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 traveling, 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 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 then their compatriots in Bihar, they were also plagued with poverty, scant resources, alcoholism and untouchability. These difficulties were met with British indifference and hegemony.
---done up to this point---
The drought spread to Gujarat and virtually destroyed the economy and the poor peasants barely had 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 were being published, he proposed real action by insisting that 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 their support by issuing such resolutions.
In Champaran, Gandhi established an ashram, from where his supporters and volunteers were recruited. From here they began to survey villages and began accounting the atrocities and the suffering, which also included the general state of degenerate living. Soon schools were built, as well as hospitals and also the talk of removing untouchability and the suppression of women. But there was an uproar when Gandhi was arrested on the charges of creating unrest in the region and was ordered to leave. Thousands gathered outside the prison and the court and demanded that he be released, which the courts did unwillingly. Upon his release, Gandhi led protests and strikes against the landlords, who, under the guidance from the British authorities, signed an agreement granting compensation and control over farming for the poor farmers and cancellation of revenue hike until the famine ended. It was during this period that Gandhi became addressed as 'Bapu', meaning father and the famous Indian poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, who had been knighted in 1913 named him as 'Mahatma'. (Rabindranath Tagore later returned his knighthood in protest of the massacre that took place in 1919. He went on to compose the Indian National Anthem).
In Kheda, in the state of Gujarat, Vallabhai Patel, who had now become known as 'Sardar', meaning leader, led a major tax revolt, which 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 would be 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 outstanding and finally the authorities sought an honourable agreement and the tax for the year and the next was suspended and the rate increase reduced and the property returned. Mahatma Gandhi's fame began to spread like fire.
Massacre at the Jallianwallah 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', which 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 the political crimes. But this, they soon realised, was fruitless and as a consequence at a meeting in Mohamed Ali Jinnah's residence, where the Indian leaders met, Gandhi proposed that 6 April be called a day of prayer, fasting and 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 tensions that began to rise and this resulted in riots taking place in the state of Punjab. As a result of this, Gandhi was imprisoned but was later released on the basis that he would intervene to stop the riots and this he did. But on 9 April, 1919, two members of the Congress were deported from Punjab and it was this further stirred up the tension in the state and removed any chance of peace being enforced. As a result of the rioting that took place, an assistant English 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' (Sikh new year festival commemorating the founding of the Khalsa order by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, 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 was imposed, gathered at the Jallianwallah Bagh, in the city of Amritsar, Punjab and were holding a peaceful gathering, when suddenly Indian troops under the command of General Reginald Edward Dyer entered the grounds. The armoured vehicles that had accompanied the troops were unable to enter and were therefore not able to participate in the event that was about to unfold. There were women, babies, children and men in the crowd.
The Bagh was bound on all sides by houses and buildings and few narrow entrances, some of which were locked permanently with the exception of the entrance being blocked by the troops. Without any warning, the General ordered his troops to 'fire' at the thickest part of the crowd with their 3-0-3 Enfields. The crowd began to scatter as bullets began to hit their targets. People ran in all directions and some tried to climb over the walls and 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 any those who survived due to the curfew that had been imposed. One of the survivors was Udham Singh, who with his friends was serving water when the shooting was began (Udham Singh, who later changed his name to Ram Mohammed Singh, later assassinated General Michael O'Dwyer at Caxton Hall, London on 13 March, 1940. At the trial that was held at the Old Bailey, he explained the reason for his action. He said: '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. Thirty four years later, after the daughter of the first Indian Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, after being requested made a request to the then British government to repatriate Udham 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 the president of the Congress party then and, Zail Singh, who was the chief minister of Punjab. Udham Singh's body was then finally cremated in his birth place, Sunam, in Punjab and his ashes were scattered in the Ganges).
Dyer was convinced that he had done a 'jolly good thing' as he thought that he had stopped a mutiny and returned. To add salt to wound, General Dyer ordered anyone passing or going through the street where the English woman was assaulted would have to crawl on their hands an knees. This also applied to those families whose only approach to their house was via the street. Anyone who ignored the order were publicly flogged and 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 outraged as he was about the massacre, which was the turning point in the struggle for Indian Independence.
120 bodies were plucked out of the well at Jallianwallah Bagh. The Hunter Commission, which was set up to investigate into the massacre, indicated in its conclusion that 1,650 bullets were fired, 379 killed with 1,516 casualties. During the trial, the General was asked that if he had been able to take the two armoured cars, would he 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 prepare to help any who applied. In response, he was asked how would a child, shot with a 3-0-3 Enfield apply for help? The Commission had also been informed that General Michael O'Dwyer had been informed of General Dyer's action and had approved it.
General Dyer was dismissed from the Army and sent back to England, where, many welcomed him as a hero but some repudiated the actions taken by him. The Secretary of State for India, Edwin S. Montagu, informed this to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford in an official despatch. He wrote: 'His Majesty's Government repudiate emphatically the doctrine upon which General Dyer based his action at Jallianwallah Bagh. The crawling order offended against every canon of civilised government'. (General Dyer passed away on 23 July, 1927 in Bristol). This message was then 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 cooperation that would compel the British to 'quit India'.
The Chauri Chaura Incident
It was almost immediately after the meeting with the Viceroy that Gandhi called on the members of the public to burn the clothes that they were wearing and had and which were made in England. He urged them to wear their homespun loin cloth even if they had only one. With this in mind, many began home spinning as Gandhi was doing and began to wear them. The call about burning their English clothes led to millions of people burning pyres of clothes almost every where throughout India. This type of protest was just one of the methods used for non violent and non co – operation, the other was peaceful marching and picketing and many people were aroused as almost every Indian, whether a Hindu, Sikh or a Muslim was in the mood of receiving Independence.
One night in February, 1922 2,000 protestors gathered in the town of Chauri Chaura, in the Northern Indian State of Uttar Pradesh and were marching towards a local market, peacefully chanting 'British! Quit India' and 'Long live Gandhiji'.
Anticipating that there may 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 flame torches in their hands. The policemen let go of the men, who were now dead, and ran back into their building. Upon seeing their dead comrades, the protestors set fire to the building by throwing the flame torches inside, The building was soon ablaze and those Policemen that managed to escape from the building were hacked to death. In all, twenty three policemen were killed.
Gandhi, who at the time was in Bardoli, a district of the city of Surat in the western Indian state of Gujarat was saddened and sick when heard about the incident and therefore, despite opposition from many of the Congress leaders, he decided to call off the movement. Sensing that 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 and in a moving appeal to the judge, he asked for a maximum penalty . As result of this, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment and was sent to Yervada Prison, near the Maharashtrian city of Poona. Soon, the Mahatma's health began to deteriorate.