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.
However, one of the greatest features of the Gandhian movements was that it was marked by the large scale involvement of the masses that in turn marked a clear deviation from the nationalist movements prior to the arrival of Gandhi. The coming of Gandhi brought about major qualitative and quantitative changes in the mainstream nationalist movement, which had developed under the aegis of the Indian National Congress. 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. Gandhi precisely brought an end to this status quo and brought an end to the elitist character of the mainstream nationalist movement. For the rise of Gandhi resulted in and was paralleled by the shift of power from the Western educated elites to the hands of the masses. Although prior to Gandhi, the extremist leaders too had sought to ensure the participation of the masses during the Swadeshi movement using new techniques of mass contact like singing patriotic songs, performance of jatras, etc., they nevertheless failed to do so, and it was Gandhi who succeeded in reaching out to the Indian peasantry and secured popular support for the nationalist movement. 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 on 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.
Factors That Contributed to The Mobilisation of The Masses
The success of Gandhi in mobilizing the masses can undoubtedly, to a great extent, be attributed to the contemporary circumstances. The brunt of the World War I, which had created severe economic and social dislocations, had to be borne by nearly all the classes in the Indian society, thereby sowing the seeds for a mass upsurge. However, irrespective of the congeniality of the circumstances, one can hardly overlook the fact that Gandhi’s novel political ideology too contributed to the situation. 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 utilized 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 a 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 organized 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 mobilizations 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 aspect which marked the Gandhian movement different from its earlier predecessors was not just the greater inclusion of the masses but also the participation of different sections of the masses, which included women as well. 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 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, which is the private and public, but rather ensured political participation by creating a space for politics in the home.
Women’s 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 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 was in fact, 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 violent revolutionary movements, 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 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 the 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 politicization was possible and as to why it failed to promote to any significant extent the 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. Besides, 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.
Gandhi’s Stand on Untouchability
Gandhi was highly opposed to untouchability. He even declined to use the term untouchables and instead referred to them as the Harijans i.e., Sons of God. It was Gandhi who, for the first time, had made untouchability an issue of public concern and during the Non-cooperation movement even concluded Swaraj to be conditioned on the abolition of untouchability. Gandhi regarded untouchability as a curse and a blot on Hinduism. Gandhi perceived untouchability as a distortion of the varnashrama dharma or caste system, which, according to him, was an ideal non-competitive economic system of the social division of labour and concluded it to be far more superior than the class system of the West. Thus, despite his denouncement of untouchability, unlike Ambedkar, he was nevertheless not opposed to the caste system in totality. Gandhi was of the opinion that the whole should not be condemned for the defects of the parts. Gandhi held untouchability to constitute the very core of the caste system, and once untouchability removed, caste-based discrimination would cease to exist as well. Thus, a section of historians are of the opinion that although caste issues did not figure so prominently in the Gandhian discourse, yet his stand on untouchability was such that its fulfilment would have inevitably resulted in the abolition of the caste system.
Failure To Mobilise Dalit Masses
This process of self-purification resulted in a subtle way in the glorification of the individual self. This process endowed upon the caste Hindu a sort of heroic stature, which in turn culminated in the further dwarfing of the Harijan personality. Thus, Ambedkar concluded that the panacea for the plight of the untouchables suggested by Gandhi placed the agency completely in the hands of the upper caste Hindus but failed to take into cognizance the individual agency of the untouchables and therefore did not delineate the measures to be taken by the untouchables to free themselves. As mentioned earlier, the question of untouchability for Gandhi was essentially a religious question. According to a section of historians, Gandhi’s campaign, though succeeded in undermining the moral and religious basis of untouchability, but failed to deal with its economic and political roots. So, historians have concluded that it dignified the untouchables but failed to empower them. The Gandhian approach failed to convince Dalit leaders like Ambedkar, who was in favour of political solution which could be achieved by securing guaranteed access to education, employment and political representation for the Dalits. The Dalit leaders were of the opinion that if given a proper share of economic and political power, the gates of temples would automatically open for them as well. Besides not only Gandhian philosophy, but the program of work of his Harijan Sevak Sangh was also fraught with contradictions. This organization tended to be highly patronizing in nature whereby the leaders, who were primarily upper caste Hindus, distributed soaps among the untouchables suggesting them to be clean, eat well and have pure vegetarian food in order to ensure their incorporation into the Hindu society, thus clearly affirming the purity-pollution norms that constituted the very base of the system of untouchability.
Thus, in view of the above discussion, it may be said that the coming of Gandhi indeed brought about immense changes in terms of participation of the masses, including women, thus rendering it different from the earlier course of the mainstream nationalist movement that grew under the aegis of the Indian National Congress that in turn can be attributed to his novel political ideology. However, we must also take into cognizance that Gandhi too failed to mobilize certain sections of the masses completely, the Dalits being one such instance and also that greater participation of masses in the Gandhian movements cannot be necessarily held as tantamount to their strict adherence to the ideals propounded by Gandhi. For instances such as the Chauri Chaura incident, where the masses went beyond the boundaries of Gandhian politics of non-violence while paradoxically believing that they were ushering in the Gandhian Raj, bring to fore the fact that the masses’ idea of Gandhian ideas stood in clear contrast to the Gandhi’s own ideology.
- Bandyopadhyay,Sekhar. From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009.
- Nagaraj, D.R. The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India. India: Permanent Black, 2010.
- Palshikar, Suhas. “Gandhi-Ambedkar Interface: When Shall the Twain Meet?” In Economic and Political Weekly, Vol31, No.31.
- Gandhi, M.K. “Statement on Untoucability”. In The Past of the Outcaste: Readings in Dalit History By Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Yagati Chinna Rao. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan Private Limited, 2017.
- Hardiman, David. Gandhi in His Time and Ours. New Delhi : Permanent Black, 2003.