Evelyn Roy

The Debacle of Gandhism

Source: The Communist Review, November 1922, Vol. 3, No. 7.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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-co-operation 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 for 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 his 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 favour 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 manœuvred, could be made to wring more than one concession from the irritated and nonplussed 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 he 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-co-operators,—the force of the striking masses. Stung by this demonstration of power, the bureaucracy adopted a policy of such wide repression, that to-day, in addition to all the prominent leaders, 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 December 21, 1921, just before the Ahmedabad Congress opened, the Viceroy himself stated that he was in favour 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-co-operators 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 January 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-co-operator 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 overgrowing insistence upon the creed of Non-violence at the expense of its concomitant Non-Co-operation. 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 ine himself declared must lead to Swaraj, namely, Mass Civil Disobedience, including non-payment of taxes. This latter step was thrice postponed after 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-co-operators. On January 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 in 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-co-operators. But Mr. Gandhi merely threatened and then postponed for two weeks that which constituted his only weapon. On February 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 February 6th, was a Government Communique which declared that “Mass Civil Disobedience is frought 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 January 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 February 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 rumour 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 local 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 taxes 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 tooth part of the money due.

Non-payment of taxes was not the only disturbing feature of Indian unrest during the months of January and February. Widespread disturbances throughout India, from the Punjab to Madras, from Bombay to Burma, arose from the attempts to enforce the various measures of the Non-co-operation programme, such as boycott of cloth and liquor-shops, resulting in encounters between police and people, and mob-risings, with loss of life and many arrests which tended to increase the general disquiet. The correspondent of the Morning Post, writing from India at the end of January, says:

“In large areas, particularly Upper Assam, conditions border on anarchy. Rent and revenue payments are refused, and where resort is had to loyalist volunteers and Gurkhas, the Gandhites have openly ridiculed such military procedure. In a police affray arising from picketing in Serajgunge (Bengal), the police fired, killing five and wounding 200. The present tension, unless eased by stronger Government action, will have a most serious outcome.”

In Bombay, the movement was more peaceful, consisting mainly of boycott of schools and enlistment of volunteers, so that in a mass-meeting held in Bardoli in January, under the auspices of the Non-co-operators, Mr. Gandhi was able to declare the district self-disciplined and fit enough for the adoption of Civil Disobedience. But even this model atmosphere was ruffled when the Bombay Government announced on February 9th, that the Municipalities of Ahmediabad and Burat would be superseded for two and three years respectively, for having resolved to conduct their schools independently of Government control and for refusing the Government education grant.

At this critical moment, an unexpected pin-prick exploded Mr. Gandhi’s faltering resolution, and sent him scurrying back to the protection of law and order. On February 4th, a riot occurred in Chauri Chaura, a village of the United Provinces, in which a procession of volunteers was fired on by the police and the infuriated mob charged the police station, captured the building, killed 23 policemen, and then set fire to the police station, cut the telegraph wires and tore up the railway. The news of this untoward but by no means unusual event, whose counterparts were being enacted all over India in every province, leaked through the official censorship on February 6th, just at the moment when Mr. Gandhi and the Viceroy were exchanging their famous notes, and full details reached the Mahatma on the very day on which he announced the formal inauguration of Mass Civil Disobedience.

The gruesome details of burned policemen and dismantled telegraph wires were more than Mr. Gandhi’s sensitive conscience could bear. By some extraordinary mental process, he held himself and his declaration of Civil Disobedience to be responsible for the whole occurrence, and with a loud wail of dismay and despair, announced a five-days’ fast (reduced to two days on the supplications of his followers) as penance and punishment for the tragedy of Chauri Chaura. In an article published on February ioth in Young India, Mr. Gandhi declares:

“I regard the Chauri Chaura tragedy as a third warning from God against the hasty embarkation on Mass Civil Disobedience, and it is my bitterest cup of humiliation, but I deem such humiliation, ostracism, or even death preferable to any countenancing of untruth or violence.”

