Mahatma Gandhi Civil Disobedience Movement
The Indians learnt how apparently philosophical tenets like non violence and passive resistance, could be used to wage political battles. The programs and policies adopted in the movements spearheaded by Gandhi reflected his political ideologies of ahimsa and satyagraha. While the Non-Co-Operation Movement was built on the lines of non violent non co operation, the essence of The Civil Disobedience Movement was defying of the British laws. Through his leadership to the National Movements, he not only buttressed his political stance but also played a crucial role in unification of the country, awakening of the masses, and bringing politics within the arena of the common man.
Factors Leading to the Civil Disobedience Movement
The prevalent political and social circumstances played a vital role in the launching of the Civil Disobedience Movement. The Simon Commission was formed by the British Government that included solely the members of the British Parliament, in November 1927, to draft and formalize a constitution for India. The chairmanship of the commission rested with Sir John Simon, who was a well known lawyer and an English statesman. Accused of being an 'All-White Commission', the Simon Commission was rejected by all political and social segments of the country. In West Bengal, the opposition to the Simon Commission assumed a massive scale, with a hartal being observed in all corners of the province on February 3rd, 1928. On the occasion of Simon's arrival in the city, demonstrations were conducted in Calcutta. In the wake of the boycott of the recommendations proposed by Simon Commission, an All-Party Conference was organized in Bombay in May of 1928. Dr MA Ansari was the president of the conference. Motilal Nehru was given the responsibility to preside over the drafting committee, appointed at the conference to prepare a constitution for India.
Barring the Indian Muslims, The Nehru Report was endorsed by all segments of the Indian society. The Indian National Congress pressurized the British government to accept all the parts the Nehru Report, in December 1928. At the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress held in December, 1928, the British government was warned that if India was not granted the status of a dominion, a Civil Disobedience Movement would be initiated in the entire country. Lord Irwin, the Governor General, after a few months, declared that the final objective of the constitutional reforms was to grant the status of a dominion to India. Following this declaration, Gandhi along with other national leaders requested the Governor General to adopt a more liberal attitude in solving the constitutional crisis. A demand was made for the release of the political prisoners and for holding the suggested Round Table Conference for reflecting on the problems regarding the constitution of the country.
None of the efforts made by the Congress received any favorable response from the British government. The patience of the Indian masses were wearing out. The political intelligentsia of the country was sure that the technique of persuasion would not be effective with the British government. The Congress had no other recourse but to launch the Civil Disobedience Movement. In Bardoli, the peasants had already taken to satyagraha under the guidance of Sardar Patel in the year 1928. Their non tax agitations were partially successful. The Congress took the decision to use the non violent weapon of satyagraha on a nation wide scale against the government.
The Launch of the Civil Disobedience Movement
MK Gandhi was urged by the Congress to render his much needed leadership to the Civil Disobedience Movement. On the historic day of 12th March 1930, Gandhi inaugurated The Civil Disobedience Movement by conducting the historic Dandi Salt March, where he broke the Salt Laws imposed by the British Government. Followed by an entourage of seventy nine ashramites, Gandhi embarked on his march from his Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi that is located on the shores of the Arabian Sea. On 6th April 1930, Gandhi with the accompaniment of seventy nine satyagrahis, violated the Salt Law by picking up a fistful of salt lying on the sea shore. They manually made salt on the shores of Dandi.
Dandi Salt March had an immense impact on the entire nation. Each and every corner of the country was gripped in a unique fervor of nationalism. Soon this act of violation of the Salt Laws assumed an all India character. The entire nation amalgamated under the call of a single man, Mahatma Gandhi. There were reports of satyagrahas and instances of law violation from Bombay, Central and United Provinces, Bengal and Gujarat. The program of the Civil Disobedience Movement incorporated besides the breaking of the Salt Laws, picketing of shops selling foreign goods and liquor, bonfire of cloth, refusal to pay taxes and avoidance of offices by the public officers and schools by the students. Even the women joined forces against the British. Those from orthodox families did not hesitate to respond to the call of the Mahatma. They took active part in the picketing exercises. Perturbed by the growing popularity of the movement, the British government imprisoned Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, in a bid to thwart it. Thus, the second struggle for attaining Swaraj launched by the Congress, under the able guidance of Mahatma, served the critical function of mobilizing the masses on a large scale against the British.
In the March of 1930, Gandhi met with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin and signed an agreement known as the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The two main clauses of the pact entailed; Congress participation in the Round Table Conference and cessation of The Civil Disobedience Movement. The Government of India released all satyagrahis from prison.
Renewal of the Civil Disobedience Movement
Gandhi attended The Second Round Table Conference in London accompanied by Smt. Sarojini Naidu. At this Conference, it was claimed by Mahatma Gandhi that the Congress represented more than eighty five percent of the Indian population. Gandhi's claim was not endorsed by the British and also the Muslim representative. The Second Round Table Conference proved to be futile for the Indians and Gandhi returned to the country without any positive result. The political scene in India thereafter assumed an acute dimension. The Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, in the absence of Gandhi, adopted the policy of repression. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was violated and the Viceroy took to the suppression of the Congress. The Conservative party, which was in power in England, complied with the decision to assume a repressive stance against the Congress and the Indians. The Congress was held responsible by the government to have instigated the 'Red Shirts' to participate in The Civil Disobedience Movement, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar and provoking the cultivators of U.P to refuse to pay land revenue. Adding to this was the serious economic crisis that took hold of the country. Under such circumstances, the resumption of The Civil Disobedience Movement was inevitable.
