The Gandhi Era

The World War I was another crucial occasion which vitiated the atmosphere in India. Though about 1.3 million Indian soldiers and laborers served for the British alliance in various theatres of the war, and the Indian princes sent large amounts of food and money to the battle fields, anti-colonial movements became more vehement in crucial states like Punjab and Bengal. The war resulted in great difficulties for the people. There were very high casualty rates in the battlefields. Inflation went sky-rocketing. The rulers imposed unbearably high taxes. All business lay unmoving. Death and disease marked the order of the day. Against this backdrop, the Congress concluded a truce with the Muslim League. The British government decided to concede some demands of the Indians and this resulted in the Government of India Act 1919. A number of "innocent" portfolios were handed over to Indians, keeping all the sensitive segments for the British officers. But an enactment called the Rowlat Act undermined the genuine aims of the sharing of power and people were angry. The unfortunate massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, a notorious act of firing at an unarmed and unsuspecting crowd of people who had assembled to hear their leaders speak, killing about 1500 people and wounding 1200 others by troops under a British Brigadier General, dashed all hopes of the genuine rights of the people of India.

It was around this stage that Mohandas Gandhi (the future Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation) reached the Indian political scene after his successful, but long campaigns against apartheid and other discretionary and oppressive laws and practices in South Africa perpetrated upon the colored people by the ruling whites. Gandhi's idea then of Satyagraha was, in his own words, "non-violent civil disobedience is civil breach of unmoral statutory enactments". Gandhi had an uncanny knack to magnetise people for a general cause.

Gandhi's first satyagraha movement was to urge people to boycott British products and ideas. In 1920 the Congress was transformed from a party of the elite into a mass organization of the people, with their true participation. From then onwards Gandhi was at the helm of affairs of the national movement, though he had to go slow whenever he felt that the party deviated from his well thought out policies and programs. His agitational programs landed him in jail for six years, but he was released after two years. After this release, he set up his Ashram by the banks of the river Sabarmati in Gujarat and launched a series of programs for the uplifting of the rural poor and the untouchables.

India's national movement was gaining speed and momentum and also substance. This period saw the emergence of an array of some of the most remarkable new leaders including C. Rajagopalachari, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose and another host of well-educated, morally motivated, bold and committed men and women from the provinces of India. This did not mean that all of them were followers of Gandhian ideals.

This period also found the birth of several other parties, some moderate and others militant – like the Swaraj Party, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha, the Communist Party of India… And then there were several regional parties to represent regional or communal or other interests. The leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, were arrested and jailed several times. The agitating crowds were beaten up mercilessly. Tens of thousands were jailed.

The struggle continued. Under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian National Congress at its Lahore session called for complete independence from Britain. And it was decided that 26 January was to be observed all over India as the day of Purna Swaraj (total independence).

Gandhi undertook a march from his ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi, a coastal village of Gujarat, some 400 kilometers away, in protest against the taxes the British Government levied on common salt. Gandhi and thousands of his followers broke the law, by making their own salt from the seawater at Dandi. This march, between 12 March and 6 April 1930, was the most famous of Gandhi's campaign and is known as the Dandi March or the Salt Satyagraha. This gripped the whole country in a strong surge of nationalism. There were violent clashes between the police and the crowd, and in the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-31 more than 100,000 people were imprisoned and several times the number were beaten up.

The government, however, agreed to free all political prisoners in what was known as Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed in March 1931. But the hanging of Sardar Bhagat Singh and two of his revolutionary colleagues intensified the struggle. In several parts of India, revolutionary activities sprang up. Gandhi was invited to attend the Round Table Conference held in London in September 1931; he went to London and took part in the conference, but it ended in failure.

For the next few years, the struggle went on unabated, and negotiations between the government and the Congress too continued. The outcome was what was known as the 'Government of India Act 1935', which provided for provincial autonomy among a few other things. Provincial elections were held in February 1937 in which Congress came out as the dominant party while the Muslim League could not achieve anything significant. The relationship between the Muslim League and the Congress was becoming brittle and suspicion about the motives of the other party grew in each other's inner circles.

