The greatest Indian ever: Chronicling the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi

From 1909 when he attended the Lahore session of the Congress till India attained freedom in 1947, Gandhiji played a critical role every step of the way

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Praveen Davar

“Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a one as this, in flesh and blood, ever walked upon this Earth.”

That was Albert Einstein on Mahatma Gandhi on October 2, 1939 on the occasion of Mahatma’s 70th birthday.

But many years earlier, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, one of the front ranking leaders of the freedom struggle who met Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi in South Africa, and earlier in India, said this of him while addressing the Lahore session of the Congress in 1909: “Gentlemen, it is one of the privileges of my life that I know Mr. Gandhi intimately and I can tell you that a purer, a nobler, a braver and more exalted spirit has never moved on this earth. Mr. Gandhi is one of those men, who live an austere and simple life themselves, and devoted to the highest principles of love to their fellow beings, and to truth and justice, touch the eyes of their weaker brethren as with magic and give them a new vision. He is a man who may well be described as a man amongst men, a hero among heroes, a patriot amongst patriots, and we may well say that in him, Indian humanity at the present time has really reached its high watermark.”

The Gandhi era, we all know, ended with his assassination on January 30, 1948. But when did it commence? Mahatma Gandhi arrived in India after spending 22 years in South Africa where he perfected the technique of Satyagraha which he was to subsequently apply in India against the colonial govt. with telling effect.

Gandhiji was 46 years old when he returned to India. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who Gandhi regarded as his political mentor, had advised him to remain silent for one year during which he must try and visit as many parts of India as physically possible, and meet as many people he could, and acquaint himself with their problems. The disciple obeyed his master in both letter and spirit.

M.K. Gandhi attended the annual session of INC in 1915 at Mumbai, and again in 1916 in Lucknow, but didn’t play any significant role in any of these sessions. In Lucknow it was Lokmanya Tilak, the leader of Extremists (or Garam Dal) who played a prominent role in fostering Hindu–Muslim unity. By this time the leader of Moderates (Naram Dal) Gokhale had died at the age of only 49.

In 1917, with the help of 35-year-old Dr. Rajendra Prasad, then a leading lawyer of Bihar — later the first President of India — Gandhiji organized the peasants of Champaran against the white Indigo planters who were exploiting the poor farmers by making them forcibly plant Indigo and depriving them of any profits.

In 1918, with the help of Vallabhbhai Patel, he organized the peasants at Kheda (Gujarat) and industrial workers in Ahmedabad. All this was done outside the framework of INC.

It was only after he launched the satyagraha against the infamous Rowlat Act in April 1919 when he declared a countrywide hartal, that Mahatma Gandhi became deeply involved with the INC.

After the Jallianwalan Bagh incident, in which over 400 people were shot dead and almost an equal number injured by troops led by General Dyer in a most brutal and inhuman attack, Gandhi headed a Committee of the Congress to probe the incident. The Congress decided to hold its next annual session at Amritsar itself.

By now M.K. Gandhi had become a dominant figure in the Congress. Pt. Motilal Nehru, the President of the session, called him “the most revered Indian of the day”.

Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, three great mass movements, with a gap of almost a decade between each, were launched. These were:

(a) The Non-co-operation Movement commencing December 1920.

(b) The Civil Disobedience Movement commencing April 1930.

(c) The Quit India Movement commencing August 1942.

Non-cooperation Movement: Gandhiji’s programme of Non-cooperation was initially opposed by many Congress stalwarts, including Bipin Chandra Pal and C.R. Das from West Bengal, Lala Lajpat Rai from Punjab and Madan Mohan Malaviya from U.P. But ultimately, they all fell in line. In fact, the resolution on Non-cooperation, passed at Nagpur session of the Congress in December 1920, was moved by C.R. Das and seconded by Lala Lajpat Rai.

A call was given to boycott govt. schools and colleges, law courts and councils, give up titles and privileges and adopt a simple and austere way of living. Pursuant to the Non-cooperation resolution, C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru — whose earnings in lakhs as highly reputed lawyers could be the envy of princes — declared they would give up their legal practice. Later, they both also gave up their palatial bunglows in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Allahabad to be used for the cause of the freedom struggle.