The Congress Working Committee took the decision to restart The Civil Disobedience Movement, as the British government was not prepared to relent. Gandhi resumed the movement in January 1932 and appealed to the entire nation to join in. The Viceroy was also informed of the stance assumed by the Congress. Four ordinances were promulgated by the government to deal with the situation. The police was given the power to arrest any person, even on the basis of mere suspicion. Sardar Patel, the President of Congress and Gandhi were arrested, along with other Congressmen. The second phase of The Civil Disobedience Movement lacked the organization that marked its first phase. Nonetheless the entire nation put up a tough fight and the movement continued for six months. Gandhi commenced his twenty one days of fast on May 8th, 1933, to make amends for the sins committed against the untouchables by the caste Hindus. The Civil Disobedience Movement was suspended, when Mahatma Gandi withdrew mass satyagraha on July 14th 1933. The movement ceased completely on April 7th 1934.
Although The Civil Disobedience Movement failed to achieve any positive outcome, it was an important juncture in the history of Indian independence. The leadership of Mahatma Gandhi had a beneficial impact. The warring factions within the Congress united under the aegis of The Civil Disobedience Movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha was put on a firm footing through its large scale usage in the movement. Last but not the least India rediscovered its inherent strength and confidence to crusade against the British for its freedom.
Last Updated on 17/04/2013
Gandhi and Civil Disobedience
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1947). (Wikimedia Commons)
Mohandas K. Gandhi, often referred to as Mahatma, the Great Soul, was born into a Hindu merchant family in 1869. He was heavily influenced by the Hinduism and Jainism of his devoutly religious mother. She impressed on him beliefs in non-violence, vegetarianism, fasting for purification, and respect for all religions.
In 1888, Gandhi sailed to England and studied to become a lawyer. His first job for an Indian company required that he move to South Africa. The ruling white Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers) discriminated against all people of color. When railroad officials made Gandhi sit in a third-class coach even though he had purchased a first-class ticket, Gandhi refused and police forced him off the train.
This event changed his life. Gandhi became an outspoken critic of South Africa’s discrimination policies. When the Boer legislature passed a law requiring that all Indians register with the police and be fingerprinted, Gandhi, along with many other Indians, refused to obey the law. He was arrested and put in jail, the first of many times he would be imprisoned for disobeying what he believed to be unjust laws.
While in jail, Gandhi read the essay “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century American writer. Gandhi adopted the term “civil disobedience” to describe his strategy of non-violently refusing to cooperate with injustice, but he preferred the Sanskrit word satyagraha (devotion to truth). Following his release, he continued to protest the registration law by supporting labor strikes and organizing a massive non-violent march. Finally, the Boer government agreed to end the most objectionable parts of the registration law.
After 20 years in South Africa, Gandhi went home to India in 1914. When Gandhi returned, he was already a hero. Gandhi devoted the rest of his life struggling against what he considered three great evils afflicting India. One was British rule, which Gandhi believed impoverished the Indian people. The second evil was Hindu-Muslim disunity caused by years of religious hatred. The last evil was the Hindu tradition of classifying millions of Indians as a caste of “untouchables.” Untouchables, those Indians born into the lowest social class, faced severe discrimination.
Gandhi expected Britain to grant India independence after World War I. When it did not happen, Gandhi called for strikes and other acts of peaceful civil disobedience. The British sometimes struck back with violence, but Gandhi insisted Indians remain non-violent. Many answered Gandhi’s call. But as the movement spread, Indians started rioting in some places. Gandhi called for order and canceled protests. He drew heavy criticism from fellow nationalists, but Gandhi would only lead a non-violent movement.
Gandhi was jailed many times. At one trial he said, “In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” When he was released, he continued leading non-violent protests.
When India finally gained independence, the problem became how Hindus and Muslims would share power. Distrust spilled over into violence. Gandhi spoke out for peace and forgiveness. He opposed dividing the country into Hindu and Muslim nations, believing in one unified India. In May 1947, British, Hindu, and Muslim political leaders, but not Gandhi, reached an agreement for independence that created a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim Pakistan. As Independence Day (August 15, 1947) approached, an explosion of Hindu and Muslim looting, rape, and murder erupted throughout the land. Millions of Hindus and Muslims fled their homes, crossing the borders into India or Pakistan.
Gandhi announced that he would fast until “a reunion of hearts of all communities” had been achieved. An old man, he weakened rapidly, but he did not break his fast until Hindu and Muslim leaders came to him pledging peace. Days later, an assassin shot and killed Gandhi. The assassin was a Hindu who believed Gandhi had sold out to the Muslims.
Gandhi and others like Martin Luther King Jr. confronted injustice with non-violent methods. “It is the acid test of non-violence,” Gandhi once said, “that in a non-violent conflict there is no rancor left behind and, in the end, the enemies are converted into friends.”
For Further Reading
Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma). Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Massachusetts: Beacon Press. 1957.
Return to Black History Month Home PageMohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1947). (Wikimedia Commons)