Gandhi


Overview
Mohandas Gandhi's reputation as the Indian spiritual and political leader who coordinated and led a successful national struggle for independence against British imperial rule on the strength of a non-violent movement survives largely intact. The legend of Mahatma Gandhi has it that he returned to India from South Africa in 1915, took control of and radically transformed the Indian nationalist movement, and led three great popular movements that eventually wore down the British government and led to Indian independence. These were the Non-Cooperation Movement, 1920-22, in conjunction with the Khilafat Movement for the restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey after the First World War (a coalition he proposed with Muslim political leaders in which he required his colleagues to accept him as Dictator - his word); the Civil Disobedience Movement, 1930-31 (unsuccessfully sought to be revived from 1932 to 1934); and the Quit India Movement of 1942. His ability to give voice to the authentic spirit of the Indian masses, so the story goes, was in stark contrast to those political leaders who used 'western' political idioms in pursuit of the goal of Indian independence. Gandhi's reliance upon non-violent mass movements, furthermore, meant that the means remained as important as the end itself, and was never morally tainted. Yet this is a legend that requires much modification.
Gandhi's Moral Outlook
The central principle of mass organisation recognised by Gandhi was that the collective resistance of ordinary people could not be autonomous but must be guided by those who were spiritually and morally, and therefore also politically, better qualified to lead. Characterised by the historian Ranajit Guha as 'discipline and mobilise', this strategy has much in common with what Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquan supporter of the Algerian liberation struggle, had to say about middle-class leaders in a colonial struggle for liberation. In a confrontation that was essentially a violent one, between the powerless and unprivileged colonised people and the powerful forces of the colonial state, middleclass leadership of the 'national struggle' provided a buffer zone. This leadership offered itself to the colonial state as negotiator and mediator between the struggles of the masses and the needs of colonial order. It was, therefore, powerless without both representing the interests of ordinary people to some extent, and also controlling them, because its power was derived not from the 'will of the people' alone, but also to a large extent from the fears of the colonisers. The power of non-violence, in this context, was premised on the potential for violence always present in the colonial situation.

Gandhi himself rejected a politics that was devoid of religion, which he believed to be the source of morality. In other words, he rejected the allegedly 'secular' and 'secularising' tendency of politics since the nineteenth century. Gandhi saw the 'secular' tendency as the problem with the 'west' (he used 'west' and 'east' as polemical categories, as did most of his contemporaries). Gandhi's use of a religious mobilisational rhetoric was not an innovation: this had been discovered earlier, and had been put to good use during the Swadeshi ('of our own country') Movement of 1903-1908, directed against the Viceroy Lord Curzon's partition of the province of Bengal. During this period, persons who were not necessarily religious themselves began to believe that the mobilisation of ordinary people required religion, not a modern nationalism that the people did not yet understand.

Gandhi had been a close student of the Swadeshi movement, and indeed wrote his manifesto, Hind Swaraj, in 1909 as a commentary on the ideas and questions raised by that movement. Hind Swaraj in addition used the wellworn spiritual-east-versus-materialistwest dichotomy in use at the time. The Swadeshi ideologues had decided that the materialist west could and should be emulated in matters of statecraft and industrialisation, but not in the cultural sphere. Gandhi took a more extremist position on this debate. Hind Swaraj calls for a rejection of 'modern civilisation' as a 'disease' - along with parliamentary politics, railways, doctors, lawyers, and much more. Industrial civilisation would lead to 'British rule without the British' even if India became independent. The solution is a return to the harmony of the ancient Indian village communities, which were the soul of the 'nation'.

'Passive resistance', which later came to be called Satyagraha ('truth force' or 'soul force', at different times, and thus not 'passive' at all), and ahimsa (non-violence) were terms coined in the course of Gandhi's South African campaigns, where in fact Gandhi was still a racist - the central point of his argument in most cases being that Indians, with their superior civilisation, could not be treated the same way as Kaffirs. Later on, Gandhi would claim ahimsa to be the core of 'Hinduism', as part of a polemic against 'terrorists', as the British called them, or 'anarchists', as they often called themselves, who also claimed to be influenced by 'Hindu' ideas.

Gandhi's politics included Muslims in the Indian nation as 'brothers', thus not as people with whom Hindus had no significant differences as members of a nation (as a secular civic nationalism might have suggested) but as people whose differences with Hindus could be acknowledged, whereupon both sides would make compromises for one another. This, however, required seeing all Hindus as Hindus and all Muslims as Muslims - emphasising obligatory religious identities at the cost of all others.

