Gandhi's Return and the Fight for Independence
Gandhi, now famous for his opposition to the South African leaders, was greeted by thousands at Mumbai1 — the Gateway to India. One of these was ex-colleague Vallabhai Patel. Also among the throng were members of the Indian National Congress — Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, his father Motilal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was also a member of the Muslim League, Kripalani and Professor Gokhale, whom he had already met on a previous trip to India and who was nearing the end of his life. It was Professor Gokhale who urged him to see the real India — its villages and towns, its people, rich and poor alike, and how they lived under British rule.
After months of travelling, he eventually settled in the industrial city of Ahmedabad, where he built an ashram. It was there in the state of Gujarat by the banks of the Sabarmati river that he began his campaign for Indian independence.
Severe drought came to the area of Champaran, in the north Indian state of Bihar, and tens of thousands of serfs, indentured labourers and poor farmers were forced to grow indigo and other cash crops instead of the food crops necessary for survival and for which they received very little compensation. Oppressive taxes were levied and the rates were then increased, which left the people impoverished. Villages were unhygienic and dirty, and untouchability and alcoholism were rampant. Elsewhere, in the area of Kheda, in Gujarat, even though the peasants owned their own lands and were economically better off than their compatriots in Bihar, they were also plagued by poverty, scant resources, alcoholism and untouchability. These difficulties were met with British indifference and hegemony.
The drought spread to Gujarat and virtually destroyed the economy, with the poor peasants barely having enough to feed themselves. The British authorities, however, insisted that the farmers pay full taxes as well as a 23% increase. In response, Gandhi proposed 'satyagraha'. While petitions were being signed and editorials published, he proposed real action by insisting the protestors mention the idea of independence, as this was not about political freedom but a revolt against tyranny amidst the humanitarian disaster. He went further by insisting that no other districts or provinces revolt, and that the Indian National Congress shouldn't get involved, but give its support by issuing such resolutions.
In Champaran, Gandhi established an ashram from which his supporters and volunteers were recruited. From here they began to survey villages and account the atrocities and suffering, which included the general state of degenerate living. Soon schools were built, as well as hospitals. There was also talk of removing untouchability and the suppression of women. But there was uproar when Gandhi was arrested on charges of creating unrest in the region and ordered to leave. Thousands gathered outside the prison and court, demanding he be released, which the courts unwillingly complied with.
Upon his release Gandhi led protests and strikes against the landlords who, under the guidance of British authorities, signed an agreement granting the poor farmers compensation and control over farming, and cancellation of the revenue hike until the famine ended. It was during this period that Gandhi became addressed as 'Bapu', meaning father. The famous Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who had been knighted in 1913, named him 'Mahatma'. (Tagore later returned his knighthood in protest at the massacre that took place in 1919. He went on to compose the Indian national anthem.)
In Kheda, in Gujarat state, Vallabhai Patel, who had now become known as 'Sardar' (leader), led a major tax revolt. It enabled different ethnic and caste communities to rally, as the peasants signed a petition for the tax for that year to be scrapped due to the famine. The British authorities rejected this and warned that if the peasants refused to pay then the lands and the property would be confiscated, and they arrested. But they remained resolute and did not pay. In response, the authorities sent in people to seize property and items such as cattle. No-one resisted arrest; nor did they retaliate. The revolt was successful and the authorities finally sought an honourable agreement. The tax for that year and the next was suspended, the rate increase reduced, and the property returned. Gandhi's fame began to spread like wildfire.
Massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh
Gandhi had supported the British during the First World War and was convinced that in return Britain would give a sympathetic ear to India's nationalist aspirations. But he was wrong! In March 1919 the British authorities passed the 'Rowlan Act', which indefinitely extended the emergency measures regarding the 'Defence of India Regulations Act' that had come into existence during the war to control public unrest and root out conspiracy. The Act enabled the authorities to imprison, without trial, anyone suspected of terrorism living within the Raj. It also gave the colonial authorities power to deal with any revolutionaries.
The Mahatma and other Congress leaders were extremely critical of this, and argued that not everyone should be punished in response to political crimes. But this, they soon realised, was fruitless. As a consequence, at a meeting of Indian leaders in Mohamed Ali Jinnah's residence, Gandhi proposed that 6 April be called a day of prayer and fasting; all, including government businesses, in which many Indians worked, would shut down — a strike. This was a total success.
However, the success of the 'strike' was soon overshadowed by the tensions that arose, resulting in riots in the state of Punjab. Gandhi was imprisoned, but was later released on the basis that he would intervene to stop the riots. This he did. But on 9 April, 1919, two members of the Congress were deported from Punjab. This further stirred up tension in the state and removed any chance of peace being enforced. In the rioting that followed, an English assistant bank manager was beaten to death, while the manager, who tried to defend himself with a gun, was cruelly murdered, and one English woman was assaulted. Martial law was immediately imposed and all meetings and gatherings of more than four people were banned.
