Copyright 2000 by Christopher D. Wallis...
Chris Wallis Secondary Tutorial—History of British India Essay #5 for Dr David Washbrook 8 December 2000
Gandhi: the Transformation of Indian Politics In addressing the question In question In what ways did did [Mohandas [Mohandas Karamchand Karamchand]] Gandhi transform the Indian National movement in the interwar period?, period?, we must first look to Gandhi’s experiences and experiments in South Africa. Africa. Gandhi lived and worked in South Africa as a lawyer for twenty twenty years (1894-1914). He was a vital part of the expatriate Indian community there, and nearly all of the foundations for his later work and thought can be seen to come out of this period. It was in South Africa that he first first experienced acute racism and racial oppression, oppression,1 and was motivated by the dictates of his conscience to organise the Indian community to defend its right under the state. The fact that the the Indian community consisted of both Hindus and Muslims is highly significant to his later career .2 He defended the rights of both equably, seeing them, and indeed himself, first and foremost foremost as ‘Indian’. It was, of course, easier to do so so as part of a ‘diaspora’ community. Humans as social beings always define themselves in opposition to the ‘other’, and when, as in a diaspora situation, the other is both very different and numerically superior, it is natural for common bonds to be emphasised and thus supersede minor differences. By contrast, in India, Hindus Hindus and Muslims tended to define themselves in opposition to each other, because that was the ‘other’ that was available. It was in South Africa that Gandhi pioneered his political idea of satyagraha. satyagraha. From the Sanskrit, the term literally means ‘taking hold of the truth’ or ‘grasping by means of the of the truth’. Gandhi’s thought about satyagraha evolved, but in its essentials, its consists of 1 2
E.g., his experiences with public transit, related in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Note that the famous incident of the burning of the registration cards took place in front of a mosque.
following the dictates of one’s (purified) conscience in an unjust situation, and thus engaging in absolutely non-violent civil disobedience when that is entailed in following one’s conscience. Satyagraha was used successfully in South Africa, and Gandhi returned permanently to India after securing the Gandhi-Smuts agreement of 1914. In India, Gandhi was already somewhat known, due to his writings and articles, and his previous representation of the cause of South African Indians. In the years 1916-18, he took up three successive causes of social justice, successfully applying the principles of satyagraha. The first dealt with the plight of indigo workers in the district of Champaran, Bihar. This was, in India, Gandhi’s ‘first direct object-lesson in Civil Disobedience’ (‘Story’, 346). He organised a number of vakil s (lawyers) who were admirers of his, and established an operation of transcribing statements from the local peasants about their injustices. This expanded out to include social work such as building schools, increasing sanitation, and so on. Under pressure from the landlords, the local government asked Gandhi to leave, and when he refused, had him arrested. The judge (as Gandhi portrays him) was impressed by his honest and forthright manner. In the first of many such incidents, the case against him was dismissed, partially because of his candour in pleading guilty and arguing the justness of his cause, but also because authorities higher in government (in this case, the Lieutenant Governor) did not want him imprisoned for peace-keeping and political reasons. Gandhi, as a non-violent seemingly ingenuous crusader for justice, would always pose a problem to the Government, which would inevitably be seen as unjust for locking him up. The thousands of statements gathered in Champaran formed a report to a government committee, which on its basis recommended an abolition of the oppressive tinkathia system, thus providing Gandhi with his first significant success (‘Story’, 354). The following 2
satyagrahas in Ahmedabad (the mill-hands’ strike, ‘Story’, 360-1) and Kaira (a.k.a. Kheda, the famine and unjust assessment, 362-3) were in many ways a microcosm of Gandhi’s later all-India work. One the one hand, as Gandhi himself pointed out, these campaigns ‘compelled the educated public workers to establish contact with the actual life of the peasants’ (366), a keynote of his later success. On the other, the latter two campaigns both included incidents of Gandhi losing control of the situation and the behaviour of his adherents. He commented, ‘Civility [which he defined as ‘inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good’] is the most difficult part of satyagraha’ (364). This observation was later justified as all-India satyagrahas repeatedly devolved into violence and unsatisfactory conclusions. However, the impact of the ideas of satyagraha was still substantial, as seen in the first national implementation of the theory in protest against the Rowlatt bills (‘Story’, 3803). Though the lack of an organised network of subordinates and insufficient education of the people in the principles of satyagraha meant that the social action of spring 1919 did not go as Gandhi hoped, the very act of introducing a wider Indian public to the idea of civil disobedience was extremely significant. It was innovative in that it was the only realistic alternative for direct action that had been offered between the two extremes of moderate petitioning and terrorism.3 Furthermore, it involved action by a mass of people who had few vents for their frustrations and ambitions, whereas the other two forms of action were both practiced by elites. From this point on, then, Gandhi becomes a nationally known public figure (Brown, ‘Prisoner’, 133). The next step in the strengthening and consolidation of Gandhi’s influence was his work in connection with two highly charged political issues: the Muslim Khalifat movement 3
At least, since the Swadeśi movement of 1905-08, which failed due to lack of national organisation and successful popular appeals.
