GANDHI - A Pictorial Biography >
World War I
World War I
When World War I broke out, Gandhi was on the
high seas, he was homeward bound, though he hoped to spend a few weeks in
England. On August 6, 1914, he landed on English soil and lost no time in
calling a meeting of his Indian friends to raise an ambulance unit. The
argument that the Empire’s crisis was India’s chance did not impress him: "I
knew the difference of status between an Indian and an Englishman," he wrote
later, "but I did not believe that we had been quite reduced to slavery. I
felt then that it was more the fault of individual officials than of the
British system, and that we could convert them by love. If we would improve
our status through the help and cooperation of the British, it was our duty
to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need."
Were it not for an attack of pleurisy, Gandhi may have continued to serve in the ambulance unit he had raised, and his return to India may have been indefinitely delayed.
When he arrived in India he found that nationalist opinion was opposed to unconditional support for the war effort. Only those who were politically backward or flourished on official patronage were for loyalty at all costs. Gandhi did not favour a bargain with the government by offering cooperation at a price and said: "That we have been loyal at a time of stress is no test of fitness for swaraj (self-government). Loyalty is no merit. It is a necessity of citizenship all the world over."
During the years 1916-18, Gandhi did not take active part in politics. His ideals and methods did not quite fit in with those of the two dominant groups in the Indian National Congress. The Moderates did not like his extra-constitutional methods of Satyagraha, the Extremists did not like his studied tenderness to the British Government during the war. He did not participate in the Home Rule agitation nor in the negotiations which led to the Lucknow pact between the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. He seemed to be isolated from the main currents of Indian politics. It was not Gandhi, but the Annie Besant-Tilak combination which dominated the national scene and impressed the Government. Edwin Montague, a member of the British Cabinet, who visited India in 1917, recorded in his diary that Tilak was "at the moment probably the most powerful man in India." Gandhi seemed to Montague "a social reformer with a real desire to find grievances and to cure them not for any reasons of self advertisement, but to improve the conditions of his fellowmen. He dresses like a coolie, forswears all personal advancement, lives practically on the air and is a pure visionary."
The fact that he was committed to abstention from political agitation during the war did not prevent Gandhi from championing just grievances which could not brook delay. In the summer of 1917, he went to the indigo-growing district of Champaran and took up the cause of the tenants against the European planters. The same year he led the textile workers of Ahmedabad in a strike against the mill-owners. The following year, he agitated for reduction of land tax in Kaira district where crops had suffered from the failure of rains. The local officers were perturbed by Gandhis activities but the Government was anxious not to precipi9tate a show-down. Gandhi himself took care to localize these conflicts and sought solutions which secured a modicum of rustice to the workers and peasants without creating a national crisis.
Early in 1918, the war seemed to be going badly for the Allies; a German thrust was expected on the western front, and the Viceroy summoned prominent leaders of Indian opinion to a War Conference in Delhi. Gandhi supported the resolution on recruitment with a single sentence in Hindi: "With a full sense of my responsibility, I beg to support the resolution."
After the War Conference, Gandhi threw himself heart and soul into a recruiting campaign There was something comic in this votary of non-violence touring the villages of his home province of Gujarat to secure recruits for the British Indian army to fight in the battle fronts of Europe. Not infrequently, unable to get bullock-carts for their journeys in the interior of the Gujarat countryside, Gandhi and his colleagues had to march on foot twenty miles a day. The strain was too much for him and at last a severe attack of dysentery laid him low.
Meanwhile the war came to end, and Gandhi learnt that the Sedition Committee Report had been published and the Government of India proposed to introduce legislation to curb civil liberties. He had been almost alone among Indian leaders who had argued for unconditional support to Britain in her hour of need in the hope of a worthy gesture at the end of he war. He felt that he had received stone for bread. He had done his best to keep out of political agitation during the war. Now he felt an irresistible call to fight a wrong perpetrated in peace.