Mahatma Gandhi




Mahatma Gandhi


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World history


Mahatma Gandhi



image mahatma gandhi


By Alex Kahn

Published by Bookmarks, Sydney
2nd Edition, May 1996
Preparation for web by Marc Newman, December 2002

Gandhi and the Myth of Non-Violent Action
The ideas of Mahatma Gandhi have enjoyed resurgence. The non-violent non-cooperation tactics used in the struggles against the Franklin Dam in Tasmania and the Greenham Common missile base in England owed their inspiration directly to him. Richard Attenborough’s Academy Award winning film “Gandhi” further revived the myth that his pacifist tactics won India its independence.
Yet socialists have always been quite scathing about Gandhi. Read for example, what George Orwell had to say about him:
Gandhi has been regarded for twenty years by the Government of India as one of its right hand men. I know what I’m talking about–I used to be an officer in the Indian police. It was always admitted in the most cynical way that Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influ­ence was always against taking any action that would make any difference.
The reason why Gandhi when in prison is always treated with such lenience and small concessions sometimes made when he has prolonged one of his fasts to a dangerous extent, is that the British officials are in terror that he may die and be replaced by someone who believes less in “soul force “ and more in bombs.
In this pamphlet, we will outline Gandhi’s Indian campaigns to show just what Orwell meant. We will argue that Gandhi failed to launch any non-violent campaigns that re­mained non-violent, at least on his terms. We will argue that when these campaigns started to threaten the interests of the Indian capitalist class, Gandhi always called them off. And we will argue that the British left India for reasons of their own, not anything that Gandhi can take credit for.
Early days
Gandhi’s social views were always reactionary, in the most literal sense of the word. In 1909 he expressed them as follows:
It is not the British people who are ruling India, but it is modern civilisation, through its railways, telegraphs, telephone, and almost every other invention has been claimed to be a triumph of civilisation … Medical science is the concentrated essence of black magic … Hospitals are the instruments that the Devil has been using for his own purpose, in order to keep his hold on his kingdom … If there were no hospitals for venereal diseases or even for consumptives, we would have less consumption, and less sexual vice amongst us. India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years or so. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like all have to go.
But it is Gandhi’s political strategy that we are mainly concerned with here. Gandhi developed his methods of non-violent non-cooperation, or “satyagraha” (literally “way of the righteous heart”) to fight for civil rights for Indians in South Africa. In this first campaign, he met with some success largely for two reasons. He made considerable use of strike action by Indian workers, and the Indians, being a somewhat peripheral minority in South Africa, could be afforded concessions by the white ruling class that could never be granted to the blacks. Even during this campaign – Gandhi’s most creditable effort – the limitations of his pacifism became obvious. In an episode passed over by Attenborough’s film, Gandhi recounts how he called off the struggle at one stage, rather than join cause with a “violent” general strike by European workers, and this won the gratitude of the South African ruling class:
In the course of the satyagraha struggle in South Africa, several thousands of indentured Indians had struck work. This was a satyagraha strike, and therefore entirely peaceful and voluntary. Whilst the strike was going on the strike of the European miners, railway employees, etc. was declared. Over­tures were made to me to make common cause with the European strikers. As a satyagraha, I did not require a moment’s consideration to decline to do so. I went further, and for fear of our strike being classed with the strike of the Europeans in which methods of violence and use of arms found a prominent place, ours was suspended, and satyagraha from that moment came to be recognised by the Europeans of South Africa as an honourable and honest movement, in the words of General Smuts, “a constitutional movement”.
Recruiting for the British
When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, his qualms about violence suddenly disappeared. He went out recruiting volunteers for the British Army from the Indian population, under the slogan “20 recruits for every village”. Gandhi apparently believed that by recruiting cannon fodder to defend the Empire, he could impress the British with Indians’ loyalty and thus earn independence. He seemed to have regarded it as a victory that he made recruiting speeches in Hindustani!
Gandhi explained his actions, which went against much of the rest of the independence movements thinking, by saying. “I discovered the British Empire had certain ide­als with which I have fallen in love.” Later, defenders of Gandhi were to justify his recruiting drive by saying that he “only” raised troops for the medical corps. But of course, medical corps are a vital part of any military machine, and Gandhi’s actions freed other recruits for the front line fighting. He certainly made no attempt to raise medical corps for the Germans or Turks, so even if there were elements of misguided humanitarianism in Gandhi’s thinking, it was very conveniently one-eyed.
During the years 1917 to 1920, Gandhi made some very important friends amongst the wealthy business families of West India. These included the Sarabhais, textile magnates in his home state of Gujarat, and the Birlas, the second largest industrial group in India. For the rest of his career, Gandhi regularly consulted with them, and they made sure that he never lacked money.
This is not to say that Indian capitalists created Gandhi. But his commitment to the pacifist action suited their interests perfectly. They wanted a limited mobilisation of the masses to drive out the British so that they could run India instead. They had seen the Russian revolution just to the north, and they realised how important it was to stop the workers and peasants getting arms, or mobilising against their local exploiters as well as the British.
Gandhi was also committed to a capitalist India. He regarded Indians as one big family, exploiters and exploited alike. “I do not regard capital to be the enemy of labour,” he said. “I hold their co-ordination to be perfectly possible.” Gandhi came up with a justification of the capitalist’s role that many capitalists themselves would smile on as ingenious. He called them “trustees” for the people, and urged the workers and peasants to peacefully persuade “the land-owners and employers to behave ethically as trustees of the property they held for the common good”.
Why did Gandhi so quickly gain a mass following in India? The popular impression, reinforced by Attenborough’s film, is that it was due to his simple, humble life-style, combined with the work he did with the peasants’ and millhands’ grievances. These may have helped, but there were far deeper reasons as well.
Before Gandhi, the Indian independence movement had suffered from two major weak­nesses. Its leaders tended to be strongly identified with particular regions, and its activity was hopelessly elitist. One wing busied itself with terrorism, the other with sterile mo­tion-passing, Gandhi had established a national reputation for himself through his South African campaign, and thus was able to give the movement a national figurehead that transcended petty regional divisions. And to his credit, he also gave the movement a mass orientation at a time when, inspired by the Russian Revolution to the north and the Turkish nationalist movement to the west, the masses were ready to go into action.
But why should Gandhi’s “non-violence” have had such particular mass appeal? Leon Trotsky provides a shrewd insight. Trotsky observed exactly the same phenomenon in the early stages of the Russian Revolution. Non-violence, Trotsky argued, reflected the low development of class struggle in the countryside and the peasants’ resulting lack of confidence:
If the peasants during the first period hardly ever resort to open violence, and are still trying to give their activities the form of legal pressure, this is explained by their insufficient trust in their awn powers …
The attempt to disguise its first rebel steps with legality, both sacred and secular, has from time to time immemorial characterised the struggle of every revolutionary class, before it gathered sufficient strength and confidence to break the umbilical cord which bound it to the old society. This is more completely true of the peasantry than any other class …
From the milieu of the nobility itself there arise preachers of conciliation. Leo Tolstoy (the novelist) looked deeper into the soul of the muzhik [peas­ant] than anybody else. His philosophy of non-violent resistance was a gen­eralisation of the first stages of the peasant revolution.


