As 2020 marks the centenary of non-cooperation movement, Nehru’s reflections on why it was suspended 

This year marks the centenary of the Non-Co-operation Movement, the first all-India mass upsurge in the battle for freedom, which was inaugurated by Gandhiji on 1st August 1920

Jawaharlal Nehru (Social Media)
Jawaharlal Nehru (Social Media)

NH Web Desk

This year marks the centenary of the Non-Co-operation Movement, the first all-India mass upsurge in the battle for freedom, inaugurated by Gandhiji on 1st August 1920. The movement was brought to a sudden halt by Gandhiji in February 1922, as recorded by Jawaharlal Nehru in An Autobiography, after an incident “near the village of Chauri Chaura where a mob of villagers had retaliated on some policemen by setting fire to the police-station and burning half a dozen or so policemen in it”. This decision had attracted much criticism at the time as well as later, the argument being that the movement was going strong and it was thwarted when it still had a lot of life left. Nehru was one of those who shared the feeling of dismay in 1922. But more than a decade later, reflecting on the decision, he came to a very different conclusion

The sudden suspension of our movement after the Chauri Chaura incident was resented, I think, by almost all the prominent Congress leaders—other than Gandhiji of course….

As a matter of fact, even the suspension of civil resistance in February 1922 was certainly not due to Chauri Chaura alone, although most people imagined so. That was only the last straw. Gandhiji has often acted almost by instinct; by long and close association with the masses he appears to have developed, as great popular leaders often do, a new sense which tells him how the mass feels, what it does and what it can do. He reacts to this instinctive feeling and fashions his action accordingly, and later, for the benefit of his surprised and resentful colleagues, tries to clothe his decision with reasons.

This covering is often very inadequate, as it seemed after Chauri Chaura. At that time our movement, in spite of its apparent power and the widespread enthusiasm, was going to pieces. All organisation and discipline was disappearing; almost all our good men were in prison, and the masses had so far received little training to carry on by themselves.

Any unknown man who wanted to do so could take charge of a Congress Committee and, as a matter of fact, large numbers of undesirable men, including agents provocateurs, came to the front and even controlled some local Congress and Khilafat organisations. There was no way of checking them.

This kind of thing is, of course, to some extent almost inevitable in such a struggle. The leaders must take the lead in going to prison, and trust others to carry on. All that can be done is to train the masses in some simple kinds of activity and, even more so, to abstain from certain other kinds of activity. In 1930 we had already spent several years in giving some such training, and the Civil Disobedience movement then and in 1932 was a very powerful and organised affair. This was lacking in 1921 and 1922, and there was little behind the excitement and enthusiasm of the people. There is little doubt that if the movement had continued there would have been growing sporadic violence in many places. This would have been crushed by Government in a bloody manner and a reign of terror established which would have thoroughly demoralised the people.

These were probably the reasons and influences that worked in Gandhiji’s mind, and granting his premises and the desirability of carrying on with the technique of non-violence, his decision was right. He had to stop the rot and build anew…The people generally were not strong enough to carry on the struggle for long and, in spite of almost universal discontent with foreign rule and sympathy with the Congress, there was not enough backbone or organisation. They could not last. Even the crowds that went to prison did so on the spur of the moment, expecting the whole thing to be over very soon.

It may be, therefore, that the decision to suspend civil resistance in 1922 was a right one, though the manner of doing it left much to be desired and brought about a certain demoralisation.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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