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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 12
Gandhi settled down to his six-year term in prison. He was lodged in the Yervada jail near Poona. He believed that the discipline of the Satyagrahi wanted him to spend every minute in the pursuit of truth, in making himself a better instrument, and in showing others how they could do likewise, and work for the reign of truth and justice in society.
He followed his regular routine of praying, spinning, reading and reflecting. While in the Yervada prison, he read about 150 books. These included classics and the works of well-known authors. Gandhi brought his full attention to bear on whatever he read. He studied, reflected, digested, and absorbed whatever seemed logical to him.
The jail authorities had deputed an African prisoner, to work as his attendant. Neither could talk to the other because neither knew the other's language. But one day the African was stung by a scorpion. Gandhi promptly made an incision, sucked the poison out, and cleaned and bandaged the area. The African prisoner became a devoted and loyal attendant.
In a few months, Gandhi developed acute appendicitis. In January 1924, he had to be removed to the Sassoon Hospital in Poona. The condition of the patient needed immediate surgical treatment. Col. Maddock, an English surgeon, was to perform the surgery. Gandhi summoned his friend Srinivasa Sastry of the Servants of India Society. He sat doubled up in bed, being in acute pain, and wrote a statement, saying that he was undergoing the surgery of his own will. He was being treated with great courtesy; he had full faith in the surgeon, and whatever happened would be the will of God. He wanted to ensure that if something untoward happened, the country did not blame the surgeon or the Government. As it happened electricity failed during the operation. The surgeon had to continue with the light of a hurricane lantern. The operation was successful. Gandhi recovered. The Government decided to remit the unexpired period of the prison term and release Gandhi. Gandhi felt sad that he had to be released due to ill-health. He went to Bombay to recuperate.
In the meanwhile, he became fully acquainted with what was happening in the country. The exhilaration of the days of non-co-operation had waned. The country was in a state of depression. Congressmen were divided on what was to be done. Some well- known leaders like C. R. Das, Motilal Nehru, Vitthalbhai Patel and others were in favour of entering the new Councils and Assemblies that would come into existence as a result of the British Government's decision to set up such bodies (Minto- Morley Reforms). Others like Rajagopalachari and Vallabhbhai Patel felt that the reforms did not transfer real power, and participation in the councils would only give them respectability. It would only enable the British Government to misguide world opinion to believe that they had set up self-governing bodies in India. These leaders, therefore, felt there should be no change in the policy of non-cooperation. Others argued that one should use entry into the councils to expose and checkmate the Government.
In spite of two sessions of the Congress, one at Gaya, and the other at Delhi, no compromise could be reached. Those who wanted change in the policy of non-co-operation had formed a Swaraj Party, and fought the elections to the councils. Gandhi wanted to give the Swarajists freedom to try and see whether they could succeed in "wrecking the reforms from within". He presided over the Congress at Belgaum in 1924 and prevented a split in the Congress.
Both the representatives of the Khilafat Committee and the Indian National Congress had been unanimously behind the Non-co-operation and Civil Disobedience movements. They had received powerful support from Maulana Azad, the Ali Brothers and others. But in the year during which Gandhi was in prison, things had changed. The issue of the Caliphate was dead when Kamal Ataturk came to power in Turkey. The issue that had roused Muslims had ceased to exist. The British Government was keen to woo the Muslim leaders and drive a wedge between the two communities. They seemed to have succeeded. There were ugly and barbarous riots in which the two communities had fought each other in many parts of India. Gandhi could not bear this estrangement of brothers and the readiness to sink to the level of brutes. He felt that such acts had nothing to do with religion. In fact one who had the love of God in his heart should have the love of man, of all men, in his heart. Gandhi decided to appeal to the conscience of both communities. He went on a twenty- one days' fast. His fast and the attendant suffering and penance melted hard hearts and rekindled the spirit of tolerance and human affection. A national unity conference was held in Delhi. Leaders of all communities pledged to maintain peace and friendship.
