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The Beginning of India's Freedom Struggle
The Kochrab Ashram
"In 1915, under Gokhale's advice, Gandhiji started a small Ashram in a Gujarat village named Kochrab. This was meant to be a school for training national workers; every one in the Ashram had to take a vow never to tell a lie, to give up violence, to eat the plainest of food, and never to steal or to get money for his personal use. He had also to practice fearlessness, to use articles that were made in India, to wear only hand-spun and hand-woven clothes, to help to educate the people through the medium of the national language and to try to remove untouchability to the best of his ability.
In the Kochrab Ashram, members of the untouchable caste lived and moved freely with the rest. All were considered equal: no one was looked upon as being higher or lower than the rest. In the beginning the inmates of the Ashram thought this rather strange, but they soon became used to it. Some even resented it, for such thing had never been known in India before; and the richer patrons withheld the money which they had offered to give to the Ashram. One evening Gandhiji found that there was not even pie with which to run the Ashram and he felt greatly worried. He was sitting helpless and anxious not knowing what to do, when, lo! a stranger walked up to him and handed him a purse containing thirteen thousand rupees. God never forsakes those who serve Him truly!
Given the title 'Mahatma'
Gandhiji's earnestness, goodness and self-sacrifice quickly became well known in the country. The poet Rabindranath Tagore called him a Mahatma (i.e., the great soul). Very soon he came to be known by that title all over India, and wherever he went people would come flocking in thousands, to get a glimpse of him, and to touch his feet or kiss his hands.
There was then in India, a wave of discontent, even hatred against the British. The patience of the Indians had been tried to the breaking point. They were restless and desperate. Gandhiji was anxious to keep alive the passion for freedom, but he also wanted to drive out hatred from the hearts of his countrymen. He knew full well that it would be no joke to fight a against the British Government. It was necessary to train the men and collect the resources of the entire country. And so he devoted himself to the service of the common people and worked hard to improve their condition and to spread the message of freedom far and wide.
The war between England and Germany was then at its height, and England needed all the help that India could give her. The English asked Gandhiji to give them his support. Knowing how the British Government had been treating the Indians, no one would treating the Indians, no one would have agreed to give them any help. But Gandhiji believed that one should never try to take advantage of the enemy's difficulties. He wanted to help the British in their hour of need and, by placing them under a deep debt of gratitude , compel them to do the fight thing by India by giving her freedom. Moreover, Mahatmaji felt that the English as a nation were not bad: the unjust treatment of the Indians was the result of the foolish and wrong policy of a few ignorant English officials who came out to India. He believed that the English people could be won over with love, and so he put forth all his effort to get his country's support for the war. He travelled from village to village, persuading people to join the army. He spared himself no pains and worked so hard that he fell ill. Hardly had he recovered, when news came that the war had ended and that no further recruitment was necessary. During this illness he took to drinking goat's milk and since then right until the day of his death, he lived only on boiled vegetables and goat's milk."
"How happy Gandhiji and all his countrymen must have been when the war ended !"
"Of course, yes. Everyone rejoiced when the fighting ceased. But our country's problems had yet to be solved. Everyone was expecting that when the war had ended, and peace and prosperity was once again established, India would get some measure of freedom in return for her services and sacrifices in the war. But freedom and peace seemed still a long way off; in fact, the British tightened their hold over India still further. They passed new laws by which they could put our greatest leaders in jail on the slightest grounds. A wave of resentment swept over the whole country. From Calcutta to Karachi, and from Kashmir to Cape Comorin, men and women burned with rage and indignation at these new laws with which the British Government sought to crush the liberties of the Indian people. Mass meetings were held all over the country to protest against the high-handedness of the Government. Young and old, men and women, Hindus and Muslims, all were ready to defy the laws, and lay down their very lives for the country.
Mahatmaji rose to the occasion with his message of love and non-violence and a new hope emerged from the gloom that had fallen over the country. With one voice, all classes of Indians demanded freedom for their country. Mahatmaji became the natural leader of India. The very first condition that he laid was that the fight against British Imperialism must be carried on peacefully and non-violently. He gave the call for a one-day strike throughout the country. All business was stopped. Men and women fasted, and prayers for the independence of India were offered in temples and mosques.
