The Civil Disobedience Movement

In Parts II and III we have seen how the Gandhian leadership scuttled the non-cooperation Khilafat movement when it went out of Congress control and started injuring landlord interests and also how the next six-year lull began to turn into its opposite, thanks most notably to the Bombay textile strike, the activities of HSRA and the anti-Simon agitation. The national mood for a showdown with the British continued to grow and reflected itself very powerfully at the famous Lahore session of the INC (December 1929) which adopted the resolution of Puma Swaraj. Readers will remember that a similar resolution had been adopted at the Madras session (December 1927) in the absence of Gandhi, who later repudiated it and, jointly with Motilal and others, gave the British a year’s respite at the Calcutta session (December 1928). Throughout 1929 Gandhi tried heart and soul to arrive at a compromise. The masters were tricky but adamant, and left with no other option, the Congress leadership at Lahore decided upon the promised Civil Disobedience Movement (henceforth CDM). Even in the face of strong objection by the powerful rightist lobby, Gandhi got the youthful Jawaharlal elected as the Congress President for the forthcoming stormy year, assuring the former that Jawaharlal was “extremist” in thought but “practical enough” in action and that “responsibility will mellow and sober the youth”. And Jawaharlal, in his, Presidential speech full of battle-rattle, emphasised the creed of non-violence as the inviolable limit of the coming mass movement and did not forget to add that any “contemporaneous attempts at sporadic violence” must be avoided because they “only distract attention and weaken” the “principal movement”. The stage was thus set for a strictly controlled CDM. An alternative proposal, put up by SC Bose, for immediate “non-payment of taxes”, “general strike wherever and whenever possible” and “parallel government” was rejected[1] and the main political resolution kept the door open for future negotiations.

According to a decision taken at lahore, 26 January was celebrated .throughout India as independence day in huge meetings where the people took a solemn pledge for Puma Swaraj. Then came Gandhi’s last-minute attempt at compromise in the guise of his 11-point ‘ultimatum’ to viceroy Irwin. Puma Swaraj was not demanded — not even dominion status. A few general democratic and economic demands like release of political prisoners, 50% reductions in military and administrative expenses, abolition of the state monopoly of salt manufacture and the salt tax, etc. were combined with very specific demands of bourgeois and landlord classes: lowering of the rupee-sterling ratio, textile protection and reservation of coastal shipping for Indians (not for nothing did the CPI call Gandhi’s appeal “the moderate programme of chambers of commerce” — see below) and 50% reduction in land revenues. But even this moderate offer was ignored, and after another month of inaction Gandhi started his famous 240-mile-march from Sabarmati to Pandi in Gujarat coast and formally launched the CDM by preparing salt there on 6 April. The dramatic episode caught the imagination of the masses and if was sought to be emulated in the coasts of Malabar, Tanjore, Andhra, Bengal, Orissa etc. During late May and early June another form was tried out in several places. People in their thousands would try to enter a salt works (the first such being the one at Dharasana in Bombay coast) by peacefully breaking police cordons and silently bear up with the savage blow of battons and/or bullets. The people’s determination expressed in such encounters was truly astounding.

Barring a few incidents (for instance, violations of salt laws led to repeated clashes with the police in Madras), the salt satyagrahas and boycott campaigns against liquor and foreign cloth were more or less non-violent and under strict Congress control, but the mass demonstrations in Karachi, Calcutta and Madras against the arrest of Jawaharlal on 14 April were not. There were several clashes with the police. And then took place, in quick succession, three major events which rocked the Raj and demonstrated once again that the limits of Gandhian non-violence were too narrow for the stubborn anti-imperialism of the Indian people and their revolutionary vanguards.

First, at Chittagong in East Bengal a group of national revolutionaries led by Surya Sen staged the most organised and therefore most successful group action (as distinct from individual action) in the annals of revolutionary terrorism in India. They captured two armouries, snapped telephone and telegraph wires, disrupted train movements and captured the town — all in a few hours. More than sixty young men including Ananta Singh, Ganesh Ghosh and Lokenath Baul were involved in the operation carried out in the name of “Indian Republican Army, Chittagong Branch”. A Provisional Revolutionary Government was proclaimed and the tri-colour hoisted. The death-defying patriots faced the heavy British counter-attack first from the Jalalabad hills to the north of the town and then in the form of guerilla warfare from the nearby villages where they hid among the masses. A good many of them were killed in the first few days of battle or killed/arrested in 1930 itself, but not before killing a much greater number of enemy forces. Surya Sen was arrested in early 1933 and hanged in early 1934. After Chittagong, terrorist actions increased several times in Bengal and this was also echoed in Punjab in heightened activities of the HSRA.

Notes :

1. Bose, it may be added here, was to be arrested well before the CDM was actually launched; other leaders were arrested much later.

Secondly, the people of Peshawar, capital of NWFP, rose in arms against the arrest of Abdul Ghaffar Khan (nicknamed Badshah Khan) and other local leaders on 23 April and took the city under control. The backbone of the revolt was provided by Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God), a volunteer brigade also known as Red Shirts[2] after their uniform. Hundreds laid down their lives in unequal battles with the armed police. Since 92% of the population in the NWFP were muslim, the British authorities called in the all Hindu 18th Royal Gharwali Rifles to quell the rebellion. But the Gharwalis, under subedar Chandra Singh Gharwali, who later became a communist, refused to open fire on whom they later (during court-martial) referred to as “our unarmed brethren”. This fitting rebuff against the communalist policy of “divide and rule” earned the respect and praise of the whole nation and the still extant WPP sent a special massage congratulating the patriotic soldiers but Gandhi condemned this “indiscipline” — clearly in such cases he preferred violence over an “unruly mob”. The British was able to retake the city after more than a week with the help of white troops. Inspired by the upheaval, the ever-restive tribals of NWFP launched a series of revolts in the second half of 1930.

Chittagong, Peshawar and other incidents of mass militancy at last forced the Viceroy to arrest Gandhi on 4 May, and this provoked the third great upsurge : that in Sholapur, a textile centre of Maharashtra. The industrial strike started on 7 May developed into a great rebellion in which more than 50,000 workers and toilers actively participated. Police stations, law-courts, liquor shops, British establishments and state properties were burnt down. A revolutionary parallel government was set up, which managed all the affairs of the town through workers’ and citizens’ volunteers. British rule could be re-established only after 16 May by means of bloody repression under martial law.

The arrest of Gandhi also sparked off a protest demonstration in Bombay which was so massive that the authorities did not dare to intervene. A six day hartal was observed by cloth merchants. In Calcutta, Delhi and elsewhere there were clashes with the police. In the meantime, the COM was fast becoming for women and men in different walks of life a grand occassion — a national platform — to fight for their basic demands. Thus Bengal saw an agitation against Union Boards and chowkidars or village guards who acted as government spies and landlords’ henchmen; the latter agitation became very Intense in parts of Bihar. There were important peasant struggles in UP and other provinces, as we shall discuss separately. Struggle against the anti-people forest laws broke out in Maharashtra, Karnataka and the Central Provinces. In Bardoli and certain other parts of Gujarat, villagers refused to pay land revenue even in the face of savage repression which led to mass exodus into neighbouring princely states like Baroda. A powerful student movement was launched in Assam against the humiliating “Cunningham circular” which demanded assurances of good conduct from students and guardians. There was a Naga revolt (1930-32) to establish a Naga state; and so on and so forth.

Beneath this metamorphosis of the CDM from an exercise in Gandhian non-violence into a revolutionary anti-imperialist upheaval lay a changed role of various classes and strata in it. During the first six months the bourgeoisie — particularly the merchants and petty traders but to a lesser extent also a good section of industrialists — accorded very enthusiastic support. In many trading centres like Bombay, Calcutta and Amritsar, merchants took collective pledge to boycott foreign goods (which was sometimes a prudent business policy in view of falling prices and depressed demands, but certainly this was not the sole concern). They also contributed generously to the Congress fund. The all-round support provided by GD Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj (the latter went to jail as AICC treasurer) is well-known; Wal-chand Hirachand wrote a letter to FICCI in late April urging his fellow businessmen to give up what he called a policy of “sitting on the fence” — “if the government oflndiadidnot wish to see eye to eye with Indian commercial opinion, we will be obliged to throw in our lot with those that are fighting with the Government for Swaraj[3].” As RP Dutt reported in India Today, “British businessmen in Bombay joined with the Indian businessmen, through the Millowners’ Association (with a one-third European element) and the Chamber of Commerce, in demanding immedaite self-government for Indian on a dominion basis.” (P371)

Notes :

2. To dispel a popular misconception, let it be noted that the red colour had nothing to do with the red flag.

3. See Modern India, op. cit., p-292

By the autumn of 1930, however, the mood was definitely changing. Depression-hit traders found it increasingly difficult to carry unsold stocks of foreign goods and began to sell them either openly or on the sly. Among Bombay mill-owners, practices like passing off mill cloth as khadi, over-pricing Indian cloth by taking adantage of the boycott, clandestine use of foreign yarn etc. were already rife and in August 24 mills were blacklisted by the Congress as non-swadeshi. The business-community was also protesting against frequent hartals and other disturbances that hampered industrial and commercial activities. In addition to such economic factors, there was a major political factor responsbile for the added scrupulousness of the bourgeoisie. The steep decline in agricultural prices in autumn led to increased peasant mobilisation and militancy in most parts of the country while the incarceration of first-and-second-ranking Congress leaders made the various movements from below much more unrestrained.[4] Evidently the COM had already gone beyond a bargain-counter with the imperialists, and the bourgeoisie started to recoil. This did not detract from the revolutionary sweep of the movement (as Lenin had shown in the case of Russia in his Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution), but pressure for a quick compromise[5] was mounting on the Congress leadership.

The latter, like the colonial masters, were already alarmed at the growth of “violence”; both sides therefore started preparing for a settlement which was finally arrived at on 5 March, 1931 (Congress leaders had already been freed in January). The Gandhi-Irwin Pact, the second document of great betrayal after the Bardoli resolution of 1922, was signed on that date.[6]

The pact was condemned not only by the CPI and the other radical forces; within Congress itself there was great disappointment. The Congress agreed to participate in the approaching second round of RTC (it had boycotted the first round held during 1930 in which heads of princely states and liberal leaders like Tej Bahadur Sapru and Srinivasa Shastri participated) on the basis of a very vague promise of a federal constitution with “Indian responsibility” which excluded “such matters as, for instance, defence, external affairs; the position of minorities; the financial credit of India; and the discharge of obligations”. Only those political prisoners were to be released who were not guilty of violence or “incitement to violence”. Men of Gharwal Rifles were to rot in jails, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were to be hanged[7], there was to be no enquiry into police brutality during the movement. Only those plots of confiscated land were to be returned which had not already been sold to third parties, peacful and non-obstructive picketing of foreign goods was to be allowed only if it was not “for political ends” and not directed exclusively against British wares. In return for these and a few other half-concessions steeped in “ifs” and “buts”, the Congress suspended the CDM. In the hastily convened Karachi Congress (end of March 1931) the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was almost unanimously endorsed, for Bose, Nehru and others who opposed it on other occassions did not find the courage to do so in the overbearing presence of Gandhi. On 29 August Gandhi sailed for London to take part in the second session of RTC amidst hostile demonstration by the same workers who had fought so valiantly in his name throughout 1930. He had already witnessed black flag demonstrations by the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and others, while a number of youth conferences throughout the country had expressed great shock and anger at the ignoble surrender. At the fag end of the year he returned from London empty-handed, as he himself had expected.[8]

Notes :

4. To cite one of many available examples, the forest satyagraha mentioned above was turned into a violent tribal unrest by the Kols in Maharastra and Gonds in the Cental Provinces. Within the Congress itself, the most radical and steeled elements were now taking the lead. Thus P Krishna Pillai, later to become the founder of CPI in Kerala, created news by his (and his comrades’) heroic defence of the national flag, which they hoisted on the Calicut beach on 11 November, 1930, against a shower of blows by the police.
Notes :

5. Thus the FICCI, which had in May 1930 decided to boycott the Round Table Conference (RTC) till Gandhi decided to participate and Viceroy promised Dominion Status, started reconsidering the decision by mid-Setptember. And by February next year the merchants and industrialists who had so long been supporting Gandhi were, according to the Bombay Governor’s report to Viceroy Irwin, “… contemplating a breach with him unless he adopts reasonable attitude”. This insistence on compromise was understandable in view of the baits just held out by the cunning British : a 5% surcharge on cotton piece-goods imports, which provoked loud protests from the Lanchashire lobby, and temporary shelving of “Imperial Preference” (i.e., additional charges on non-British imports). Birla’s lieutenant DP Khaitan indeed represented the entire community when in his presidential address to the Indian Chamber of Commerece (Calcutta, 11 February) he urged “Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress” to “explore the possibilities of an honourable settlement”, declaring that “We all want peace”. (See Modern India, op. cit., p 308-11 for details).

6 An attempt has often been made by liberal national historians like Bipan Chandra to present the surrender as a strategic retreat necessitated by signs of exhaustion of mass energy. Gandhi, however, never thought so. In an interview to the French magazine Monde on February 20, 1932, he stated categorically about the situation at the time of signing the pact: “the suggestion of the impending collapse of our movement is entirely false; the movement was showing no signs of slackening.” (Cited by RP Out in India Today, op. cit., p-374)

7 The three heroes were actually executed just after 18 days.

8. Gandhi had clearly hinted at this possibility at the time of the departure – see India’s Struggls For Independence. 1885-1947 ed. by Bipan Chandra, op. cit. p 286

While the Congress retreated into passivity during what is sometimes euphemistically called the “period of truce” (March-December 1931), the battle was going on between the real antagonists — the people of India and British imperialism. In the first place, there were wide-spread peasant struggles — most notably in UP and also in Bihar, Andhra, NWFP and elsewhere. Patriotic terrorism reached a record high in Bengal, even more than it did after the withdrawal of non-cooperation movement in 1922. Powerful movements developed also in many princely states against the arch reactionary, pro-British rulers — such as in Kashmir, Pudukottah (now in Tamilnadu) etc. These and many other people’s movements were, as usual, subjected to ruthless repression but the Congress organisation was by and large left alone. Actually the imperialists were utilising the ‘truce period’ for silently working out a detailed plan for a pre-emptive attack on the Congress before it would be able to resume the CDM after the inevitable failure of the RTC.

And the plan was carried out with perfect precision. Just before Gandhi’s homecoming on 28 December, Jawaharlal and Gaffar Khan were arrested and on January, 1932 Gandhi’s request for an interview with the Viceroy was answered with an arrest warrant. On the same day a whole bunch of ordinances were promulgated which ushered in a veritable martial law regime under civil authorities. The Congress and many other organisations were banned and their leaders all over the country put behind bars. The people fought back. There was a new wave of stubborn picketings, observation of various national days, boycott of British as well as loyalist business concerns, hoisting of Congress flags as a mark of defiance and salt satyagrahas. Anti-feudal and other struggles as mentioned above continued in the face of wholesale arrests and tortures, shooting-at-will, punitive expeditions, community fines and so on. But after six months or so, the leaderless movement began to decline, Gandhi had already given up all interest in the ongoing political movement, concerning himself exclusively with social problems like untouchability. It was on this score — and not against the mounting repression or any other issue of the national struggle — that he undertook a much-advertised “fast-unto-death” on 20 September 1932[9] and repeated the feat in May next year. Convinced of his bonafides, the British rulers now set the holy man free. Out of jail, he again asked for a date with the Viceroy, only to be refused again. To oblige the latter, the High Command cried halt to the mass CDM and officially disbanded Congress organisations at all levels. Selected individual satyagraha only was conducted at a few places, but even these came uncer ruthless repression and Gandhi was again arrested in August. Once again there was a fast and he was released in a month. In May 1934 the AICC was allowed to meet in Patna to declare a total and unconditional end to the CDM, a decision was also taken to contest the forthcoming elections. In June the ban on the INC was lifted.[10]

Like all great movements, the CDM set in motion all political and social forces and gave rise to a number of realignments. Firstly, the British rulers after taming the Congress spearheaded the attack once again on the communists, whose influence was again on the ascendancy since the end of 1933 thanks to the release of Meerut prisoners and reorganisation of the CPI during December 1933-early 1934. Secondly, the British policy of “divide and rule” achieved a fair degree of success; thus the November 1934 elections to the Central Assembly were contested by the Nationalist Party of Malaviya, the Muslim League of Jinnah and the INC. Thirdly, disillusionment with the Gandhian programmes and policies and the victorious march of socialism in the USSR in the midst of the world capitalist crisis led to the evolution of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) during 1933-34 (the process had started even earlier and culminated in an all-India conference held in Bombay in October 1934). The leading figures included Acharya Narendra Dev, Jayprakash Narain, Achhut Patwardhan, Yusuf Mehe-rali and Minoo Masani. The original socialist Nehru expressed his sympathies, but did not join. The leaders and activists of the new group had heterogeneous ideas about socialism and Marxism, but they were united on at least three points, as Narendra Dev put it in 1934 : that it would be a suicidal policy for them to cut themselves off from the national movement which the Congress undoubtedly represents; that they must give the Congress and the nationalist movement a socialist direction; and that to achieve this objective they must organise the workers and peasants in their class organisations, wage struggles for their economic demands and make thdm the social base of the national struggle. Despite the many ideological confusions[11] even among those like Jayprakash and Narendra Dev who sought to stress “Marxism” or “Scientific Socialism” as against “social reformism” and other brands of pseudo-socialist systems, without a doubt the CSP represented a positive development as a stage in left polarisation within the national movement. Already in 1934 it had good work in the vast peasant areas of UP and Bihar, which would soon spread to other zones including Kerala and become a base for rapid expansion of the CPI.

Notes :

9. To be more specific, the fast of 20 September was directed against a clause in the “Communal Award” declared in August 1932, which alloted to each minority community a certain number of seats in the legislatures, to be elected by a separate electorate in each case. Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were already recognised as minority communities, but the Award added to this category also the “Depressed Classes”! SCs and STs of today) and it was against this segregation of untouchables from the Hindu community as a whole that Gandhi launched his fast. He demanded that the representatives of the DCs be elected from seets reserved for them, but by the general electorate. After a lot of mediations the demand was conceded — the Poona Pact was signed which substantially increased the number of reserved seats for DCs, to be elected by the general electorate, in the provincial and central legislatures. Gandhi withdrew his fast. The amended Communal Award remained and, opposing it from a Hindu chauvinist point of view, MM Malaviya and others formed the Nationalist Party in 1934.

10. K is interesting to note that the CPI was declared illegal the very next month. Evidently, battle-lines were being re-drawn.

11. For an early Marxist critique, see RP Dutt’s article in Text VIII-1