E. Roy

The Colonies

The Debacle of Gandhism

(8 September 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 77, 8 September 1922, pp. 578–580.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Gandhism as a political force reached its climax in the Ahmedabad session of the Indian National Congress, held in the last week of December 1921. The six thousand delegates, representatives of India’s outraged nationalism – outraged by the policy of deliberate repression launched upon the Government of India, – conferred upon the Working Committee and upon Mr. Gandhi as its head, supreme dictatorial powers to guide the national, destinies during the ensuing year. Non-violence, non-cooperation and mass civil disobedience, including non-payment of taxes, were adopted as the means to attain the goal of a still-undefined Swaraj.

Few leaders can ask far more than this – the sense of power that emanates from a nation’s mandate, backed up by the popular will. The field was clear for Mr. Gandhi to exercise qualities of leadership and to match steel with his powerful opponent – British Imperialism. If at first blush, the contest looked unequal between the slender David and the giant Goliath, it must be remembered that the odds were not all in favor of the latter. Three hundred and twenty million people, united under the single command of an adored and trusted leader, who has cleverly put his bristling opponent at a disadvantage from the outset, by proclaiming non-violence as his chief weapon, such a force if properly manoeuvred, could be made to wring more thau one concession from the irritated and non-plussed adversary, whose moral position in the eyes of the world is a bad one, and whose cowardly hypocrisy smarts under the knowledge of this fact. And concessions were all that Mr. Gandhi asked for. He is not, and has never been an avowed revolutionary, who puts the issue squarely to the enemy – “either you or I must go”. His unsubstantial Swaraj, when pieced together from reluctant definitions, means only “Home Rule within the British Empire”, as the defeat of Hazrat Mohani’s resolution for “complete independence outside the British Empire” proved at the Ahmedabad Congress.

If, instead of winning concessions for at least a section of the Indian people, Mr. Gandhi won for himself a six-year jail sentence and a martyr’s crown at the hands of the British Government, he has only himself to blame. Great positions carry with them great responsibilities, and Gandhi the Dictator, who played a lone hand against his powerful adversary, must acknowledge that his tactics brought him to a catastrophic defeat. The situation at the close of the Ahmedabad Congress was a delicate one, and success for either side hung in the balance. It is in such moments that leadership turns the scale, and judging by the denouement, the palm must go to Lord Reading and not to Mr. Gandhi.

A moment’s retrospect will make clear the position as it stood. The visit of the Prince of Wales to India served its purpose, by showing the Government that there was real force behind the Non-cooperators – the force of the striking masses. Stung by this demonstration of power, the bureaucracy adopted a policy of such wide repression, that today, in addition to all the prominent traders, twenty-five thousand Indian patriots lie in jail upon very vague and unproven charges of “sedition”, disaffection” and of “waging war against the King”.

But in its eagerness to stamp the movement out, the Government overshot the mark. The Moderates, that tiny section of upper class Indians whose “loyalty” gave a show of legality to the wholesale arrests and prosecutions of their fellow countrymen, these same Moderates rebelled against their leading-strings, and demanded a change of policy. Members of the new Councils resigned, others protested; lawyers and landowners and capitalists banded themselves together in a sort of unity to tell the Government it must cease its rampant repression. The suggestion of Pundit Malaviya to hold a Round Table Conference of all shades of opinion, for the solution of the crisis, was responded to by all the political parties. This was the crucial moment, and the wary tactics of the Viceroy in this crisis prove that he was fumbling in the dark.

In a speech made in Calcutta on Dec. 21, 1921, just before the Ahmedabad Congress opened, the Viceroy himself stated that he was in favor of a genuine attempt to solve the problems of unrest by means of discussion and consideration at a conference, and that meanwhile, there should be a cessation of activities on both sides, both Non-cooperators and Government. He further declared that such a truce would involve no advantage or triumph to be claimed on either side. The reason for this offer to mediate was clear. It was desired to save the face of British prestige during the Prince’s visit, and for this reason, Lord Reading was ready to negotiate. No definite response was given immediately to his offer, and his real object – that of making the Prince’s visit a success, was thereby lost.

But his words had not fallen on deaf ears, and we find the idea of a conference being toyed with by Mr. Gandhi in the Ahmedabad Congress, who “left the door to negotiations open”, and again in the Conference held in Bombay on Jan. 15th, in which definite terms were laid down for the calling of a Round Table Conference, in conformity with the Viceroy’s speech; that the Government cease its arrests and release all prisoners and that the Non-cooperators cease all activities pending the negotiations. Mr. Gandhi, meanwhile, as Congress Dictator, had suspended Civil Disobedience until the end of January, in order to assist the arbitration.

In this desire of Mr. Gandhi to arbitrate, lay the secret of his defeat. Lord Reading discovered that Mr Gandhi was no less unwilling than himself, to call into action the sanguinary forces of the Indian masses. This was amply demonstrated by his ever-growing insistence upon the creed of Non-violence at the expense of its concomitant non-cooperation. By his sharp rebuke to every manifestation of force on the part of the masses, such as his Manifesto to the Hooligans of Bombay after the events of November 17th – 20th and Madras, in which he declared “it is better to have no hartal and no hooliganism”: above all, by his shrinking from embarking upon the final step that he himself declared must lead to Swaraj, namely, Mass Civil Disobedience, including non-payment of taxes. This latter step was thrice postponed alter its formal adoption in the Ahmadabad Congress, postponed for no reason whatever, except Mr. Gandhi’s own timid horror of the inevitable conflicts between police and people that must follow its inauguration.