Mahatma Gandhi is now fulfilling the same mission in India …

The 1919 hartal
In 1919 the British passed the Rowlatt Acts, which extended wartime powers of arbi­trary arrest, to keep the independence movement in check. There was massive resent­ment throughout India, and in February Gandhi formed a Satyagraha League and an­nounced a “hartal” (day of general suspension of business) for April 6. The response amazed everyone. Through March and April, there was a wave of mass marches, strikes, some rioting and violent repression by the British.
The April 6 hartal was a huge success. It was accompanied by sporadic riots in Cal­cutta, Bombay, Ahmedabad and elsewhere. In Amritsar, the British massacred 379 peo­ple at a rally with machine-gun fire and wounded another 1200.
The British were clearly alarmed by the upsurge. ‘The movement assumed the undeni­able character of an organised revolt against the British Raj”, in the view of British offi­cial opinion.
Just as alarmed was Gandhi. Condemning the violence, not of the British but of rioters on his own side who had gone beyond pacifist action, he declared that he had committed
a blunder of Himalayan dimensions which had enabled ill-disposed per­sons, not true passive resisters at all, to perpetrate disorder.
Within a week, Gandhi suspended passive resistance just as the movement was reach­ing its height. He subsequently explained in a letter to the Press on July 21 that “a Civil resister never seeks to embarrass the government”.
To defuse the movement, Gandhi turned his attention to the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms passed by the British Parliament, which set up puppet legislatures in India op­erating on a limited franchise. Gandhi won the Congress Party around to supporting the Reforms against sharp opposition. He urged the national movement “to settle down qui­etly to work so as to make them a success.”
The 1920-22 campaign
The movement did not “settle down quietly”. The first half of 1920 saw a huge strike wave. So Gandhi switched over to rejection of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, and evolved the plan of “non-violent non-cooperation” to once again take the head of the movement. The Congress Party was to give leadership but the price of that leadership was once again to be non-violence.
Gandhi had learned from 1919 that mobilising the workers and peasants through a hartal was an explosive business. So this time, despite the more ambitious demand of “swaraj” (self-rule), Gandhi focussed the action entirely on the middle class. Voters boy­cotted elections to the new assemblies – only one third of those eligible under the in­come rules to vote did so. Students boycotted colleges en masse. An attempt to get law­yers to boycott the courts and set up local arbitration sittings met with much less success.
The only role for the masses of workers and peasants in all this was to be the “con­structive task” of “hand-spinning and hand-weaving” A proposal of a tax boycott was held in reserve until “a time to be determined”.
Gandhi was extremely vague on how these tactics were to gain victory, or even on what son of gains he was after. Subhas Bose. a future leader of the Congress Party Left, tried to get a clear picture from Gandhi of the strategy.
What his real expectation was, I was unable to understand. Either he did not want to give out all his secrets prematurely or he did not have a clear con­ception of the tactics whereby the hands of the government could be forced .
Nehru also had his doubts about Gandhi’s goals.
It was obvious that to most of our leaders Swaraj meant something much less than independence. Gandhi was delightfully vague on the subject, and he did not encourage clear thinking about it either.
Despite Gandhi’s attempts to limit the campaign to the middle class, mass struggles erupted throughout 1921 to accompany it … the Assam-Bengal railway strike the Midnapore No-Tax Campaign, the Moplah rebellion in the South, and the militant Akali movement in the Punjab. By the end of 1921, all Congress leaders except Gandhi were behind bars.
Amidst all this struggle and enthusiasm. Gandhi got cold feet. Some activists, espe­cially amongst the Muslims, were demanding the abandonment of “non-violence”. Gandhi declared that swaraj stank in his nostrils.
In early 1922, various districts began demanding a No Tax campaign. Due to a misun­derstanding, Guntur District began one without permission. So great was the enthusiasm of the peasants that less than 5 percent of taxes were collected. Then Gandhi heard of it and ordered that tax-paying resume immediately. Finally, Gandhi decided to embark on “mass civil disobedience” … in one tiny district. Bardoli where he had taken special care to ensure “non-violent” conditions. His mass civil disobedience” to win release of the 30,000 political prisoners was to involve the 87,000 people of the district – just one four-thousandth of the Indian population!
The Chauri Chaura backdown
Before the token Bardoli campaign could take off, angry peasants at the village of Chauri Chaura in the United Provinces burned a police station, killing 22 police­men. Gandhi, who five years earlier had happily recruited cannon fodder for Britain to try and win independence, “deplored” the violence and cancelled, not just the Bardoli campaign, but the entire campaign of civil disobedience across the country.
Gandhi’s decision created fury and dismay in the Congress Party. Subhas Bose recalls:
To sound the order to retreat, just when public enthusiasm was reaching the boiling point was nothing short of a national calamity. The principal lieuten­ants of the Mahatma, Deshbandhu dos, Pandit Morilal Nehru and Lala Lajpat Pal, who were all in prison, shared the popular resentment. I was with the Deshbandhu at the time, and I could see that he was beside himself with anger and sorrow.
Motilal Nehru and Lajpat Rai sent Gandhi long letters of protest. Gandhi coldly replied that men in prison were “civilly dead” and had no say over policy.
Apologists for Gandhi later claimed that the decision was necessary because the move­ment was “going to pieces.” In the sense that Gandhi was losing control, this was true. But the British did not think it was dissipating. The Viceroy cabled London just three days before Gandhi’s decision describing the numerous areas of unrest, and concluding:
The Government of India are prepared for disorder of a more formidable nature than has in the past occurred, and do not seek to minimise in any way the fact that great) anxiety is caused by the situation.
Lord Lloyd, then Governor of Bombay, later recounted how Gandhi had snatched de­feat from the jaws of victory:
He gave us a scare! His program filled our jails. You can’t go on arresting people forever, you know not when there are 319 million of them. And if they had taken his next step and refused to pay taxes! God knows where we should have been!
Gandhi’s was the most colossal experiment in world history, and it came within an inch of succeeding. But he couldn‘t control men’s passions. You know the rest. We jailed him.
