GANDHI'S POLITICAL ACTIVISM IN INDIA

GANDHI'S EARLY POLITICAL ACTIVISM IN INDIA

Gandhi was concerned that the "rule" of British Civilization would continue even if the British government left and thus chose "the long road to independence" through unorthodox methods so that the state that emerged would be uniquely Indian. Communications in India in Gandhi's time were very poor. There were no televisions or telephones and only a handful of radios. Gandhi spread his message of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 1930s and 40s by walking from village to village, and informing villagers through village council meeting, school lectures, and meetings with farmers and villager elders.

After return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi lived in Ahmedabad (320 miles north of Bombay), an industrial city with a labyrinthine old quarter where weavers and craftsmen live in exquisitely-carved double-storied homes. In his home and the ashram where he preached to his followers you can see his spinning wheel, desk and other personal items.

Gandhi began his struggle of India's independence between 1915 and 1920. After Gandhi returned to India towards the end of World War I, he began employing non-violent tactics in his home country that he refined in South Africa. After raising grassroots support among the lower castes in the nationalist movement he organized strikes, boycotts, and hunger strikes.

Gandhi's first major act of non-violence was a fast in 1918 to support textile workers in Ahmadabad striking for higher wages. The factory was an awful sweat shop and workers were forced to work long days for money that was inadequate to feed their families. Observers realized Gandhi's political potential when he used the satyagraha during the anti-Rowlatt Acts protests in Punjab. During his first nationwide satyagraha, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British education institutions, law courts, and products (in favor of swadeshi); to resign from government employment; to refuse to pay taxes; and to forsake British titles and honors. Although Gandhi's first nationwide satyagraha was too late to influence the framing of the new Government of India Act of 1919, the magnitude of disorder resulting from the movement was unparalleled and presented a new challenge to foreign rule.

Gandhi was forced to call off the campaign in 1922 because of atrocities committed against police. However, the abortive campaign marked a milestone in India's political development. For his efforts, Gandhi was imprisoned. "Gandhi gave us a scare," the governor of Bombay from 1918 to 1923 told Time. "His was the most colossal experiment in world history and it came within an inch of succeeding. But he couldn't control men's passions. They became violent, and he called, and he called off his program. You know the rest. We put him in jail."

Gandhi, the National Congress and Other Political Leaders

Gandhi assumed the leadership of the Nation Congress in 1920 and attracted Indians from all classes and religious backgrounds to the political organization. The party was transformed from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal. In 1920-1922 and 1930-1932 he organized strikes and boycotts of British goods and other forms of nonviolent protest as part of non-cooperation movement to protest British rule. Whenever the people resorted to violence or began to turn their energies toward class conflict, Gandhi and the upper-class led Congress called off their passive resistance campaigns.

In 1920, under Gandhi's leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, whose goal was swaraj . Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee, and a hierarchy of committees--from district, to province, to all-India--was established and made responsible for discipline and control over a hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Emerging leaders within the Congress--Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Jaya-prakash (J.P.) Narayan--accepted Gandhi's leadership in articulating nationalist aspirations but disagreed on strategies for wresting more concessions from the British. The Indian political spectrum was further broadened in the mid-1920s by the emergence of both moderate and militant parties, such as the Swaraj Party (sometimes referred to as the Swarajist Party), the Mahasabha Party (literally, great council; an orthodox Hindu communal party), the Unionist Party, the Communist Party of India, and the Socialist Independence for India League. Regional political organizations also continued to represent the interests of non-Brahmans in Madras, Mahars in Maharashtra, and Sikhs in Punjab. *

The Congress, however, kept itself aloof from competing in elections. As voices inside and outside the Congress became more strident, the British appointed a commission in 1927, under Sir John Simon, to recommend further measures in the constitutional devolution of power. The British failure to appoint an Indian member to the commission outraged the Congress and others, and, as a result, they boycotted it throughout India, carrying placards inscribed "Simon, Go Back."In 1929 the Congress responded by drafting its own constitution under the guidance of Motilal Nehru (Jawaharlal's father) demanding full independence (purna swaraj ) by 1930; the Congress went so far as to observe January 26, 1930, as the first anniversary of the first year of independence. *