Gandhi now threw himself into a nation-wide campaign to build the foundations of a new nation and to educate people on the essentials of Satyagraha. He had already inspired a change in the constitution of the Congress. From a forum for speeches and debates, it had been transformed into an instrument of democratic action, with membership, elected committees, rules of procedure and so on. The objective had been defined as Swaraj. The means that it would use would be "peaceful and legitimate". The Congress had found it difficult to accept the word 'non-violent' since many in the Congress had accepted non-violence 'only as a policy', and 'not as a creed'. Gandhi had reconciled himself to presenting his non-violence through an imperfect medium.
There were other aspects of nation building that needed immediate attention: Communal Unity, regeneration of spinning and weaving and organizing the production of khadi to provide self-employment to hundreds of thousands of villagers; working to ; ensure equal status and opportunities to women; working to organize kisans, workers, and students; working against discrimination and untouchability, and to establish social equality; working for the eradication of evil habits like drinking; working for the welfare of tribals and so on. Gandhi wanted to reach and serve all sections of people.
It is only when everyone received justice that the nation would become united in its will to seek freedom and build a new society. Gandhi set up organizations to undertake these programmes and travelled the length and breadth of the country in intensive tours to promote what he described as the constructive programme, — the constructive aspect of the non-violent revolution which was aimed at creating a new man and a new society. Gandhi also wrote every week in the Young India and other weeklies to explain the implications of the philosophy and methods of Satyagraha.
In 1927, the British Government appointed ^a Royal Commission to review the working of the Reforms that had been introduced in 1919. This Commission was headed by Sir John Simon. There was no Indian on the Commission. The people of India looked upon the Commission as an insult to the nation, and the Congress decided to boycott the Commission. Everywhere the Commission met with black flags and deafening cries of "Simon Go Back".
The British Government challenged the Indian leaders to produce an agreed proposal for Constitutional Reform. In answer, a Committee set up by an All Parties Conference under the Chairmanship of Motilal Nehru formulated a set of proposals. But the younger leaders like Jawaharlal and Subhash Bose were not satisfied with the demand for 'Dominion Status'. They wanted complete Independence. It looked as though there would be a break. At the Calcutta Congress, Gandhi suggested a compromise. The Nehru report should be accepted with the condition that if the British Government did not grant Dominion Status, within one year, the Congress would accept complete Independence as its goal, and would lead a movement of non-violent, non-co-operation to achieve the objective.
For five years after his release in 1924, Gandhi buried himself in all these activities. Meanwhile many changes were taking place in the political field.
In 1928 Gandhi got another opportunity to demonstrate the power of non-violent Satyagraha; to show how even 'unlettered' peasants could use the weapon to bring mighty Governments to their knees. The British Government of the Bombay Presidency decided to increase land revenue by 22% in the Bardoli Taluk. The area was already suffering from the failure of crops, and the poor peasant found it beyond his competence to pay the taxes, even if he lived on a starvation diet. When all efforts to persuade the Government failed, Gandhi felt that the poor peasant could secure justice and save himself only through Satyagraha. But Satyagraha demanded firm determination, effective organization, unflinching courage and readiness to suffer. Gandhi deputed his trusted colleague, Sardar Patel to organize the struggle in Bardoli. The British Government decided' to crush the movement with ruthless repression. The huts and pots and pans of the poor peasants were confiscated. Their oxen and buffaloes were impounded and removed. Their ploughs were taken away. The Government announced that the lands that had been confiscated would be sold in auction. Peasants starved; hid their belongings; dismembered their carts and buried the parts to hide them from the eyes of the police. But no one yielded. Reports of the atrocious repression and the courageous resistance of the people spread all over India. Contributions started pouring in from all over India. Gandhi announced that he would personally take over the leadership of the campaign if the Sardar was arrested. He moved to Bardoli. Meanwhile, the Governor of Bombay went to consult the Viceroy. He told the Viceroy that the question was whether the writ of the Government was to run in the District. But in a few days, the Government decided to climb down.
It revoked the increase in taxes; released all prisoners; returned confiscated lands and property; and returned the cattle, or paid compensation for their loss. People agreed to pay taxes at the old rates. Th6 peasants of Bardoli and their leaders Sardar Patel and Gandhi had set an example that other districts in India could follow.
