Few things never age out. Similar is the case with the ideology of Gandhiji - an emblem of non-violence or as he popularly called it-ahimsa. His principles can be followed by anyone and in any age for achieving what one wishes to. Even he practiced it rigorously, but wasn’t born with those traits. His experiences taught him the values of satya and ahimsa. Gandhiji explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’.
Early life: In May 1883, the 13-year-old Mohandas was married to 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji in an arranged child marriage, according to the custom of the region. In the process, he lost a year at school. Recalling the day of their marriage, he once said: "As we didn't know much about marriage, for us it meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives."
However, as was the prevailing tradition, the adolescent bride was to spend much time at her parents' house, and away from her husband. In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple's first child was born, but survived only a few days. He further says,
“I have still to relate some of my failings during this meat-eating period and also previous to it, which date from before my marriage or soon after. A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamored of the smell of a cigarette. I realized that it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it. And since then, whenever I have heard of someone threatening to commit suicide, it has had little or no effect on me.”
It was these experiments, if we can call them thus, which made him vegetarian, celibate, follower of satya and ahimsa and a statue of resistance.
His ideologies were not in-born but cultivated and enhanced through the experiments life conducted on him. They showed him the truth.Returning to India from South Africa, where he had enjoyed a successful legal practice; he gave up wearing Western-style clothing, which he associated with wealth and success. He dressed to be accepted by the poorest person in India. He advocated the use of homespun cloth (khadi). Gandhi and his followers adopted the practice of weaving their own clothes from thread they themselves spun, and encouraged others to do so.[2,3]
Beginning of the movement: In March 1942 Cripps came to India with an offer repeating the promise of a constitution making body after the war and till then demanding effective execution of the war against the threat of mounting disaster in Asia - consequent upon Japan's entry into the arena. Gandhiji described the offer as a postdated cheque; appealed to the British to withdraw from every Asiatic and African possession, at least from India. In other words: "Quit India". Gandhiji appealed to Chiang-Kai Shek, President Roosevelt to see the truth behind his "Quit India" call to the British. In August first week, he groomed the historic "Quit India" resolution at the Bombay A I C C.:
"The freedom of India must be the symbol of and prelude to the freedom of all other Asiatic Nations…" Gandhiji's call was "Do or Die"
‘Quit India,’ ‘Bharat Choro’.
This simple yet powerful slogan launched “the legendary struggle which also became famous by the name of the ‘August Revolution.” In this struggle, the common people of the country demonstrated an unparalleled heroism and militancy.
The Agenda: Gandhiji’s speech also contained specific instructions for different sections of the people. Government servants would not yet be asked to resign, but they should openly declare their allegiance to the Congress, soldiers were also not to leave their posts, but they were to ‘refuse to fire on our own people. The Princes were asked to ‘accept the sovereignty of your own people, instead of paying homage to a foreign power.’ And the people of the Princely States were asked to declare that they ‘(were) part of the Indian nation and that they (would) accept the leadership of the Princes, if the latter cast their lot with the People, but not otherwise.’ Students were to give up studies if they were sure they could continue to remain firm independence was achieved.
Government had been constantly exhorting him to condemn the violence of the people during the Quit India Movement. Gandhiji not only refused to condemn the people’s resort to violence but unequivocally held the Government responsible for it. It was the ‘leonine violence’ of the state which had provoked the people, he said.
Gandhiji was not condemning violence!!! Did he give in? Did he leave behind his principles of satya and ahimsa? What happened to his ideologies, what made him say this? Numerous questions popped up one after another, and nobody seemed to have no reason to believe these facts.
Let us take a few steps back to see the trail of incidents which led Gandhiji to say and make such a decision.
On 7 August, Gandhiji had placed the instructions he had drafted before the Working Committee, and in these he had proposed that peasants ‘who have the courage, and are prepared to risk their all’ should refuse to pay the land revenue.
The Government, however, was in no mood to either negotiate with the Congress or wait for the movement to be formally launched. In the early hours of 9 August, in a single sweep, all the top leaders of the congress were arrested and taken to unknown destinations. In anticipation of the AICC’s passing the Quit India resolution, instructions for arrests and suppression had gone out to the provinces. The sudden attack by the Government produced an instantaneous reaction among the people. Meanwhile, many provincial and local level leaders who had evaded arrest returned to their homes through devious routes and set about organizing resistance. As the news spread further in the rural areas, the villagers joined the townsmen in recording their protest.
The ‘Violent’ Protest: For the first six or seven weeks after 9 August, there was a tremendous mass upsurge all over the country. People devised variety of ways of expressing their anger. In some places huge crowds attacked police stations, post offices, kutcheries (courts), railway stations and other symbols of Government authority. National flags were forcibly hoisted on public buildings in defiance of the police. At other places, groups of satyagrahis offered arrest in tehsil or district headquarters. Crowds of villagers, often numbering a few hundreds or even a couple of thousand, physically removed railway tracks.