Without loss of time, on February 11th, a Conference was hastily convened at Bardoli, wherein the Working Committee of the Congress revoked not only Mass Civil Disobedience, but all picketing, processions and public meetings as well. The peasants were ordered to pay land-revenue and all other taxes due to the Government, and to suspend ever activity of an offensive nature.

Mr. Gandhi’s harkening to his conscience did him the good service of delaying the order for his own arrest, a fact of which he was unaware at the time. The Government at Simla, a little amazed at this temperamental outburst and sudden change of heart, stayed its and temporarily to permit Mr. Gandhi to lead the movement into confusion worse confounded. The national uprising which they had feared and prepared against during the last three months, was checked and thrown into rout by the good offices of Mr. Gandhi himself, whose incorrigible pacificism and dread of the popular energy could be counted upon to prevent the explosion. What Governmental repression in all its varied forms had failed to accomplish, the agonized appeal of the Mahatma was able to effectuate. Truly, as a Pacifist Reformer, Mr. Gandhi may well congratulate himself on his success in soothing the just anger of the populace, even though he may have to admit his utter failure to melt the heart of the Government. That which arrests, tortures, floggings, imprisonments, massacres, fines, and police-zoolams could not quell—the blind struggles of a starving nation to save itself from utter annihilation—Mr. Gandhi, by the simple magic of love and non-violence, reduced to impotence and inactivity, which insured its temporary defeat.

The Bardoli Resolutions were received throughout the country with mingled feelings of triumph, relief, and alarm—triumph on the part of the Government and its supporters, relief to the feelings of those moderates and secret sympathisers with the victims of Government repression, and alarm on the part of those Non-co-operators whose ideas of strategy and tactics differed widely from those of Mr. Gandhi.

While the Nationalist Press on the whole supported Mr. Gandhi in his volte-face, and local Congress Committees immediately began to put the Bardoli Resolutions into practice, a section of Extremist opinion found itself outraged by the sudden retreat from the Ahmedabad decisions. Some Mahratta newspapers criticised Mr. Gandhi for stressing isolated incidents like Chauri Chaura and Bombay to the detriment of the movement as a whole. Mr. S. R. Bomanji, in a lecture delivered in Bombay on “The Lessons of Bardoli,” declared that the people were asked to sacrifice everything and were prepared to do it, because they thought Mr. Gandhi was leading a fight for freedom, Mr. Gandhi was the most greatly admired man in India, but that did not preclude them from the right of thinking, and in the hero-worship of Mr. Gandhi they were losing their individuality.

The regular session of the All-India Congress Committee was held in Delhi on February 24th, and the Bardoli Resolutions were presented for endorsement. Pundit Malaviya, Mr. Gandhi’s alter ego of Pacificism and Moderation, urged the ratification of Bardoli, and the complete abandonment of Non-co-operation in all its forms. Mr. Gandhi, still horror-stricken at the bloodshed of Chauri Chaura that presaged Revolution, hugged the Bardoli decisions without going to the length of Pundit Malaviya’s surrender. But an angry section of earnest Extremists, realising the disastrous effect upon the movement of the abandonment of all aggressive tactics, and smarting under the Government’s ill-concealed triumph, urged the repudiation of Bardoli and the renewal of Non-co-operation, including Civil Disobedience. Mr. Gandhi himself, caught in the unpleasant predicament of being “let off” by the Government for good behaviour, felt himself stung to self-defence by a return to his abandoned position. Accordingly, a compromise was struck, and the Delhi session of the Congress Committee sanctioned all forms of Non-co-operation, including individual Civil Disobedience, both defensive and aggressive, and picketing. The Resolution affirmed that “Civil Disobedience is the right and duty of a people, whenever a state opposes the declared will of the people.”

The Delhi decision was a complete reversal of Bardoli, and as such, constituted a direct challenge to the Government.

The arrest of Mr. Gandhi, already once postponed, could be henceforth merely a matter of time an place. The wider issues of imperial policy as well as the Government of India, demanded it. In England, the Die-hards were clamouring for his blood, together with that of Mr. Montagu, Secretary of State for India, whom they identified with the liberal policy of the Montford Reforms. Lloyd George, threatened with a General Election by the dissolution of his Coalition, ran hither and thither, hatching devices for saving his job. Having achieved the Irish Free State and “Independent” Egypt as sops to Liberal opinion, it became necessary to placate the Conservatives by some blood-offering, and this he proceeded to do by the sacrifice of Indian hopes and aspirations.