and the investigation of brutality under martial law in the Punjab, especially the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre.4 The British handling of these issues convinced Gandhi for the first time that he must ‘totally oppose the rāj’ (Brown 140). Gandhi’s respect for, and comfort with, Muslims (acquired in South Africa) made him the ideal representative of a Muslim issue to the Hindu politicians and public. Believing that injustice to the Muslim community is injustice to India, Gandhi took up the cause of the Khalifat. Speaking to a Muslim conference, he began to advocate nation-wide non-co-operation, including boycotting of the elections under the new reforms he had supported vigorously just six months before (142). Thus he forged a Muslim alliance that would prove instrumental in strengthening both the Muslim presence in Congress and Gandhi’s own base of political support there. He served as a very important lynchpin and interlocutor between Hindu and Muslim politicians (143). Gandhi also became the central figure on the Congress committee of enquiry into the Punjabi issue, and the drafter of its final report. This issue was highly significant to the Indian public, because it entailed concerns regarding the good faith of the Government in devolving power to Indians, and more basically, the Government’s very regard for them as human beings (144). Additionally, Gandhi had been asked to draft the new constitution to make the Congress into a more effective political body: a key appointment. The most important thing to note here is that Gandhi secured these latter positions by, more than anything, his overwhelming diligence and persistence when everyone else was ‘too busy’ due to their full-time careers as barristers, etc. Gandhi, unlike the political elite, had no lavish Western lifestyle to support, and therefore could work on politics full-time, drawing no salary for his efforts.5 It seems a mundane reason, but in fact Gandhi’s
Ironically the violence was part of the chaotic aftermath of the Rowlatt ‘satyagraha’ inspired by Gandhi. Small donations, or the weaving income of his Ashram, were enough to support his extraordinarily simple and increasingly rustic lifestyle. 5
enormous capacity for hard work was driven by his intense moral passion and enabled by his profound mental discipline, cultivated over many years. In this year (1920), Gandhi was also made president of the Home Rule League, which he commandeered and refashioned into the Swarajya Sabhā (146). All of these strands of influence came together at the special session of Congress (Calcutta, September 1920) at which non-co-operation with the Government was officially sanctioned. By the end of the year, Gandhi had captured the Congress entirely and become the leading political figure in India (143). His success in Congress was due in no small part to the changing composition of that body, with a massive influx of semi-educated and educated (but not elite) Indians from ‘backward’ districts which previously had no motive for Congress association. With the Reforms of 1919, more and more people realised that as further power devolved onto Indians, national politics would begin to impact many layers of public life (Brown, ‘Rise’, 358). Thus they attended Congress in droves, many of them Gandhi supporters due to his grassroots work. Gandhi’s meteoric rise to (temporary) political supremacy in 1920 was thus due to three distinct groups moving to support him—new areas and people finding a voice in Congress for the first time, Khalifat Muslims who needed his support, and established politicians making a calculated move to back him temporarily for their own benefit. (as per Brown, ‘Prisoner’, 169) The latter group was far too internally divided to form a united front of opposition to Gandhi in any case (159). Having attained this status, Gandhi was in a position to launch the non-co-operation campaign of 1921 that changed Indian politics and nationalism permanently. The new constitution for Congress made it a far more representative (and thus popular) political body, with the specifically stated goal of swarāj (158). To this end were mooted the various stages 5