Meanwhile, there was increasing scepticism about the Governments' talk of constitutional reforms. Hardly anyone believed that the Government was ready to transfer power. Even moderate Congressmen were disillusioned. The younger leaders in the Congress were no longer prepared to countenance British rule in India. They, therefore, wanted the Congress to declare that it was no longer satisfied with "Dominion Status" within the British Empire. Nothing short of total Independence could satisfy Indian aspirations. They felt that the time had come to demand complete Independence, and the ending of the chapter of Imperial presence in India. Young leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose were for complete Independence. Gandhi had begun as a loyal subject, but turned a rebel. He too had been in support of Dominion Status. But he too had begun to feel that the economic, political and moral ruin of India that had resulted from British rule could end, and a new India be built only on the basis of complete Independence. The annual session of the Indian National Congress at Lahore therefore turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter. In a historic resolution, the Congress adopted the goal of complete Independence, and adopted a pledge to launch a struggle for complete Independence. It authorized Gandhi to lead the struggle, and prepare for a countrywide Satyagraha. Gandhi accepted the responsibility. He realized that the struggle for complete Independence had to be different from the earlier struggles that he had led. They had been struggles to achieve limited and local objectives. An objective that encompassed the whole nation could not be achieved without full and enthusiastic co-operation from the masses. He had, therefore, to find an issue that would enthuse the masses and make them understand the relation between Independence and their daily lives. They should know what was at stake, and why they should pay the price for the freedom that they needed and demanded.
Gandhi could not easily think of a form of struggle and an issue that could attract the widest and most enthusiastic participation of the people. After days of thought he lighted on the issue — salt.
There was a tax on manufacture, on stocking, on transporting, and on selling salt. The purpose was to make salt manufactured in India many times more -expensive than the salt that was imported from the United Kingdom. It was similar to the case of the textiles. Destroy Indian industry to benefit British industry. Render Indians unemployed to keep British labour employed. Everyone, — even children and animals needed salt. It was part of the poorest man's diet. So the fight against the Salt Laws could show the common man the cause and price of slavery. It could also give him an opportunity to participate in the fight.
Gandhi announced his plans. He wrote to the Viceroy on the 3rd of March to give him notice of what he proposed to do. It was a classic example of how Gandhi always ensured that his case was just and unanswerable. He asked the Viceroy to look at the poverty of India and the cause of the poverty. He pointed to the salary the Viceroy drew. It was seven hundred times the income of the ordinary Indian peasant. The Viceroy perhaps did not need his salary since he was a Lord. Perhaps he could spend more than the amount of his salary in charity. But the disparity was shocking and unjust. England had ruined India politically, economically and morally. They should make amends. But they would not do so unless forced to do so. So it became a question of matching forces. The people in India had the force of justice, the force of the spirit of Satyagraha. It could overcome the force of arms. And then he went on to spell out his plan.
Along with a band of tried and tested followers he would march from Ahmedabad to Dandi on the sea to manufacture salt on the sea shore, from the waters of the sea, thus defying the laws of the British Government. He asked people all over India to wait till he had broken the law first.
The Viceroy and his colleagues ridiculed Gandhi's plan, and said that Gandhi would drown in a pool of ridicule. They said it was the maddest of all Gandhi's mad plans. Many Indians too were sceptical.
They wondered how the mighty British Government could be brought down by picking up a pinch of salt on the sea shore.
On the day appointed for the march to start from Gandhi's Ashram at Sabarmati, the whole country was agog and expectant. The air quivered with excitement. The world press which had learnt of Gandhi's plans was at Sabarmati to report the great event to the world. Gandhi told them that his was a fight of right against might, and he wanted the sympathy of the world in the fight.
He had selected 78 of his colleagues — indeed a small army — from the Ashram to set out on the march. There were strict rules to ensure that there would be no violence. It was declared that they would let themselves be cut to pieces, rather than raise their hands against anyone. They would go forward. They would die on the way rather than return without freedom. They would not return even if the Ashram was on fire or their near ones were on their death beds. As they marched, the people of India were on tip toe. At every village people turned out with folded hands and knelt before the Mahatma. There were arches and flowers and shouts of victory to Mahatma Gandhi all the way.
