The sudden withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement encouraged an alternative political approach within the Congress. C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru advocated that the Congress must give up its boycott of Legislative Councils. Once elected to these Councils, Congressmen should obstruct their working from within and bring out their shortcomings.
This would turn the Councils into political battlegrounds and arouse the public against them. However, other leaders like Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Dr. Ansari disagreed with this approach.
They argued that entry into Councils would weaken both the mass base of the party as well as the nationalist sentiment among the people. They believed that it was more important to follow the Congress’s constructive programme of spinning khadi, promoting Hindu-Muslim unity and temperance, and removal of untouchability.
This difference eventually led to the formation of the Swaraj Party in December 1922 by C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru. It was to work from within the Congress and follow the Congress programme except on the issue of entry into Councils.
They were known as Swarajists or ‘pro-changers’ and those who opposed this change within Congress were termed as ‘no-changers’. In order to prevent a split like in 1907, Gandhiji advised both groups to stay and work from within the Congress.
In the 1923 elections, the Swarajists performed well, winning 42 seats out of 101 elected seats in the Central Legislative Assembly. They successfully defeated the government within the Council on numerous occasions and elected Vithalbhai Patel as the speaker of the Central Legislative Assembly in 1925, first ever to do so.
The contribution of the Swarajists to the national movement was that they exposed the shortfalls of the Act of 1919 and gave visibility to the movement when the mass movement was in a passive phase and Congress was rebuilding its strength amongst the masses. But they could not bring about a change in the imperial policy and walked out of the Councils in 1926 and later in 1930 as well.
The constructive work of the Congress continued in the meantime and numerous ashrams came up all over the country. Many young men and women promoted charkha and khadi as symbols of the national struggle against the colonial rule.
They also worked among the tribals and lower castes for their upliftment. Nationalist educational institutions came up which provided anti-colonial education to the youth. These workers later became the organizers of the civil disobedience movement.
Emergence of New Forces
The end of non-cooperation was also the time when the spectre of communalism started to raise its ugly head. Between 1922 and 1927, 112 major communal riots took place in the country. The Muslim League, with its support for separate electorates, and the Hindu Mahasabha, formed in 1915, became active.
The 1920s in India were also remarkable for other new forces emerging on the Indian political scene. The influence of Marxist and socialist ideas among students was on the rise during this period. These were manifested in the form of a new left wing within the Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. They argued that the national movement, while continuing its struggle against colonialism, must also address the question of economic disparity and oppression of peasants and workers in India.
This period also saw the widespread mobilization of the youth. Youth leagues were established across the country with the first All Bengal Conference of Students being held in September 1928 under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru.
This increased the influence of socialism among the youth and led to the advocacy of radical solutions for the economic and social problems in India. They also demanded that complete independence, rather than a dominion status be made the goal of the freedom struggle.
Growth of Socialist Ideas
This period also saw the rise of communist and socialist groups in India. The Russian revolution inspired them and their dissatisfaction with Gandhian methods of struggle drew them further towards socialism. M.N. Roy was the first Indian to be elected to the Eastern leadership of the Communist International.
The government was very wary of this increasing Communist influence in the country and in 1924, arrested Muzaffar Ahmad and S.A. Dange in the Kanpur Conspiracy case and tried them for spreading communist ideas in the country. However, this did not seem to have stemmed the growth of socialist following in India.
In 1925, the Communist Party of India was formed and many workers’ and peasants’ parties came up across the country. These parties operated from within the national movement but advocated the socialist route to India’s freedom.
In UP, peasants agitated for reform of tenancy laws. They demanded decrease in rents, debts and safeguards against eviction. In 1928, Sardar Patel led the peasants of Bardoli in a no-tax campaign which ended successfully.
Trade unionism grew during these years and workers agitated for better wages, living and working conditions. The year 1928 saw many strikes—South Indian Railway workers struck work, as did railway workshop workers in Kharagpur and the workers of Tata Iron and Steel works in Jamshedpur. The most important strike was the Communist-led strike in Bombay textile mills which saw the participation of 1,50,000 workers for more than five months.