The motion that Gandhi got through the Working Committee at Bardoli calling off the campaign suggests the real reason Gandhi backed down. No less than three of its seven points ordered peasants to pay taxes to the government, and respect landlords’ rents and rights. Gandhi was clearly worried that the No-Tax campaign would take off and spread into a No-Rent campaign as well. Neither of these can be classed as “violence” in any way. but they could have turned the movement into a wholesale struggle against the Indian landlords as well as the British. Chauri Chaura only confirmed the increasing restiveness of the peasants. So although not the first outbreak of violence during the campaign, it provided a convenient pretext for Gandhi to call hostilities off before a full-scale class war broke out.
The movement demoralised
Gandhi’s back down flattened the national movement for several years. The Con­gress Party, demanding an alternative course, moved to the right and stopped boy­cotting the puppet assemblies. Communal divisions grew. The active non-co-operators of 1921 now emerged as spokespersons for this and that community. Muslim or Hindu. Violent clashes broke out as the movement turned in on itself and, despite the temporarily soothing effect of a protest fast by Gandhi, continued over time. Since Gandhi had re­fused to polarise the movement on class lines, in the demoralised atmosphere after 1922 it polarised on religious lines instead.
But a section of the movement took a more radical direction. During the 1920s the working class emerged as an important force. Unions grew, and the All-India Trade Un­ion Congress formed. Many of its leaders turned to radical anti-imperialism. The Work­ers and Peasants Party formed, and along with other radical nationalists began to demand complete independence rather than mere self-rule.
Against Gandhi’s opposition, the Congress Party also took up the demand of complete independence, or Puma Swaraj, in the late 1920s. Gandhi was forced to change his stance, at least on paper. But, as time would show, he was to sign the demand away again at the first opportunity.
Salt Satyagraha
At the end of 1929, the Congress Party decided to take action for Purna Swaraj. Passive demonstrations on January 26. 1930 took a pledge to struggle for complete independence. But Gandhi already had other ideas. On January 9. he told the New York World that “the independence resolution need frighten nobody”, a claim he repeated to the Viceroy in a letter in March. And on January 30. he offered Eleven Points to the British for which the Congress Party’s civil disobedience campaign would be called off.
These Eleven Points fell way short of independence, or even home rule. The most radical demands were for the release of political prisoners, a halving of military expendi­ture. a tariff on foreign cloth, and licences for firearms for self-defence. There were no demands for workers or peasants, except a call for the halving of land tax. Clearly. Gan­dhi saw the demand for independence as just an opening gambit in a haggle for reforms.
When it came to strategy. Gandhi defeated a move by the left wing of Congress to set up a parallel government in the country and mobilise workers and peasants behind it. Instead he launched the Salt March, a three-week march by Gandhi and 78 of his disci­ples to the sea, where they defied the British monopoly on salt by boiling seawater. Gandhi then called on each village to do the same.
All this was very spectacular for the press. But it was even more carefully limited than his previous two campaigns. The initial action was confined to 78 handpicked disciples. The ensuing tactic of producing salt provided no role whatsoever for the industrial work­ing class. The peasants’ attention was turned away from conflicts with their landlords to producing illegal salt in their villages, and burning and boycotting foreign cloth – a move that mainly benefited Indian textile magnates, a number of whom happened to be on close terms with Gandhi.
Nevertheless, the Salt March sparked another upheaval, way beyond Gandhi’s expec­tations. Strikes and mass demonstrations erupted. Demonstrators raided a police armoury at Chittagong. Peasants launched No-Rent movements, especially in the United Prov­inces, where, true to form, the Congress Party tried to mediate for a 50 percent payment of rents.
The Gahrwali mutiny
The most sensational incident took place in Peshawar. After the arrest of local leaders, a crowd burned an armoured car. its occupants escaping unhurt. Troops opened fire on the crowds, killing and wounding hundreds. Two platoons of Gahrwali Hindu troops refused to fire on a Muslim crowd. They broke ranks and fraternised with them, several handing over their guns. The police and military immediately withdrew from Peshawar, and the city was in the hands of the people for ten days until a powerful British force with air support retook it without resistance.
One might think that Gandhi would have hailed the events in Peshawar as a triumph for “non-violence”. But on the contrary, he later condemned the troops/or refusing to fire on the crowds! In an interview with a French journalist in 1932, Gandhi said in reply to a question about the Gahrwali men who had been savagely sentenced after a court-martial:
A soldier who disobeys an order to fire breaks that oath which he has taken and renders him self guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey; for when I am in power I shall in all likelihood make use of the same officials and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power.
This amazing statement was no momentary aberration. In the Irwin-Gandhi Agree­ment of 1931, the clause on release of prisoners specifically excluded the Gahrwali sol­diers.
Hoping to restore Gandhi’s fast-fading control over the movement, the British arrested him to re-focus attention on him. Instead, the country exploded. A massive demonstra­tion by textile and railway workers in Bombay forced the police to quit the streets. In Sholapur the workers seized the town and replaced the police with their own administra­tion for a week, until martial law was declared. Hartals and strikes took place all over India. The British dropped 500 tons of bombs on rebellious Pathans in North-West Fron­tier Province, to little avail. The newly formed Red Shins, a militant North-West Frontier organisation, soared in membership from a couple of hundred to 80,000. A militant Mus­lim party sprung up in the Punjab.
Despite 60.000 political arrests, innumerable baton charges and continual firing, upon unarmed crowds, the movement raged through 1930. At demonstrations in Bombay, the centre of the industrial working class, red flags began to proliferate and even outnumber Congress flags at mass demonstrations. Alarmed. British businessmen began to demand self-government for India on a Dominion basis.
But once again, Gandhi was just as alarmed as the British at the direction the move­ment was taking. Professor H.G. Alexander. Professor of International Relations at Selly Oak College in Birmingham, visited him in jail in September 1930 and reported:
Even in the seclusion of his prison he is acutely conscious that such embitterment is developing, and for that reason he would welcome a return to peace and co-operation as soon as it could be honestly obtained … his influ­ence is still great, but more dangerous and uncontrollable forces are gather­ing strength daily.

