The Gandhian era of the liberation movement was started with the non-cooperation movement.
The decision to launch the movement as a vigorous mass movement was approved in the special session of the National Congress held at Calcutta in September 1920 and again was endorsed in its Nagpur session of December 1920.
By offering a new programme of action based on non-violence, Gandhiji instilled new faith and hope in the mind of the people. The movement was started with the aim of getting the Punjab and Khilafat’s wrongs undone and ‘Swaraj’ was established.
People were asked to:
1. Surrender all titles and resign from nominated seats in local bodies.
2. Refuse to attend government and semi-government functions.
3. Boycott schools and colleges, aided or controlled by the government.
4. Boycott the British courts.
5. Refuse to serve in Mesopotamia either in the military, clerical and labour class engagement.
6. Boycott the elections to be held for the Councils as suggested by the Reforms Act of 1919.
7. Boycott foreign goods
Apart from these measures of non-cooperation with the government, people were asked to take up some positive steps of national reconstruction.
The different elements of this programme were:
1. Establishment of national educational institutions.
2. Setting up of Nyaya Panchayats.
3. Popularisation of ‘Swadeshi’ with ‘Charakha’ and yarn spinning.
4. Promotion of harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims.
5. Removal of untouchability.
6. Steps for the emancipation of women.
The non-cooperation movement was based on perfect non-violence. It immediately captured the imagination of the people. Many distinguished leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Motilal Nehru, Lajpat Rai, Rajendra Prasad, C.R. Das etc. gave up their legal practice and joined the movement. Many students gave up their studies in government educational institutions. National institutions like Gujarat Vidyapitha, Kashi Vidyapitha, Bihar Vidyapitha, the Bengal National University were established.
The Jamia Milia and the National Muslim University etc. were also established. Khadi became the symbol of liberation movement. Foreign cloth shops and liquor shops were boycotted. People voluntarily contributed to the ‘Tilak Swarajya Fund’ which was constituted to finance the non-cooperation movement. Within a period of six months, over a crore of rupees were collected. People observed complete ‘Hartal’ and boycotted the visit of the Prince of Wales.
The people were made convinced that without non- cooperation, the attainment of Swaraj would be delayed. The most successful aspect of the non-cooperation movement was the boycott of elections. The congress did not nominate any candidate to contest in the elections to the Councils, which had been reformed under the Government of India Act of 1919. Thousands of voters also did not cast their votes.
The British Government took recourse to repression. The Congress and the Khilafat organisation were declared unlawful. Top leaders of the Congress and thousands of common people were arrested and put behind the bar. Public meetings and processions were declared unlawful.
In February 1922, Gandhiji served an ultimatum to Lord Reading, the Governor-General and Viceroy of India to withdraw within one week all repressive laws failing which he would launch another ‘Satyagraha’. The people would be asked not to pay taxes. Before Gandhiji launched the proposed Civil Disobedience Movement, the incident at Chauri Chaura occurred for which Mahatma Gandhi suspended the non-cooperation movement. There was a mob violence at Chauri Chaura in the district of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. The police opened fire on a mob and the infuriated mob attacked and burnt down the police station causing the death of twenty two policemen.
The news of this incident disturbed Gandhiji. He felt that the people were not yet ready for a non-violent movement. He also realized that it would be quite easy for the government to repress violent movements as people would not be able to fight against an all powerful government.
The Congress Working Committee at his instance, passed a resolution suspending the movement. But the sudden withdrawal of the movement came as a surprise to the people. Many leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai, Motilal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, etc. protested against the decision of Gandhiji. The British Government also arrested Gandhiji in March 1922 on the charge of spreading disaffection against the government and sentenced him with six years of imprisonment.
The movement failed to achieve any objective. The wrong done to Khilafat or Punjab were not remedied and the promise of Swaraj within one year seemed unrealistic. The introduction of a religious issue like Khilafat into the national movement was another serious weakness. It brought religious fanaticism into Indian politics.
However, the movement aroused tremendous national awakening. While developing complete distrust in British Government, people revived a sense of self-confidence and self- esteem. For the first time the Congress movement could become a mass movement. Moreover, the pre-eminent position of Gandhiji in the National Congress was established. He could emerge as the unchallenged leader of not only the National Congress but also of India.