Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi early on showed the determination that was to become his hallmark when, at the age of 19, he defied the strictures of his high caste by “crossing the waters” to London in order to study law.
Four years later in 1892, he accepted a law brief from a family friend in South Africa. He went for one year and - appalled by South Africa’s growing racialism - stayed for 20. He became the undisputed leader in the fight of the Indian community against such discriminatory laws as the one passed in 1913 - and later repealed through his efforts - that declared all non- Christian marriages invalid. But more significant than the results that Gandhi achieved were the methods he used. During these years, he evolved and practiced with a certain degree of success an original revolutionary non-violent form of protest. In 1915, he returned to India ready to put his methods into effect on a wider stage.
Gandhi named his method of protest satyagraha or “soul force”. By non-violent non-cooperation and civil disobedience, its believers should, he preached, gladly court arrest, thus shaming the government into capitulation.
Gandhi’s first chance to put Satyagraha into effect on a nationwide scale came in 1919. To force the British to repeal the repressive Rowlatt Acts, under which Indians, could be held without trial, he called for a campaign of non-cooperation and non-violent resistance. His call struck an immediate response from India. Cities came to a standstill as the British looked on helplessly. But Gandhi soon found he had started something he could not stop. Indians, unable to accept the self-discipline of Satyagraha started to riot in many places.
Appalled by the violence, Gandhi, called off his campaign, and the Acts remained in force. As a result, after two years in prison for sedition, Gandhi left active politics for three years to urge Indians to discover their national pride by boycotting foreign cotton and by spinning cloth on the Indian spinning wheel the Charkha. This symbol of national self-reliance appears today on India’s flag.
Gandhi the man who said “I love to be in the centre of storms,” could not be happy spinning cloth for very long. He re-entered the political arena with a dramatic gesture of symbolic defiance. He would break the laws that made the gathering of salt a government monopoly.
Gandhi set out on March 12, 1930, to walk the 241 miles from Ahmedabad to the coast at Dandi, where he proposed to gather salt. What started out as the rather comical sight - a 61 -year-old man setting out on a slow walk with a few followers - turned into an epic march that had the world scanning its newspapers for the daily reports on his progress. The Mahatma himself fanned the interest with dramatic statements “Either I shall return with what I want,” he said on one occasion “or my dead body will float in the ocean.” Gandhi reached the coast on April 6, a date carefully calculated to coincide with the anniversary of the Amritsar massacre, by now a symbol of British oppression, and picked up a symbolic piece of salt from the sea-shore to cries of “Hail Deliverer!” Now, as a result of the world-wide publicity, Gandhi was accepted by India, Britain and the world as the leader of Indian nationalism.
After the unrest that followed Gandhi’s salt march had petered out, Gandhi in 1931, went to London as the sole representative of Congress to discuss the political future of India at a meeting known as the Round Table Conference.
Wherever Gandhi went, whether he was walking by the side of the Thames followed by children, talking to Charlie Chaplin or visiting cotton workers in Lancashire,he drew the attention of the ordinary Englishman to India’s desire for independence.
The conference itself was an extraordinary affair. The Foreign Secretary, The Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for India sat as equals with a wizened little man dressed in homespun cotton whom they had frequently jailed as a dangerous and seditious agitator.
Little in fact was accomplished at the actual negotiations. Indeed, Gandhi was not prepared to negotiate, and simply continued to reiterate his demand for complete independence. A close friend of Gandhi’ called the conference, “a magnificent failure.”
It was a verdict that could perhaps be applied to the Mahatma himself. Though he had unleashed forces that were to tear his country apart he had also, almost single-handed, drawn together the strands of Indian unrest and presented the British with a coherent demand for freedom.
Soon after his return from the abortive Round Table Conference, Gandhi began another civil disobedience campaign. But it was to fail. The Viceroy met it with severe repression and Gandhi was arrested. There were some isolated acts of terrorism, but the mass of the people had grown tired of constant disturbances. By the middle of 1932, a sullen peace had descended on India. Gandhi in prison, had apparently lost interest in the freedom struggle again, concerning himself only with the social disabilities f outcast Hindus.