It did not need much acumen for Lord Reading to discover this weakness of Mr. Gandhi, who proclaimed it from the housetops, for the benefit alike of Government and Non-cooperators. On Jan. 25th, he wrote in Young India, at the very moment when the Round Table negotiations were under way, and he was supposed to declare Mass Civil Disobedience m operation within five days if the overtures for peace fell through:

“I don’t know what is the best course. At this moment I am positively shaking with fear. If a settlement were to be made, then where are we to go? After coming to know the strength of India, I am afraid of a settlement. If a settlement is to be made before we have been thoroughly tested, our condition will be like that of a child prematurely born, which will perish in a short time.’’

in the face of this naive avowal of indecision, helplessness, and terror, is it any wonder that the Viceroy, afflicted by no such qualms and very conscious of his end in view, should bring the negotiations for a Round Table Conference to an abrupt end and pursue his serene course of lawless repression, undeterred by the voice of his own or Mr. Gandhi’s conscience. Lord Reading’s decision was communicated to Pundit Malaviya and the 200 delegates from all political parties, in a telegram sent by his secretary, towards the end of January, which stated that His Excellency was unable to discover in the proposals put forward by the Conference the basis for a profitable discussion on a Round Table Conference, and no useful purpose would therefore be served by entering into any detailed examination of their terms.

The Viceroy had begun to advance from the very first step of retreat taken by Mr. Gandhi in postponing the application of Mass Civil Disobedience until the outcome of the Round Table Arbitrations. If instead of this amiable postponement, Mr. Gandhi had issued an edict to the waiting peasantry to cease payment of taxes immediately at the close of the Congress, the whole outcome might have been different. The response of the peasants cannot be doubted. Wherever tried, its effect was instantaneous and overwhelming. Lord Reading, confronted by a show of force and firmness, backed by mass-action on a large scale, might have wavered and accepted negotiations with the Non-cooperators. But Mr. Gandhi merely threatened and then postponed for two weeks that which constituted his only weapon. On Feb. 4th, when the Viceroy had already declared the road to negotiations closed, Mr. Gandhi addressed a letter to him, once more offering to delay the inauguration of mass civil disobedience pending the Conference, if the Viceroy would revise his policy of lawless repression.

The reply, of Feb. 6th, was a Government Communique which declared that “mass civil disobedience is fraught with such danger to the State that it must be met with sternness and severity”, while Mr. Gandhi’s overtures for peace were completely ignored. Matters had now come to a showdown the Government had called Mr. Gandhi’s bluff, and all cards were laid on the table.

Mass Civil Disobedience, already declared at Bardoli on Jan. 29th, but suspended pending the Gandhi-Reading negotiations, was formally launched through the medium of a mass-meeting held at Bardoli, and a Manifesto issued Feb. 7th by Mr. Gandhi, in which he declared:

“The choice before the people then, is Mass Civil Disobedience with all its undoubted dangers, and lawless repression of the lawful activities of the people.”

Although Mass Civil Disobedience was not formally sanctioned by Mr. Gandhi until all hope of a compromise with the Government had been given up, that is, until the first week in February, in reality it had begun spontaneously in various districts since January, in the form of non-payment of taxes, and was approved by the various local Congress Committees. The rumor spread from village to village that the Gandhi-Raj had come, and it was no longer necessary to pay taxes. That the movement was spreading rapidly is proven by the fact that loyal officials began to resign in large numbers because of their inability to collect the revenue, as well as by the official reports, which show large sums outstanding which the officials were unable to collect from the peasantry. District magistrates complained of incitement among the people not to pay taxes, of popular resistance to rent-warrants, of insults heaped by prisoners under trial upon their judges, and a general subversion of jail discipline.

The prompt and energetic measures taken by the Government to arrest the non-payment of taxes movement, prove how seriously it was regarded. Already on January 10th, a Communique from the Punjab, warned the people against the consequences of Civil Disobedience, which the Government threatened would be dealt with by more rigorous and systematic measures than any yet adopted. On January 20th, the Madras Government issued a similar notice, stating that the resignation of village officials would not be accepted, and that officers refusing to carry out their duties would be dismissed and deprived of their hereditary rights, and that the land of persons refusing to pay faxes would be seized and put up for sale. Extra police were recruited at the expense of the population, but those paying taxes before the prescribed date would be exempt from this liability. Military police were called out in Assam to assist collections, but were met with resistance by the people.

Conflicts between the police and the people became a daily occurrence, but a strict censorship was maintained to conceal the extent of the unrest. Only the reports of the revenue officers form a gauge of the strength of the movement. In Guntur District, Madras, collections amounted to 1/100th part of the money due.

(Conclusion follows)

Last updated on 31 August 2020