Book Excerpts: India
Part I, Chapter Two - India: Movement for Self-Rule

The results of the great 1930-31 campaign against the British in India were decidedly mixed. In terms of the stated goals of Congress [the political party that was the main vehicle for the Indian independence struggle], as well as the hopes of resolute nationalists such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the campaign miscarried. When the second phase finally sputtered out in 1934, Indians had made scant progress toward either dominion status within the Empire or outright independence. Neither had they won any major concessions on the economic and mundane issues that Gandhi considered vital.

But even if the campaign did not produce constitutional change or material benefits, it demonstrated that ordinary Indians had the power to drive events. In several parts of India, nationalists succeeded in weakening the structure that undergirded the raj. Tax resistance, product boycotts and resignations stretched the twin sinews of government - money and personnel. On a few occasions - in Peshawar at the end of April, in parts of Gujarat for most of 1930 - civil disobedience showed the British what it would be like if they could no longer take for granted the reliability of Indians who staffed colonial government and law enforcement. And the British could not be certain that brush fires that started in these areas would not jump to other parts of the subcontinent. The costs of containing the campaign were high enough to move Irwin to negotiate an end to the conflict, on terms that failed to satisfy all his colleagues.

Yet beneath the surface, the British never faced a general crisis of governability. Nationalists did not undermine the loyalty of police forces, and repression, though often clumsy and always costly, was never effectively foiled. The campaign had been designed to deflect any single shattering blow - local activists hardly missed a beat when all-India leaders were arrested, and there were too many people involved, spread out over too much territory for the authorities to stamp out all opposition. But beatings, imprisonment, land attachments and other measures wore down resistance in many places. And whatever strategic adjustments Congress might have made to neutralize repression would not have altered the fact that there were large communities of Indians that did not join the campaign. Without solidarity from Muslims and industrial workers, civil disobedience by Gandhi's followers could only accomplish so much.

While Congress did not wreck the raj, it did succeed in shredding the legitimacy of British rule. For over a century, the regime had represented itself as benign, standing for sound economy and gradual reform - and likely to bring home rule in the long run. As long as Indians went about their business and cooperated with its laws and institutions, the British could maintain this facade. But civil disobedience shattered it.

Time after time and in place after place, Indians disobeyed laws they saw as unjust, and their rulers beat them, jailed them, took their property, banned their publications and outlawed their organizations. On the streets of Lucknow, at the salt-works in Dharasana, in the villages of Gujarat, the regime demonstrated in broad daylight that colonial rule was a form of domination. The British were happy to have the consent of Indians wherever possible, but, in the absence of consent, they would rule by the club and the gun. Civil disobedience exposed this truth, and it resounded through British and Indian relations in years to come.

Nothing reveals the loss of authority suffered by the raj better than the change in what it meant for Indians to go to jail. Once a mark of shame, a term in prison became a badge of pride. Narayan Desai recalled shouting in delight, when he was a boy, "This time no less than two years!" as his father was hauled off to prison in the back of a police van. Imprisonment still worked as a means of physical coercion, but it no longer carried any stigma in the eyes of most Indians.1

Congress leaders were out to do more than destroy the prestige of the raj; they also tried to become the one force that could speak in the name of the people. In this sense nonviolent mass action was a bid by Congress to seize political primacy from the British, by offering overwhelming evidence that, while the British still ruled Indians, Congress led them. Congress declared and suspended the campaign, and Congress leaders and volunteers undertook the most well-publicized acts of civil disobedience and suffered the most visible brutalities. And during most of the conflict, Gandhi and his colleagues managed to retain the initiative.

But their position was never unchallenged, for reasons that had less to do with the British than with Indians. Congress saw itself as guiding the masses for disciplined nonviolent action, but national and provincial leaders often ended up authorizing actions they did not inaugurate and could not control. Congress all too often found itself following rather than leading, restraining rather than mobilizing. Morever, the failure to bring Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs into the struggle meant that Congress did not speak for all India, foreshadowing the later division of India as well as bitter communal strife that far outlasted the British.

