All Indian schoolboys have the major events of the Indian freedom movement drilled into them. But in the annals of the achievements of Gandhi and Nehru, one incident stands out as an oddity and which took me many years to understand. On the face of it, it was a failure. Some thought it Gandhi’s greatest mistake, yet I have come to believe it was an essential test and one which shaped our destiny.
Before Gandhi, the idea of Indian autonomy was largely confined to the upper classes who wanted a return to the old order and the middle classes who wanted better economic opportunities. Gandhi is credited with turning this into a mass movement in which millions participated. The conventional interpretation of Gandhi is that knowing the formidable strength of the British military, he instead struck at the economic and bureaucratic sinews of colonialism. Simply put, a few thousand British could not run India, they needed the cooperation of the Indians to run the post, the railways, the schools and colleges, the law offices, everything. They also needed India as a market for machine made British goods (Indian industrialization was not a priority), notably Manchester made cloth.
Gandhi called for a cessation of all cooperation with the British. Government workers went on strike, government regulated liquor shops were picketed and bonfires of British cloth were lit (think of the Boston Tea Party in the US). The technique was called satyagraha which literally translated means demand for Truth (satya = Truth, agraha = polite but firm insistence).
On 13th April 1919, British General Dyer massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians at a peaceful gathering in Jallianwala Bagh and was lauded as a hero by the British House of Lords. Gandhi lost faith in the constitutional methods he had hitherto followed and launched the first satyagraha based mass movement in 1920. The aim of the Non-cooperation movement was to secure independence for India and Turkey.
When I recall Non-Cooperation era of 1921, the image of a storm confronts my eyes. From the time I became aware, I have witnessed numerous movements, however, I can assert that no other movement upturned the foundations of Indian society to the extent that the Non-Cooperation movement did. From the most humble huts to the high places, from villages to cities, everywhere there was a ferment, a loud echo.
The movement shocked the British who felt powerless in dealing with it. The movement started in August 1921 and continued till 1922 maintaining a phenomenal momentum. Many believed the end of British Rule in India was in sight.
Then at the height of its effect, Gandhi called it off. India would have to wait for another 25 years to gain her independence. Gandhi himself had to launch two further such movements.
The cause of this abrupt change was an incident at a small town in North India called Chauri Chaura. There, on 5th February, a crowd of about 2000 to 2500 people had gathered in the market to picket a liquor shop. The police arrested one of the leaders. A crowd of protesters gathered in front of the police station and began shouting slogans.
The police tried to frighten them by firing into the air, but this only agitated the crowd more. At this point, an Indian sub-inspector ordered the police to fire into the advancing crowd, killing three and wounding many others. The crowd went bezerk and advanced for the blood of the policemen. The police retreated to the police station but the crowd set it on fire. Most inside burned to death and those who tried to escape were murdered and their bodies thrown into the fire.
Gandhi felt responsible for this outrage and went on a five day fast as penance. At his insistence, the Indian National Congress called off the movement on 12th February 1922. It is necessary to understand that Gandhi’s main aim was not the overthrow of the British, it was the reformation of India. Gandhi fought against the injustice, violence and cruelty in Indian society. His political work for which he is remembered today was a manifestation of this desire to transform India.
Gandhi understood that to affect lasting transformation, the means are as important as the end. If Indians could not govern themselves, then political freedom would be wasted, new injustices would arise in place of the old. Many nations became free around the same period with far shorter freedom struggles by adopting violent means. Few have found it easy to shed the monster once unleashed. Even the French Revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror.
Why have I written this now? The problems that face us today are far smaller than those of that era, we seem ready to condone violence. Here are some recent items from the internet:
You must be the change you want to see in the world.