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The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi – Part II

By Prof. Santanu Sen

The first ‘Satyagraha’ campaign (1919 AD – 1922AD) was probably the most powerful and promising one. Later on the revolutionary potential of the masses was intentionally checked. Since the 1930’s and the end of his life Gandhi never announced a single large scale ‘Satyagraha campaign’. The 1942 A.D. resistance activity was limited in scope. M.K. Gandhi feared that control of the masses might be lost.

This was one of the distinctive features of Gandhi’s Satyagraha. While relying on millions of people Gandhi was not inclined to trust their initiative. He was the “commander – in – chief” the only leader and demanded that his plan be strictly adhered without deviation or dissent. It was Gandhi alone who without, even consulting the I.N.C. (Indian National Congress) leadership or any of his own closest associates decided upon the commencement of and termination of the resistance campaigns. While democratic in its content the ‘Satyagraha’ was not democratic in its leadership. It developed into a way of involving the masses in the I.N.C. policies.

There can be no doubt about the considerable revolutionary potential of non-violent resistance. This reflected the course of the bourgeois care of the I.N.C. (Indian National congress) and permitted the hegemony of the national capital over the people’s struggle for independence.

‘Satyagraha’ matched the limited goals of the Indian commodity in South Africa ending race discrimination, against ethnic Indians and attaining civil equality. The call to love one’s enemy and not to take advantage of his misfortunes etc that Gandhi based on religious and ethical considerations, in fact mirrored the level of national consciousness of the day. National consciousness was not developed enough to prompt the demand for independence and the realisation of the imperative need to break away from the colonialists, that is to lead a decisive and uncompromising struggle against them. M.K. Gandhi dissuaded the Indian’s from aligning with the indigenous population, who were also fighting against colonial exploitation; more over he urged them to participate as he did; in the colonial wars waged by the British. But was not Cooperation with evil and colonial violence a rejection of this principle?

The reason of his compromise is clear. M.K. Gandhi himself gave a realistic explanation as the Indian community sought equality only within the framework of the empire, it had to display loyalty to the empire in all areas excepts those where Indian’s interest were directly infringed upon.

In those days Indian movement in South Africa was approximately on the same level as it was in India. It’s complete programme envisaged the extension of self – Governance and the rights and freedoms of the well-to-do classes. The movement was not yet mature enough to advance the ideas of breaking up with colonialism. Whatever the logic was, history was leading it in that direction and Gandhi, who was reputed in South Africa as a staunch fighter was then in India to play the leading role in the further evaluation of the movement.

I.N.C. (Indian National Congress), the country’s first National organisation which set itself political goals, had emerged in 1885 AD. For nearly two decades it was a kind of an association whose membership consisted of Indian gentlemen, who although loyal to the empire, had become aware of the injustice of the British rule. They sincerely hoped to influence colonial policies in a way that would further India’s progress. The I.N.C.’s political activity in those days boiled down to petitioning for Indian equality.

The I.N.C. the continent’s earliest nationalistic organisation was shaken by the Asian awakening which echoed the first Russian Revolution. A Group of radicals otherwise described as “extremists” entered the national arena. They realised that it was time to graduate from petitioning for reforms to fighting for self-determination. Headed by “Balgangadhar Tilak”, the radicals advocated participation of masses in the struggle as a measure to prevent its defeat.

The revolutionary stand did not enjoy uniform support from all the I.N.C. members. Therefore, the party split between the moderates or liberals and the extremists. The reprisals against the ‘B.G. Tilak’ factions along with the activity of the liberals who opposed the extremists and were prepared to collaborate with the colonialists, brought about the defeat of the liberation movement of its first significant stage. It was not until the first world war (1914 AD – 1918 AD) that the formerly opposed factions became reconciled at the Lucknow session of 1916, and the I.N.C. gradually emerged from a profound political crisis. With time and the bitterness experienced, brought the two factions closer. The ‘extremists’ become aware of the ‘colonialists’ entrenched positions and felt the urgent need to take united and systematic steps to undermine them. The moderates in their turn realised that without radicalisation and struggle, the I.N.C. was doomed to inglorious degradation.