India’s victimisation to Lloyd Georgian and Imperial exigencies took three outward and visible manifestations. The first was the attempted splitting off of the Mussulmans from the Nationalist Movement by granting certain concessions to the claims of the Caliphate; the second was the dismissal of Mr. Montagu and the appointment of a Conservative to his post; the third was the arrest of Mr. Gandhi, with the purpose of dealing the coup de grace to the Non-co-operation Movement. Mr. Lloyd George is a clever politician, but events have not justified the wisdom of any one of these three steps.

The revision of the Treaty of Sévres had formed one of the demands of the Non-co-operators from the very beginning, as a means of bringing about the Hindu-Muslim unity so essential to the success of Indian nationalism. But Mr. Gandhi was not the only angler for Muslim goodwill. The historic “divide and rule” policy of the British Government, which had met with so much success in India by the separation of Mussulmans and Hindus could not be checkmated by so simple a manœuvre as taking up the cudgels for the Caliphate. It was clear that if Muslim support could be bought by concessions to religious fanaticism, the British Government would be the first to buy it over, if it considered it worth while.

The time came when this policy seemed expedient. At the end of January, Lord Northcliffe, in the course of his Indian tour, published a significant and sensational letter advising concession to Muslim opinion, and the conservative Press in England echoed his advice. The Viceroy of India took advantage of the approaching Paris Conference to telegraph the Home Government his oft-reiterated plea on behalf of some revision in favour of the Caliphate. It was evident that the Die-hards, influenced by traditional belief in the militant fierceness of the Mussulman, were inclined to placate this element at the expense of the Hindu community.

In a word, the Imperialists stole Mr. Gandhi’s thunder, and hoped thereby to split the strength of the Indian Extremists. The Paris Conference, duly presided over by Lord Curzon, who had his instructions, granted most of the things that Indian Muslims had clamoured for. But the result has been somewhat disappointing. Seith Chotani, President of the Indian Central Caliphate Committee, issued a statement on behalf of his organisation regarding the Near East proposals, which he stigmatizes as “pro-Greek” and entirely unacceptable to Indian Muslims. “Indian Muslims and their fellow-countrymen demand that England keep her promises to the letter and spirit.” In view of international complications, England cannot very well concede more, so the ruse of buying up Muslim goodwill can be said, on the whole, to have failed.

As for the dismissal of Mr. Montagu, this served its purpose with the Die-hards, but at what a cost to Indian public opinion only Lord Reading, as the man on the spot, best knows. Mr. Montagu enjoyed a wide popularity among Indian Moderates, based on a fictitious idea of his friendliness to Indian constitutional reform, and this popularity has attained a frenzy of adulation since his spectacular martyrdom on the altar of British Liberalism in India. This frenzy is enhanced by a growing fear that his successor, Lord Peel, symbolizes a reversal of the Reform policy adopted in 1919. The slightest act of reversion on the part of the India Office will be heralded in India as the beginning of reaction and oppression. What Mr. Lloyd George has gained at home, he has more than sacrificed in India by this peculiarly inopportune victimisation of psuedo-liberalism, which in reality, was never anything but a sugar-coated imperialistic pill.

As for the arrest of India’s Mahatma! Mr. Lloyd George should beware of the Ides of March. Scarce twelve days after the Delhi decisions, and simultaneously with the dismissal of Mr. Montagu, Mr. Gandhi was arrested on the charge of “tending to promote disaffection against the existing system of Government” by certain speeches and articles, and a few days later was brought to trial. True to his gospel of Non-co-operation, Mr. Gandhi pleaded guilty and offered no defence, urged the judge to find him guilty and to give him the maximum sentence, and in the course of a long written statement which he read out before the court, he reaffirmed his doctrine of non-violent Non-co-operation with the existing system of government in straightforward, eloquent words.