“Self-rule from within”
In January 26, 1931, the British released Gandhi as a “goodwill gesture”. After a month of negotiations, Gandhi then signed an agreement with Viceroy Irwin. The Irwin-Gandhi agreement did not concede one of Gandhi’s Eleven Points. It did not even break the British monopoly on salt. But Gandhi agreed to end civil disobedience and take part in the Round Table Conference of British colonies in London, which Congress had sworn to boycott.
Angry resolutions from youth conferences and organisations condemned the deal. Outraged Bombay workers even staged a demonstration against Gandhi on his departure for the Round Table Conference. Jawaharlal Nehru, whose job it was to move the Agree­ment to the Congress Party, admitted that he could not do so “without great mental con­flict and physical distress”. “Was it for this,” Nehru asked later, “that our people had behaved so gallantly for a year?” He felt, however, that it would only be “personal van­ity” to express his dissent.
Gandhi later admitted the movement had shown no signs of breaking up. “The sugges­tion of the impending collapse of our movement is entirely false: the movement was showing no signs of slackening,” he said. Instead, he justified his deal with Irwin with the amazing statement to the press on March 5, 1931, that ‘The Congress has never made a bid for victory.” Gloated The Times the next day: “Such a victory has seldom been vouchsafed to any Viceroy.” The next day, Gandhi argued to the press that Puma Swaraj really meant “disciplined self-rule from within”!
When Gandhi returned empty-handed nine months later from the RoundTable Confer­ence, the British immediately rearrested him, banned Congress and its press, and seized its funds and property.
Gandhi’s response was to issue orders against secret organisation of Congress (the only possible way of proceeding under illegal conditions) and to assure the landlords that no campaign would be approved against their interests, Gandhi then took up the untouchables’ cause, which in the circumstances could only be a diversion. Delighted, the British released him.
Gandhi finally closed down the struggle in early 1934, by announcing that from then on, since
the masses have not yet received the message of satyagraha, …, [it] needs to be confined to one qualified person at a rime. In the present circumstances only one, and that myself, should far the time being bear the responsibility of civil disobedience.
In other words, a one-man campaign for national independence! As one left-wing critic put it, “such was the final reductio ad absurdum of the Gandhist theory of ‘non-violent non-cooperation’ as the path of liberation for the Indian people.”
Gandhi was to launch two more campaigns, in 1940-41 and again in 1942. In the meantime, with the collapse of the struggle, Hindu-Muslim rioting again intensified.
Individual Satyagraha
Under wartime conditions in 1940. Gandhi launched a campaign of “individual satyagraha.” This was in response to the left in Congress, which wanted the party to launch another mass movement for independence while Britain was tied up by the war. Arguing against causing any discomfort to Britain, Gandhi replied:
There is neither the warrant nor atmosphere for mass action. That would be naked embarrassment and a betrayal of non-violence. What is more, it can never lead to independence.
Gandhi’s “campaign” consisted of individuals, where possible selected by himself, getting up in public places, making token statements against the war and for independ­ence, and being arrested. At the same time, Gandhi discouraged mass meetings.
When the campaign finally fizzled out in 1941, 25,069 of Gandhi’s followers had been convicted without making any impact, either on the British or the general population.
Quit India
Despite his anxiety not to cause the British “naked embarrassment”, pressure from the left forced Gandhi to launch his Quit India campaign in 1942.
Subhas Bose. a militant nationalist from Bengal and long-time critic of Gandhi inside the Congress Party, had split from Congress and launched the Indian National Army. Gandhi feared that if the Japanese, who were using the slogan “Asia for the Asians”, invaded, Subhas Bose might align with them against the British and win mass support. So Gandhi launched his Quit India campaign on August 8, 1942.
This time, the British moved immediately. In the early hours of August 9, they arrested Gandhi and the entire Congress leadership. When peaceful protest demonstrations gath­ered, the British fired on them or broke them up with baton charges. Wholesale rioting broke out within 12 hours.
Despite Gandhi’s pleas for calm from his prison cell, 70 police stations were burnt down, 550 post offices attacked, and 85 courthouses and symbols of state authority be­sieged across the country. The British Army held firm, firing on crowds and even ma­chine-gunning them from the air. Public hangings were introduced for the first time in generations. With Congress refusing to lead or organise armed resistance, and the Com­munist Party taking a position to Gandhi’s right by supporting the British/Russian war effort, the British were able to crush the uprising.
The Bombay naval mutiny
After the war in 1946, the sailors of Bombay, led by the young naval communications ratings, mutinied and seized their ships. Their main aim was to hand the ships over to the Congress leaders until the British quit. A leader of the mutiny. B.C. Dutt. recounted:
The streets of Bombay resounded to our slogans calling for national unity. It was a strange sight for the people of Bombay. The ratings marching through the streets with party flags of the Congress and the Muslim League tied to­gether to symbolise national unity.
