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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 11
The World War-I ended in 1918. It was hoped that when the war ended the British Government would take steps to meet the aspirations of the Indian people for self-government. Gandhi himself had great faith in the intentions and fair play of the British. But he, as well as the country, received a rude shock. It was incredible. Instead of transferring more power and freedom to the people, the Government proposed to make the severe restrictions on freedom imposed during the war a part of the regular laws of the country. The new Bill that was to be introduced would give the Government powers to detain citizens without trial, to search premises, to prevent meetings, to suppress newspapers and publications, and so forth. This was deceit, betrayal, a tightening of chains. The Bill called the Rowlatt Bill could not be allowed to become law. It had to be resisted. But how ? By whom ?
Upto now, the Congress and the national movement had seen only two alternatives. One was the method of praying and petitioning to the Government. The other was the cult of terrorism, the bomb and assassination. Of these, the first depended on the Government's goodwill. The other was an unequal fight, because an unarmed people could not match the forces of the Government through sporadic acts of indignation or revenge. The masses of the people were not involved in either. Gandhi believed that the Government could be defeated only if the masses entered the battle. They could do so only if the fight was waged with means that they had access to. These were the methods of non-violent Satyagraha. He had seen the masses use this method with courage and success in South Africa. If it could be done by Indians in South Africa, why could it not be done by Indians in their own motherland ?
He formed Satyagraha Sabhas in which members took the Satyagraha Pledge. He began a campaign to educate people in the meaning and methods of Satyagraha. He had tried Satyagraha in Champaran, Ahmedabad and Kheda. He believed that the time had come for him to place it before the whole of India, and to use it to resist the Rowlatt Bill. The struggles that he had led had been in the North and West of India. He had to explain Satyagraha to the people of the South as well. He went to Madras on this mission. It was there that he made the acquaintance of Rajagopalachari who later became one of his chief lieutenants.
The situation called for immediate action. One could not wait — even to convince the Indian National Congress. He had to appeal to the people. It was a battle for Dharma or Truth. He was confident that the people of India would respond to the appeal of Dharma. He was turning these thoughts over in his mind. While still at Madras, he decided to appeal to the people of India to observe a hartal, to voluntarily desist from all work and spend the day in prayer and self-purification for the battle. "Last night, the idea came to me as if in a dream, that we should call on the country to observe a general hartal" He 'Said that the appeal was also a serious risk. If people were roused, but went out of control, the struggle would suffer a grievous setback, and result in more ruthless repression. But Gandhi was confident. "The step taken is possibly the most momentous in the history of India. It constitutes an attempt to revolutionize politics and to restore moral force to its original station."
It was a gamble. The inert people of India might not have responded. He would then have become a laughing stock. But he was vindicated. The response proved that he had understood the masses of India. He had discovered the key to their hearts and minds.
He had asked that the hartal be observed on the 30th March. But later the date was shifted to the 6th of April. The postponement caused some confusion. Delhi observed the hartal on the 30th of March. There was unprecedented enthusiasm and public response. But there were also incidents of violence. Gandhi went to Delhi and wanted to go to Punjab where the cauldron was brewing. But he was arrested at the outskirts of Delhi and put on a train that carried him back to Bombay. At Bombay he learned that there were violent incidents in Ahmedabad and Viramgam in Gujarat, involving the death of innocent Englishmen. He was shocked. He decided to postpone his journey to Punjab and atone. He confessed that he had made a 'Himalayan miscalculation' about the ability of the people to remain non-violent in the face of provocation or in the thick of the fight. He issued pamphlets to explain the meaning and discipline of Satyagraha.