In London however, things were moving, though with characteristic slowness of the British legislative process - made even worse by the determination of Winston Churchill and others to hold up new reforms. Finally in 1935, a new Government of India Act was put through the British Parliament. It seemed to contain something for everyone, except the more radical Congressmen. Nehru, again in jail, described it as a “new charter for bondage,” but for all the criticism that can be levelled against it, the Act was undoubtedly a blueprint for freedom. Dominion status - that meant complete self-government - had been stated to be the accepted goal. A federal system for India which would unite all the diverse political interests was to be the framework, and parliamentary institutions the form of government. The adverse reaction of some Indian nationalists to the Act was not so much a response to its provisions as a reflection of the fact that, over the last few years, trust in British promises had disappeared.
The most important part of the Act called for almost complete parliamentary government by elected ministers in the provinces of British India. The left wing of Congress represented by Nehru, now publicly acknowledged as Gandhi’s political heir, and Subhas Bose, tried to persuade Congress to boycott the reforms. Muslims, who had been divided amongst themselves for many years, began to find a new focus in a Muslim League reactivated under a new leader, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. They prepared themselves to defend the rights of the minority in the new democracy.
When the elections took place in 1937, Congress won clear majorities in five of the eleven provinces and was the largest party in another three. The Muslim League, which had won no majorities but expected to join coalition governments with Congress, was told that any agreement was null and void. In the arrogance of their overwhelming victory at the polls, Congress leaders thought they could ignore Jinnah. “There are only two forces in India today,” said Nerhu. “British Imperialism and Indian Nationalism as represented by the Congress.” This was too much for Jinnah. He decided to emulate Congress and take nationalism to the people - to the Muslim masses, as Gandhi had done to the Hindu.
The propaganda of the League constantly reiterated the threat to the Muslim faith. With the Muslim masses came the Muslim politicians, realising that Jinnah was a man of the future. Even Congress began to worry about the trend towards religious polarisation. If the League, as Jinnah was claiming, came to be accepted as the spokesman for the Muslim Indians, Congress would lose its claim to speak for all Indians. Attempts to open up negotiations were unsuccessful. The seeds of Indian partition were being nourished.
Congress itself was not without its troubles. In office, it began to find it difficult to reconcile the conflicting demands of its supporters. How, for example, could the peasants be given reforms without antagonising the landlords. ? There is no knowing what might have happened to Congress if it had not been for the outbreak of the Second World War. On September 3,1939, the Viceroy declared India at war with Germany. It was his right to do so: the King of Great Britain was also Emperor of India. But it seemed to underline once again the essential powerlessness of Indians who, even in matters of life and death, did not count for much. Congress promptly demanded that Britain should immediately, state her war aims and their meaning for India. If they include a promise of independence after the war and participation in the central government in the meantime, then Congress would co-operate against a common enemy. But the British had watched the growth of the Muslim League and other groups which could dispute the Congress claim to speak for all India. The Congress demand was not taken seriously, and replied to only in the vaguest terms. At the end of October 1939, the Congress leadership made the fateful decision to order all the Congress ministries to resign. All did, though with reluctance.
The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, was pleased. Congress he had always considered a “a movement of Hindu hooliganism.” He now looked, with such enthusiasm as his cold nature could muster, with favour on the Muslim League. Jinnah celebrated his triumph by fixing December 22, 1939, as a “day of deliverance and thanksgiving” to be observed by all Muslims in gratitude for their release from the “tyranny, oppression and injustice” of Congress Raj, in the provinces. The chance of compromise between the two nationalist movements had gone for ever. India was now set upon the road which, through years of bloodshed and suffering, was to end in freedom from British rule. But the hatreds of these years were, a the moment of triumph, to split India apart.
Lord and Lady
August 23, 1933.
Mahatma Gandhi, weighing only 90 pounds, has been released today from Sassoon Hospital in Poona because, after 5 days of his latest “fast unto death”, the doctors feared that his emaciated body could no longer stand the strain of fasting. He too thought he was dying; he refused even to sip water, and shared out his few personal belongings among nurses.
He was taken to the hospital from Yeravda jail, which he had described as his “permanent address” , when he started his fast in protest against a refusal to allow him to continue his work with the Untouchables while in prison.
He had deliberately courted arrest, rejecting an order permitting him to reside only within the limits of Poona, and had been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. He is completely unrepentant.
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