14th of August, 2005
'Hitherto the rulers have said: "We would gladly retire if we knew to whom we should hand over the reins." My answer now is: "Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy." - M.K. Gandhi, 24 May 1942.
Richard Attenborough's 1982 film gave a major boost to the Gandhian legend in the West. But Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was quite different to the saintly, crypto-Christian figure played by Krishna Bhanji (the actor known as Ben Kingsley).
Early in the 20th century, an atmosphere of fear pervaded the lives of those who campaigned for India's independence. In his prison memoir, Nehru wrote of the 'fear of the army, the police, the widespread secret service; fear of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress and of prison; fear of the landlord's agent; fear of the moneylender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold'
But things began to change from around 1920 for external and internal reasons. The former included Japan's defeat of Russia in 1905 (the first by an Asian nation of a European one in over a century), the Indian experience of combat against European armies in World War I and the hope represented by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The latter had much to do with Gandhi's influence. He played an important role in ending the fear, transforming the Indian National Congress from a club of gentlemen who met once a year into a mass organisation with a durable structure and a record of sustained activity.
A Superb Organiser
Gandhi had unusually good organisational talents. He paid close attention to financial management, bringing principles of accountability and transparency to his campaigns. He was a superb logistician, ensuring that all his campaigners were suitably fed, transported and supported in the field. He was personally incorruptible: after his assassination, a large watch was found to be the only valuable item he had owned. This fact also says a lot about his habitual punctuality. He substituted Congress's casualness with a rigorous time management system: a few hours were reserved for pre-arranged appointments and the rest of the time was devoted to getting an enormous amount of work done. Under his leadership, Congress gained hundreds of thousands of fee-paying members, a grassroots organisation in each district of British India, an elected all-Indian leadership, and generally the first modern political organisation in the history of India.
The Non-Cooperation Movement
Gandhi inspired and led the Non-Cooperation Movement between December 1920 and February 1922. It was the first nationally coordinated all-India protest movement against British rule. Non-violence during this campaign had a pragmatic dimension - a violent rebellion would have been easily suppressed, resulting in the destruction of the national anti-colonial network. Instead, Non-Cooperation consisted of symbolic actions, such as the return of all British awards and titles, and practical ones, such as a boycott of official institutions, courts and foreign products. Tens of thousands of students and teachers left official schools and enrolled in national ones, whose curriculum focused on the specific needs of India. Indian lawyers resigned from the bar and courts stopped functioning as a result. British-made cloth was boycotted and huge bundles were publicly burned all over India. There was remarkable unity between Hindus and Muslims during this campaign. Congress was strengthened: its finances were vastly improved and its improvised network was transformed into a durable political organisation.
The Civil Disobedience Movement
The Civil Disobedience movement of 1930 was another blow to British rule. It paralysed the colonial administrative apparatus, ultimately resulting in the passage of the Government of India Act in 1935, allowing elections in several Indian provinces. However, after winning in a majority of provinces, Congress began to crack down on strikes and to bestow domestic businesses with government contracts. Congress's electoral leaders were men of the centre-right who 'saw in Gandhian non-violence an ideologically useful device to neutralise the left wing of the nationalist party, and they did not hesitate to make use of Gandhi for their own purposes'
. Once energised, however, the population soon developed ideas and tactics of its own - a point lost on some historians, whose non-violent caricatures are partly accurate, but no stand-in for the real thing.
The Quit India Movement
The Quit India Movement of 1942 was launched when Japan was at the borders of India, having overrun Malaya, Singapore and Burma. The British government opposed it, arresting almost all the leaders and cadres of Congress on the morning of 9 August 1942. Since neither Gandhi nor the other leaders had taken any concrete measures to organise confrontation with the authorities, the British expected that matters would rest there. But nobody expected the largely spontaneous reaction of the popular masses. On hearing of the arrest of the leadership, large crowds of students and workers took to the streets. There were strikes and clashes with the security services in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Patna, Benares, Cuttack, Lucknow, Kanpur, Nagpur and Ahmedabad. A brutal British crackdown saw these militant students dispersing to the rural areas. They were supported by peasants, who caused riots and paralysed the colonial administration in many districts of Bihar, the eastern United Provinces, western Bengal, Orissa and parts of Bombay province. An alarmed Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India, informed Prime Minister Churchill, 'I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security'. Realising that the police were being overwhelmed by peasant rebellion and labour militancy, Linlithgow called in the army. During the next few months at least 57 army battalions were being used to crush the rebellion. According to official British figures, the uprising saw the destruction of 208 police stations, 332 railway stations and 945 post offices. The colonial government resorted to shooting, the burning of villages and public floggings. Over 91,836 arrests were made. Aircraft were used to shoot into crowds, and at one point the air force bombed the capital of Orissa to prevent it from falling into the hands of insurgents.