The judge who sat personifying British justice and honesty must have felt some inward qualms of conscience in the face of this ringing indictment, which fell upon the court-room like the voice of suffering India itself. In a few words, half-explanatory and almost apologetic, he pronounced sentence—six years’ simple imprisonment—and the farce was over. Mohandas Karamehand Gandhi, apostle of Non-resistance, leader of Non-co-operation and beloved Mahatma of India’s struggling millions, was led off to jail.

Let neither Lloyd George, nor Lord Reading, nor the thinking public be deceived by the calm that fell upon. India’s millions at news of Mr. Gandhi’s incarceration. The Non-co-operators, those who intoxicate themselves with the opiate of non-violence, may attribute it to Soul-Force; the Government may deem it the justification of its policy of repression; but for those who know India of to-day, this unearthly calm presages a storm more violent than any which has yet shaken the political horizon. That which is lacking is leadership in the Indian movement to-day. But without disrespect let us say frankly, that no leadership for a time is preferable to Mr. Gandhi’s misleadership. He performed gallant service in the last three years in leading the Indian people out of their age-long hopelessness and stagnation into the path of agitation and organisation which attained a nation-wide response and scope. His own mental confusion was but a reflection of the confused and chaotic state of the movement itself, just staggering upon is weak legs and learning to walk.

All honour to Mr. Gandhi, who found a way for his people out of the entanglements of Government censorship and repression; who, by his slogans of non-violent Non-co-operation, boycott and Civil Disobedience, was able to draw the wide masses into the folds of the Congress Party and make the Indian movement for the first time truly national. But the movement had outgrown its leader; the time had come when the masses were ready to surge ahead in the struggle, and Mr. Gandhi vainly sought to hold them back; they strained and struggled in the leading-strings of Soul-Force, Transcendental Love and Non-violence, torn between their crying earthly needs and their real love for this saintly man whose purity gripped their imagination and claimed their loyalty.

Mr. Gandhi had become an unconscious agent of reaction in the face of a growing revolutionary situation. The few leaders of the Congress Party who realised this and sought a way out, were rendered desperate, almost despairing at the dilemma. Mr. Gandhi had become a problem to his own movement, and lo! the British Government, in its infinite wisdom, relieved them of the problem. Mr. Gandhi out of jail was an acknowledged force of peace, a sure enemy of violence in all its forms. Mr. Gandhi in jail is a powerful factor for unrest, a symbol of national martyrdom, a constant stimulation to the national cause to fight its way to freedom.

Since his arrest, two wings of the Congress Party have developed into clear-cut prominence. One veering towards the right, headed by Malaviya, seeks reunion with the Moderates, the abandonment of Non-co-operation and a bourgeois programme of constitutional reform within the Empire. The other struggles vainly after the vanishing slogans of Gandhism—atyagraha, Non-violence, boycott of foreign goods, and the reconquest of India by the Charka (Spinning-wheel). In this camp, which is all that remains of Extremism, reigns consternation and confusion, but a few voices are rising clear and strong above the din. The voice of Mr. C. R. Das, President of the last Bengal Provincial Conference, recommending the capture of the Reform Council and the formation of peasant and workers’ unions; the voice of Dr. Munji in the Maharashtra Conference, which proclaimed that “the aim of the Congress is thoroughly worldly and for worldly happiness and has to be attained by worldly means which should be easily understandable and practicable”; the voice of nationalist journals which cry that the nation must be organised for the struggle, and that the real work lies among the masses.

New leaders are surging to the front, ready to learn by past mistakes and to build a new programme far the future. Upon their understanding of the present Indian situation depends their present success or failure. The mass movement among the workers and peasants is still strong and powerful; the Aika peasant movement in the United Provinces, the outbreak of unrest among the Bhils in Central India, the three months’ strike of the workers on the East India Railroad, prove where the real strength of the Indian movement lies. Reformist trade-union and co-operative workers are already in the field to capture the allegiance of the Indian masses. It remains for the Congress leaders to anticipate them by formulating such a programme as will bring the workers and peasants of India to their side. In the dynamic struggle of mass-action under wise political leadership lies the true and only solution of the Indian struggle for freedom.