Yet the experience of civil disobedience transformed the people who went through it. Just a generation earlier, a zealous sense of Indian nationhood was limited to a small number of mainly educated, urban Hindus, and allegiance to religious communities, castes, and linguistic groups overshadowed citizenship. But after Indians at all levels of society had joined together in collective nonviolent action against forms of injustice that touched them all, there was a new civil spirit operating in India that was independent of British will.

The salt campaign gave people a joint calling and forged durable links among Indians from different classes and regions. The Bombay merchants who lost their shirts by sticking to the cloth boycott, the university students in Lahore who were thrown in jail for picketing, and the Congress volunteers who were battered at Dharasana - all these Indians now shared with each other, and with revered leaders like Gandhi and the Nehrus, a common history: they had put aside their personal interests to promote the nation's interest in evicting the British. India was no longer just a patchwork on a map - it was a fluent idea in the public mind.

The simple act of standing up to the authorities dispelled the sense of inferiority that colonial rule both fostered and required. Usha Mehta recalled how proud the old women in her family were to participate in the salt satyagraha. Her great-aunts and grandmothers would bring home salt water, boil it down, and "then they would shout at the top of their voices: 'We have broken the salt law.'" The campaign also changed the way their overlords were seen: the British were no longer invincible. Their viceroy had negotiated with Mohandas Gandhi, recognizing, if only fleetingly, a man whose authority derived solely from his ability to articulate his people's longings. The British, until they sat down with Gandhi, "were all sahibs and we were obeying them," said Narayan Desai. "No more after that."2

Gandhi's personal role in the civil disobedience campaign was towering. For millions of Indians he was the embodiment of national purpose. Inside Congress, his stature gave him enormous leverage, which he used to keep quarreling factions together and to spur the party to turn itself into a mass political organization. Gandhi's ideas about satyagraha and swaraj, moreover, galvanized the thinking of Congress cadres, most of whom by 1930 were committed to pursuing independence by nonviolent action.

That the civil disobedience campaign flowed from Gandhi's leadership does not, however, mean that it was a simple projection of his ideals. The dynamic of satyagraha, as Gandhi originally conceived it, started with breaking the laws of the raj, then forcing the British to punish protestors. Their suffering would touch the hearts of the oppressors, expose the injustice of their rule, and create conditions in which the British would choose to leave. Naively, Gandhi even believed that Irwin's willingness to negotiate indicated a personal change of heart. But Gandhi and Irwin were not the same as India and Britain: Irwin was impressed by Gandhi, but his government was not ready to regard the Indian people as sovereign.

Apart from Irwin, the British naivete was to see Gandhi as a kind of tribal witch doctor, whipping up the unwashed masses; Churchill had called him a "fakir". But for all his appearance as a saintly and unworldly figure, Gandhi understood the realpolitik of Indian liberation. He knew that civil disobedience had to strain imperial control sufficiently that the game for the British would not be worth the candle. And his "truth-force" was adaptable to this very worldly goal: most of his followers took part in nonviolent action not in order to seek some sort of moral transfiguration, but to overcome their adversaries - by denying them the revenue and cooperation that made it possible to hold India. Demonstrating to the British that they were wrong was ultimately beside the point; the goal was to force the British out.

Nonviolent action did not force the British out in 1930-31, and it did not work the way that Gandhi had expected - but it worked. The suffering of protestors did not change the minds of the British, but it did change the minds of Indians about the British. For tens of millions of Indians, satyagraha and its result changed cooperation with the raj from a blessing into blasphemy. The old order, in which British control rested comfortably on Indian acquiescence, had been sundered. In the midst of civil disobedience, Sir Charles Innes, a provincial governor, circulated his analysis of events to his colleagues. "England can hold India only by consent," he conceded. "We can't rule it by the sword."3

The British lost that consent, and had civil disobedience been more disciplined, had Congress separated the raj from its means of coercion, and above all, had India been united, they might have lost their Empire's brightest jewel long before they did.

1. Narayan Desai, videotaped interview by Steve York for the documentary television series, Vedchhi, India, September 2, 1998.

2. Masani, op. cit., pp. 109-111; Narayan Desai, videotape interview with Steve York, September 2, 1998.

3. Peter Ackerman, Strategic Aspects of Nonviolent Resistance," p. 505.

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