And Then Gandhiji Came
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 at Porbandar in Gujarat. He became a barrister after receiving legal education in England. In 1893, he went to South Africa to join a law firm and there he got involved in the fight against racial injustice. He took up the cause of the Indians, who were predominantly indentured labourers, and the problems of the merchants who had to pay a poll tax. The Indians did not have the right to vote and were confined to certain parts of the cities.
From 1893 to 1914, he spearheaded this struggle and it was during this phase that the whole idea of satyagraha evolved. Satyagraha stands for satya and agrah, i.e., struggle for truth. The emphasis was on resisting evil, not the evil-doer. The stress on non-violence by Gandhiji was not a weapon of the weak but something which could only be practised by the brave. He put many of his ideas into practice by starting a settlement or an ashram at Phoenix in South Africa where he gathered like-minded people who practised the concept of ‘bread-labour’. This meant that everyone worked in a commune like farm, sharing the work and the food.
He set up a newspaper called Indian Opinion in which he expressed the grievances of the Indians and framed petitions to the government. He also set up another ashram called Tolstoy Farm which was similar to the settlement in Phoenix.
This satyagraha in South Africa was important in the evolution of Gandhiji’s political approach. Here, he worked with the masses and poor people belonging to different religions. This experience helped him in organizing Indians later during the freedom struggle. He was warmly welcomed on his return to India in 1915. For one year after his return, he travelled around the country to familiarize himself with the main problems. Soon after this, he was engaged in three formative struggles in Champaran (1917) in Bihar, Kheda and Ahmedabad (1918) in Gujarat.
All three struggles were based on local issues and dealt with the economic demands of the peasants and workers. The tenants of Champaran found indigo cultivation unprofitable but were forced to take it up. Their protests were suppressed with a heavy hand by the planters, who were mostly Europeans and the government sided with the planters. When Gandhiji reached Motihari, the headquarters of the district, for investigations, he was served with an order to leave the place.
But, he disobeyed and pleaded guilty. The prosecution was withdrawn and he was allowed to continue with his investigations. This led to the appointment of a commission by the government to enquire into the issue. The commission recommended abolition of indigo cultivation and gave redress to the tenants. The success in Champaran of the new method of satyagraha triggered its adoption elsewhere in the country.
The weapon of satyagraha was also used to secure a waiver of land revenue in Kheda in Gujarat in years of famine or crop failure.
The Kheda Satyagraha saw the entry of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel into public life, giving up a lucrative legal practice. It also brought Gandhiji and Sardar Patel together. They educated the peasants about their right to question the government’s authority to tax them.
The peasants were told to defy coercion with civility. The peasants courted arrest after removing crops from land wrongfully attached. The government was forced to suspend revenue assessment in the case of poor peasants. The Kheda campaign laid the foundation of an awakening among the peasants of Gujarat. Gandhiji then organized the textile workers in Ahmedabad. Before he entered the scene, Anusuyaben Sarabhai, the sister of Ambalal Sarabhai, one of the leading millowners of Ahmedabad, had been carrying on educational work in the labour areas.
She sought Gandhiji’s advice when a dispute arose between the weavers and the mill-owners in 1918. Gandhiji, instead of trying to force the hands of the mill-owners, persuaded them to accept the principle of arbitration. He and Sardar Patel became arbitrators on behalf of the labourers. The workers went on strike. Gandhiji advised the workers not to resume work until their demands were secured. After a few days, the workers’ morale went down with the loss of wages and signs of starvation at home.
Gandhiji declared he would have no food and would use no conveyance until the workers succeeded. It was literally a fast unto death. He arranged for some alternate work for the workers so that they could earn some living. The fast had its effect and soon a solution was found with Sarladevi, the wife of Ambalal Sarabhai, playing a key role in persuading the mill-owners to find a solution. This episode laid the foundation of a strong union between Congress leaders and the workmen and of a permanent organization called the Textile Labour Association.
India after the First World War
The international situation after the war gave a fillip to the growth of nationalism. The Imperial powers had promised self-determination to their colonies so as to get support from them for the war. However, these promises were conveniently forgotten when the war ended. In reaction, nationalism took an aggressive turn when the colonial people realized that there was no prospect of self-government.
The war had also helped the colonial subjects to overcome their feeling of racial inferiority vis-à-vis their rulers. The Russian revolution of 1917 inspired the people of the colonies to rise up against their masters. In India, two major legislative changes were introduced during the immediate post-war years: the Montford Reforms and the Rowlatt Act.
The former was a constitutional reform scheme and the latter intensified the repressive powers of the government. The Montagu– Chelmsford reforms scheme led to the enactment of the Government of India Act, 1919. Under this act, the provincial Legislative Councils were to be expanded and most of its members were to be elected. The provincial governments were given greater powers under the system of Dyarchy.
Some subjects called reserved subjects like finance and law and order remained under the authority of the provincial Governor and others called transferred subjects like education, public health and local self-government were to be controlled by ministers responsible to legislatures. But the government retained total control over finances and it could overrule the ministers on any grounds. At the Centre, two houses of legislature were established, the lower house called the Legislative Assembly and the upper house called the Council of State.
However, this legislature had no control over the Governor-General and his executive council just as the Provincial legislatures had little control over the Provincial Governor. Provincial governments were controlled totally by the Centre. Indian nationalists remained dissatisfied with these reforms. The Congress met in a special session at Bombay in August 1918 and rejected these reforms demanding effective self-government. It repudiated the assumption in the Montagu-Chelmsford report that Indians were not fit yet for responsible government.
The second major legislation was the Rowlatt Act promulgated in March 1919. It was passed despite every Indian member of the Central Legislative Council opposing it. At the end of the war, the government decided to strengthen its capacity to repress political activity through legislation which was clearly outside the limits of the rule of law. The proposed act empowered the government to imprison any person without prior trial and conviction by a law court on grounds of suspicion alone.
There was a widespread resentment towards this act among the people who saw it as an insult since it came after the war when they were expecting progressive constitutional changes. Gandhiji called for satyagraha and formed a Satyagraha Sabha which was joined by the members of the Home Rule Leagues. A call for hartal accompanied by fasting, prayer and defiance of specific laws was given. On 6 April 1919, the start of the Satyagraha was announced. In most places, hartals were accompanied by violence and disorder.
In Punjab, two Congress leaders, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal were arrested on April 10 provoking an assault on the town hall and the post office in Amritsar. Europeans including women were attacked. This brought on martial law under which public meetings were banned. April 13 saw a massive gathering of people in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar protesting against the martial law and the arrest of Congress leaders.
Without any warning, General Dyer opened fire on the unsuspecting and unarmed people. According to government estimates, 379 people were killed. Following upon this incident, martial law was intensified in Punjab. The infamous order under which people had to crawl before Europeans was passed. Gandhiji withdrew the Rowlatt Satyagraha on 18 April 1919, dismayed by the violence.
The entire country was horrified at the violence and atrocities in Punjab. It was as if the mask of enlightenment and civilization that covered the brutality of imperialism had been shed in one day. People understood the true nature of colonial rule and the extent to which it could use force in order to maintain its foothold in India