Nehru's Word: The movement that filled us with excitement and optimism

We bring to you this week an extract from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography where he recounts how the wave of Non-Cooperation swept across the country, filling the masses with freedom from fear

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

The Punjab and the Khilafat wrongs were the topics of the day, and Non-Cooperation, which was to attempt to bring about a righting of these wrongs, was the all-absorbing subject. The larger issue of national freedom or Swaraj was for the moment not stressed. Gandhiji disliked vague and big objectives, he always preferred concentrating on something specific and definite.

Nevertheless, Swaraj was very much in the air and in people’s thoughts, and frequent reference was made to it in innumerable gatherings and conferences….

About this time or a little later, C.F. Andrews wrote a pamphlet advocating independence for India. I think it was called ‘Independence - The Immediate Need’. This was a brilliant essay based on some of [J.R.] Seeley’s writings on India, and it seemed to me not only to make out an unanswerable case for independence but also to mirror the inmost recesses of our hearts.

The deep urge that moved us and our half-formed desires seemed to take clear shape in his simple and earnest language. There was no economic background or socialism in what he had written; it was nationalism pure and simple, the feeling of the humiliation of India and a fierce desire to be rid of it and to put an end to our continuing degradation.

It was wonderful that C.F. Andrews, a foreigner and one belonging to the dominant race in India, should echo that cry of our inmost being. Non-cooperation was essentially, as Seeley had said long ago, ‘the notion that it was shameful to assist the foreigner in maintaining his domination’. And Andrews had written that ‘the only way of self-recovery was through some vital upheaval from within.

The explosive force needed for such an upheaval must be generated within the soul of India itself. It could not come through loans and gifts and grants and concessions and proclamations from without. It must come from within’.

Therefore, it was with the intense joy of mental and spiritual deliverance from an intolerable burden that I watched the actual outbreak of such an inner explosive force, as that which actually occurred when Mahatma Gandhi spoke to the heart of India the mantram: ‘Be free! Be slaves no more!’, and the heart of India responded. In a sudden movement her fetters began to be loosened, and the pathway of freedom was opened.

The next three months witnessed the advancing tide of non-cooperation all over the country. The appeal for a boycott of the elections to the new legislatures was remarkably successful. It did not and could not prevent everybody from going to these councils and thus keep the seats vacant. Even a handful of voters could elect or there might be an unopposed election.

But the great majority of voters abstained from voting, and all who cared for the vehemently expressed sense of the country refrained from standing as candidates. Sir Valentine Chirol happened to be in Allahabad on the election day, and he made a round of the polling booths. He returned amazed at the efficiency of the boycott.

At one rural polling station, about fifteen miles from Allahabad city, he found that not a single voter had appeared. He gives an account of his experiences in one of his books on India….

A mass upheaval is not kind to the non-conformists, though Gandhiji’s repeated warnings made non-cooperation far milder and gentler to its opponents than it otherwise would have been. But even so, the very atmosphere stifled those who opposed the movement, just as it invigorated and filled with life and energy those who supported it.

Mass upheavals and real revolutionary movements always have this double effect: they encourage and bring out the personality of those who constitute the masses or side with them, and at the same time they suppress psychologically and stifle those who differ from them.

This was the reason why some people complained that non-cooperation was intolerant and tended to introduce a dead uniformity of opinion and action. There was truth in this complaint, but the truth lay in this, that non-cooperation was a mass movement, and it was led by a man of commanding personality who inspired devotion in India’s millions.

A more vital truth, however, lay in its effect on the masses. There was a tremendous feeling of release there, a throwing-off of a great burden, a new sense of freedom. The fear that had crushed them retired into the background, and they straightened their backs and raised their heads. Even in remote bazaars the common folk talked of the Congress and Swaraj (for the Nagpur Congress had finally made Swaraj the goal), and what had happened in the Punjab, and the Khilafat.

But the word ‘Khilafat’ bore a strange meaning in most of the rural areas. People thought it came from khilaf, an Urdu word meaning ‘against’ or ‘opposed to’, and so they took it to mean: opposed to the government! They discussed, of course, especially their own particular economic grievances. Innumerable meetings and conferences added greatly to their political education.

Many of us who worked for the Congress programme lived in a kind of intoxication during the year 1921. We were full of excitement and optimism and a buoyant enthusiasm. We sensed the happiness of a person crusading for a cause.

We were not troubled with doubts or hesitation; our path seemed to lie clear in front of us and we marched ahead, lifted up by the enthusiasm of others, and helping to push on others. We worked hard, harder than we had ever done before, for we knew that the conflict with the government would come soon, and we wanted to do as much as possible before we were removed.

Above all, we had a sense of freedom and a pride in that freedom. The old feeling of oppression and frustration was completely gone. There was no more whispering, no roundabout legal phraseology to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities. We said what we felt and shouted it out from the rooftops.

We had not only a feeling of satisfaction at doing effective political work which was changing the face of India before our eyes and, as we believed, bringing Indian freedom very near, but also an agreeable sense of moral superiority over our opponents, both in regard to our goal and our methods.”

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