Other noteworthy political leaders included Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), an extremists who became a guru and founded a religious center, after he was released from prison , and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Nobel prizewinning poet who thought Gandhi was xenophobic. Bhagat Singh was young follower of Gandhi who became disillusioned with peace movements and joined a radical Marxist group. He was executed by the British in 1931. He was lionized in several films that came out in the early 2000s, including The Legend of Bhagat Singh.

Gandhi’s Popularity Soars After Being Released from Prison in 1924

In 1922, when he was 53 years old, Gandhi was disbarred after being convicted of sedition in India. He was imprisoned on a six-year sentence in organizing protest against British rule but was released early in 1924, due to poor health. After he was released he distanced himself from politics for a time to doctor the sick and was renamed Mahatma (Great Soul). He was formally reinstated as a lawyer in 1988.

In all Gandhi spent 2,089 days in Indian prisons and 249 days in South African prisons. On his release from prison in 1924, he set up an ashram (a rural commune), established a newspaper, and inaugurated a series of reforms aimed at the socially disadvantaged within Hindu society, the rural poor, and the Untouchables. His popularity soared in Indian politics as he reached the hearts and minds of ordinary people, winning support for his causes as no one else had ever done before. By his personal and eclectic piety, his asceticism, his vegetarianism, his espousal of Hindu-Muslim unity, and his firm belief in ahimsa, Gandhi appealed to the loftier Hindu ideals. For Gandhi, moral regeneration, social progress, and national freedom were inseparable. [Source: Library of Congress]

Gandhi and the Salt March in 1930

Gandhi reemerged from his long seclusion by undertaking his most inspired campaign, a march of about 400 kilometers from his commune in Ahmadabad to Dandi, on the coast of Gujarat between March 12 and April 6, 1930. At Dandi, in protest against extortionate British taxes on salt, he and thousands of followers illegally but symbolically made their own salt from sea water. Their defiance reflected India's determination to be free, despite the imprisonment of thousands of protesters. [Source: Library of Congress]

In March 1930, when he was 61, Gandhi began a his famous 24-day Salt March to protest colonial taxes and laws and British resistance in granting India self rule. Gandhi marched to the Arabian Sea with his followers to protest a British tax on salt-making and other local industries. Indians paid prices for salt that were said to be 2000 percent higher than the cost of producing it. When he arrived at the sea he illegally made salt by boiling seawater.

Describing the beginning of march on March 12, 1930, Amanda Bower wrote in Time: “Soon after saying his customary dawn prayers, Mahatma Gandhi emerged from his ashram to greet the crowd of thousands gathered to witness the start of his latest and most defiant protest against the ‘curse’ of British rule. A volunteer band raised its horns and, it was reported, blared a few bars of God Save the Queen before it apparently dawned on the musicians that a rousing salute to the English sovereign was not the most appropriate send-off. Their fading notes were overtaken by the sound of coconuts being smashed together, a traditionally Hindu sign of devotion...Gandhi leaning on a lacquered bamboo staff, soon set out along the winding, dusty road...

At each rest stop of the march, Gandhi explained his mission to the crowds that came to check him out and asked them to join him. As he walked, larger and large crowds came to see him, walk with him and listen to what he had to say. At one point hundreds of thousands joined him in a human mass that stretched for more than two miles. More than 60,000 were arrested. At Dandhi, thousands of Indian villagers followed his example and waded into the water to extract saltwater themselves. Gandhi said during the Salt March, “Let the government then, to carry on its rules, use guns against us, send us to prison, hang us. But how many can be given such punishment? Try and calculate how much time it will take for the Britishers to hang 300 million of us.”