But Gandhi was horrified by the mutiny. He said he was following it with “painful interest” and denounced the sailors as “setting a bad and unbecoming example for In­dia.” He ordered Patel, the most right-wing leader of Congress, to deal with the ratings.
Gandhi’s rejection of the mutiny was the signal the British needed. They broadcast the message to the mutineers on February 22 that. “Only unconditional surrender will be accepted.”
The working class of Bombay exploded in sympathy with the mutineers. Irrespective of caste or religion, they fought the police and army with rocks and knives. Like the ratings, they carried the two flags tied together. Two hundred of them died in the fighting. Gandhi’s response was to denounce this display of militant unity.
This mutiny in the navy and what is following is not, in any sense of the term, non-violent action … A combination between the Hindus and the Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy and it will lead to and probably is a preparation for mutual violence – bad for India and the world.
In the end, the ratings were forced to surrender. But the mutiny signalled to the British that no longer could they even rely on their own “sepoys” to keep order for them.
Why did the British leave?
Gandhi’s last significant campaign had peaked in 1931. It certainly wasn’t his “non-violent non-cooperation” that drove the British out sixteen years later. So why did the British leave in 1947. if they had the measure of Gandhi and the nationalist move­ment?
Barry Paiver, writing in the British Socialist Review, provides the most plausible ex­planation:
Firstly, the positive reasons for British rule vanished. The economic basis of the Indian empire was the hard currency surpluses earned by the export of commercial crops to other industrial countries. These surpluses were then transferred to London to support the pound. The Depression cut the prices of these crops in half and the surpluses vanished, never to return. For the Brit­ish state (as opposed to individual companies) this turned India into an eco­nomic liability.
India’s other imperial role was the military foundation of the empire east of Suez. In both world wars the Indian Army fought for the British in the Mid­dle East. But in 1942 the Japanese smashed British power in the East. The British were only saved by American victories in the Pacific. India s military role vanished.
Paiver argues that there were several pressing reasons for the British to actually leave. Apart from the Bombay Naval Mutiny, the end of the war had seen a general resurgence of anti-British feeling. The trial of officers of the Indian National Army who had fought alongside the Japanese took place in 1945. They got so much support that Congress leaders were forced to assist in their defence. Nehru even donning lawyer’s robes for the first time in thirty years.
The myth of non-violent action
Militant peasant struggles led by the Communist Party had also been giving the Brit­ish trouble since the early 1940s. But the dominant issue after 1945 was religious communalism, which had festered each time Gandhi aborted the mass struggle of earlier days.
After 1945, the Muslim League gained overwhelming support in Muslim areas for its demand for a partition and a Muslim state. This enabled them to disrupt the traditional government to gain their way, which in turn sparked a series of horrendous communal riots.
Given the disappearance of any positive reason for staying, and the other pressures on them to leave, the British had no desire to try and keep the peace in such circumstances. In the end, they practically ran away.
Mahatma Gandhi made a major contribution to the Indian independence movement in 1919 by turning it to a mass orientation. But his strategy of non-violence soon became a major obstacle to the movement’s further development and remained so for the rest of his career.
Gandhi’s philosophy of “satyagraha” and his dream of a big happy family of Indian capitalists, land owners and exploited may have appealed to his predominantly middle-class and rich peasant devotees. They certainly suited his upper-class backers who wanted a limited mass mobilisation to win concessions and ultimately independence from the British. But Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns rarely ran along the course he had mapped out for them. The oppressed – the workers and poorer peasants – invariably took the cam­paigns much further than Gandhi intended. They moved towards confronting their own Indian exploiters as well as the British.
When the British used force to repress them, they often responded in kind.
Gandhi’s pacifism led him to react in an elitist fashion. He would call off the struggle, censuring the masses for failing to come up to his own pious standards. He would then restrict the active role in the next phase of the campaign to an ever-diminishing circle whom he felt he could trust
Gandhi’s non-violent strategy did not drive the British out of India. His last important campaign peaked in 1931–16 years before the British left. The British clearly had Gan­dhi’s measure, and left for reasons of their own.
Gandhi cannot take credit for the departure of the British, but he probably can take some credit for the wretchedly unequal society that they left behind. For by ruining the popular worker/peasant upsurges of the 1919-1934 period, he guaranteed that the Indian capitalist class would remain intact to receive the reins of power from the British. They continue to wield those reins ruthlessly to this day, invoking Gandhi’s name as they go.