It was the Nagpur session of the INC that established M.K. Gandhi as the undisputed leader of the country, not merely of the Congress. It marks a watershed in the history of the freedom struggle because constitutional methods of agitation adopted by Gokhale and other moderate leaders, like Dadabhai Naoroji and Pherozshah Mehta became a thing of the past.

The days of prayers, petitions and protest were over. Mahatma Gandhi also made it clear that swaraj he visualised was not merely political independence. It would be meaningless without economic and social justice. The impact of Gandhi is described in a captivating prose by Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India: “And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the million of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of those peasants and workers, he told us, all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery. Political freedom took new shape then and acquired a new content. Much that he said we only partially accepted or sometimes did not accept at all. But all this was secondary. The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view.”

The Non-cooperation Movement went up to February 1922 when suddenly Gandhiji gave call to suspend the movement. This was due to the fact a few agitators fired upon by the police got wild and chased a party of policemen to the station which was burnt along with the policemen. Similar reports of violence were received from Bareilly, and some other parts of North India. Gandhi took a serious view of these incidents.

It convinced him that the people had not fully imbibed the principle of Satyagraha. Gandhiji’s decision stunned the country. Many people were angry with him. Congress leaders, including Nehru, Patel and Bose were also disappointed. But ultimately they all supported him for they knew the Mahatma knew the mind of the people better than them.

Before Gandhi launched his next mass movement, the Civil Disobedience Movement, or ‘Salt Satyagraha’, there were three important events. First, the formation of Swaraj party, within the Congress, under the leadership of C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru for contesting elections with the ultimate aim of embarrassing the govt. in legislatures.

The Swarajists were also known as pro-changers. Others, mostly staunch Gandhi loyalists who opposed the programme of Council entry, were called non-changers. The prominent members of the group were Rajaji, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and M.A. Ansari.

Second, in 1927, the British government announced the appointment of a Committee under the chairmanship of question of next dose of constitutional reforms. Since the Commission did not have any Indian member in it, its announcement faced an extremely hostile reaction in India.

When the Simon Commission landed in India it was greeted with demonstrations and black flags with the slogan ‘Simon go back’ all over India.

In two separate demonstrations, one in Lucknow and the other in Lahore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lala Lajpat Rai were severely injured in a lathi charge by the mounted police. Lala Lajpat Rai succumbed to his injuries which became one of the reasons for Bhagat Singh and his comrades to take revenge by adopting violent methods to achieve their objectives.

Third, in December 1929 a historic session of INC was held in Lahore under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had turned just 40 on 14 November, 1929. When some of the members of the ‘Old Guard’ of the Congress objected to a young Nehru becoming the President, Gandhi silenced the critics thus: “Who can excel him in the love of the country: he is pure as a crystal, he is truthful beyond suspicion, the nation is safe in his hands.”

The Lahore session of the INC gave a call for Purna Swaraj (complete independence). Earlier the demand since the times of Home Rule movements of Tilak and Annie Besant had been for Dominion status or self-rule within the British empire.

The Civil Disobedience Movement: The Purna Swaraj call electrified the political atmosphere of the country and Gandhiji. as decided at Lahore Session, launched the second mass movement – Civil Disobedience or Salt Satyagraha. With a band of 78 devoted followers Gandhi started on foot from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad on 12 March, 1930 and reached Dandi on 6 April when he picked up salt from the sea thus breaking the salt law.

The Dandi march was replicated in most parts of the country and over one lakh Congress workers were arrested. The breaking of salt law and the Dandi March which received worldwide publicity, served as a big morale booster to millions of the Congress workers and freedom fighters. It certainly acted as a catalyst towards the goal of independence.

The year 1931 was a land mark year in the history of the freedom struggle. A session of INC under the presidentship of Sardar Vallabhai Patel was held in Karachi. It was in this session that the historic resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Policy, moved by Jawaharlal Nehru was adopted. Some of the salient features of the Fundamental Rights and other parts of the resolution like universal adult franchise were later incorporated in the Constitution of India.

The Karachi Session also ratified the Gandhi-Irwin pact which had been signed between Mahatma Gandhi and Viceroy Irwin.