The 'Gandhian Movements'
All the movements led by Gandhi relied on circumstances that fuelled popular unrest: the First World War, economic disruption, the continuation of repressive measures on the part of the Government, and the Khilafat question in 1920-22; the Great Depression in the early 1930s; and the Second World War, the returning refugees from South-East Asia and Burma and the impending Japanese invasions in 1942. Secondly, all these movements were strange coalitions in which it is unclear how far the ideas of Gandhi were influential. There were instrumental uses of his name (and as it grew, his reputation). Thirdly, Gandhi's tendency to call off a movement when things didn't suit him, and thus to withdraw the Indian National Congress from its organisational responsibilities for a struggle it had begun, leaving ordinary followers to face jail, repression and even execution, made him less and less trusted as time went by. This happened in 1922, in response to a crowd burning down a police station with policemen in it, and in 1931 for the less ideologically satisfying reason of his having secured a bargain of sorts with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, the terms of which the latter did not keep. At the same time, since Gandhi had successfully become a symbol for India's national aspirations, those who criticised him in private supported him in public: men like Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance.

Gradually, in the face of more threatening forms of politics, such as radical forms of anarchism and communism, Gandhi came to be seen even by the British government as a lesser evil, and they were happy to bargain with him and to use him as a buffer between themselves and radical politics or direct mass action. In this they were encouraged by Gandhi's businessmen followers, who wrote directly to the Government and to its representatives in London making this point. They had funded Gandhi's various experiments and projects, and Gandhi in turn legitimised them by claiming that the wealthy held their wealth not for themselves but as 'trustees' for the nation. Thus Gandhi managed to be anti-industry and anti-capitalism but pro-capitalist at the same time.

In between the movements, Gandhi frustrated his political followers, though not necessarily his spiritual followers, by retreating from public life into what he called 'constructive work': village uplift, spinning and weaving, promoting khadi (handwoven cloth), experimenting with ashrams, celibacy for not just himself but for his followers (somewhat strangely co-existing with experiments in alleged self-control, including sleeping naked with young women without having sex with them), various diets and quasimedical experiments, and his caste uplift programmes to include outcastes (he called them 'Harijans', people of god) in Hindu society.

This last point was a matter of some controversy. Gandhi believed that the exclusion of lower castes from much of social life was one of the sins that Hindus should expiate. He wished to include the Harijans in the category 'Hindu'. In this he was in agreement with other Hindu reformers. Gandhi's project went a long way towards creating a structural majority for the category 'Hindu' in India. The main opponent of this vision, Dr B R Ambedkar, who sought to organise the 'backward castes' outside 'Hinduism', was defeated in 1932 by Gandhi's supreme act of moral blackmail: when it was announced by the Government that electoral arrangements would be made in which backward castes would have seats reserved for them as non-Hindus, Gandhi went on a 'fast unto death'. He did not of course die, as Ambedkar gave in and came to an agreement that allowed the 'Harijans' to be defined as Hindus.

The Non-Cooperation/Khilafat Movement
Gandhi's leadership qualities were relatively untested when he persuaded his colleagues in the Indian National Congress to let him lead a mass movement against British rule in the aftermath of the First World War. He linked his fortunes with that of the Khilafat Movement of Indian Muslims who were disturbed at the harsh treatment of Turkey in the postwar peace treaties and concerned at the position of its Sultan, who counted as the Khalif, or spiritual leader, of the world's Muslims. Gandhi proposed an alliance in which the Khilafat agitators would accept non-violence as a guiding principle, while Gandhi would provide for them an alliance with the Hindus of India. Armed with this agreement with the All-India Khilafat Committee (rather than with the less religiously inclined All-India Muslim League, whose leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, deplored the atavistic tendencies contained in this frank appeal to religious sentiments rather than to rational politics), Gandhi secured approval from a reluctant Congress for his leadership.

For most of the Congress, non-violent methods of non-cooperation with the government were acceptable for strategic rather than moral reasons. After all, Gandhi had himself, not so long before, campaigned - unsuccessfully - on behalf of the British to recruit more Indian troops for the Imperial war effort, on the grounds that being able to fight would restore Indian 'manhood'. Also, for the organisational machinery of non-cooperation to function, to discipline and organise agitations and mass rallies, Congress 'volunteers' had to be drawn from former military personnel, and from 'terrorist' groups who had the strength of numbers, organisation and discipline to do these jobs. These persons were persuaded for the duration of the movement to refrain from acts of violence. A deliberately ill-defined swaraj or 'self-rule' was set as the goal of the movement, to be attained, in the language of the Congress resolution that endorsed it, 'by all legitimate and peaceful means'.

