Gandhian Asceticism 1920 to 1948
Gandhi emerged as a political leader in 1919. In 1893, he went to South Africa as the lawyer of a firm of Porbander Muslims and was deeply shocked by the disabilities of the Indians there. It is here that he first used his political weapon Satyagraha with which he achieved success. It may be useful to mention that the doctrine of passive resistance and Non-cooperation was preached by Sri Aurobindo in 1907. As Gandhi popularized the principle and technique of Satyagraha in Indian politics and its dominant role in the struggle for freedom, it is useful to know the general ideas and philosophy underlying it.
1. The word Satyagraha consists of two words ie satya or truth and agraha or adherence. The word was originally coined in South Africa and was originally described by him as Passive Resistance. Later on he distinguished between the two i.e. satyagraha and passive resistance by saying “ The latter has been conceived as a weapon of the weak and does not exclude the use of physical force or violence for the purpose of gaining one’s end, whereas the former has been conceived as a weapon of the strongest and excludes the use of violence in any shape and form”.
2. Satyagraha is the law of love, the way of love for all.
3. Non-violence as expounded by Gandhi “When a person claims to be non-violent, he is expected not to be angry with one who has injured him. He will not wish him harm, he will not cause him physical hurt. He will put up with all injury to which he is subjected to by the wrong doer. Complete non-violence is complete absence of ill-will against all that lives”. Was Gandhi a saint!
4. “Satyagraha eschews violence absolutely as a matter of principle, at all stages and forms. The idea is not to destroy or harass the opponent, but to convert him or win him over by sympathy, self-suffering and patience. It approaches the evildoer with love. The Satyagrahi has infinite trust in human nature and its inherent goodness”.
5. “Non-violence, in its dynamic condition, means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means the pitting one one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire, to save his honor and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or regeneration.
6. “I do not advice that where there is a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advice violence”.
7. “The religion of non-violence is not merely meant for the rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Non-violence is the law of the brute. The rishis, who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence, were greater geniuses than Newton”.
8. “As a moral-not a physical weapon, it raises political warfare to a higher plane. Groups powerless in a political and military sense, can fall back upon it as their only weapon. It involves self-chosen suffering and humiliation for the resisters and thus demands in them unusual resources of self-mastery and strength of will”.
Gandhi’s satyagraha did produce results e.g. the Champaran Agrarian Bill of 1917, two was with the millowners of Ahmedabad who lead a fast for higher pay to workers. Then there was the Satyagraha by the farmers of Kheda. While the Non-cooperation was called off and some gains lost, the mostly non-violent movement had two important gains. One was the willingness and ability of people to endure a remarkable degree of hardships inflicted by the govt. Two is that Non-Cooperation became a mass movement and the Congress a revolutionary organization.
Did India get its independence because of Ahimsa?
1. Quoting from the book Defending India “The British withdrawal from India was not, as if often asserted, an act of high statesmanship. A war-ravaged Britain was no longer in a position to hold India is bondage, its intelligent network had in any case been warning of a great disorder and public upheaval to follow if India did not gain independence, because British economic conditions in 1944-46 could not simply have permitted any continued occupation of India”.
2. Throughout her rule, the Brits had used Indian soldiers to put down the protesting Indians. The formation of Netaji Bose’s Indian National Army proved beyond doubt to the Brits that they could no longer rely upon the Indian sepoys to maintain their hold over India. The universal sympathy when they were tried in the Red Fort gave a rude shock to the British, in as much as it proved that Indians of all shades put a premium on the disloyalty of Indian troops to their foreign masters and looked upon it as a sign of nationalism.
3. A revolt took place in the section of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay. It was later withdrawn due to the efforts of Patel. The Army and AirForce were affected but not of a serious nature. On 19/2/1946 PM Attlee announced that the govt of England would be sending three cabinet ministers to reach an agreement with the leaders of the Constitutional issue. What was the reason for the decision to despatch the Cabinet Mission is difficult to say but it may be noted that it came 3 days after the fall of Rangoon to the Japanese. Said Attlee on 15/3/1946 “that the time of nationalism was running very fast in India and that it was time for clear and definite action".