The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol 2, p. 136

M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (1909)

E.M.S. Namboodiripad, The Mahatma and the Ism, (Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi 1959), p. 26-7

Sir Valentine Chirol, India (1926). p.207, quoted in R.P. Dun, India Today (1940), p. 304

R.P. Dull, India Today (1940), p. 304

Dull, p. 305

M.K. Gandhi in Young India 31.12.1919, quoted in Dull, p.302

Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian Struggle 1920-1934, p. 68

Jawaharlal Nehru, Autobiography, p. 76

Bose, p. 90

Nehru, p. 85

Dutt, p. 315

Quoted by C.F. Andrews in the New Republic. 3.4.1939

Dutt, p. 327

Reply to French journalist Charles Petrasch on the question of the Gahrwali Soldiers, Monde, 20.2.1932

Spectator, 3.1.1931, quoted in Dun, p. 338

Dutt, p. 339

Dutt, p. 338

Dutt, p. 338

Dutt, p. 338

Dutt, p. 343

Dutt, p. 343

R.C. Majumdar. History of the Freedom Movement in India (1963), Vol 3

Namboodiripad. p. 101

Namboodiripad. p. 109

B. Paiver, Socialist Review (Britain) August 1982, p.22




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Preparation for web by Marc Newman, December 2002



Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Independence Struggle


Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi was born in the year 1869, when the land of India was ruled as part of the British Empire. At the time of Gandhi’s birth the British were, in general, liked in India – yet over the course of his life this would change enormously. Indeed, Gandhi himself came to sit the centre of an enormous campaign to end British control of India, giving India ‘Home rule’ or ‘Swaraj’. So important was Gandhi to this campaign that he has since come to be seen as both the founding father of Indian independence, and one of the leading figures in the struggle for freedom and democracy throughout the world.

This essay looks at the role played by Mohandas Gandhi in the Indian independence struggle, and how his ideals have affected the struggle for freedom and democracy throughout the world. The essay begins with a short biography of Gandhi. Following this, the essay examines Gandhi’s role in the fight against the British in India. The essay concludes by examining the ways Gandhi’s strategies of ‘non-violence’ and ‘ahimsa’ have been used in other struggles in other parts of the world.

Mohandas Gandhi was born in 1869 in Porbandar (now in Gujarat state, India (Wikipedia, 2007)), a princely state ruled by a clan of Rajputs; Gandhi’s father served as a prime minister to the Rajput princes. Despite the nominal independence enjoyed by the Rajput princes, the state was largely controlled by the British. Moreover, since their conquest of India in the 18th century, the British had used their military dominance to exact mercurial gain. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they extracted wealth form India by controlling imports and exports to the country, enriching themselves rich by selling expensive manufactures in exchange for cheap simple commodities. Indeed, at the time of Gandhi’s birth, India was exceedingly poor; as Karl Marx has noted, “The English cotton machinery produced an acute effect in India. The Governor General reported in 1834-5: ‘the misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India’” (Marx, 1954: chapter 15 section 5). It was this extreme poverty, this misery without parallel in the history of commerce, that incensed Gandhi so much and fuelled his rejection of British rule.

It would, however, be many years before British rule of India would end. Indeed, as was common at the time, Gandhi himself benefited much from the British, enjoying elite education in London. Following his time in London, Gandhi acted as a lawyer in South Africa. It was in these two places – South Africa and London – that Gandhi truly began to understand the level of discrimination experienced by the people of India; it was during this time that Gandhi began to actively campaign against the British, using the techniques of non-violence and civil disobedience (Wolpert, 1993).

When Gandhi returned to India, he began to use the techniques of satyagraha and ahimsa – truth struggle and non-violence – to ensure that the British could no longer effectively rule India. Gandhi organised marches and demonstrations to show the people of India that they could resist British military power without resorting to violence. This eventually led to the country becoming ungovernable. As Gandhi said, “when I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always” (Gandhi, 1927). This was reiterated in his belief that the enemy of the Indian people was not the British themselves: “I am”, he said, “not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government; but I am anti-untruth, anti-humbug, and anti-injustice. So long as the government spells injustice, it may regard me as its enemy” (, 2007).

Gandhi’s enormous success in fighting the British without using violence provided inspiration for a variety of other leaders, including Martin Luther King in the United States of America and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Both of these leaders used Gandhi’s techniques of ahimsa and satyagraha to fight racism and injustice. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela used non-violent methods to fight against apartheid, using protests and the courts to eventually change international opinion against the racist government. In the same way, Martin Luther King led a number of marches pushing for civil rights for black people in the United States, fighting for their rights and against segregation. Like Gandhi, both Mandela and King eventually brought about change through persuasion and moral authority, and not through force or violence.



Gandhi, M K. 1927. An Autobiography, or the story of my experiments with truth. Ahmedabad: Navijivan Publishing House.

Marx, Karl. 1954. Capital Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Accessed 27 June 2007.

Wikipedia. 2007. Porbandar. Accessed 27 June 2007.

Wolpert, Stanley 1993. A New History of India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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Ready Quotes by Mahatma Gandhi


When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth
and love has always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall - think of it, always.

I own that I have an immovable faith in God and His goodness, and an inconsumable passion for truth and love. But, is that not what every person has latent in him?

Work without faith is like an attempt to reach the bottom of a bottomless pit. I can easily put up with the denial of the world, but any denial by me of my God is unthinkable.