There was a need for new ideas, organisation methods and forms of struggle, and those were offered by Gandhi who came back from south Africa in January 1915 AD He involved broad masses of the population in the movement, while calling to the resistance. He did not rule out negotiations with the British authorities and was prepared to compromise with them. He limited the possibilities of non-violent movements (Ahimsa). The colonials realised that the aim was not to destroy them, but to make them sympathise with the Indians, understand their aspirations and urge the British authorities to observe certain rules of struggle. This essentially new strategy made it possible to unite the national forces to collectively oppose the British rule.

What was novel and effective about Gandhi’s approach was that he carried out his propaganda work among the masses rather than at I.N.C. sessions. His activity was not confined to the podium, but was conducted among the people in the street in rural and urban India, Between 1915 AD and 1918 AD he carried out four local ‘Satyagraha’ campaigns. The first aimed at cancelling the customs procedures for third class passengers at ‘Viramgram’. The second was spearheaded against plantation owners and their abuses in ‘champaran’ (Bihar). The third aimed at ensuring overtime pay for textile workers in ‘Ahmedabad’ (Gujrat). The objective of the fourth was reduction of taxes for the peasants who were hit by the cop failure in Khed. These campaigns involved hundreds and thousands of the common people into the public movement, got them interested in policies and this helped to bridge the gap between the educated elite and the working classes. The entire country was hypnotised and enthused by Gandhi’s bold actions which like a strong wind stirred up Indian’s political life. To sum up his contemporaries impressions on Gadhi, it may be quoted from Jawaharlal Nehru, who said that “This was something very different from our noise politics of condemnation and nothing else … This was the polities of actions not of talk”.

The early successful experience in organising nonviolent mass protest campaign convinced Gandhi of the possibility of taking them on a nationwide scale. Between march 31 and April 6, 1919 AD the country, was swept by a campaign for stopping all economic activity (Hartal). Initiated by M.K. Gandhi it signalled the patriot’s response to the arbitrary rule of the colonial authorities, especially oppressive after the war. However, scared by outbursts of violence, Gandhi terminated the campaign. From the (Hartal) he learned that such action required careful preparation.

For all the peaceful intentions nurtured by M.K. Gandhi and most of the participants in the movement the Governmental retaliation was violent. On April 13, 1919 AD a demonstration stages on Jallianwala Bagh square (Amritsar) was fired upon. This shook the whole nation. The British showed their un-willingness to accept compromise. A new stage in the liberation movement that of nationwide protest against British colonialists began to Gandhi’s great credit. He was the first in the I.N.C. to hear to call of the time and recognise the need to tie up the congress’s fate with that of the mass movement. In his view, the bond could be ensured, by non-cooperation with the colonial authorities and non-violent resistance. While improving millions of people and allowing them to vent their angst and energy, these measures were moderate and restricted enough to provide for the continuity of the I.N.C.’s traditional liberal policies and left the door open for negotiation and compromise.

Non-cooperation and civil disobedience pre-supposed a series of steps towards exerting increased pressure on the colonial authorities. Gandhi carefully prepared for the protest campaign seeking to rally the nation against British Colonialism. To this end he supported the ‘Khilaphat’ movement of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent decrying the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish kingdom in the hands of the British after the World War I. The Caliph was the religious leader of all the followers of Islam. The religious movement reflected the anti-British sentiments. M.K. Gandhi accepted the main demands put forward for the forthcoming ‘Satyagraha’ campaign. Thus at the very outset of the Gandhian period in the freedom movement its leader realised that the success of the anti-Imperialist struggle along with the power and well being of the future Independent India could only be ensured by the unity and mutual cooperation of the country’s all religious communities and ethnic groups. Therefore by cementing the understanding and mutual cooperation between the two largest religious communities of India he created the necessary conditions for the anti imperialist struggle. Despite the provocations that were staged by the communists, and reactionaries who were encouraged by British Administration, which often ended in disaster, M.K. Gandhi courageously adhered to this noble approach until the end of his days. The first national cooperation campaign began on August, 1920. Gandhi called upon the Indian people to boycott the colonial administration, its Schools, Colleges, Universities and the British Goods. He also requested the people to refuse Government jobs and reject state decorations or awards. The nationwide refusal to pay taxes was seen as the most decisive measure.