The British Government did not know what to do. They had started by ridiculing Gandhi. But the response that he was receiving rattled them. Could they allow this to go on? Was it not putting the Viceroy and the King Emperor's Government in ridicule? The District Collectors wrote to the Governor of the State that the writ of the Government had ceased to run in their Districts. Village officials were resigning from the service of the Government. It seemed as though the King Emperor's Government had ceased to exist. Will they let Gandhi go on? Will they not arrest him? The Governor wrote to the Viceroy. The Viceroy consulted His Majesty's Government in London. Governors were summoned. They could not make up their minds. If Gandhi was arrested, he would become a hero, and there would be outbursts all over the country.
If he were left free, it would be the British Government that would come into ridicule. Meanwhile Gandhi began to taunt the Government in his own gentle way. The Government should not think of merely arresting him. His guilt was far greater. The punishment that he deserved was hanging.
Gandhi reached Dandi on the shores of the sea. On the 6th of April, as the sun rose after the morning prayer, Gandhi stooped down and picked up salt from the sea, and said that he was shaking the foundations of the mighty British Empire with a pinch of salt.
This was the signal the country was waiting for. All over India, thousands of leaders and 'volunteers' marched to the sea front and broke the law by manufacturing salt. Where there was no sea or lake, as at Allahabad, the people boiled salt water in public and made "illegal" salt. On that day, according to the British Government, 5 million people in over 5000 meetings in towns or villages all over India broke the salt law by making, selling, transporting illegal salt. The writ of the Government had truly ceased to run. The Government itself was surprised by the massive participation of women in the struggle. The secret reports of the Government said "Gandhi's appeal to women is a clever move, and whatever may be its practical effect in the field of action, it is likely to have considerable effect on social life."
On the 4th of May, Gandhi again wrote to the Viceroy asking him to see the writing on the wall, and accept the demand of the people. If the Government did not do so, the people of India would move to the next stage and take over Government depots of salt. Gandhi was arrested on the 5th of May. The Civil Disobedience went on unabated. Thousands were imprisoned. The people of India demonstrated exemplary discipline. They were calm and non-violent in the face of the barbarous assaults of the police. They demonstrated the cool, chilling courage and forbearance of the Satyagrahi. At Dharasana, Wadala, and many other places, the police rained lathi blows on non-violent volunteers sitting in prayerful postures.
Skulls and bones were broken. Limbs were fractured. Blood was streaking down from the bodies of the volunteers. Volunteer stretcher bearers came and removed the bodies of the wounded and dying, and the next batch that was watching the courageous defiance of the first moved forward and took their place. The world press was reporting these feats of courage and the barbarous repression that the Government had let loose. It was clear to the world that the people of India had repudiated British authority. They were being held down by sheer brute force. At Peshawar, the Gorkhas and the Garhwal Rifles refused to fire on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. They were sentenced to imprisonment for 10 or 14 years.
There were moves for negotiations initiated by Sapru and Jayakar. Gandhi wanted to consult the members of the Congress Working Committee. He was released on the 26th of January 1931. There were prolonged discussions with the Viceroy that lasted many days.
In the end, an agreement was arrived at. It was known as the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. There were two signatories, — Viceroy representing the Emperor, and Gandhi representing the people of India. Gandhi could not get the Viceroy to agree to all demands, particularly the appeal to spare the lives of the great patriot — Bhagat Singh and his colleagues who had been sentenced to death for causing death with bombs and pistols.
Gandhi was subjected to harsh criticism. He explained why his effort did not succeed. But the Gandhi-Irwin Pact had proved that the people of India had claimed and asserted their right to be regarded as equal. There was a new pride, and the feeling that India had vindicated its right to independence.
In Britain, some were shocked that the Viceroy had agreed to talk to Gandhi on equal terms. Winston Churchill, who later became the Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War, decried the "nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple Lawyer, now seditious fakir striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, there to negotiate and to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor."