Nehru's Word: When the British Colonialists Were Spooked
This is an extract from Nehru’s autobiography describing the impact of non-cooperation on the people of India. This is the second part of that story documenting the impact on the government of the day
As our morale grew, that of the government went down. They did not understand what was happening; it seemed that the old world they knew in India was toppling down. There was a new aggressive spirit abroad and self-reliance and fearlessness, and the great prop of British rule in India, prestige, was visibly wilting. Repression in a small way only strengthened the movement, and the government hesitated for long before it would take action against the big leaders. It did not know what the consequences might be. Was the Indian Army reliable? Would the police carry out orders? As Lord Reading, the Viceroy, said in December 1921, they were “puzzled and perplexed ”.
An interesting circular was sent confidentially by the UP government to its district officers in the summer of 1921. This circular, which was published later in a newspaper, stated with sorrow that the “initiative” was always with the “enemy”, meaning the Congress, and this was an unfortunate state of affairs. Various methods were then suggested to regain the initiative, among them being the starting of those ludicrous bodies, the ‘Aman Sabhas’. It was believed that this particular method of combating non-cooperation was adopted at the suggestion of the liberal ministers.
The nerves of many a British official began to give way. The strain was great. There was this ever-growing opposition and spirit of defiance which overshadowed official India like a vast monsoon cloud, and yet because of its peaceful methods it offered no handle, no grip, no opportunity for forcible suppression. The average Englishman did not believe in the bona fides of non-violence ; he thought that all this was camouflage, a cloak to cover some vast secret design which would burst out in violent upheaval one day.
Nurtured from childhood in the widespread belief that the East is a mysterious place, and in its bazaars and narrow lanes secret conspiracies are being continually hatched, the Englishman can seldom think straight on matters relating to these lands of supposed mystery. He never makes an attempt to understand that somewhat obvious and very unmysterious person, the Easterner. He keeps well away from him, gets his ideas about him from tales abounding in spies and secret societies, and then allows his imagination to run riot. So it was in the Punjab early in April 1919 when a sudden fear overwhelmed the authorities and the English people generally, made them see danger everywhere, a widespread rising, a second mutiny with its frightful massacres, and, in a blind, instinctive attempt at self-preservation at any cost, led them to that frightfulness, of which Jallianwala and the Crawling Lane of Amritsar have become symbols and bywords.
The year 1921 was a year of great tension, and there was much to irritate and annoy and unnerve the official. What was actually happening was bad enough, but what was imagined was far worse. I remember an instance which illustrates this riot of the imagination. My sister Swarup’s wedding, which was taking place in Allahabad, was fixed for the 10th May 1921, the actual date having been calculated, as usual on such occasions, by a reference to the Samvat calendar, and an auspicious day chosen.
Gandhiji and a number of leading Congressmen, including the Ali brothers, had been invited, and to suit their convenience, a meeting of the Congress Working Committee was fixed at Allahabad about that time. The local Congressmen wanted to profit by the presence of famous leaders from outside, and so they organised a district conference on a big scale, expecting a large number of peasants from the surrounding rural areas.
There was a great deal of bustle and excitement in Allahabad on account of these political gatherings. This had a remarkable effect on the nerves of some people. I learnt one day through a barrister friend that many English people were thoroughly upset and expected some sudden upheaval in the city. They distrusted their Indian servants, and carried about revolvers in their pockets. It was even said privately that the Allahabad Fort was kept in readiness for the English colony to retire there in case of need. I was much surprised and could not make out why anyone should contemplate the possibility of a rising in the sleepy and peaceful city of Allahabad just when the very apostle of non-violence was going to visit us. Oh, it was said. May 10th (the day accidentally fixed for my sister’s marriage) was the anniversary of the outbreak of the Mutiny at Meerut in 1857 and this was going to be celebrated….
What I admired was the moral and ethical side of our movement and of satyagraha. I did not give an absolute allegiance to the doctrine of non-violence or accept it for ever, but it attracted me more and more, and the belief grew upon me that, situated as we were in India and with our background and traditions, it was the right policy for us. The spiritualisation of politics, using the word not in its narrow religious sense, seemed to me a fine idea. A worthy end should have worthy means leading up to it.
I did not understand or feel drawn to the metaphysical part of the Bhagvad Gita, but I liked to read the verses—recited every evening in Gandhiji’s ashram prayers—which say what a man should be like ‘calm of purpose, serene and unmoved, doing his job and not caring overmuch for the result of his action’.