On Friday 13 April, the day of 'Baisakhi' (the Sikh festival commemorating the founding of the Khalsa order by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 and marking the new year), thousands of people, many from other parts of the country who had left their homes before martial law and the ban were imposed, gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, in the city of Amritsar, Punjab. They were holding a peaceful gathering when suddenly Indian troops under the command of General Reginald Edward Dyer entered the grounds. The armoured vehicles that accompanied the troops were unable to enter and therefore did not participate in the event that was about to unfold. There were women, babies, children and men in the crowd.
The Bagh was bounded on all sides by houses and buildings and a few narrow entrances, some of which were locked permanently, with the exception of the entrance being blocked by the troops. Without warning, the general ordered his troops to 'fire' at the thickest part of the crowd with their .303 Enfield rifles. The crowd began to scatter as bullets hit their targets. People ran in all directions; some tried to climb over the walls, many jumped into a nearby well. The firing at the crowd lasted for ten minutes and afterwards no-one was allowed to go into the grounds to help those who had survived due to the curfew that had been imposed.
Dyer was convinced he had done a 'jolly good thing', as he thought he had stopped a mutiny, and returned to base. To rub salt in the wound, the general ordered that anyone passing or going through the street where the Englishwoman was assaulted would have to crawl on their hands and knees. This also applied to families whose only approach to their house was via the street. Anyone who ignored the order was publicly flogged. In some districts of the city, Indians carrying umbrellas or parasols had to lower them and salute British officers as they passed them. Gandhi was as outraged by this as he was by the massacre, which was the turning point in the struggle for Indian independence.
A hundred and twenty bodies were plucked out of the well at Jallianwallah Bagh. The Hunter Commission, set up to investigate the massacre, indicated in its conclusion that 1,650 bullets were fired, with 379 people killed and a total of 1,516 casualties (some said the number of casualties was as high as 2,000, but this could not be verified). During the trial, the general was asked whether, had been able to take the two armoured cars, he would have opened fire with the machine guns? To this he replied: 'I think, probably, yes.'
When questioned whether he had made any preparations to help those who needed it, he replied that he was prepared to help any who applied. In response, he was asked: how would a child shot with a .303 Enfield apply for help? The Commission had been informed that General Michael O'Dwyer was informed of General Dyer's action and approved it.
General Dyer was dismissed from the Army and sent back to England2, where many welcomed him as a hero, but some repudiated the action taken by him. The Secretary of State for India, Edwin S Montagu, wrote to the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, in an official despatch: 'His Majesty's Government repudiate emphatically the doctrine upon which General Dyer based his action at Jallianwalla Bagh. The crawling order offended against every canon of civilised government.' This message was passed on to the members of the Congress Party, but the Mahatma was clearly in no mood to discuss anything. He informed the viceroy that he would use his policy of non-violence and non-co-operation that would, hopefully, compel the British to 'quit India'3.
One of the survivors of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh was Udham Singh who, with his friends, was serving water when the shooting began. Singh, who later changed his name to Ram Mohammed Singh, assassinated General Michael O'Dwyer at Caxton Hall in London, on 13 March, 1940. At his trial, held at the Old Bailey, he explained the reason for his action: 'I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it.' He was sentenced to death and was hanged at Pentonville prison on 31 July, 1940.
34 years later, the daughter of the first Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, made a request to the British government to repatriate Singh's body, which had been buried within the prison grounds. When the aircraft carrying the casket landed at Delhi airport, the then Indian prime minister was there to receive it, as were two future presidents, Shankar Dayal Sharma, who was then president of the Congress party, and Zail Singh, chief minister of Punjab. Udham Singh's body was finally cremated at his birthplace, Sunam in Punjab, and his ashes scattered in the River Ganges.
The Chauri Chaura Incident
It was almost immediately after the meeting with the viceroy that Gandhi called on members of the public to the burn clothes they were wearing which were made in England. He urged them to wear their homespun loin cloth, even if they only had one. With this in mind, many began home spinning, as Gandhi was doing, and to wear them. Millions of people burned pyres of clothes almost everywhere throughout India. This type of protest was just one of the methods used. Another was peaceful marching and picketing. Many people were aroused, as almost every Indian, whether a Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, was in the mood for receiving independence.
One night in February 1922, 2,000 protestors gathered in the town of Chauri Chaura in the north Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. They were marching towards a local market, peacefully chanting 'British! Quit India' and 'Long live Gandhiji'. Anticipating there might be trouble, armed police fired warning shots into the air. This brought the protestors' march to a halt, and when they saw three of their colleagues being beaten to death by the police they charged back with flaming torches in their hands. The policemen left the men, who were by now dead, and ran back into their building. Upon seeing their dead comrades, the protestors set fire to the building by throwing the torches inside. It was soon ablaze and those policemen that managed to escape from it were hacked to death. In all, 23 policemen were killed.
Gandhi, at that time in Bardoli, a district of the city of Surat in the west Indian state of Gujarat, was saddened and sick when heard of the incident. Therefore, despite opposition from many Congress leaders, he decided to call off the movement. Sensing his change of attitude had rendered him less dangerous, the British authorities arrested him on charges of sedition, to which he, being a lawyer, pleaded guilty. In a moving appeal to the judge, he asked for the maximum penalty. As result, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment and sent to Yervada prison, near the Maharashtrian city of Poona. Soon, the Mahatma's health began to deteriorate.