I may be a despicable person, but when Truth speaks through me I am invincible.

Often in my progress I have had faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth, God; and daily the conviction is growing upon me that He alone is real and all else is unreal.

I can see that in the midst of darkness light persists.
Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is Love. He is the Supreme good.

I call God long-suffering and patient precisely because He permits evil in the world. I know that He has no evil in Him and yet if there is evil, He is the author of it and yet untouched by it.

The purer I try to become, the nearer to God I feel myself to be. How much more should I be near to Him when my faith is not a mere apology, as it is today, but has become as immovable as the Himalayas and as white and bright as the snows on their peaks.

As food is necessary for the body, prayer is necessary for the soul. Prayer is an impossibility without a living faith in the presence of God within. God demands nothing less than complete self-surrender as the price for the only real freedom that is worth having.

I am giving you a bit of my experience and that of my companions when I say that he who has experienced the magic of prayer may do without food for days together but not for a single moment without prayer. For without prayer there is no inward peace.

For me the Voice of God, the Conscience, of Truth, or the Inner Voice or " the Still Small Voice" mean one and the same thing.

The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source. I cannot, therefore, detach myself from the wickedest soul... nor may I be denied identity with the most virtuous.


"Let no one say that he is a follower of Gandhi.
It is enough that I should be my own follower.
You are not followers but fellow students,
fellow pilgrims, fellow seekers, fellow workers."
"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
          During his sixty-odd years as an attorney, journalist, speaker and activist, Mohandas K. Gandhi (the “Mahatma” or "Great One") published a massive body of work collected into more than a hundred volumes.  (To obtain most of Gandhi’s works write: Greenleaf Books, Canton, Maine, USA.)   I have collected the quotes below from Gandhi’s writings included in “For Pacifists”, B. Kumarappa, Ed.;  “The Essential Gandhi”, Louis Fisher, Ed.; Joan Bondurant’s “Conquest of Violence” and “The Book of Gandhi Wisdom”, Trudy S. Settel, Ed. and from a collection by Sunanda Gandhi from various sources, including some private Gandhi family documents.
          The Gandhi quotations below reflect his ideas about spirituality and non-violent action.  However, they also illustrate his deep commitment to individual liberty and the minimal state.   Carol Moore.

          Desire for enjoyment creates bodies for the soul...The soul that is hidden beneath this earthly crust is one and the same for all men and women belonging to all climes.  There is a real and substantial unity in all the variety we see around us...The force of spirit is ever progressive and endless...If we turn our eyes to the time of which history has any record we shall find that man has been steadily progression towards Ahimsa [love and non-violence]...The moment he awakens to the spirit he cannot remain violent...How many lifetimes may be needed for mastering the greatest spiritual force that mankind has ever known? [Ahimsa]  But why worry even if it means several lifetimes?  For, if this is the only permanent thing in life, if this is the only thing that counts, then whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well-spent..Souls must react upon souls.  And since non-violence is essentially a quality of soul, the only effective appeal to the soul must lie through non-violence...Pit soul-force against brute-force...Fear is not a disease of the body; fear kills the soul.

        Faith gains in strength only when people are willing to lay down their lives for it....Faith is not like a delicate flower which would wither away....Robust faith in oneself and brave trust of the opponent, so-called or real, is the best safeguard....A living faith cannot be manufactured by the rule of [the] majority....What is faith if it is not translated into action?...Faith is not imparted like secular subjects. It is given through the language of the heart....Every living faith must have within itself the power of rejuvenation if it is to live. Just as the body cannot exist without blood, so the soul needs matchless and pure strength of faith....My effort should never be to undermine another's faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith....Even as a tree has a single trunk but many branches and leaves, there is one religion-- human religion--but any number of faiths.

        Truth alone will endure; all the rest will be swept away before the tide of time....What may appear as truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person.  But that need not worry the seeker....Truth and untruth often co-exist; good and evil often are found together....Use truth as your anvil, nonviolence as your hammer and anything that does not stand the test when it is brought to the anvil of truth and hammered with nonviolence, reject it....Truth and nonviolence demand that no human being may debar himself from serving any other human being, no matter how sinful he may be....Truth is the first to be sought for, and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you....An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it....Truth without humility would be an arrogant caricature....The quest of truth involves self-suffering, sometimes even unto death.

        Satyagraha is a relentless search for truth and a determination to search truth....Satyagraha is an attribute of the spirit within....Satyagraha has been designed as an effective substitute for violence.... Satyagraha is a process of educating public opinion, such that it covers all the elements of the society and makes itself irresistible....The fight of Satyagraha is for the strong in spirit, not the doubter or the timid. Satyagraha teaches us the art of living as well as dying....Satyagraha, of which civil-resistance is but a part, is to me the universal law of life....Satyagraha can rid society of all evils, political, economic, and moral...A genuine Satyagraha should never excite contempt in the opponent even when it fails to command regard or respect....Satyagraha thrives on repression till at last the repressor is tired and the object of Satyagraha is gained....Satyagraha does not depend on the outside [for] help; it derives all its strength from within....The method of Satyagraha requires that the Satyagrahi should never lose hope, so long as there is the slightest ground left for it....In the dictionary of Satyagraha, there is no enemy. Since Satyagraha is a method of conversion and conviction, it seeks never to use the slightest coercion... For a Satyagraha brigade, only those are eligible who believe in ahimsa--nonviolence and satya--truth... A Satyagrahi has infinite patience, abundant faith in others, and ample hope....A Satyagrahi cannot go to law for a personal wrong....In the code of the Satyagrahi, there is no such thing as surrender to brute force.

