The Civil in ‘Civil Disobedience’

Gandhi’s civil disobedience practice didn’t simply tap into popular resentment—it demanded a force of character

A mounted policeman disperses a crowd gathered at the salt works in Mumbai's Wadala following Gandhi's call for civil disobedience. Over 300 people were injured
A mounted policeman disperses a crowd gathered at the salt works in Mumbai's Wadala following Gandhi's call for civil disobedience. Over 300 people were injured

Anil Nauriya

Gandhi and his associates had developed a technique of mass struggle, based on passive resistance or what Gandhi called satyagraha. After returning to India in 1915, he soon involved himself successively with peasant issues in eastern India, and then textile workers and peasants in western India. Soon thereafter, the colonial government introduced legislation (the Rowlatt bills) aimed at curbing ‘anarchic and revolutionary crimes’. The bills made no provision for pleas, appeals or defence lawyers. Gandhi published a summary of the Rowlatt bills, pinpointing the egregiously offensive bits. He declared that submitting to such legislation was to “forfeit one’s humanity” and called a nationwide hartal (protest strike) on 6 April 1919. This was widely observed, becoming the first-ever nationwide protest in India on a democratic rights issue; it was a turning point in modern Indian history.

The massacre of unarmed civilians who had gathered for a protest meeting at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, took place a week later, on 13 April 1919. There was aerial bombing in parts of Punjab followed by the imposition of martial law. These events did briefly stall the resistance movement, but they also put iron in India’s soul, strengthening people’s resolve to resist imperial rule. In 1920, the epochal Non-cooperation Movement got underway.

Some key distinctions in Gandhi’s modes of defiance are often inadequately understood. ‘Non-cooperation’ involved voluntary withdrawal from association with the colonial government. As Gandhi argued: ‘It is as amazing as it is humiliating that less than one hundred thousand white men should be able to rule three hundred and fifteen million Indians. They do so somewhat undoubtedly by force but more by securing our cooperation in a thousand ways… They want India’s billions, and they want India’s manpower for their imperialistic greed.’ (Young India, 22 September 1920). A person may refuse cooperation at any time and non-cooperation per se entails no legal transgression. Yet it had the potential to paralyse the government. In March 1921, Gandhi declared: ‘The problem before us... is one of opposing our will to that of the will of the Government, in other words to withdraw our cooperation from it. If we are united in purpose, the Government must obey our will or retire.’ (Young India, 30 March 1921).

‘Civil Disobedience’, as envisaged by Gandhi, was distinct from non-cooperation; it involved defiance of specific laws or actions. In the 1920s, civil disobedience was contemplated at Bardoli in west India, Guntur in south India, and a few other places, in addition to the all-India non-cooperation programme. Gandhi would lay down rigorous conditions for people in areas where civil disobedience was planned. As resistance intensified in the 1920s, Gandhi expected some districts in Andhra and Gujarat to play an active role as arenas of struggle. He would receive requests to visit various parts of Gujarat, for example, but would tour them depending on his assessment of their readiness for struggle. In October 1921, he specified his conditions:

‘Even if we have only one district well prepared, we shall be able to put up a strong fight and win. I shall be ready to encamp in such a district. For that, however, the following conditions must first be fulfilled:

• Hindus and Muslims there should be living like blood-brothers; not in fear of each other, but in loving harmony.

• Hindus, Muslims and Parsis in the district should all be convinced in their hearts that victory on the Khilafat issue with India’s help is possible only through a peaceful struggle.

• The people of that district should have realised that together with the spirit of non-violence they need to have courage even to mount the gallows. At least one in a hundred must have such courage; that is, in a population of five lakhs, there should not be less than 5,000 such persons quietly determined to face death.

• The Hindus of that district should have learnt to regard untouchability as a sin and to treat Bhangis, Dheds and others with kindness. So much by way of action on the mental plane. Besides this, as a token of their sincerity and proof of their zeal:

• Over 90 per cent of the people of that district should have renounced the use of foreign cloth and should be wearing khadi made from yarn they themselves have spun and got woven in their own district; [they] should possess one spinning wheel for every ten persons among them, and this should be in actual operation. It is not at all difficult to satisfy these conditions, and even one such district will be able to win swaraj.’

These conditions were strictly defined and their implementation carefully monitored. To Abbas Tyabji, who was active in Kheda, another area of Gujarat that was being considered in 1921 as an arena for civil disobedience, Gandhi wrote:

‘Our preparation must be solid and substantial. Swadeshi must take deep root; untouchability must go in reality, and Hindu-Muslim unity must be true. All this is impossible without a truly non-violent spirit.’

On the preparedness of Bardoli, in Surat district, to embark on civil disobedience, Gandhi made this assessment after a tour of the area along with Azad Sobhani:

‘Bardoli, before it challenges the might of a great empire, must complete its swadeshi programme to the extent of manufacturing sufficient hand-spun cloth to clothe itself, must freely admit untouchables into national schools and must be so far non-violent that solitary unarmed cooperators and English and other officials might feel absolutely secure in their midst.’

For Gandhi, nominal compliance with his pre-conditions for civil disobedience would not do. On the need for inclusive education, for instance, his review of Bardoli’s progress reads as follows:

‘It is not enough that Dheds and Bhangis can attend meetings freely. The meaning of ending the practice of untouchability should be fully grasped. People should come to love Dheds and Bhangis. Their children should freely attend national schools; if they do not, we should go and fetch them, persuading the parents to send them.’

On account of Gandhi’s doubts about people’s commitment to his preconditions, civil disobedience plans—as distinct from the non-cooperation movement—in the early 1920s were often suspended. The civil disobedience planned in Bardoli in January-February 1922 was suspended in the wake of violent incidents in various parts of the country, specifically in the United Provinces.

Contrary to common belief, the non-cooperation movement, which Gandhi distinguished from active civil disobedience, was not suspended. This was clarified by Gandhi more than once before his arrest for sedition in March 1922. Jawaharlal Nehru himself was arrested not only in December 1921 but also in defiance activities in May 1922, for action on boycott of foreign cloth taken well after the movement had, in the inaccurate understanding widely prevalent today, been called off. Non-cooperation was, in fact, relaxed only at the end of 1924. Even then, certain aspects of non-cooperation, such as the boycott of foreign cloth and the establishment of national schools, remained a feature of the struggle.

In sharp contrast to the restraints Gandhi imposed on civil disobedience in his time, latter-day movements in post-independence India have shown none of that self-imposed discipline. Consider, for instance, the Nav Nirman agitation in Gujarat in the 1970s, which later sparked the RSS-backed JP movement in Bihar and the country. Nav Nirman sought to reverse by force the verdict of the 1972 state assembly elections in Gujarat. The violence of the agitation, which saw elected legislators being collared by mobs and made to quit for alleged corruption, was an early sign of the birth and growth of fascism in post-independence India. A recent biography of Jayaprakash Narayan says ‘young RSS pracharaks’ (including Narendra Modi) were at the ‘vanguard’ of the Nav Nirman movement, the agitation often seen as a precursor of events in the run-up to the Emergency of 1975-77, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then in the second decade of this century. What that agitation and many subsequent anti-corruption agitations fundamentally lacked was the quality of self-examination and the pluralist, humanist spirit of Gandhi’s civil disobedience; what these movements, unlike Gandhi’s, ushered in is the barbarism we witness today.

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Published: 02 Oct 2022, 9:00 AM