The massacre at Jalianwala
The response of the country to Mahatmaji's call was amazing, and the Government was now rather afraid. They tried to terrorize the people with stricter and newer measures. Have you heard of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar? That happened on the 13th of April, 1919. A large number of people had gathered in that Bagh to conduct a peaceful meeting. General Dyer opened fire on that crowd and mercilessly killed innocent men, women and children. Elsewhere in the Punjab, too, thousands were put into prison. Even the barest civil liberties were taken away from the people.
The Government declared martial law or military rule in the Punjab. Hundreds were killed and thousands arrested. Communication with the outside world was entirely cut off, and we were quite in the dark about what was happening in the Punjab. But news about the happenings in the Punjab could not be suppressed for long, and after a few days the story of Punjab's woes reached Mahatmaji's ears. His heart melted with pity for the suffering men and women of the Punjab. He could not find any peace of mind and he decided to visit the Punjab. But before he could reach Amritsar, he was arrested and sent back to Bombay.
The British Government now turned all its might against Mahatma Gandhi, and strove hard to crush him. But Mahatmaji faced the Government with greater courage and fearlessness. He worked restlessly to bring together all classes and sections of people, and within a short time, he succeeded in his task. Hindus as well as Muslims rallied under the same banner and fought the battle of independence, standing shoulder to shoulder. But this unity alone was not enough: there were many more things that had to be done before freedom could be won. The most important task perhaps was that of removing fear and suspicion as between the rich and the poor, the tenant and the landlord, the untouchable and the Brahmin, the British and the Indian. And he was never tired of telling the people that the only way to drive out fear and win freedom was by pursuing truth and non-violence.
The message of Non-violence
This message of non-violence and love of Mahatma Gandhi was first given to the people of India by Gautama Buddha. But through the lapse of centuries we had forgotten that lesson.
Mahatmaji reminded us anew that taking life was the greatest of sins. He asked the people to fight for the freedom of the country not with weapons of war but peacefully and non-violently. He sent his disciples all over the country. They went from village to village, bringing to the people the message of freedom and preparing them for the battle of independence.
He also told people that they should learn to read and write, and spin and weave, and give up drinking and abolish untouchability. It was Gandhiji's rule that he should first practise himself what he wished to ask others to do. And so he began to learn to spin and within a short time, he could spin like an expert with both his hands.
While Mahatmaji was trying to rouse the people and prepare them for the fight for freedom, the visit of the Prince of Wales to India was announced. The people of India were in no mood to welcome him. They believed that the British Government was sending out the Prince of Wales to India only to remind her people of the glory and the might of the British Empire. The people under Gandhiji's lead, therefore, decided to boycott all processions and celebrations in honour of the Prince's visit. And so it came about that while, on the one hand, the Royal procession was passing through the decorated but deserted streets of Bombay, on the other hand, people were collecting foreign cloth and making a bonfire of it. For the cry had gone round that swadeshi25 or the building up of Indian industries was essential for winning political freedom.
All this, however, was happening in a most peaceful and orderly manner. But a few rash men lost their balance and scenes of violence were witnessed in Ahmedabad and Bombay. Stones were thrown at a few Englishmen, people who had organized the reception for the Prince of Wales were beaten, tramcars were burnt down and liquor shops were looted. As soon as Mahatmaji heard of these happenings, he visited the scenes of these outbursts in person. At one place he saw two injured constables lying unconscious.
He was surrounded by the crowd, and the air rang with shouts of "Glory to Mahatmaji ! Victory to Mahatmaji !" Great was his grief when he looked round at the damage and devastation that had been done in his name. He scolded the people severely and told the crowd, that to fight the Government in that manner was his defeat as well as the defeat of non-violence. He would have nothing to do with a freedom which was won through violence. The crowd grieved very much when they heard him speak thus. Gandhiji was still trying to pacify the people and arranging to remove the wounded police constables to the hospital, when news came that the police had opened fire on a crowd in another part of the city. This was more than the people could bear. They were wild with rage and once again there was looting of shops and burning of tramcars. Disorder and violence reigned again.
Gandhiji saw that the people were getting out of control. He decided to undertake a fast. He said, 'I want to make penance for the wrongs done by the people, and I shall break my fast only when those Hindus and Muslims who have resorted to violence fully repent and ask for forgiveness of the Parsis and the Christians whom they have wronged.'
Gandhiji's wishes were immediately carried out. The leaders of all the groups came to him and assured him that those who had acted violently had already apologized individually to those whom they had assaulted, and that the latter had freely forgiven them. Only after this assurance was given, did Gandhiji break his fast. And since that day he took a vow that he would observe complete silence every Monday until India was free."
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