Mainstream of India’s freedom movements was shaped largely by Gandhi-led agitations. There were revolutionaries, but they were ruthlessly repressed by Government forces and continuously censured by the Gandhian leadership of Congress.
They had to go underground to carry out sporadic violent attacks on British officers. On the surface, the Gandhian path reigned supreme.
Gandhi emphasised redressal of grievance without annoying the perpetrator of injustice. The pattern was set in South Africa with his experiment called
‘Satyagraha’. How did he launch it and how successful was this movement? When the ‘Asiatic law amendment act’ was passed in the Transvaal Parliament to make it obligatory for Indians to give finger impressions for registration, Gandhi called for a non-violent rejection of this new rule.
It was immediately found attractive by both Indian businessmen and indentured labourers in South Africa. There was now a hope of salvaging their dignity without risking great sacrifice. Thus began Satyagraha in South Africa. It led to mass arrests and authorities resorted to shooting, as and when the agitators refused to court arrest peacefully.
Meanwhile, Gandhi entered into a strange agreement with the Transvaal colonial Secretary General J.C. Smuts which ended the movement in a bizarre compromise.
People were asked to give finger impressions voluntarily and not following the new Act.
In other words, they were asked to accept the insult voluntarily. An assurance was given that the Act would be repealed if people did it. Gandhi himself did it in reverence to the settlement and many followed his example despite having doubts about the government’s real intention.
Soon, the doubts were proved correct. The government refused to withdraw the act. Later, the entire atmosphere became explosive when a judgment of the Cape Supreme Court invalidated all Indian marriages. Resentments spread to different sections of South African Indians in different forms. Indian workers in the coal-mining area of Natal declared a strike; they were flogged indiscriminately and robbed of their household properties.
Gandhi rushed to Newcastle and led 5,000 workers to enter Transvaal crossing the border.
The tension was diffused by putting them behind bars.
Thousands of Indian workers in the sugar plantations, municipality and in the Railways, almost the entire Indian working class in South Africa, started agitations. Mine-workers were ordered to resume work in the mines without any arrangement of food.
They refused to work. Authorities pounced upon them with floggings and firings.
Many were injured and several killed. Gandhi himself said ‘Government adopted the policy of ‘blood and iron’. Nevertheless, while proposing a march from Durban, he privately negotiated for an interview with Smuts.
The interview was granted and Gandhi postponed the march. This was the beginning of an opposition driven less by the objective of fighting injustice done by the ruler than by the agenda of winning the trust of the ruler. In 1913, in an interview given to Reuter, Gandhi “… claimed to rank amongst the staunchest loyalists alike to the Imperial Government as to the Union Government and, his loyalty being rather to the constitution than to persons, was unaffected by acts of Government, however harsh he might consider them to be.’’
The foundation of the mainstream that grew out of it culminated in negotiations for transfer of Power in India.
This loyalty informed his letter to Tilak dated 25 August 1918. He said that instead of attending the ensuing special session of Congress at Bombay, he would like to go for recruitment of Indians in the British Indian Army in the World War as he firmly believed it would be a great service to India.
He never lost faith in the ruler’s benevolence. So much so, that the idea of destruction of the empire horrified him. In South Africa he refused to start movements against the government when the European workers in the Railways were on strike.
The most clinching aspect of his strategy of compromise is his reaction to the Jalianwalla Bagh mass killing. The letter he wrote on 30 May 1919 to S.R. Hignell, private secretary to the Viceroy after the massacre, reveals his intentions.
He gave an assurance that he had not publicly said anything about the Punjab event; he could not form any opinion because he had no reliable data; he was unwilling to do anything calculated needlessly to irritate local authority and he was not prepared to infer from Dyer’s severe administration that martial law would be unduly hard.
Gandhi claimed that he had no reliable data, but what was the necessity of assuring the government that he had not made any public declaration on the Punjab event? Besides, Rabindranath Tagore, about this time, had renounced his knighthood as a mark of protest against the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre. Was the bard misinformed about the incident? In his speech to the students and teachers at Surat, Gandhi said, ‘’the men and women who died in Jalianwalla Bagh were not martyrs and heroes”.
Finally, for General Dyer, the only punishment he recommended was stopping of his pension. Such love for the adversary, we were told, was the essence of Satyagraha. If it is argued that Gandhi’s observations have been selectively chosen out of context, one should only focus on his general attitude towards the state.
In ‘Satyagraha in South Africa’, in the context of supporting the British in the Boer war, he wrote: “… justice is on the side of the Boers but every single subject of a state must not hope to enforce his private opinion…authorities may not always be right but so long subjects owe allegiance to a state, it is their clear duty… to accord their support to acts of the state’’.
His objective of freedom was freedom of the subjects of the Empire. The firebrand Nehru opposed the compromise scheme, and once stood for complete Independence. In his letter of 11 January 1928 to Gandhi, he even rejected the idea of Hind Swaraj. But, when Gandhi asked him to unfurl his own banner and threatened that he would publish the letter to bring the differences into the public domain, Nehru pleaded for reconciliation and requested not to publish his letter of 11 January.
The Left challenge within the Congress was muted by forcing Subhas Chandra Bose to resign and Left consolidation outside the Congress could not crystalise due to foreign mentors’ interference. In the closing years of the freedom movement, when the INA trial and the Naval Mutiny brought about an opportunity of direct revolt against the Raj, the mainstream leaders did whatever they could to stop the dangerous development.
The end game was played by presenting Mountbatten as the new messiah of independence. Radcliffe’s cartographical horror in the name of partition, at the behest of this messiah, was condoned. On 15 August 1947 ‘’after the…national flag was unfurled on the council House… all the way back to the Government House the cries of ‘Jai Hind’ were mixed with ‘Mountbatten ki jai’ and even Pandit Mountbatten’’ [Alan Cambell Johnson: Mission with Mountbatten].
Was there really any scope for an alternative? Let us find out.
(To Be Concluded)
The writer is former Head of the Department of Political Science, Presidency College, Kolkata