India’s struggle for independence was actively shaped, influenced and nurtured by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Reverentially worshipped as Mahatma and respectfully adored as ‘Father of the Nation’ from 1920 to 1947 for a period of nearly three decades.
During this momentous period of our history, Gandhi was undoubtedly the undisputed leader of millions of freedom loving Indians.
He strode like an unrivalled colossus transforming the freedom movement to a broad-based mass movement by his policy of non-violence based non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement, and finally, his slogan ‘Do or Die’ inspired the Quit India movement.
A critical examination of the strategy adopted by him reveals that it was ‘Struggle-Truce-Struggle’ as coined by Bipan Chandra. In between the phases of struggle-truce-struggle, Gandhi invented the constructive activity programme of eradication of untouchability, Hindu-Muslim unity, promotion of Khadi and village reconstruction to channelize the energies of the multitude of Indians by carrying on peaceful and continuous agitation of all-round mobilization of superstition ridden, illiterate, and ignorant masses about the need of self-help and self-reliance by precept and practice. Gandhi had justifiably become an icon of the 20th century to many Indians and non-Indian protagonists and time is not far off, when he is going to be another avatar of God.
Anil Seal, a Cambridge historian and an uncharitable critic of Gandhi observes, “Gandhi’s own brand of social conservatism, which sought change through personal reformation rather than popular revolution, his project to uplift the Harijans while keeping them within the Hindu straight jacket, the very cause of their degradations, his desire to take India back to its traditional and rural roots, with support from many captains of industry, his commitment to harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims while stressing Hinduism as a distinctive force, and his hopes, through Satyagraha, of curbing the violence which lies just under the fragile crust of order in Indian society, all suggest that Gandhi’s contribution has been as ambiguous as India’s chequered past and its uncertain future”.
What Anil Seal perceives above about Gandhi is not the whole truth but only a partial biased perspective and there is many such who belittle his contribution. It is very difficult to understand and appreciate Gandhi, the ‘charismatic saint’, astute politician, social reformer, pure visionary and the greatest force for conservatism.
Gandhi was born at Porbandar, a small native state in Kathiawar in. 1869. His father was the hereditary Diwan of that tiny state. He belonged to the Vaishya community which had close contacts with the Jains and. perhaps that could be the basis of his firm belief in Ahimsa or non-violence and Pacifism. His autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, graphically, truthfully and vividly describes his life. Gandhi after becoming a bar-at-law went in search of new pastures to South Africa, where he developed as a mature lawyer-cum-political activist and put into practice his policy of passive resistance backed by non-violence.
Sumit Sarkar aptly observes:
“The South African experience (1893-1914) contributed in a number of different ways to the foundations of Gandhi’s ideology and methods, as well as to his later achievements. In 1909 itself, Gandhi recorded his social ideals in Hind Swaraj wherein he categorically states that “the real enemy was not British political domination, but the whole of modern industrial civilization”. Gandhi further advocated “Indian’s salvation consists in unlearning what she had learnt during the past 50 years or so. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like, have all to go, and the so-called upper class have to learn to live consciously and deliberately the simple life of a peasant. By patriotism, I mean the welfare of the whole people”.
Sumit Sarkar points out, “The Gandhian Social Utopia as out lined in Hind Swaraj is undoubtedly unrealistic and indeed obscurantist if considered as a final remedy for the ills of India or of the world and it never had much appeal for sophisticated urban groups which by the 1930-1940 would turn increasingly to either capitalist or socialist solutions based on industrialization”.
Sumit Sarkar continues further by observing, “it did represent a response to the deeply alienating effects of ‘modernization’ particularly under colonial conditions the artisans ruined by factory industries, the peasants rural or small town intelligentsia. After his return to India, Gandhi concretized his message through programme of Khadi, village reconstruction and (somewhat later) Harijan welfare”.
Amartya Sen comments, “I personally believe Gandhiji was mistaken on many subjects including his opposition to modern technology, his opposition even to railways and his opposition to religious conversions. But to give credit where it is due, he was altogether visionary in understanding why what he called the Vivisection of the nation can be very detrimental to a harmonious society”.
Percival Spear observes that Gandhi by his philosophy of thought and action “envisaged a peasant society of self supporting workers, with simplicity as its ideal and purity as its hallmark, the state would be a lose federation of village-republics. He rejected the mechanics of the west along with its glitter and preached the necessity of hand spinning and weaving while cheerfully receiving the contributions of Indian industrialists”.
In January 1915, Gandhi returned to India and instead of plunging into action, he spent a year in understanding the situation in India by undertaking travelling and in the next year too he maintained distance from the ongoing’ Home Rule movement. During the course of 1917 and early 1918, he involved himself in three significant struggles in Champaran in Bihar, in Ahmedabad and in Kheda in Gujarat. In the words of Bipan Chandra “the common feature of these struggles was that they were related to specific local issues and that they were fought for the economic demands of the masses”.
Interestingly, these movements involved the impoverished peasants at Champaran and Kheda and industrial workers in Ahmedabad. Champaran, Ahmedabad and Kheda struggles made Gandhi find a place among the people of India as a determined and committed person to a cause which will better the conditions of the masses in India and to earn the goodwill and confidence of the younger workers. In such a mood of goodwill and successful experience at the age of 50, Gandhi called for a nationwide Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act in March 1919.
As the constitutional method failed, Gandhi initiated Satyagraha. A Satyagraha Sabha was formed and contacts were established with the people interested in participating in the agitation against Rowlatt Act. Gandhi proposed that the form of protest to be observed should be a nationwide hartal or strike followed by fasting and prayer. In addition to this form of protest, they decided to offer civil disobedience against specific laws. Though 6 April was fixed as the date on which Satyagraha was to be launched, due to some confusion, hartal was observed on 30 March at Delhi followed by street violence and disorder. Same patternrwas also noticed in other parts too.
The situation in Punjab, Gujarat and Bombay was very volatile. Gandhi was not allowed to visit Punjab and was detained at Bombay. Gandhi made it his mission to pacify the people. The Punjab Government by its action of arresting two local leaders precipitated the matter to the verge of violent protests.
April 13, the Baisakhi day was the darkest day in the Punjab and on that day the British resorted to brutal shoot-out attack on an innocent gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, in which 179 died as per government account and many ware injured. This most inhuman and brutal act of General Dyer stunned the entire civilized Indians and anger and resentment knew no bounds and the entire nation was overwhelmed by the total atmosphere of violence and revengeful mood. Gandhi withdrew the movement on 18 April, as his philosophy of action was based on non-violence and he wanted to be a leader of the controlled mass action.
Bipan Chandra et al. write, “This did not mean, however, that Gandhiji had lost faith either in his non-violent Satyagraha or in the capacity of the Indian people to adopt it as a method of struggle. A year later, he launched another nationwide struggle, on a scale bigger than that of the Rowlatt Satyagraha. The wrong inflicted on Punjab was one of the major reasons for launching it”. Thus began the ‘Indian Experiment’ of Mahatma which lasted for more than two and a half decades in actively shaping and moulding the course of the national liberation struggle under the banner of Gandhian era.