Gandhian Mass Movement: Initial Years

The British Government introduced the next set of constitutional reforms in 1919 (The Montague-Chelmsford Reforms). Although these reforms claimed to have brought forth local self-government and considerable autonomy to Indians, they kept the real powers firmly in British hands.

The system of dyarchy as introduced by these reforms gave greater representation to Indians and greater control of local expenditure. However the elected legislature had no control over the executive.

The post war years (the First World War ended in 1918) saw growing unrest in the country as the impact of the War on the economy of India became more apparent. War led to rise in the prices, scarcity, unemployment, etc added to which there was an influenza epidemic.

Wartime necessities had given rise to a class of entrepreneurs in India and a large working class was also created that was becoming more organized. This working class was restive and a potential force in the nationalist movement. Part of the capitalist class was loyal to the colonial state because it helped them control the labour force. However there were also some among them who were supportive of the national movement. They were opposed to the economic policies of the colonial government and realised that the end result of British policy would be to the detriment of Indian industry.

The arrival of MK Gandhi in these turbulent times marked yet another phase in the nationalist movement. Gandhi who arrived in India in 1915, used his own methods to harness these forces that existed in India in the post war years. His style was to address specific issues and laws and organize a peaceful resistance and violation of the laws with the help of disciplined cadres.

The significance of Gandhi’s movement was that he brought the focus upon specific issues. Gandhi first achieved success in three movements in Champaran, Kheda and Ahmedabad respectively. The first two were peasant movements and the last was a strike of the mill workers of Ahmedabad.

The peasantry at Champaran was agitating against the European planters who forced them to cultivate indigo. There was a history of peasant unrest against planters in Champaran. Raj Kumar Shukla, one of the peasant leaders, went all the way to Lucknow to invite Gandhi to see their plight. Gandhi instituted an open enquiry into the matter in 1917. The Champaran movement also got wider publicity with the government trying to restrict Gandhi’s entry into that area and later letting him go there on threat of satyagraha. The outcome of the Champaran movement was that the tinkathia system, under which the farmers had to cultivate indigo in 3/20th of their holdings, was abolished.

The next movement Gandhi associated himself with was the agitation of the mill workers at Ahmedabad. The dispute between the workers and the owners had occurred due to the withdrawal of the ‘plague bonus’. The owners withdrew the bonus after the epidemic had passed and the workers opposed the withdrawal because of the rising prices after the War. Gandhi persuaded the workers and owners to negotiate before a tribunal. The owners suddenly withdrew from the arbitration on the pretext of a strike called by some workers and declared that they were ready to give only 20% bonus and threatened dismissal to those workers who did not comply.

Gandhi was greatly offended by this breach of agreement and declared that after proper study of the production cost, profits and the cost of living the conclusion was drawn that the workers were justified in asking for 35% increase in wages. Ambalal Sarabhai, one of the mill owners was a close friend of Gandhi and had given a liberal donation to his ashram at Sabarmati, and his sister Anasuya Ben was one of his greatest supporters in the Ahmedabad mill workers struggle. During the last stages of this struggle Gandhi for the first time used the fast as a means of protest. Gandhi observed that the workers were slowly losing their morale so he decided to go on a fast. He declared that if the strike was to lead to starvation then he should be the first. The matter was resolved with the workers getting the 35% raise.

The third movement was that of the Kheda peasants whose crops had failed and they were unable to get a remission of land revenue from the government. First, enquiries were made into the situation, as was the norm of all Gandhian movements. Crop yields were studied and it was confirmed that it had been one third of the normal yield which made the peasants eligible for a total remission of revenue. Gandhi advised the peasants to withhold the revenue. Vallabhbhai Patel and Indulal Yajnik helped Gandhi in the Kheda district by organising his tour of the villages and urging the peasants to stand firm.

The government unleashed severe repression seizing cattle, household goods and even attaching standing crops. After putting up a brave struggle, however, they began to suffer in the face of repression. At that very movement Gandhi learnt that the Government was contemplating a compromise by directing that the revenue be recovered from only those who could pay it. Gandhi had asked the well off peasants also to withhold payment so that the poorer peasantry may not surrender. On learning of the Government directions, thus, Gandhi withdrew the movement.

The outcome of the Champaran, Ahmedabad and Kheda movements, that occurred between 1916-1917, was that Gandhi was able to experiment with his method of non-violent satyagraha. The movements helped him to test the waters. He cultivated his own core group of followers who would assist him and follow his orders in the forthcoming movements. In these movements Gandhiji showed his special talent for reconciling apparently opposed interests e.g. mill owners and workers, keeping his friendship with one and at the same time gaining the trust of the other.

The next significant movement under Gandhi’s leadership was the Rowlatt satyagraha. In February 1919, two bills that would severely curb the civil liberty of Indians were sought to be made into laws. The government wanted to pass these laws so that they may be able to control the rising tide of discontent among the population. The laws would provide for arbitrary detention and punishment without trial.

In fact one of the bills was passed in the Council and made into law inspite of protests from the elected Indian members. This kind of restriction on the liberty of individuals might have been acceptable during the war years. But the end of the war had given rise to the hopes of further constitutional reform and a greater control of Indians over their own affairs if not self-government.

Having seen the futility of the protests from the Council members and others, Gandhi launched ‘Satyagraha’. A ‘Satyagraha Sabha’ was formed that attracted many members. It was decided that a nationwide ‘hartal’ or strike would be observed to protest against the Act and fasting and prayers will be conducted. There would also be civil disobedience of certain laws. The Rowlatt Satyagraha was the first nationwide protest in India under the guidance of Gandhi.

The people of India showed a great and swelling resentment against British rule and the hartals became violent. 6th April 1919 was decided as the day of hartal, however due to some confusion it was observed on 30th March in Delhi and led to fighting in the streets. Punjab had faced very severe wartime oppression due to forcible recruitment and widespread disease and other hardships. Amritsar and Lahore were centres of this movement. Gandhi tried to go to Punjab and get the movement back on the track of non-violent styagraha. However Gandhi was prevented from entering the Punjab by the British government and was deported to Bombay. Bombay and Ahmedabad were also experiencing disturbances at that time and Gandhi tried to control the movement there.

Events in Punjab came to a head when two local leaders were arrested and the local town hall and post office were attacked as a result. During the nationalist movement a popular form of protest was to attack the symbols of British government, telegraph wires were cut, post offices attacked, and Europeans including women were attacked. The army was called and meetings and assemblies were banned.

On the 13th of April 1919 a Baisakhi day gathering at Jalianwalla Bagh in Amritsar invited the wrath of General Dyer who was made in charge of the city. The General, angered that the ban on public meetings was being flouted attacked the unarmed and helpless gathering and had his men fire at the crowd for ten minutes and only stopped when his ammunition was spent. No prior warning was issued to the people before firing started and there was no escape other than the narrow pathway where Dyer’s men stood with their guns as the Jallianwalla Bagh was enclosed by walls on all sides. This incident left 379 dead according to a conservative government estimate. This brutal incident was followed by even more brutal repression.