Violence was, however, not unknown during the movement. Ordinary peasants' interpretations of Gandhi's moral codes of ahimsa and satyagraha left something to be desired. If burning foreign cloth - one of non-cooperation's more visible mobilisational activities - was not violence then, by extension, burning the property of the oppressor - a landlord, moneylender or a government official - was not violence either. Gandhi set himself up as a holy man, and in so doing threw himself open to multiple appropriations. Many campaigns were undertaken in Gandhi's name; and the Congress and Gandhi were disquieted at signs of autonomy on the part of the 'ignorant' peasantry. Gandhi's style lent itself to his being interpreted within the parameters of popular Hinduism, with the 'darshan' - the sighting of a holy man - being seen as auspicious. Urban audiences, by contrast, responded with far less enthusiasm to Gandhi's calls to mobilise, less affected by this quasi-divine figure.

When on 5 February 1922, a crowd of people, infuriated at being beaten up by a group of policemen whom they greatly outnumbered, chased the police back into their police station, set fire to the building and burnt them alive, Gandhi concluded that the people were not yet morally developed enough to practise non-violence. On 12 February, he called off the movement. There had, he explained, been a few earlier incidents of violence that had concerned him, but this was the last straw. If swaraj were to be achieved by violence, then that swaraj, according to Gandhi, was not worth having, for the people would not be worthy of it. This unilateral retreat, from a position of strength, was not to be the last, and was to infuriate his allies; but it was the price of investing Gandhi with dictatorial powers. On the positive side, a united national movement that included both Hindus and Muslims had ostensibly been achieved, but this unity was short-lived, as subsequent sectarian tendencies were to show. The future Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography, was to look back at the Khilafat movement as a 'strange mixture of nationalism and politics and religion and mysticism and fanaticism', with the nationalism itself being a mixture of a Hindu nationalism, a Muslim nationalism and a broader Indian nationalism, all held together by Gandhi.

The Civil Disobedience Movement, 1930-31
For some years, Gandhi had been urged to take action against the British but had refused to do so, saying that he was the expert who would decide the moment. The years 1928 and 1929, with strikes and labour militancy at their height, would have been logical points in time to begin; but Gandhi had never had much of a following among urban labour and so might have lost control of developments.

Gandhi inaugurated the Civil Disobedience Movement with the great Salt March in March 1930, marching to the sea to gather salt. This was a non-divisive and emotive issue: the Government had a monopoly on the manufacture of salt, and its tax on salt was paid by all Indians. Ignoring the principle of complete independence from British rule that the Congress had agreed upon in 1929, Gandhi then presented a strange set of demands to the government. The salt tax should be abolished, total prohibition should be imposed on the sale of alcohol, the rupee should be devalued, there should be a protective tariff on foreign cloth, and land revenue should be reduced. The more substantive of these smelt uncomfortably like a list of conditions drawn up by Gandhi's businessmen friends, who indeed had been writing to the British Government asking that they strengthen Gandhi's hand within the Indian nationalist movement by negotiating with him lest more radical, and especially communist, tendencies take control instead. Gandhi also took a great interest in the moral policing of the masses: the people should refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking ganja (marijuana), and generally behave in a disciplined and non-violent manner. This time, however, although civil disobedience turned out to be far more unruly than in 1922, he made no effort to call off the movement on the grounds of its violence.

Agricultural prices had fallen so low that most peasants could not make ends meet, nor pay their cash rents or revenue contributions. Gandhi refused to countenance the non-payment of rent to landlords by impoverished peasants - on the grounds of refusing to pit Indians against Indians - although he supported the withholding of government revenues. The government had responded to the Depression by recognising that they could not hope to collect revenues in full, given the drastic fall in agricultural prices, and had indeed taken steps to reduce revenue rates. By this time, British rule in India relied far more on other sources of income than on agricultural revenues, and they could afford to do this. Nevertheless, many landlords chose not to lower rents for their tenants.

