Gandhi’s Life – Part 09
|November 19, 2003||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
Noncooperation with Evil
The date of the hartal was April 6, 1919. “It was a most wonderful spectacle,” Gandhi wrote. “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete hartal on that day.”
To the astonishment of the British, India was paralyzed for twenty-four hours. Millions of Indians marched in the streets and many, including Gandhi, courted arrest by selling books banned by the government.
They were not imprisoned, but Gandhi had unloosed forces he could not contain. He never understood that all men were not as saintly as he, and was horrified when the Indians followed the hartal with violence, looting, and murder.
Gandhi headed for the province known as the Punjab to quiet disorders there, but on the way he was arrested and sent back to Bombay. From there he returned to his ashram at Sabarmati and listened in horror as the reports of violence flowed in. “A rapier run through my body could hardly have pained me more,” he said. He fasted three days in penance and called off the satyagraha campaign. He had made a “Himalayan miscalculation” he explained candidly. “I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had qualified themselves for it.”
Gandhi set about training a band of volunteers in the stern disciplines of satyagraha. He hoped they would help him educate the people, but most of them soon drifted away. The life of a satyagrahi was best suited for a Mahatma.
Meanwhile, agitation continued in the Punjab, and martial law was proclaimed. In spite of this, a meeting was held at about 4 P.M. on April 13 in the city of Amritsar. Between ten and twenty thousand persons were packed into a square almost entirely enclosed by buildings. While the meeting was in progress, a British officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, entered with fifty armed native soldiers. He stationed them on either side of the main entrance and without warning ordered them to fire.
They fired 1,650 rounds of ammunition and struck over fifteen hundred persons; almost four hundred died. The event became known as the Amritsar massacre. General Dyer epitomized the colonial mind at its thickest when he explained, “I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good.”
Refused permission to go to the Punjab, Gandhi spent most of his time working at two weekly newspapers, Young India, which was published in English, and Navajivan, which was published in his own dialect, Gujarati. He used both to edu- cate the people to the ideals and sacrifices of satyagraha.
He was finally permitted to visit the Punjab in the autumn of 1919. The crowds which received him were “delirious with joy.” He conducted his own inquiry into the massacre, and as the people came before him their trust turned to worship. With no official title or office he had become the most important man in India.
In November he was invited to a Moslem conference, where he used the term “noncooperation” to describe the next phase of his campaign. The movement was temporarily stayed by reforms offered by the British, but when they resulted in no worthwhile improvement in the Indian condition Gandhi politely advised the Viceroy, in June, 1920, of the new policy. The Viceroy called it a “foolish scheme.”
A special session of the Indian National Congress was held in September to reaffirm Gandhi’s plan. The plan was again approved in December at the annual Congress convention, where Gandhi was unquestioned leader. He framed a new constitution for the party, broadening its base of support in the cities and villages; he offered the resolution which proclaimed the goal of Congress as home rule; and he announced the means of achieving this goal would be noncooperation.
The Congress at this time also affirmed two other Gandhi ideals: it condemned the laws of untouchability and supported the use of homespun clothing.
In Gandhi’s first pamphlet on home rule, written ten years earlier, he said the spinning wheel could solve the problem of India’s dehumanizing poverty. At Sabarmati he obtained a wheel, and he and his disciples began to wear homespun cloth called khadi. Its value was twofold. If everyone wore khadi, the half-starved, unemployed women of India would have an occupation; and Indians would no longer be forced to wear foreign-made clothing.
Not buying British goods was a form of noncooperation; so was not attending British schools, not paying British taxes, and not serving the British colonial government. “The government rested very largely on the cooperation … of Indians themselves,” Nehru wrote, “and if this cooperation were withdrawn … it was quite possible, in theory, to bring down the whole structure of government.
“It was, in effect, a peaceful rebellion, a most civilized form of warfare … There was a strange mixture of nationalism and politics and religion and mysticism and fanaticism … A demoralized, backward, and broken-up people suddenly straightened their backs and lifted their heads and took part in disciplined, joint action on a countrywide scale.”
Gandhi and his followers, both Hindu and Moslem, spent months crossing India’s vast expanses carrying their pleas for noncooperation to the people. In some villages the peasants came out not so much to hear Gandhi as to be blessed by his presence.
Often Gandhi asked his listeners to remove the foreign clothing they wore. With religious fervor they stripped off the garments and piled them at Gandhi’s feet. Gandhi would light a match to the mound and, as they burned, tell the people not to buy new foreign clothes but rather to spin and weave and make their own, as he did. By September, 1921, he had adopted as his permanent costume the simple loincloth worn by most of India’s peasants.
The British responded to Gandhi’s campaign, first with a carrot and then with a stick. They sent the heir to the throne on a ceremonial visit which was greeted with such rioting that Gandhi had to fast for five days before it ceased. Then the government began arresting in bulk. By December twenty thousand Indians were in jail. When the Congress Party held its annual meeting that month Gandhi was elected “sole executive authority.” The following month another ten thousand Indians were imprisoned.
The people became explosive. Instead of winning home rule they were receiving further repression. They wanted to move beyond noncooperation, and since Gandhi would not consider violence a massive national civil disobedience campaign was urged. Fearing it would get out of hand, Gandhi agreed to try civil disobedience, or civil resistance as he called it, if it were confined to one small area where he could control it. He chose the county of Bardoli, near Bombay.
But before the campaign began, a crazed Indian mob in a town eight hundred miles away hacked a group of policemen to death. To Gandhi it meant the people were still not ready for satyagraha. He cancelled the campaign in Bardoli as well as all civil disobedience movements in India. Freedom was not worth such a cost.
The British concluded that Gandhi was defeated and on March 10, 1922, he was arrested at the satyagraha ashram. Brought to trial the following week, he pleaded guilty to the charge of writing seditious articles and said, “In my opinion noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”
He was sentenced to six years in prison as spectators wept and threw themselves at his feet. He was then fifty-three years old, and those who did not call him Mahatma called him bapu, which means father.
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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