The salt march marked the beginning of Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience. To levy the duty on salt, the British established a customs line that in 1869 stretched for 2,300 miles from Madras to the Indus and was guarded by 12,000 men. Describing Gandhi's appeal, one Indian man told Time, "Gandhi was a natural leader. People loved him because he loved the country and not a religion." Another man said, "Gandhi had immense power over everyone because people believed that he spoke the truth. His message was simple, but he could always captivate people." Nehru said, "I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dadhi...Here was the pilgrim on his quest of Truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage regardless of consequences."

Non-Violence in the Face of Violence After Gandhi's Salt March

Gandhi was arrested on May 5, 1930. Describing the scene of May 21, 1930 in a small village near a salt works, Webb Miller wrote in the New Freedom, "Dungri consisted of a little huddle of huts on the dusty plain. There was no means of transportation. I could find nobody who spoke English. By pronouncing the word "Dharsna" and pointing questioningly around the horizon I got directions...After plodding six miles...I reached the meeting place of Gandhi's followers." Many were ‘Gandhi men’ dressed in a regulation uniform of rough homespun cotton dhotis and triangular Gandhi caps. Slowly and in silence the throng commenced the half mile walk to the salt deposits...Manilal Gandhi, second son of Gandhi, walked among the foremost of the marchers. As the throng drew near the salt pans they commenced chanting the revolutionary slogan, Inquilab zindabad, intoning the two words over and over.[Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, Avon, 1987]

“The salt deposits were surrounded by ditches filled with water and guarded by 400 native Surat police in khaki shirts and brown turbans. Half-dozen British officials commanded them...Police officials ordered the marchers to disperse under a recently imposed regulation which prohibited gatherings of more than five people in any one place. The column silently ignored the warning and slowly walked forward. Suddenly, at a word of command, scores of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowds of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow."

“Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down. When every one of the first column had been knock down stretcherbearers rushed up unmolested by the police and carried the injured to thatched huts which had been arranged as a temporary hospital...Then another column formed...They marched slowly toward the police. Although every one knew that within a few minutes they would be beaten down, perhaps killed, I could detect no signs of wavering or fear. They marched steadily...The police rushed out and methodically and, mechanically beat down the second column...By eleven the heat reached 116° in the shade and the activities of the Gandhi volunteers subsided. I went back to the temporary hospital...I counted 320 injured, many still insensible from fractured skulls, others writing in agony from kicks to the testicles and stomach."

Impact of Gandhi's Salt March

Gandhi's walk raised awareness to unfair British polices and mobilized thousands of Indians to begin opposing British authority. It's effectiveness was in embarrassing the morally arrogant British. The British were clearly worried. The British viceroy wrote to London that "the personal influence of Gandhi threatened to a create a position of real embarrassment...He has already achieved a considerable measure of success in undermining the authority of the government. In 1935, the British government approved a constitution that gave India more political power.

During the five years that followed the Salt March, the Congress and government were locked in conflict and negotiations until what became the Government of India Act of 1935 could be hammered out. But by then, the rift between the Congress and the Muslim League had become unbridgeable as each pointed the finger at the other acrimoniously. The Muslim League disputed the claim by the Congress to represent all people of India, while the Congress disputed the Muslim League's claim to voice the aspirations of all Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The 1935 act, the voluminous and final constitutional effort at governing British India, articulated three major goals: establishing a loose federal structure, achieving provincial autonomy, and safeguarding minority interests through separate electorates. The federal provisions, intended to unite princely states and British India at the center, were not implemented because of ambiguities in safeguarding the existing privileges of princes. In February 1937, however, provincial autonomy became a reality when elections were held; the Congress emerged as the dominant party with a clear majority in five provinces and held an upper hand in two, while the Muslim League performed poorly. *

Gandhi is crediting mobilizing mass support for the Indian independence movement. Chadha argued he "cannot be acclaimed as the author of India's freedom." That title goes to Nehru who was a onetime Gandhi disciple. Some scholars have argued that independence was more the result of the gradual collapse of the British bureaucracy beginning in the 1930s than it was by anything done by Gandhi. As much as Gandhi preached against nonviolence, the road to independence and partition was very violent.