           Violence breeds violence...Pure goals can never justify impure or violent action...They say the means are after all just means.  I would say means are after all everything.  As the means, so the end....If we take care of the means we are bound of reach the end sooner or later.

         Woman is more fitted than man to make exploration and take bolder action in nonviolence... There is no occasion for women to consider themselves subordinate or inferior to men....Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacity....If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man's superior....If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with women...

          The spirit of political and international liberty is universal and, it may even be said, instinctive...The attainment of freedom, whether for a man, a nation or the world, must be in exact proportion to the attainment of non-violence by each...There is no such thing as slow freedom.  Til we are fully free we are all slaves...I want freedom for the full expression of my personality.  I must be free to build a staircase to Sirius if I want to...No action which is not voluntary can be called moral.  So long as we act like machines there can be no question of morality....Freedom is like birth. Till we are fully free, we are slaves....No charter of freedom will be worth looking at which does not ensure the same measure of freedom for the minorities as for the majority....True nonviolence should mean a complete freedom from ill-will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all....Complete independence does not mean arrogant isolation or a superior disdain for all help....If it is man's (sic) privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter-dependent.... Any action that is dictated by fear or by coercion of any kind ceases to be moral....Freedom of the individual is at the root of all progress.

          Government control gives rise to fraud, suppression of Truth, intensification of the black market and artificial scarcity.  Above all, it unmans the people and deprives them of initiative, it undoes the teaching of self-help...I look upon an increase in the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the heart of all progress...We find the general work of mankind is being carried on from day to day be the mass of people acting as if by instinct....If they were instinctively violent the world would end in no time...It is when the mass mind is unnaturally influenced by wicked men that the mass of mankind commit violence.  But they forget it as they commit it because they return to their peaceful nature immediately the evil influence of the directing mind has been removed....A government that is evil has no room for good men and women except in its prisons.

          Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt. And a citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness...Every citizen is responsible for every act of his government...There is only one sovereign remedy, namely, non-violent non-cooperation.  Whether we advertise the fact or not, the moment we cease to support the government it dies a nature death....My method is conversion, not coercion, it is self-suffering, not the suffering of the tyrant....I hope the real Swaraj (self-rule) will come not by the acquisition of authority by the few but by the acquisition by all of the courage to resist authority when abused.  In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by education the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate ad control authority.... Civil disobedience is the assertion of a right which law should give but which it denies...Civil disobedience presupposes willing obedience of our self-imposed rules, and without it civil disobedience would be cruel joke....Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing....Disobedience to be civil has to be open and nonviolent....Disobedience to be civil implies discipline, thought, care, attention...Disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation....Non-cooperation and civil disobedience are different but [are] branches of the same tree call Satyagraha (truth-force).... Coercion cannot but result in chaos in the end....One who uses coercion is guilty of deliberate violence. Coercion is inhuman....Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good... Nonviolent action without the cooperation of the heart and the head cannot produce the intended result....All through history the way of truth and love has always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.

          The science of war leads one to dictatorship, pure and simple.  The science of non- violence alone can lead one to pure democracy...The states that are today nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent.  Power is of two kinds.  One is obtained by fear of punishment and the other by arts of love.  Power based on love is thousand times more effective and permanent than power derived from fear of punishment....
         When a respectable minority objects to any rule of conduct, it would be dignified of the majority to yield...No organization can run smoothly when it is divided into two camps, each growling at each other and each determined to have its own way by hook or by crook...The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms.  It requires change of heart...My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.  That can not happen except through non-violence...It is a blasphemy to say non-violence can be practiced only by individuals and never by nations which are compose of individuals...The nearest approach to purest anarchy would be a democracy based on non-violence...A society organized and run on the basis of complete non-violence would be the purest anarchy....

         I have conceded that even in a non-violent state a police force may be necessary...Of course, I can and do envisage a state where the police would be unnecessary but whether we shall succeed in realizing it, the future alone will show....Police ranks will be composed of believers in non-violence.  The people will instinctively render them every help and through
mutual cooperation they will easily deal with the ever decreasing disturbances...Violent quarrels between labor and capital and strikes will be few and far between in a non-violent state because the influence of the non-violent majority will be great as to respect the principle elements in society.  Similarly, there will be no room for communal disturbances....

          A non-violent army acts unlike armed men, as well in times of peace as in times of disturbances.  Theirs will be the duty of bringing warring communities together, carrying peace propaganda, engaging in activities that would bring and keep them in touch with every single person in their parish or division.  Such an army should be ready to cope with any emergency, and in order to still the frenzy of mobs should risk their lives in numbers sufficient for that purpose. ...Satragrapha (truth-force) brigades can be organized in every village and every block of buildings in the cities.  In non-violent bodies the charger or soul force must mean everything and the physique must take second place.  It is difficult to find such persons.  That is why the non-violent force must be small if it is to efficient.
          [If the non-violent society is attacked from without] there are two ways open to non- violence.  To yield possession, but non-cooperate with the aggressor...prefer death to submission.  The second way would be non-violent resistance by the people who have been trained in the non-violent way...The unexpected spectacle of endless rows upon rows of men and women simply dying rather than surrender to the will of an aggressor must ultimately melt him and his soldiery...A nation or group which has made non-violence its final policy cannot be subjected to slavery even by the atom bomb....Before general disarmament commences some nation will have to disarm herself and take large risks.  The level of non-violence in that nation, if that even happily comes to pass, will naturally have risen so high as to command universal respect.

          Economic equality is the master key to non-violent independence...A non-violent system of government is impossible as long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists....A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power riches give and a sharing of them for the public good....All
have not the same capacity...I would not cramp talent...I want to bring about an equalization of status....

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