Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an iconic figure who symbolizes many things to many people, has been perceived in myriad ways as a great opponent of European colonialism, as a champion of civil rights for racial, religious and other minorities, as an important critic of the industrial system of production, as a great pacifist and as a person who stood for the need to resist injustice non-violently in a way that provides a detailed expression of the superior morality of the protester. The Gandhian style of politics and Gandhi’s ideas on nationalism are highly contentious issues that have generated a vigorous debate among scholars. His notion of satyagraha and ahimsa has rendered his notion of swaraj and nationalism to not only emerge as one of the most highly discussed issues in the academic world, but had also made it stand in stark contrast to both Western notions of nationalism and that of his own contemporaries especially the Extremists. The latter although emphatic on the point of physical expulsion of British from India, but in certain cases had no objection to appropriating what they perceived as some of the good attributes of their English masters such as parliament and democracy. Gandhi on the other hand was not only opposed to the violent methods of protests adopted by the Extremists but also their latter idea on the ground that it failed to free the Indians from the clutches of British nature thereby leading to the creation of what he describes as Englishstan.
Non-violence or Ahimsa
One of the greatest contributions of Gandhi to the Indian freedom movement was his idea of non-violent civil disobedience movement. Gandhi’s non-violence or ahimsa was a creative adaptation of several philosophies of non-violence. His non-violence was rooted in altruism and stood for compassion towards fellow human beings. He was of the opinion that non-violence involved qualities such as daya, akrodh and aman. Furthermore, it involved attributes of respect and sympathy for the opponent, freedom from anger and desire for peace. Gandhi further held that one had to be very strong in oneself to be able to practise ahimsa with success. He also made it clear that non-violence was by no means a weapon of the weak. Being non-violent out of weakness was nothing more than cowardice and hence it was better to resist violently than act in a cowardly manner.
Mass civil resistance which is a form of non-violent protest carried out by large numbers of people within complex state systems, originally emerged in Europe in the post-French revolution period. Civil resistance has been used effectively in polities that claim to follow the rule of the law while at the same time monopolising violence and criminalising any application of violence that is not exercised by the state. Now modern states albeit accustomed to dealing with violent forms of opposition such as terrorism for it provides them the excuse for executing legal increase in police power, surveillance operations, counter-terrorist measures, imprisonment without trial, summary forms of justice and others; but they are highly uneasy in dealing with non-violent opposition. Such forms of struggle developed in embryonic form in India long before the rise of Gandhi as a leader. Mention may be made of Indigo revolt in Bengal in 1859-62, the anti-landlord movement in Bengal in 1870s and the no-tax campaign in Maharashtra in 1872-73, which were all primarily mass movements where the peasants were supported by fractions of the elite such as the English educated middle class and generally upper-caste Indians, paternalistic colonial officials and socially concerned missionaries. The arguments forwarded by the elites were intended to appeal to the concerns and morals of the colonial rulers. They sought to appeal to the liberal values concerning civil rights and equity, and to a neo-classical economic morality that appeared to have been violated by feudal practices. Thus figures like Reverend James Long in Bengal in 1860 opened themselves up to imprisonment to defend such principles and thereby embarrass the government into breaking down.
Gandhi drew inspiration from these various non-violent protest movements in India and elsewhere. His idea of non-violence or ahimsa proved to be a highly creative intervention in both theory and practice. Gandhi was of the opinion that non-violence was a truth that could be worked through and understood only through a disciplined and arduous application in specific situations. Gandhi applied the idea of non-violence in India for the first time during the Champaran movement which he launched after his return to India from South Africa. It was a movement of the peasants of the Champaran district of North Bihar against the white indigo planters. Contrary to the earlier protests which had been characterised by considerable degree of low-level petty violence leading to police repression, arrests and jail sentences; Gandhi repeatedly expounded the need for strict non-violence, which in the context of a society that was marked by landlord violence and peasant counter-violence, proved to be a highly novel idea. The Champaran protests in fact succeeded in achieving its aim and thereby satyagraha came to be perceived in India as a victory of Gandhi’s methods and an ideal example to follow. The Gandhian idea of non-violence enabled the downtrodden to advance their cause by adopting a position of superior morality, which in turn, given the forms of violence routinely deployed by the rich and powerful that were now under the law and criminal acts, allowed the peasants to appeal to a higher authority against the representatives of the state at the local level. Gandhi was also highly opposed to the methods of dharna and traga which he concluded to be ruled by a spirit of revenge and were violent in both body and spirit. Instead, he expounded the idea of self-imposed suffering that was bereft of any feeling of hatred for the opponent. In his case, Gandhi used the technique of fasting. But at the same time, he cautioned that even this could be violent in intent if deployed wrongly. Thus, Gandhi fashioned a new language of protest in India, which was rooted in older forms of protest while at the same time accepting the colonial censure for all forms of violent protests. The efficacy of the technique of non-violence partly lay in the strong theoretical underpinnings that Gandhi gave to such forms of protests by means of his doctrine of satyagraha.