Just as was the case with the 1919 Hartal, M.K. Gandhi launched the movement irrespective of the congress. The ‘old Guard’ continued to fear that the ‘Satyagraha’ might lead to the spread of ‘Bolshevism’ in the country. However at the September 1920 I.N.C. session in Calcutta the liberal opposition was done away with. The Calcutta session showed that the I.N.C. had been considerably renovated. This was also confirmed by the I.N.C. annual session held in Nagpur in December, 1920A.D. Now the I.N.C’s proclaimed goal was no longer the establishment of self Governance within the British Empire but the achievement of ‘Swaraj’.

 The congress was taking on a clear organisational structure designed to transform it into an effective well-disciplined mass organisation involving millions of peasants, workers and representatives of the national intelligentsia and the working classes. All of them were attracted to politics for the first time thanks to the Gandhian campaigns. The I.N.C. proclaimed non-cooperation and civil disobedience as the basic principles underlying their political activity. All these changes were due to Gandhi’s ideas, activities and methods. The I.N.C. and the entire Indian people now had a leader enjoying unparalleled popularity and authority.

The upswing of the struggle inspired the masses and the movement swept the country. The elections to the provincial constituent assemblies in connection with the ‘Montagu-Chemsford reforms’ was disrupted as strikes and peasant discontent flared up everywhere. In the heat of the struggle the participants sometimes violated the principles of non-violence. At the I.N.C. session help at Nagpur (Bambay Presidency) December 1920 AD, M.K. Gandhi promised the people to achieve ‘Swaraj’ within a year. However, non-cooperation had been launched more than a year ago, all the envisioned steps except the non-payment of taxes had been taken but the Govt did not show any signs of weakening. Reprisals were carried on at an unprecedented scale and the well-adjusted machinery of repression was running at full speed.

M.K. Gandhi’s hopes were not realised. The authorities refused to make even a token compromise. At a last resort, Gandhi could only call for the non-payment of taxes. However, fearful of the excessive revolutionary zeal of the masses and the dread of I.N.C. losing control over them M.K. Gandhi decided to terminate the non-cooperation campaign in February, 1922 AD. The arson at Police Station of the village of ‘Chuarachauri’ that resulted in the death of several policemen, the agitation was called off. Most of the I.N.C. leaders were in prison at that time. So M.K. Gandhi alone was left to take the decision. The British rule did not collapse under the first challenge of ‘Satyagraha’. The masses were demoralised M.K. Gandhi was thrown into prison on charges of instigating a riot. While in prison and suffering from ill health in 1924 AD, M.K. Gandhi realised that the liberation movement was on the decline. All that had been achieved back in (1919 -1922 AD) seemed to wane irretrievably. Faith in ‘Satyagraha’ was undermined. ‘The Swaraj Group’ that had emerged within the I.N.C. which was led by Deshabandhu Chittaranjan Das. It advocated contesting elections to the legislative council so that they would be able to oppose the foreign government from within. Another Group ‘opponents of the change’ insisted on carrying on with the tactics of non-cooperation, without however, suggesting any effective programme of actions. Although M.K. Gandhi aligned himself with the latter group, he did not consider the policy of the ‘Swaraj’ to be a betrayal of the I.N.C. ideology even though they rejected the non-cooperation principle and were prepared to be part of the legislature.

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