But events did not wait in the Punjab. People were deeply agitated and indignant at the arrest of Gandhi. Local leaders like Kichlew and Satyapal were struggling to see that the crowds did not go astray. But when the Government arrested and removed them on the 10th of April, the crowds lost control. They attacked Government offices, cut telephone lines, burnt down the Town Hall and attacked and injured Europeans. Even European women were attacked. The Government brought in troops under General Dyer. There was a lull. It was the calm before the storm. On Baisakhi day, the 13th of April, a peaceful meeting was announced at the Jallianwalla Bagh. Thousands of unarmed men, women and children assembled. There was only one narrow passage through which people could enter or leave the ground. It was walled in on all sides by buildings. The General brought armoured cars and sealed the passage that provided entry and exit. He declared the meeting unlawful, and ordered the troops to fire into the unarmed crowd. 1650 rounds were fired. According to the Government itself, 379 people were felled down with bullets. 1137 were injured. Martial Law was proclaimed. Orders were promulgated compelling Indians to crawl on their stomachs, on the road on which English people had been attacked. It was some time before the rest of the country came to know of these events. India was aghast. General Dyer boasted that he had exhausted his ammunition, otherwise he would have fired more rounds. He had wanted to teach Indians a lesson they would never forget.
The Government appointed a committee under Lord Hunter. Their task was to enquire into the incidents. But most Indians felt that the committee was an eyewash. A citizens' committee was appointed. This included Gandhi and leaders like Motilal Nehru and Jayakar. It is in the course of his tour with the committee that Gandhi came to know the gruesome details of what had happened. In the meanwhile, the British nation was engaged in making a hero of Dyer.
What he saw in the Punjab and what he saw of the Government's attitude began a process of disillusionment in Gandhi. He began to lose faith in the professions and the fair play of the Government. He began to see the Imperial Government as a force of evil. A Satyagrahi had to non co-operate with evil. The acts and attitudes of the Government thus forced Gandhi, who was once proud to be a citizen of the Empire, to become a confirmed non-co-operator.
Gandhi placed the idea of non-co-operation before the people. He asked the Congress to accept the programme of non-co-operation. The Muslims of India too were angry with Britain and the Government for the way in which they had treated the institution of the Caliph of the Turkish Empire — Khilafat, as it was called. They had sought Gandhi's advice. He was invited to their conferences. He proposed a programme of non-co-operation. It took the participants by surprise. But by 1920 they had realized that there was no alternative method of action. The Khilafat Committee of which Maulana Azad was a respected leader, unanimously decided to accept the programme, and authorized Gandhi to start the programme on their behalf. Gandhi placed the programme before the Congress. The Congress too accepted the programme and authorized him to lead the non-co-operation movement.
The aim of the movement was to withdraw all cooperation from the Government. People were asked to boycott schools and colleges, the courts of law and all other institutions of the Government. In response to the call, students left educational institutions, and prominent lawyers like Motilal Nehru, C. R. Das and others gave up their practice. People were asked to give up approaching the Government Courts for justice. Those who had received titles and honours from the Government returned them. Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood. Many others returned their titles. Gandhi returned the medals he had received for his services in the wars. The moral objective was to non- co-operate with evil. The political objective was to paralyze the Government and make it evident that it had lost the respect and recognition of the people. No Government could go on without the cooperation of the people.
Non-co-operation also meant reprisals from the Government. Many moderates in the Congress found non-co-operation distasteful, and left the Congress.
Among them were known leaders like Mohammed Ali Jinnah who later became the founder of Pakistan. But Gandhi won the day. A tidal wave swept the country. Students, Lawyers, Government servants and all sections of the people responded. National educational institutions were set up in many places to provide education to those who boycotted the Government schools. Gandhi himself set up the Gujarat Vidyapeeth. People's courts were set up to settle disputes outside the British courts. Bonfires of foreign goods lit up the sky as part of the programme to boycott foreign goods.
Gandhi started three weeklies, Young India in English, and Navajivan in Hindi and Gujarati, to spread the message of Satyagraha and non-cooperation, and to explain his concept of Swaraj, and the individual and collective Sadhana that was needed for it. His message reached every nook and corner in India.