In 1939, the Congress asked all of its elected representatives to resign from the provincial governments because the Viceroy declared, without consulting them, that India had entered the World War II, supporting the Allies. But during the period of war, Gandhi did not yield to the mounting demand for strengthening the civil disobedience, declaring unambiguously that he "did not want freedom to come out of the ashes of a defeated Britain". In the next year, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the chief of the Muslim League, introduced his pet theory - the two nation theory – i.e., the partition of India into the Hindu majority India, and the Muslim majority Pakistan. Jinnah felt that if freedom came to the hands of the Congress, it would be a Hindu rule, and so he would stick on to the demand for a separate Muslim state. And the struggle for independence, however, was witnessing two more new phases – one of a drastic and vehement armed struggle led by the inimitable Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army (INA), seeking support from the Axis Powers of Germany and Japan. The other was the final lap of the mainstream of the struggle led by Gandhi, who was preparing to come out with his call to the British to "Quit India". It was a civil disobedience movement and Gandhi launched it in August 8, 1942, aimed against sending Indians to fight in the World War II and for getting independence without any delay. Tens of thousands, including Gandhi and all the prominent leaders of the Congress, were arrested and jailed. Gandhi's principle of non-violence was violated from Karachi to Calcutta, and in some other areas the underground organization took over the struggle in their own fashion and the Quit India Movement, leaderless and free-for-all, petered out in one year.

Netaji, leading his army, was advancing towards Delhi to capture India through Burma with the support of Japan. This armed struggle from outside, as against the non-violent struggle from inside shook the British deeply and they too started thinking in terms of handing India to the Indians. The Japanese army captured the islands of Andaman and Nicobar and handed them over to the INA… Later the INA could not advance much into India because of the lack of supplies from the Japanese, Netaji was reported as killed in an air crash and the INA was banded and the soldiers brought to India to be tried as traitors…. There was an attempt at mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy… Reports of revolts came from certain garrisons too. India's history for its independence was turning gory, full of sacrifices and drama.

The Muslim League would be satisfied with nothing but a separate nation, Pakistan, when the British would leave. They did not want to be under a dominant Hindu nation. When the elections were held for the Central Legislative Assembly, the League swept all the 30 seats reserved for the Muslims. The British Government formed a Cabinet Mission in 1946 to prepare plans for the final transfer of power. It was under this plan that the country was divided into three administrative divisions and under a federal set-up. Then came up the problem of the Sikhs – where is their land? They demanded a free Sikh nation-state. And the plan did not take off. The Muslim League withdrew from the consent given for the plan. And the result was widespread riots between the Hindus and the Muslims. It was almost of the proportions of a civil war.

In March 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the new and the last British Governor General, announced a recommendation to partition India into Pakistan and India, by dividing Bengal and Punjab. Gandhi was against such a partition and he came up with the offer of the leadership of the undivided India to Jinnah, the League leader. But it was not acceptable to Nehru and the other Congress leaders. In July the British parliament passed the Indian Independence Act. And that was how two new independent nations came into existence – India and Pakistan, Pakistan on August 14, and India at the midnight of August 14-15, 1947.It was the end of India's long and historic struggle for its independence from foreign rule and it triggered off a chain reaction later of the independence of several foreign colonies both in Asia and Africa.

It was India's freedom at midnight. Sardar Patel invited Mountbatten to continue as the Governor General of India (to be replaced next year by C. Rajagopalachari). Nehru was the Prime Minister and Patel the Deputy Prime Minister who unified 565 princely states of India.

It was the end of Gandhi's non-violent dream too, though a thankful nation hailed him as the Father of the Nation. But in certain pockets, Muslims and the Hindus locked themselves in a senseless orgy of clashes and the trains and trucks and bullock carts from Pakistan carried refugee Hindus from there in their tens of thousands, and the vehicles from India carried more number of refugees to Pakistan. Clashes continued. When the rest of India celebrated the dawn of freedom, Gandhi was travelling along Calcutta and its suburban villages to spread the message of love and peace among the warring Hindus and Muslims there. He was away from all seats of political power, even at the historic moment of the fulfillment and crowning glory of the movement he had led for long.

And he did not live for long to see India living free and thriving in peace towards prosperity, though marred by internecine disturbances. Within a couple of months, Gandhi, the great apostle of peace and non-violence, was shot dead as he was walking up for a prayer meeting, by a waiting fanatical Hindu. The light had gone out, as Nehru mourned, from the life of India and it was darkness everywhere, it took the nation long to come out of the confusion.