Satyagraha is basically the combination of two words: satya meaning truth and agraha meaning taking, seizing or holding, thus implying one that seizes hold of the truth. For Gandhi, satya was tantamount to God. Gandhi was convinced that truth or satya could be reached by means of complex dialogue, for it was imperative at times for reasoned argument to be reinforced with emotional and political pressure. This is precisely where self-inflicted suffering such as fasting comes to function. It must be noted here that the majority of Gandhi’s fasts were directed towards those about whom he was convinced that he shared a strong emotional bond. For, according to him, he carried out the fasts in order to make his loved ones reconsider their actions. In fact, he never used the method of fasting in case of his demonstrations against the British. However in addition to this, political pressure continued to be imperative, thus leading to mass demonstrations, non-cooperation, tax refusal hartals and others. Gandhi further opined that during these protests, a satygrahi would always have to remain open to the other side, looking for alternatives that could satisfy both the parties in order to ensure that there was no bitterness and resolution of the conflict by means of search for a common truth. Some nationalists were, however opposed to this factor of winning over one’s enemies on the ground that it may at times appear as a case of collaboration thereby creating suspicion in the mind of the followers concerning the motives of the leader. Gandhi was of the opinion that although forcing a stand down was possible but victory in such circumstances would be merely partial, for it was only when the opponent had completely understood the force of the counter-argument and acted on that basis, that one could achieve genuine and durable success. Thus Gandhi used what can be described as a complex combination of moral arguments and non-violent coercion by means of mass protests or personal fasts, emphasising the one which was required depending on the situation. Thus as has been pointed out by some scholars is his political skill in knowing which line to play at each twist and turn. Furthermore, Gandhi was of the opinion that participation in satyagraha should undoubtedly be a matter of individual choice, thus clearly deviating from the earlier practice of nationalists of deploying community and caste sanctions to ensure solidarity, something which was noticeable during the Swadeshi movement in Bengal between 1905-1909. However, as has been brought to notice by some scholars, despite his theoretical position, Gandhi too could not always manage to swim against the tide and realized all that was possible on his part was to insist that caste sanctions and boycotts are applied non-violently.
It must be noted here that the legacy of Gandhi’s novel method of satyagraha continued in post-independent India as well whereby it came to be deployed by all sorts of groups and political parties. Mention may be made of Morarji Desai’s fast unto death which he launched when Indira Gandhi declined to give a date for fresh elections in Gujrat in 1975, even a year after the state assembly had been dissolved. Gandhi thus created a strong institutional base for the expression of dissent within the modern Indian polity.
The mainstream nationalist movement in India prior to the arrival of Gandhi, which grew primarily under the aegis of the Indian National Congress, has been concluded by some scholars to be a movement representing the classes as opposed to the masses. For nationalist movement prior to this was primarily dominated and participated by only a limited group of Western-educated professionals belonging to certain specific castes and communities, linguistic and economic groups, mainly residing in the three Presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Apart from these other sections of the society like the lower caste Hindus or the Muslims, the peasants, both the rich ones and the landless remained distanced from the mainstream nationalist movement, thus leading the colonial government to conclude that the Congress was being run as a closed shop by a microscopic minority. The Gandhian movements marked a clear deviation from this path. Gandhi having realized the pluralist nature of the Indian society was able to bring within his aegis the various constituents of the Indian society, the best example of this being the Muslim community. Gandhi successfully aligned with the younger generation of Muslim leaders by supporting the Khilafat issue, by means of, emphasizing its anti-British aspects and underplaying its pan-Islamic tendencies, Gandhi was able to successfully unite the Hindus and the Muslims in a common battle against the British. Above all, Gandhi was able to go beyond the elite leaders and appeal to directly to the Indian peasantry thereby ensuring popular support for the nationalist movement. This can, to a great extent, be attributed to his novel idea of nationalism.
