Thus, while on the one hand the agitation against the Rowlatt Committee’s report gathered volume and intensity, on the other the Government grew more and more determined to give effect to its recommendations, and the Rowlatt Bill was published. I have attended the proceeding of India’s legislative chamber only once in my life, and that was on the occasion of the debate on this Bill. Shastriji delivered an impassioned speech, in which he uttered a solemn note of warning to the Government. The Viceroy seemed to be listening spell-bound, his eyes riveted on Shastriji as the latter poured forth the hot stream of his eloquence. For the moment it seemed to me as if the Viceroy could not but be deeply moved by it, it was so true and so full of feeling.
But you can wake a man only if he is really asleep; no effort that
you may make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely
pretending sleep. That was precisely the Government’s position. It
was anxious only to go through the farce of legal formality. Its
decision had already been made. Shastriji’s solemn warning was,
therefore, entirely lost upon the Government.
In these circumstances mine could only be a cry in the wilderness. I
earnestly pleaded with the Viceroy. I addressed him private letters
as also public letters, in the course of which I clearly told him
that the Government’s action left me no other course except to
resort to Sayagraha. But it was all in vain.
The Bill had not yet been gazetted as an Act. I was in a very weak
condition, but when I received an invitation from Madras I decided
to take the risk of the long journey. I could not at that time
sufficiently raise my voice at meetings. The incapacity to address
meetings standing still abides. My entire frame would shake, and
heavy throbbing would start on an attempt to speak standing for any
length of time.
I have ever felt at home in the south. Thanks to my
South African work I felt I had some sort of special right over the
Tamils and Telugus, and the good people of the south have never
belied my belief. The invitation had come over the signature of the
late Sjt. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar. But the man behind the invitation,
as I subsequently learnt on my way to Madras, was Rajagopalachari.
This might be said to be my first acquaintance with him; at any rate
this was the first time that we came to know each other personally.
Rajagopalachari had then only recently left Salem to settle down
for legal practice in Madras at the pressing invitation of friends
like the late Sjt. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, and that with a view to
taking a more active part in public life. It was with him that we
had put up in Madras. This discovery I made only after we had stayed
with him for a couple of days. For, since the bungalow that we were
staying in belonged to Sjt. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, I was under the
impression that we were his guests. Mahadev Desai, however,
corrected me. He very soon formed a close acquaintance with
Rajagopalachari, who, from his innate shyness, kept himself
constantly in the background. But Mahadev put me on my guard. ‘You
should cultivate this man,’ he said to me one day.
And so I did. We daily discussed together plans of the fight, but
beyond the holding of public meetings I could not then think of any
other programme. I felt myself at a loss to discover how to offer
civil disobedience against the Rowlatt Bill if it was finally passed
into law. One could disobey it only if the Government gave one the
opportunity for it. Failing that, could we civilly disobey other
laws? And if so, where was the line to be drawn? These and a host of
similar questions formed the theme of these discussions of ours.
Sjt. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar called together a small conference of
leaders to thrash out the matter. Among those who took a conspicuous
part in it was Sjt. Vijayaraghavachari. He suggested that I should
draw up a comprehensive manual of the science of Satyagraha,
embodying even minute details. I felt the task to be beyond my
capacity, and I confessed as much to him.
While these cogitations were still going on, news was received that the Rowlatt Bill had
been published as an Act. That night I fell asleep while thinking
over the question. Towards the small hours of the morning I woke up
somewhat earlier than usual. I was still in that twilight condition
between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke upon
me — it was as if in a dream. Early in the morning I related the whole
story to Rajagopalachari.
'The idea came to me last night in a dream that we should call upon
the country to observe a general hartal. Satyagraha is a process of
self-purification, and ours is a sacred fight, and it seems to me to
be in the fitness of things that it should be commenced with an act
of self-purification. Let all the people of India, therefore,
suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of
fasting and prayer. The Musalmans may not fast for more than one
day; so the duration of the fast should be twenty-four hours. It is
very difficult to say whether all the provinces would respond to
this appeal of ours or not, but I feel fairly sure of Bombay,
Madras, Bihar and Sindh. I think we should have every reason to feel
satisfied even if all these places observe the hartal fittingly.'
Rajagopalachari was at once taken up with my suggestion. Other
friends too welcomed it when it was communicated to them later. I
drafted a brief appeal. The date of the hartal was first fixed on
the 30th March 1919, but was subsequently changed to 6th April. The
people thus had only a short notice of the hartal. As the work had
to be started at once, it was hardly possible to give longer notice.
But who knows how it all came about? The whole of India from one end
to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete hartal
on that day. It was a most wonderful spectacle.