement with the Khilafat movement.

(39.) Young India, July 28, 1920, CWMG, vol. 18. p. 89.

(40.) Young India, June 9, 1920, CWMG, vol. 17, p. 483.

(41.) Young India, July 28, 1920, CWMG, vol. 18. p. 89.

(42.) Judith Brown, Gandhi’s Rise to Power, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 246.

(43.) P. C. Bamford, Histories of the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movements (New Delhi: Government of India, 1925; rpt. New Delhi: Imprint, 1974), pp. 102–3.

(44.) Ronaldshay to Montague, June 15, 1921, Indian Office Records (IOR), Mss. Eur. D 609(2) Zetland Collection.

(45.) The jute industry was controlled by both the Europeans and Americans, which was not the case in other industries in colonial India.

(46.) M. K. Gandhi, “The Lesson of Assam,” Young India, June 15, 1921. Gandhi reiterated his argument in a meeting in Calcutta on September 11, 1921, by condemning the strike fever that tended to disrupt unnecessarily the amicable relationship between the industrialists and the workers. See The Statesman, September 22, 1921.

(47.) Gandhi’s address to the special session of the All-India Congress Committee, September 4–9, 1920, CWMG, Vol. 21, p. 257.

(48.) Zamindar means “landlord.”

(49.) Young India, March 11, 1930, CWMG, vol. 43, pp. 117.

(50.) The Purna Swaraj declaration, or declaration of the independence of India, was made by the Indian National Congress on Janaury 26, 1930, resolving to fight for complete self-rule independent of the British Empire.

(51.) Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 210.

(52.) A note by H. Haig, the Home Member, Government of India, December 23, 1930, National Archives of India, New Delhi, Hope-Poll 257/V and KW/1930.

(53.) Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, to Wedgewood Benn, Home Member, December 28, 1930, India Office Records, London, Halifax Papers, Mss. Eur. C 152 (6).

(54.) Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian Struggle, 1920–42 (London: Asia Publishing House, 1964), p. 179.

(55.) Claude Markovits, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of the Mahatma, (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), p. 77.

(56.) Young India, July 17, 1930, CWMG, vol. 43, p. 358.

(57.) Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 215.

(58.) Gandhi’s speech at Broach, March 26, 1930, Young India, April 4, 1930, CWMG, vol. 23, p. 127.

(59.) Khadi in Indian parlance refers to home-spun clothes.

(60.) Tejbahadur Sapru to Irwin, September 19, 1930, IOR, Halifax Papers, Mss. Eur. C 152 (25).

(61.) The Times of India, May 5, 1930.

(62.) Gandhi’s letter to H. S. L. Polak, July 13, 1930, CWMG, vol. 49, p. 363.

(63.) Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at the All-India Congress Committee meeting while moving “the Quit India” resolution on August 8, 1942 in Bombay, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, All India Congress Committee Papers, G22/1942.

(64.) R. Tottenham, Additional Secretary to F Puckle, Secretary, Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, August 24, 1942, National Archives of India, New Delhi, KW to HPF (1) 3/7/42.

(65.) Nicholas Mansergh, E.X.R Lumby, and Penderel Moon, eds., The Transfer of Power, Vol. II, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1971, p. 622.

(66.) Gandhi’s speech at the All-India Congress Committee just before his arrest, August 8, 1942, CWMG, vol. 83, p. 203.

(67.) Nehru, Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989) (reprint), p. 475.

(68.) Quotations are from Nicholas Mansergh, E. W. R. Lumby, and Penderel Moon, ed., The Transfer of Power 1942-1947 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1971) unless otherwise stated. See Vol. II, The Quit India Resolution, p. 622.

(69.) Ibid., p. 624.

(70.) Gandhi’s press interview of August 6, 1942, quoted in R. Tottenham, Congress Responsibility (Delhi: Government of India, 1943), p. 62.

(71.) Gandhi’s speech at the AICC meeting, August 8, 1942, CWMG, vol. 76, p. 392.

(72.) Ibid., p. 403.

(73.) Viceroy to the Secretary of State, August 9, 1942, reporting the view of the Governors on the question of Gandhi’s fast, IOR, L/PO/6/1O2A Tgm.

(74.) Lord Linlithgow (India’s Viceroy) to Lord Amery (Secretary of State), 28 August 28, 1942, IOR, L/PO/6/1O2A Telegram.

(75.) N.C. Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), p. 400.

(76.) For details, see Amba Prasad, Indian Revolt of 1942, (Delhi: Impex, 1958); F. Hutchinson, Spontaneous Revolution: The Quit India Movement, (New Delhi: Manohar Books, 1971); G. Pandeyed., The Indian Nation in 1942 (Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi & Company, 1982); N. Mitra, ed., The Indian Annual Register, July-December 1942 (this volume contains the government document entitled “Congress Responsibility for Disturbances”).

(77.) Bidyut Chakrabarty, “Political Mobilization in the Localities, 1942,” Modern Asian Studies 26, no. 4 (December 1992).

(78.) Fortnightly Report for the first half of February 1928, IOR, L/PJ/12/1.

(79.) Viceroy to the Secretary of State, October 13, 1921, IOR, Mss Eur E 238/10, Reading Papers.

(80.) A detailed discussion has been pursued in my Subhas Chandra Bose and Middle-Class Radicalism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), chapter 1.

(81.) As the Mahatma himself admitted, it was not necessary for everyone joining the political campaign to accept ahimsa as a creed. It was possible to accept it merely as a political strategy, without its religious core. In his words, “[A]himsa with me is a creed, the breath of life. But it is never as a creed that I placed before India or, for that matter, before anyone except in casual or informal talks. I placed it before the Congress as political weapon, to be employed for the solution of practical problems.” Quoted in Partha Chatterjee, “Gandhi Please Stand Up?” Illustrated Weekly of India, January 15–21, 1984, p. 29.