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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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Prior to the achievement of independence for India in 1947 there had been a British presence in the country since the early 17th century. By the time British Crown rule was established in India in 1858 the country had already experienced more than a century of control under the East India Company (EIC). Using divide-and-rule techniques to maintain dominance, the British exploited the divisions in Indian society especially along lines of race and religion. Indians resented the repressive and divisive nature of Britain’s political and economic rule and louder calls for greater involvement in the administration of their own country gathered momentum from the early 1900s.  Localised rebellion against the British administration increased but it was not until 1918 with the rise of the charismatic Mohandas Gandhi, a member of the Indian National Congress (INC), that the nationalist movement would accelerate. Under his leadership, the period from 1920 through to 1938 would become a major chapter in India’s fight for independence. This essay asserts that Gandhi’s use of civil disobedience provoked social and political change during the Indian nationalist movement due to his ability to harness the unrest among the vast peasantry and use his influence to forge a mass movement for Indian self-rule. He positioned non-violent action as the method to oppose British rule and discredit the administration internationally. It is argued that the first step to independence was Gandhi’s reform of the INC in 1920, allowing him to implement his distinctive method of non-violent action that would mobilise the masses and ultimately loosen British control.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he led acts of mass non-violent civil disobedience that focused on disobeying unjust British laws and refusing to cooperate with authorities.  The use of non-violent non-cooperation and coercion mechanisms would force the British into a dilemma of whether to retaliate, compromise or concede. Adept at using the media, Gandhi successfully used propaganda to publicise the protest movements and focus world attention on British attitudes and behaviours towards the Indian people.  Gandhi’s call for non-violent civil disobedience against the British rulers would become the core of the nationalist movement strategy and ultimately it would result in changes to economic and political policies and lead to the success of the Indian independence movement.

One of Gandhi’s first major achievements on the road to independence was the reform of the Indian National Congress (INC).  Prior to World War 1 the INC was a relatively small organisation mainly interested in increased Indian participation in provincial politics and improved employment of Indians in the Indian Civil Service. It was mainly made up of moderate English-educated urban men from India’s elite families.  In 1920 Gandhi lobbied the INC leaders to introduce a new mode of politics that was “inclusive” rather than “exclusive” and convinced them to adopt his idea of non-violent resistance or satyagraha which he believed was the way to involve every level of Indian society in the nationalist movement - Hindu and Muslim, from the elite, through the middle class to the underclass.  Although, historians from the “subaltern school” argue that the underclass were already applying pressure to the ruling British government from below independently from the elite classes. More radical leaders resisted Gandhi’s idea, but more astute leaders like Nehru could see the value in having someone like him who could engage the mass peasant base; “the ryot in the field, the indigo worker in the pits, the weaver in the mills or the tribal helot [forced] to build roads…”. Subhas Chandra Bose confirms the level of  Gandhi’s influence on Congress at the time.  Describing Gandhi’s humanitarian outlook and push for “inclusive nationalism” Bose outlined how he could “rouse sympathy even in the enemy’s camp”.  Gandhi transformed the INC into a representative political body capable of mobilising the masses.  He believed that they would make gains for independence through the sheer number of people participating in non-violent mass movements because the British would not be able to control them all and give up.

Gandhi oversaw three major nationwide movements encompassing non-violent resistance in 1920-1922, 1930-1934 and in 1942. A key tactic for Gandhi’s satyagraha was non-cooperation through civil disobedience.  Gandhi thought that the repressive measures that the British were enforcing in reaction to the non-violent protests were too extreme and called on the Indian people to disobey the administration because “Disobedience of the law of an evil state is … a duty”.  Gandhi, and the INC, would use common economic and political issues such as protectionism and land reform to mobilise a core group of non-violent Indian protesters. This civil disobedience was an active attempt to remove British rule, as well as a way of implementing social, economic and religious reform using non-violent means. Gandhi officially launched his deliberate and systematic Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-1934) on 11 March 1930, marching to where thousands of followers waited for him in Dandi, with the intention of disobeying the Salt Act.  This was an astute move on Gandhi’s part.  He was able to test his ideology on an issue that would not divide the masses and it was an emotive issue - the British government had a monopoly on the production of salt and everyone had to pay tax on salt. This symbolic campaign was one of his more successful mass mobilisation attempts and became a significant point in the nationalist movement; Gandhi had ensured that the world media followed his progress from his ashram to the sea.  He deliberately portrayed for the newsreels, cinema companies and papers an “image of outrageous injustice…[where] destitute millions are made to carry an unjust tax burden…on a primary need”.  It sparked a mass movement all over the country for people to make their own salt. The INC immediately set up other attention-getting devices that would draw world attention such as demonstrations and mass meetings.  

These movements achieved varying degrees of success as, on one hand he was able to mobilise the masses, but also provoked the British government into applying cruel and heavy-handed means of control as seen in the massacre of peaceful protesters at Amritsar.

The government retaliated and arrested Gandhi, and troops attacked satyagrahis with lathis.  The satyagrahis did not fight back; the deliberate non-violence approach held the attention of world and got international sympathy for the Indians’ cause.  This use of non-violent power paralysed the Raj’s attempt to maintain order.  As planned the British were in a dilemma; “arrests were ….impractical owing to the size of the crowds which had committed breaches of some particular law…” and any other counter-measures taken by the government would be difficult because anything that they did would look like a repressive measure.

His critic, MN Roy acknowledged his “unparalleled genius for mass leadership…for the first time… Indian national movement entered into the period of active struggle [but Gandhi’s success simply showed] the time for mass-action was ripe.  Economic forces, together with other objective causes had created [the right] atmosphere”.  

Further, independence probably became inevitable when Churchill’s government was voted out in 1945.  Churchill was said to despise Gandhi, referring to him as a “seditious Middle Temple Lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroyal palace…”  He declared that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”..

Much of India’s nationalist movement success can be attributed to Gandhi and his mass movements; his ideologies, strategic leadership and ability to mobilise the masses were undoubtedly integral to progressing towards independence.  However, while Gandhi had certainly become a symbol of the nationalist movement he and his actions were not solely responsible for the nationalist movement’s success.  Equally attributable was the pressure from below and the economic and political circumstances occurring at the time.

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