Contrary to the earlier politicians who sought to fashion a nationalist ideology based on the ideas borrowed from the West, Gandhi concluded that the ideology must be essentially rooted in India and its ancient civilization. He was convinced that popular loyalties in India were far more determined by religion rather than the institution of class. He thus successfully utilised various religious idioms to appeal to the vast reserve of the masses and ensure their participation in the nationalist movement. This should nevertheless not be equated with the revivalism of the earlier politicians for contrary to them Gandhi was referring to religious morality and not history. His goal being a moral goal was therefore an utopian goal, one which was unattainable and ever-elusive. Gandhi was, nevertheless in this case not introducing a novel idea. For the history of mass movement in India can be traced back to the 1890s in the movements organised by Tilak, the activities of the Punjab extremists and most importantly, the Swadeshi movement in Bengal in 1905-08, all of which had already laid the foundation for agitational politics in India. Besides, the mass mobilisations carried out by the Home Rule Leagues of Tilak and Annie Besant sowed the seeds for the success of Gandhi’s initial satyagraha movements.
However, contrary to Gandhi’s original intentions of carrying out not just any mass upsurge but a controlled mass movement that would strictly adhere to its prescribed path; the masses repeatedly proved to go beyond the boundaries of Gandhian politics thereby deviating from his ideals, but paradoxically while at the same time believing that they were following their messiah into a new utopian world of Gandhian Raj. The Chauri Chaura incident of 1922 when the villagers burned alive twenty-two policemen in the local police station under the conviction that destruction of the Thana in fact signalled the coming of the Gandhian raj.
The Gandhian movements marked a major rupture in the story of women’s involvement in the nationalist movement. In contrast to the earlier notions of ideal Indian womanhood that concentrated on the aspect of motherhood, Gandhi shifted the focus to sisterhood by negating women’s sexuality. His clarion call to women was full of religious metaphors that by no means appeared to be subversive of the traditional values about femininity. Gandhi, although used the examples of Sita-Damayanti-Draupadi as role models for women who were perceived as no slaves of their husbands, but rather ones who were capable of making immense sacrifices for their family; but while addressing Muslim women, he avoided such references which might appear to be strictly Hindu and instead and simply appealed to them to make a sacrifice for their country and Islam. Gandhi by no means subverted the traditional concept of Indian womanhood, and neither did he invert the doctrine of two separate spheres, the private and public, but rather ensured political participation by creating a space for politics in the home.
Women participation in Gandhian movements can be traced back to 1913, when in South Africa, Gandhi involved women in public demonstrations. Women actively participated in the Rowlatt Satyagraha and the Non-cooperation movement as well, though Gandhi prescribed a very limited role for them in case of the latter that merely involved boycott and swadeshi. Women nevertheless claimed for themselves a greater active role. For example in November 1921, thousands of women greeted the Prince of Wales in Bombay; followed by the participation of Basanti Devi, wife of C.R.Das, his sister Urmila Devi and niece Suniti Devi in an open demonstration in the streets of Calcutta and courting arrest in December. It must be noted here that Gandhi succeeded in appealing to not just women from respectable middle class families but also marginalised women such as prostitutes and devadasis, though Gandhi himself was hesitant to involve them. The threshold, in fact, was reached during the Civil Disobedience movement when thousands of women participated in the illegal manufacture of salt, picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops, and also participated in processions. Besides, some women in Bengal even got involved in the violent revolutionary movement, and contrary to the Swadeshi movement, they actually shot pistols at magistrates and governors rather than being restricted to mere supportive roles.
Gandhi’s immense appeal to women may be attributed to the fact that he portrayed women’s service to the nation as a part of their religious duty. Given his emphasis on non-violence and maintenance of the respectable image of female satyagrahis, Gandhi remained well within the limits of accepted norms of feminine behaviour and thus, the men were assured that their women were safe in Gandhi’s hands. Thus basically, the women participated because their male guardians wanted them to do. Besides, given the fact that most of women who participated came from families where the men were already involved in Gandhian movements, the public role of women merely came to be perceived as an extension of their domestic roles as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. Thus some historians are of the opinion that such traditionalist moorings were the reason as to why this politicisation was possible and as to why it failed to promote to any significant extent social emancipation of women in India. The Congress was by no means interested in women’s issues and never included women in any decision making process, but rather merely allowed for some symbolic presence. Nevertheless, we can hardly overlook the fact that despite these foibles, such active participation of women, especially of those from respectable families which even at times amounted to going jail and suffering indignity, and despite that coming back to their families without any stigma attached undoubtedly echoed a remarkable change in Indian social attitudes. Moreover, albeit not openly deviant but certain women were nevertheless slowly pushing the boundaries of their autonomy by manipulating various cultural metaphors such as that of the extended family. Mention may be made of Bi Amman, the elderly mother of Shaukat and Muhammad Ali, who not only actively participated in the Khilafat movement, but even more importantly at a mass meeting in Punjab lifted her veil and addressed the crowd as her children concluding that a mother did not require a veil in front of her children thereby including the whole nation in her extended fictive family.
- Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009.
- Hardiman, David. Gandhi in His Time and Ours. New Delhi : Permanent Black, 2003.