Gandhi's Later Life

Photographs by Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White brought Gandhi to international attention in the 1940s. She was played by Candice Bergen in the films Gandhi. In his last years Gandhi was often supported by his daughter-in-law Abha and granddaughter Sita. Gandhi’s successor was Acarya Vinoba Bhave (died 1982).

Between 1940 and 1942, during World War II, the Congress launched two abortive agitations against the British, and 60,000 Congress members were arrested, including Gandhi and Nehru. In 1942, the Congress party passed a resolution calling for the British to leave India. Gandhi supported 1942 Quit India Campaign. He supported the British in World War II, but advocated passive resistance against Hitler and Japan. Gandhi once argued that his passive resistance tactics could used in any situation, even against the Nazis. After World War II he revised his opinion, saying that his methods were effective against the British but might not work so well against crueler oppressors.

The major players in the negotiations for Indian and Pakistani independence after World War II were Nehru, Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, and to a lesser degree Gandhi. Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten were all angered by Jinnah's stubbornness and his unwillingness to compromise. Gandhi and Jinnah were formal to each other but not without invective. Gandhi once said of Jinnah, "You have mesmerized the Muslims." To which Jinnah retorted, "You have hypnotized the Hindus." Nehru and Jinnah argued over whether Gandhi should be addressed as "Mister" or "Mahatma." Gandhi is partly blamed for the partition of India and Pakistan for not trying hard enough to keep Jinnah in the Indian National Congress and failing to object when the Jinnah attacked him by calling him "Mr. Gandhi" instead of "Mahatma."

Gandhi in Calcutta after the Partition of India and Pakistan

On the evening of August 15, 1947, as Indian and British big shots toasted independence in Delhi, Gandhi was camped out in an abandoned house in Calcutta in effort to quell sectarian violence that seemed to be ready out at any moment. Four days after arriving in Calcutta on August 12, Gandhi wrote: "I have taken many risks, perhaps this is the greatest of all. Who knows what will happen. If things go wrong here they will probably elsewhere. If things improve here, then perhaps they will improve everywhere."

As he pulled up in his temporary home in Calcutta in a Chevrolet, a mob greeted him with shouts of "Traitor!" and "Save Hindus, not Muslims." One man who saw Gandhi recalled, "I was very disappointed. Gandhi had no biceps, no triceps, nor forearms. I saw an old man with no teeth. When he spoke he made a 'whoosh, whoosh' sound."

One for the first things that Gandhi did was strike a deal with a Muslim leader, saying that he would guarantee the safety of the Muslims if the Muslim League promises to protect the Hindus. Gandhi then gave speeches, fasted, walked through troubled neighborhoods, lead prayers and read from the Bhagavad Gita.

One Hindu bodybuilder later told Time, "I promised my gang ten rupees for each murder and five rupees for each injury. It was a lot of money at that time but most people did not want to be paid. They wanted revenge." After listening to a Gandhi speech he said, "What he said began to make a lot of sense. 'Blood for blood will not solve the problem. Then this violence will never end." I understood that he was right. I had enjoyed killing Muslims but then they killed my 19-year-old son. The more I killed of them, the more they would kill of mine. I pledged that I would stop killing and start working for Gandhi"

At midnight on August 14-15, Hindus and Muslims celebrated independence together in Calcutta and each group invited the other into their temples mosques and homes. Gandhi spent the first day of Indian independence—something he spent most his life to achieve—by praying, fasting, dictating letters, spinning cotton and skulking about potential for violence.

Two weeks after independence, Gandhi’s calls for restraint and non-violence were ignored. Muslims and Hindus fought with one another and mobs ransacked the British governor's mansion. The Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri blamed the violence on Gandhi, who, he said, based his campaign on hatred by Muslims and Hindus against the British but ignored the tendency of the work groups towards violence. "Gandhi thought that his admonition of violence would be listened to," Chaudhuri wrote. "Of course they were not and could not be."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015


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