Thousands of Indians had been arrested, and were in jail. There was an insistent demand that Gandhi should launch a Civil Disobedience movement. He promised at the Calcutta session of the Congress (1920) that India would have Swaraj within a year if it took to non-violent non-co-operation. He decided to start mass Civil Disobedience in one district and extend it to others if it proved successful and remained non-violent. He chose Bardoli in Gujarat, and wrote to the Viceroy on the 1st of February 1922, telling him of his intention to start mass Civil Disobedience from Bardoli.
The country was on flash point. Within three days of the despatch of the letter, something happened in Chauri Chaura in Eastern U. P. which upset all plans and assessments. A crowd of demonstrators was passing a Police Station. The Police waited till the tail of the crowd appeared. They then ridiculed and provoked the participants of the procession. Some of the processionists responded and the Police opened fire. The crowd returned and set fire to the Police Station. The constables who tried to escape from the burning building were hacked to death.
Gandhi was shocked. How could he start a mass Civil Disobedience after Chauri Chaura showed that people had not understood the discipline that the Satyagraha army should observe ? He promptly suspended the plan to launch mass Civil Disobedience. Many of his followers and colleagues like C. R. Das, Jawaharlal Nehru and others were indignant and nonplussed. How could one bring a people's movement to the white pitch of revolutionary action and then withdraw? Gandhi's answer was clear. He was the general. If the general could not rely on the discipline of the Army, how could he conduct the campaign ? If soldiers took what action they pleased, how could there be a concerted, well-directed deployment of the force of the Army? He had no alternative but to disengage, regroup and return to the charge.
The Government was in two minds ever since Gandhi launched non-co-operation. Were they to leave him free or to arrest him and risk a flare up? It seemed to them now that the time had arrived. Gandhi seemed to have lost the support of many colleagues. People were demoralized that Gandhi had called off the fight. It appeared to the Government that Gandhi was isolated, despondent and 'played out'. This was the moment to strike. He was arrested on the 10th of March and put on trial at Ahmedabad in the court of Mr. Broomfield.
Then followed an extrardinary trial, which perhaps has no parallel. The court was overflowing with citizens, — Gandhi's followers as well as others. The Judge came, and before taking his seat, bowed to the prisoner at the bar. Before him was a man who had been charged with sedition, tampering with the loyalty of His Majesty's servants and subjects, spreading disaffection among the people and the Army. The charges were based on three articles that Gandhi had written in the Young India. Gandhi and his colleague Shankarlal Banker were the accused. Gandhi made it easy for the Judge by pleading guilty. He said he had preached disaffection. He was once a loyal subject and co-operator. He then described how from a loyal citizen he had been forced to become a rebel. Sedition had now become a moral and spiritual duty for him. But non-violence was the first and the last article of his creed. He knew he was playing with fire and running a mad risk. But if he were discharged, he would do the same thing again. He knew he was guilty in the eyes of the law that the British Government had promulgated. But there was a higher law by which a human being is judged, and he was acting in accordance with that higher law. The Judge had only one option — to resign and join Gandhi if he believed in the higher law, or award him the highest punishment prescribed by the Government's laws, since there was nothing to extenuate the gravity of his action.
The Judge was not to be outdone. He too knew it was a historic trial. He addressed the accused with great courtesy and respect, and said : "Mr. Gandhi you have made my task easy by pleading guilty to the charge of sedition; it would be impossible to ignore the fact that in the eyes of millions of your countrymen you are a great patriot and great leader. Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and of even saintly life. It is my duty to judge you as a man subject to the law. There are probably few people in India who do not regret that you should have made it impossible for any Government to leave you at liberty. But it is so." Then the Judge placed him in the category of a great patriot who had been sentenced earlier, Lokmanya Tilak, and sentenced Gandhi to six years of imprisonment. He also added that if the course of events made it possible for the Government to release Gandhi earlier, "none would be happier than I". Gandhi thanked the Judge for the courtesy he had received. His friends and followers in the court were overcome with emotion. Many wept unashamedly. Gandhi was taken to the Yervada prison to serve the term.