In March 1931, Gandhi - again - called off the movement. He had agreed to discuss constitutional reforms with the Viceroy in February, and unilaterally suspended Civil Disobedience. Circumstantial evidence points clearly to the fact that he was under pressure from businessmen: a deal at this stage might secure benefits, whereas the disorder created by the movement was disrupting business conditions. Later that year, Gandhi went to London to discuss a possible new constitution at a Round Table Conference of Indian 'interest groups' and British politicians, providing by his presence the much-needed legitimacy the conference required. He claimed, as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress, to speak for all of India, because the Congress represented all of Indian opinion. This approach achieved very little, and the eventual constitution, the Government of India Act of 1935, cannot be said to have had a distinctive contribution from Gandhi.

The Quit India Movement
The last of the allegedly great 'Gandhian' mass movements, the Quit India Movement of 1942, was in fact not Gandhian at all. A most violent uprising, suppressed under cover of wartime censorship with an unparalleled brutality by the government, it demonstrated that non-violent resistance only worked when it was performed before the eyes of the world and before a government that feared being discredited in public more than being defeated in war.

On the eve of an anticipated Japanese invasion of India, the call by the Congress for the British to quit India completely - leaving India 'to anarchy or to God', in Gandhi's words - was an extremely disputed one. The Second World War, a war for freedom and against oppression and dictatorship according to the principles of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, was also a war for the retention of colonies, and the decision to be made by an Indian political leadership was whether to attempt to force the issue of independence during the war. Many felt that a weakened British imperialism was far preferable to a fascist victory. The question was, in the light of repeated British refusals to accept Indian demands that their participation in the war effort required them to be properly represented in the defence of their own country, whether simply doing nothing was an option.

On 8th August 1942, the Congress announced that the British were being told to quit India immediately. At once, the entire top-level leadership of the Congress, including Gandhi, was arrested. Uncharacteristically, Gandhi had not made an appeal for non-violence: the movement, once begun, must not be stopped, and could not be stopped; people would have to make judgements for themselves and follow their own conscience; this was a time to 'do or die'. This simply made a virtue out of necessity, for Gandhi knew that this was not a movement he was in a position to control.

Different local initiatives and circumstances and divergent goals merged and coalesced into popular violence and unrest. Much of this was unorganised activity. There was a large-scale sense of the impending end of British rule, brought back to India by returning refugees from South-East Asia, whose stories of British troops fleeing from the Japanese in disarray without putting up a fight, and the chaos of evacuation, in which the safer routes were reserved for whites and Indians were made to trek back in miserable conditions on foot, were ample indication that the oncepowerful empire was swiftly collapsing. A secondary level of leadership swiftly emerged to coordinate guerrilla and sabotage operations, and pockets of antigovernment activity survived until 1944. But the British Government's response was brutal. To restore order at minimal cost to British manpower, crowds of protestors were bombed or machinegunned from the air. Collective fines were imposed on entire villages from which people had been deemed to have participated in the movement, and public floggings of individuals were organised in order to set an example to others. During and after the Quit India Movement, India was treated not as an ally but as an occupied country, and the new Viceroy, Lord Wavell, wrote privately to his superiors in London that the game was up: in militarily terms, India was now dangerously ungovernable, and arrangements would have to be made for a transfer of power to a successor authority with whom some of British imperial interests would be safe.

Missing Elements
The familiar legend of the Mahatma's moral and political victories distorts the reality of a complex struggle for independence. It erases other events, other political groups, and even the large chunks of time in between the great 'Gandhian' movements. It also ignores the dynamic that was the key to Gandhi's influence: violence.

At least from the beginning of the twentieth century, the British had been continuously harried by 'terrorist' groups whose method was the political assassination of British officials; then, from the 1920s, communist groups helped organise the labour movement, fomenting strikes and coordinating international opposition to imperialism through a worldwide network, and they became the government's main enemy. In the early 1920s, before they came to understand Gandhi better, government sources referred to him as a 'Bolshevik'; but by the 1930s he had been transformed into the lesser evil, a man who, despite his remarkable capacity to agitate the masses and organise massive anti-imperialist movements, could equally be trusted to keep more radical tendencies at bay. It was the existence and success of a great many non-nonviolent alternatives in the politics of the Indian anti-colonial struggle that made non-violence, and Gandhi, seem so attractive an option, both to the British and to many Indians who sought a transfer of power to a native elite but feared the 'masses', and hence looked to Gandhi to engineer less radical solutions.

Gandhi
Portrait
Further Reading
Gandhi: Naked Ambition
Jad Adams

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi
by Louis Fischer

An Autobiography: Or The Story of My Experiments With Truth
by M.K Gandhi

Gandhi and Churchill: The Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age
by Arthur Herman

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India
by Joseph Lelyveld


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