Another trend which gravitated towards socialism in this period was revolutionary nationalism. The Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) was founded in 1924 to overthrow British rule through an armed revolution.
Many of its young members were arrested and tried in the Kakori Conspiracy Case of 1925 after their attempt to rob government money aboard a train near Kakori in Lucknow district of UP. Four were hanged, 4 deported for life and 17 sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
Among those hanged were Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan. Recognizing the influence of socialism, the name of the organization was changed in 1928 to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) under the leadership of Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh.
In the earlier phase, revolutionary nationalism had stood for individual acts of revenge against British officials. But now the HSRA was operating with an ideology that the change in India’s political situation could only be brought about through a violent revolution by the masses. Another event which convinced them about the need for an armed rebellion was the appointment of the Simon Commission and the nation-wide protests that followed.
In 1927, the British Government appointed the Indian Statutory Commission under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon to enquire into the question of further constitutional reforms for India. The Commission did not include any Indian member.
The Congress met in Madras in 1927 and decided to boycott the Commission. Both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha supported it. Anti-Simon protests thus united the different political strands in the country once again. An all-India hartal was held when the Commission arrived in Bombay in February 1928.
Wherever the Commission went it was greeted with black-flag demonstrations ‘Simon Go Back’. The demonstrators were suppressed through police attacks and lathi-charges. It was in one of these clashes that Lala Lajpat Rai received lathi-blows on his head and succumbed to his injuries later. As an answer to the Simon Commission, an All-Party Conference was held in order to evolve a common scheme of constitutional reforms.
This resulted in the Nehru Report drafted by Motilal Nehru and finalized in August 1928. But this report was not accepted by the All-Parties Convention held in Calcutta in December 1928, due to the opposition of communal parties like the Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and the Akalis. Jinnah rejected the Nehru Report and put forward his Fourteen Points which were made up of the demands of different communal organisations.
However, in the meantime, the death of Lala Lajpat Rai had angered the HSRA members and on 17 December 1928, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and Rajguru assassinated Saunders, a police officer. A few months later on 8 April 1929, in order to make their ideas known to the people, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly. The bomb was harmless and they stayed in the hall and threw pamphlets saying that the bomb was meant to ‘make the deaf hear’.
They were arrested and during their trial, they made their famous speeches propagating their ideas. In Bengal, revolutionary activities were on the rise. In 1930, an armoury in Chittagong was raided and attacked by Surya Sen and his followers.
The government swung into action and arrested many of these leaders. They were tried and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, deportation as well as death. Their defence was organised by Congress leaders. Within the prison, they carried out a hunger strike in order to protest against the inhuman conditions of political prisoners. During this strike, Jatin Das died after fasting for 63 days.
Meanwhile, alarmed by the popular following which Bhagat Singh and his followers were gathering, the British officials hastened their hanging. On 23 March 1931 Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged despite large-scale popular protests against their death punishment. Unrelenting repression by the government soon led to the weakening of the revolutionary movement as most of its leaders were arrested, imprisoned or killed.
In February 1931, Chandrashekhar Azad was killed in a police encounter; Surya Sen was arrested in 1933 and hanged. Hundreds of others were arrested and imprisoned, some were sent to the Cellular Jail in the Andamans.
The government also suppressed the growing trade union and peasant movements. In March 1929, 31 trade union leaders and communists were arrested and after a four-year long trial called the Meerut Conspiracy Case, were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
Thus by the end of the 1920s, there was a rising nationalist feeling expressed through anti-Simon demonstrations. There was also a radical wave, especially among the youth. Jawaharlal Nehru, who had emerged as the voice of the new generation, was elected President of the Congress at the Lahore session of the Congress in 1929 where a resolution calling for Purna Swaraj was passed.
Complete independence was to be the new Congress goal and on 31 December, the tricolour was adopted as the national flag and 26 January 1930 was celebrated as Independence Day. This became an annual ritual when people would reiterate their commitment to ending colonial rule in India. It was also decided that a civil disobedience movement would be launched under the leadership of Gandhiji.