Congress's leaders were in prison while all this was going on. But their popularity was restored as a result of their imprisonment. As D.D. Kosambi observed, 'the glamour of jail and concentration camp served to wipe out the so-so record of the Congress ministries in office, thereby restoring the full popularity of the organisation among the masses' .
The Indian National Army
Another nail in the coffin of British rule was the formation of the Indian National Army among Indian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore in 1942. The dissident nationalist politician Subhas Chandra Bose rallied about 20,000 troops and called for a march on Delhi. While it was militarily defeated, its very existence had a spectacular effect: popular Indian opinion showed a huge surge of enthusiasm for these soldiers. This frightened the British because they knew that the loyalty of the Indian Army was the ultimate guarantee of their rule. The betrayal of so many soldiers was the writing on the wall. Bose was also able to bridge the religious divide - a disproportionate amount of Muslims and Sikhs fought alongside Hindu troops in the Indian National Army. As a result, Indians of all major religions joined forces in late 1945-6 to protest the trials of several hundreds of these soldiers. The first trial docked P.K. Sehgal, Shah Nawaz and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh) on charges of treason. It was apparent that what the British considered treason the Indian public regarded as liberation. According to the Intelligence Bureau: 'There has seldom been a matter which has attracted so much Indian public interest and, it is safe to say, sympathy ... this particular brand of sympathy cuts across communal barriers'
The Bombay naval mutiny
Many British soldiers were unwilling to go along with the colonial project. As Sergeant A.B. Davies put it, 'Many of us sympathise with the Indian cause. We Socialists in the Army, and there are many, are in a difficult position. Let not the people at home, therefore, blame us if "authority" finds that it has to deal with us as well as with the Indian people'
All this upheaval soon culminated in the great Bombay naval strike of February 1946, when hundreds of Indian sailors went on hunger-strike against bad food and racist insults. The next day the strike spread to Castle and Fort Barracks on shore and 22 ships in Bombay harbour. The Indian flag was raised on the mastheads of the rebel fleet alongside flags displaying the Muslim crescent and the Communist hammer-and-sickle. A Naval Central Strike Committee was elected, demanding better conditions as well as the release of all Indian prisoners. Soon, the rebel sailors demanded the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia. Panicked by these developments, the British flew in bombers and threatened to destroy the ships. The Indian public responded by massing on the docks in close proximity to the sailors. Local shopkeepers invited the sailors to take whatever food they needed. The strike then spread to naval bases all over the country as well as to some ships on sea, eventually involving 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors. In the industrial heartland of Bombay, 300,000 workers downed tools, closing down almost all mills. Two British army battalions were sent in, killing 228 civilians and injuring 1046 more. The last message of the Naval Central Strike Committee was: 'Our strike has been a historic event in the life of the nation. For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause. We in the services will never forget this. We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget. Long live our great people!'
Revealingly, this episode is not often discussed in histories of the Indian independence movement, which focus inordinately on non-violence and Gandhi's role as an 'apostle of peace'. But, as Claude Markovits has pointed out, to claim that 'the period of Gandhian leadership of the nationalist movement was a period without violence is to succumb to a myth and ignore historical reality ... As far as the masses were concerned, the question of non-violence did not seem very relevant to them. Those who accuse Gandhi, especially among the Marxist Left, of having prevented a violent popular revolution do not have very convincing arguments and their use of counter-factual analysis, on the basis of China and Vietnam, does not carry much conviction either. On the other hand, those who praise Gandhi for having spared his countrymen the horror of a bloody revolution tend to neglect the high price Indian society has paid and continues to pay for the maintenance of the social status quo'
J. Nehru 1994 (1946), The Discovery of India, Delhi, p 358.
C. Markovits 2004, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: the Life and After-Life of the Mahatma, Anthem Press, London, pp 101-2.
D.D. Kosambi, Exasperating Essays: Exercises in Dialectical Method,
Sarkar 1983, Modern India, Macmillan, London.
L. James 1997, Raj: The making and unmaking of British India, Little, Brown and Co., London, p 595.
S. Sarkar 1983, Modern India, Macmillan, London, p 425.
C. Markovits 2004, A History of Modern India 1480-1950, Anthem Press, London, pp 155-7.
Dr. Clinton Fernandes is an historian and author of 'Reluctant Saviour' (Scribe, 2004).