4. The Japanese occupation of Burma brought the War to the door of India. Their warships seized the Andaman islands. Calcutta had air raids on December 1942. It created panic all over.
Will Ahimsa succeed every where?
Quoting K Subrahmanyan from the book Defending India “It has been assumed that Gandhian prescriptions of non-violent mass action would be applicable, irrespective of context. Recently, after Attenborough’s film Gandhi, was released, questions have been raised whether Gandhian methods would have succeeded against Hitler, Stalin and the like. In strategic parlance, offense and defence are different. While the former aims at changing status quo, the latter attempts at to preserve it. In India, the Brits were on the defensive, while the freedom movement was on the offensive. While in the offensive mode the leader had the choice of strategy, including use of massive non-violent mobilization of people. If the state were to go on the offensive, the populace would not have been allowed non-violent mass mobilization. That is why non-violence could not have succeeded against Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong”.
Was Gandhi’s policy of Ahimsa followed by all?
1. Gandhi’s policy of non-violence was meant for the digestion of Hindus alone. For e.g. at the time of the Moplah Rebellion in Kerala that followed soon after the Khilfat Movement in 1920, Gandhi was nowhere close to the scene of action.
2. Swami Shraddhananada, an important Arya Samaj leader, leading propagator of the Shuddhi Movement i.e. reconversion of Muslims to Hindus was murdered by a Muslim Abdul Rashid. Instead of criticizing that violent act , quoting Pattabhi Sitaramayya at the Gauhati Congress session of 1926 “Gandhi expounded what true religion was and explained the causes that led to the murder. Now you will perhaps understand why I have called Abdul Rashid a brother and I repeat it. I do not regard him as guilty of Swami’s murder. Guilty indeed are those who excited feelings of hatred against one another”.
3. Jinnah’s Direct Action Day in 1946 saw Hindus being massacred in Bengal, in active connivance with Chief Minister Suhrawardy and the Brits. Yet during the partition riots in Bengal, Gandhi was sharing roof with the same Suhrawardy in one of Calcutta’s riot prone localities. Sardar Patel even rebuked him for living in a ruffians company.
To be fair to Gandhi, when Hindus were killed in Noakali he went there to instill courage amongst the Hindus and tolerance amongst the Muslims. The point I am making is that non-violence was, is practiced more by Hindus than anyone else. On the other hand, the Muslims rarely follow this path. The Hindu was and is asked to be tolerant, forgive and forget.
But it appears that Gandhi did not understand Muslim psyche. Quoting from Rajmohan Gandhi’s book on Sardar Patel, Gandhi to Patel, “You should try to learn Urdu. Patel replied, Sixty-seven years are over and this earthen vessel is near to cracking. It is very late to learn Urdu but I will try. All the same, your learning Urdu does not seem to have helped. The more you try to get close to them, the more they flee from you”.
Appeasement, tolerance was the cornerstone of Gandhi’s Muslim policy. Starting with the Khilafat Movement, he made the Muslims realize that they were a different, Muslims first and then Indians. By not criticizing them when they took to violence he encouraged them further. Intransigent Muslim attitude lead to the Partition of India, thereby weakening it considerably. I must add that neither do I hold Gandhi or the Muslims wholly responsible for partition. There were others factors at play, which are beyond the scope of this article.
Today, large sections of the English media churn out articles on the non-violent nature of Islam, how it preaches universal brotherhood. May be Islam does say so but when you recall the dastardly acts of its followers worldwide or the respect given to their women it makes you wonder what is the truth. After all every man is remembered by the legacy that he leaves behind.
Comments - It would be incorrect to deride the role of Gandhi’s Satyagraha in India’s freedom movement but to say that it got India independence would be a travesty of truth. However, Gandhi’s one-sided Ahimsa has increased the Hindu-Muslim divide and lead to the weakening of pre and post-independent India.