Nehru's Word: The advent of khadi and the call for Purna Swaraj

We bring to you extracts from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography of accounts of the special session of the Congress held at Calcutta in September 1920 where the resolution of Non-Cooperation was passed

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

In the autumn of 1920 a special session of the Congress met at Calcutta to consider what steps should be taken and, in particular, to decide about non-cooperation. Lala Lajpat Rai, freshly back from the United States after a long absence from home, was the president. He disliked the new-fangled proposal of non-cooperation and opposed it….

Lala Lajpat Rai was not alone in his opposition; he had a great and impressive company with him. Indeed, almost the entire Old Guard of the Congress opposed Gandhiji’s resolution of non-cooperation. Mr. C.R. Das led the opposition, not because he disapproved of the spirit behind the resolution, but chiefly because he objected to the boycott of the new legislatures.

Of the prominent leaders of the older generation, my father was the only one to take his stand by Gandhiji at that time. It was no easy matter for him to do so. He sensed and was much influenced by the objections that had led most of his old colleagues to oppose. He hesitated, as they did, to take a novel step towards an unknown region, where it was hardly possible to keep one’s old bearings. Yet he was inevitably drawn to some form of effective action, and the proposal did embody definite action, though not exactly on the lines of his thought. It took him a long time to make up his mind. He had long talks with Gandhiji and Mr. C.R. Das.

This Special Session at Calcutta began the Gandhi era in Congress politics which has lasted since then, except for a period in the twenties when he kept in the background and allowed the Swaraj Party, under the leadership of Deshbandhu C.R. Das and my father, to fill the picture. The whole look of the Congress changed; European clothes vanished and soon only khadi was to be seen; a new class of delegate, chiefly drawn from the lower middle classes became the type of Congressman; the language used became increasingly Hindustani, or sometimes the language of the province where the session was held, as many of the delegates did not understand English, and there was also a growing prejudice against using a foreign language in our national wont; and a new life and enthusiasm and earnestness became evident in Congress gatherings.”

The Lahore Congress remains fresh in my memory—a vivid patch. That is natural, for I played a leading role there, and, for a moment, occupied the centre of the stage; and I like to think sometimes of the emotions that filled me during those crowded days. I can never forget the magnificent welcome that the people of Lahore gave me, tremendous in its volume and its intensity. I knew well that this overflowing enthusiasm was for a symbol and an idea, not for me personally; yet it was no little thing for a person to become that symbol, even for a while, in the eyes and hearts of great numbers of people. And I felt exhilarated and lifted out of myself.

But my personal reactions were of little account, and there were big issues at stake. The whole atmosphere was electric and surcharged with the gravity of the occasion. Our decisions were not going to be mere criticisms or protests or expressions of opinion, but a call to action which was bound to convulse the country and affect the lives of millions.

What the distant future held for us and our country, none dare prophesy; the immediate future was clear enough, and it held the promise of strife and suffering for us and those who were dear to us. This thought sobered our enthusiasms and made us very conscious of our responsibility. Every vote that we gave became a message of farewell to ease and comfort and domestic happiness and the intercourse of friends, and an invitation to lonely days and nights and physical and mental distress.

The main resolution on Independence, and the action to be taken in furtherance of our freedom struggle, was passed almost unanimously, barely a score of persons, out of many thousands, voting against it. The real voting took place on a side issue, which came in the form of an amendment. This amendment was defeated and the voting figures were announced and the main resolution declared carried, by a curious coincidence, at the stroke of midnight on 31st December, as the old year yielded place to the new.

Thus, even as the year of grace, fixed by the Calcutta Congress, expired, the new decision was taken and preparations for the struggle launched. The wheels had been set moving, but we were still in darkness as to how and when we were to begin. The All India Congress Committee had been authorised to plan and carry out our campaign, but all knew that the real decision lay with Gandhiji.

The Lahore Congress was attended by large numbers of people from the Frontier Province nearby. Individual delegates from this province had always come to the Congress sessions, and for some years past, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan had been attending and taking part in our deliberations. In Lahore for the first time a large batch of earnest young men from the Frontier came into touch with all-India political currents. Their fresh minds were impressed, and they returned with a sense of unity with the rest of India in the struggle for freedom and full of enthusiasm for it. The men and women of the Frontier, the latest to join in India’s struggle, played an outstanding and remarkable part from 1930 onwards.”

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Published: 10 Feb 2023, 5:01 PM