of non-co-operation with the Government, increasing in severity throughout the year and culminating in civil disobedience. Gandhi travelled tirelessly throughout the campaign, publicising and working himself to the bone (161). For the first time, Indian politics began to take on a genuinely popular dimension (162). Though not everybody followed the principles of the movement or even adequately understood them, probablyevery literate person (and many illiterates) heard about it or was affected by it in some way. Though impact was sometimes sparse and frequently unorganised, it was by no means insubstantial. Thousands of volunteers turned out in each province—about 1,000 in each area ultimately were gaoled for a time (164). Under the Gandhian influence, temperance leagues were formed, Western dress was discarded in favour of homespun cloth and Gandhi caps, and gaol was now considered an honour rather than a shame (162). In this way, Gandhi effectively utilised symbols which were soon seen everywhere. The campaign ultimately devolved into violence in early 1922 and Gandhi was forced to call an end to civil disobedience. However, both Congress and Indian politics were irrevocably changed. Judith Brown notes with the astuteness characteristic of her more rigorous scholarship that ‘the difference between politics before and after non-co-operation lay not in the transformation of the political nation in relation to nationalist politics, but in the extension of the groups which formed that nation and the reorganisation of Congress to accommodate the new participants and their aspirations’ (‘Rise’, 356, emphasis mine). In other words, the strong divisions between the different layers of public life and politics on local, provincial, and national levels began to dissolve. This both (in its initial movement) enabled Gandhi’s rise to power and was greatly furthered by it. It will be remembered that in the last essay, divisiveness in Indian nationalist movements and political spheres was posited as the reason for their early ineffectiveness. That theory is here justified by the fact 6
that nationalism gains a heretofore-unseen momentum when headed by Gandhi, the unifier. More than anyone previously, and from the first days of his activity, he worked to unite Muslim and Hindu interests, and even more importantly, to link the activities of the political elite to the grassroots issues and concerns of the people. True, local politicians frequently used Gandhi’s name and campaign to advance their own agendas (only tenuously related to the ‘national’ issues), but the important thing is that these barriers had begun to break down, and an all-India political sphere began to take cohesive shape. Finally, a note must be made about a unique aspect of Gandhi’s political work. His passionate adherence to religion as the only sound moral basis for political action, together with his personal lifestyle, created a popular perception of Gandhi as a holy man (168). Thus his impugning of the moral credibility of the imperial regime carried substantial weight (151). When the British Government had been de-mystified and Indian cultural superiority so radically asserted, it empowered the people to resist the Government in a way they had never previously felt free to do. Gandhi was a living symbol of the proud assertion of Indian-ness, with his loincloth and spinning wheel, and thus inspired Indians to begin to shake off the deep inferiority complex that had been carefully cultivated in them by centuries of British attitudes and propaganda.6
Indeed, many Congress members, under Gandhi’s influence, switched with amusing rapidity from Western to Indian clothes.
Cool Hind Swarāj quotes: There is an irrefragable moral link between the order in the soul and the order in society. xxxv ‘We who seek justice will have to do justice to others.’ 17 Modernity is the superstition of the secularists. 43 ‘Civilisation is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty (dharma).’ 67 There is an ‘inviolable connections between means and ends.’ 81 There is a one-to-one correspondence between rights and duties. 82 ‘You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed.’ 85 ‘The force of arms is powerless when matched against the force of love.’ 85 Compassion is the root of dharma. 88 ‘History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love.’ 90 Use of force justifies an opponent’s use of force. 92-93
‘Take the A40 west towards WITNEY. At the Eynsham roundabout (about 4 miles along the A40 from the top of the Woodstock road) turn right to the HANBOROUGHS. On your left about a half mile on you pass some farm buildings and then the turn to a landfill site. The turn to City Farm is on the left about 200 yards further on, just before the road begins to swing to the left. It is not sign posted in a way that it can be seen from the road as you approach. Go up the pitted farm road to the top of the field. Turn right along the top of the field. You will see our greenhouse on your left. Turn left just past it and left again. My house, Evenlode Barn, is on your right. My home telephone number is (01865) 880933 . The bus is the 100, which leaves at ten and forty minutes past every hour from a stop in George Street. You can also take the 11, which leaves less frequently from the same place. It is a twenty minute journey. You need to get off at the Eynsham Church stop in the centre of the village. Ask the driver to tell you when you are there. Give me a call when you have arrived (there is a public telephone in the central square a short distance on from the bus stop).