Elsewhere, small groups of individuals blew up bridges and removed tracks, and cut telephone and telegraph wires. Students of the Banaras Hindu University decided to go to the villages to spread the message of Quit India. They raised slogans of ‘Thana jalao’ (Burn police station), ‘Station phoonk do’ (Burn the railway stations) ‘Angrez Bhag Gaya’ (Englishmen have fled). They hijacked trains and draped them in national flags.
In rural areas, the pattern was of large crowds of peasants descending on the nearest tehsil or district town and attacking all symbols of government authority. There was strong government repression, but the rebellion only gathered momentum. According to official estimates, in the first week after the arrests of the leaders, 250 railway stations were damaged or destroyed, and over 500 post offices and 150 police stations were attacked. The movement of trains in Bihar and Eastern U.P. was disrupted for many weeks. In Karnataka alone, there were 1600 incidents of cutting of telegraph lines, and twenty- six railway stations and thirty-two post offices were attacked.
This doesn’t sound non-violence yet Gandhiji was not ready to condemn it? That definitely leaves us clueless but the other side of the story is yet to be said. The brutality with which the rebellion was crushed was no less than martial law.
British Action: Unarmed crowds faced police and military firing on 538 occasions and they were also machine-gunned by low-flying aircraft. Repression also took the form of taking hostages from the villages, imposing collective fines running to a total of Rs 90 lakhs (which were often realized on the spot by looting the people’s belongings), whipping of suspects and burning of entire villages whose inhabitants had run away and could not be caught. By the end of 1942, over 60, 000 persons had been arrested. Twenty-six thousand people were convicted and 18,000 detained under the Defence of India Rules. Martial law had not been proclaimed, but the army, though nominally working under the orders of the civilian authorities, often did what it wanted to without any reference to the direct officers. The brutal and all-out repression succeeded within a period of six or seven weeks in bringing about a cessation of the mass phase of the struggle.
Gandhiji’s Stance: It doesn’t need a microscopic analysis to find out which side was brutal and who committed the excesses and the ‘real’ violence. But is there anything called real and unreal violence. Well there definitely is one, if not Gandhiji would have condemned it, but he did not. This was what he did. In February 1943, a striking new development provided a new burst of political activity. Gandhiji commenced a fast on 10 February in jail. He declared the fast would last for twenty-one days. This was his answer to the Government which had been constantly exhorting him to condemn the violence of the people in the Quit India Movement. Gandhiji not only refused to condemn the people’s resort to violence but unequivocally held the Government responsible for it. It was the ‘leonine violence’ of the state which had provoked the people, he said.
The popular response to the news of the fast was immediate and overwhelming. All over the country, there were hartals, demonstrations and strikes. Calcutta and Ahmedabad were particularly active. Prisoners in jails and those outside went on sympathetic fasts. Groups of people secretly reached Poona to offer Satyagraha outside the Aga Khan Palace where Gandhiji was being held in detention.
He was again successful in bringing back the non-violent character of the movement back. Gandhiji, as always, got the better of his opponents, and refused to oblige the British by dying. The fast had done exactly what it had intended to achieve. The public morale was raised, the anti-British feeling heightened, and an opportunity for political activity provided. A symbolic gesture of resistance had sparked off widespread resistance and exposed the Government’s high-handedness to the whole world. The moral justification that the Government had been trying to provide for its brutal suppression of 1942 was denied to it and it was placed clearly in the wrong.
Unanswered Questions: But the question that still haunts us: Did gandhiji for a moment budge from his opposition to violence and embrace it or his sympathy towards the Indians at the hands of brutal British soldiers made him see a greater violence dominating over the smaller one? Did the cause justify it? Had the British not been overwhelmingly brutal, would Gandhiji still have endorsed it?
The matter of the fact is Gandhiji had indeed moved along his own trajectory of non-violence and quite far, this time around. From 1920, the Non-Cooperation Movement, when Gandhiji was staunch, and may be obstinate in his endurance of oppression – so much so that the heavy lathicharge by the police at Chauri-Chaura was to be accepted not as a humiliation but part of the struggle towards ‘imbibing’ satyagraha – to Civil Disobedience in 1930 where upon he was a bit more militant; that is – overlooking sporadic violence by masses in the territorial periphery of the struggle. Finally, ten years down the lane – in 1942, Gandhiji seemingly had enough of the British, his faith in British-like attitude petering out towards the tangential touch of any form of reaction by the masses.
With Gandhiji remaining tight-lipped towards condemnation of violence in 1942, the countless forms of struggle that India was harbouring since 1757 found the oceanic assimilation. And with Subhash Chandra Bose punching in from North-East – India was progressing towards the dawn of freedom – without factually knowing it as soothsayers, yet confidently believing in the same.
1. My experiments with truth-M.K. Gandhi
2. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohandas_Karamchand_Gandhi
4. India’s Struggle for Indepedence-Bipan Chandra
Rajan Agarwal is a student of History and wishes to draw comparison between ahimsa and its Gandhian version. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org