In 1932, Gandhiji strongly protested against the communal award announced by the Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister. The award gave the harijans (now called Dalits) separate electorates. Gandhi, who was in jail, saw through the British game of dividing the Hindu society, and declared he will not let it happen even if he has to give up his life. He went on a fast-unto-death.

People of all communities throughout India sympathized with the Mahatma and appealed to B.R. Ambedkar to save his life. As a result the Poona Pact was signed which, instead of separate electorates, gave the harijans reserved seats in legislatures and later, when Independence came, reservations in govt. jobs.

The Poona Pact also led to thousands of Hindu temples being opened for harijans and upper castes Hindus taking vows against untouchability. Mahatma Gandhi had achieved what no social reformer, big or small had achieved before. Removal of untouchability, perhaps, will remain his greatest ever social achievement as this centuries-old in human practice had become a part of the Hindu psyche that remain unchallenged for thousands of years. Under the 1935 Act, elections were held in January 1937.

After winning with comfortable majority the Congress formed govts in 9 states – Central Provinces, U.P., Bihar, Orissa, Madras, Bombay, Sind, Assam and NWFP. But the Ministries resigned in 1939 protesting against the failure of the Viceroy to take Congress in confidence regarding the War aims of the British govt. as WWII had commenced and England declared war in Germany.

The years 1934 to 1939 saw three stalwarts of the Congress become Presidents: Dr. Rajendra Prasad (1934), Jawaharlal Nehru (1936, 1937) and Subash Chandra Bose (1938, 1939). Following differences with Gandhiji, Bose resigned from the Congress, formed his own Forward Block and suddenly escaped from the country to ultimately form his Azad Hind Fauz.

He, however, continued to hold Gandhiji in his highest esteem and was the first Indian to address the Mahatma as “The Father of our Nation”. He also named three brigades of INA after Gandhi, Nehru and Azad.

‘Quit India’ Movement: As WWII neared the eastern borders of India, the British government, under pressure from President Roosevelt, sent the Cripps Mission to offer proposals for creation of a new Indian Union as a Dominion at the end of the war.

The Cripps Mission failed as the proposals were much short of Congress demand for a full transfer of power after the War. It also failed to guarantee the unity of India. Gandhi was so upset with the proposals that he asked Cripps to go back to England by the first flight available. He is reported to have said that Cripps proposals were nothing but ‘an outdated cheque on a crashing bank.’

Now, the country was ready for its final battle against imperialism. The AICC met in Bombay (now Mumbai) on August 8, 1942 and passed a resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru, and seconded by Sardar Patel, issuing a clarion call to the British Empire to ‘Quit India’.

In his speech Mahatma Gandhi gave the inspiring slogan ‘Karo ya maro’ (Do or Die) which became an instant inspiration for millions of Indians wanting to free themselves from the shackles of slavery.

Gandhi was arrested on the morning August 9 and taken to Aga Khan Palace in Pune. Nehru, Patel and Azad were lodged in Ahmednagar Fort where Jawaharlal Nehru wrote his last magnum opus The Discovery of India during the last spell of his jail life which lasted for 2 years and 9 months. The wholesale arrest of nationalist leaders touched off a spontaneous peoples’ revolt throughout India, the like of which was never seen before. Only the Muslim League, the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha kept away from the Movement.

The authorities let loose a reign of oppression. According to official figures, 1008 people were killed, 3,275 injured and over a lakh imprisoned. The popular estimate was, however, three-four times higher.

The Quit India Movement was the last nail in the coffin of the British Empire that led ultimately to India’s freedom. But freedom came at a heavy price: the Partition of India.

It was with great reluctance that Congress leaders became reconciled to the partition of the country despite the fact that the Mahatma had declared: ‘Partition over my dead body’. Nehru felt that the compulsion of events had led to this course. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre record in Freedom At Midnight: “Patel had been prepared to concede partition even before Mountbatten’s arrival. Other senior leaders – Rajaji, Rajendra Prasad and others — accepted the Partition plan.

On August 1, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru — the most popular mass leader after Gandhi — who became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, wrote to Sardar Patel formally inviting him to join his Cabinet: “This writing is superfluous because you are the strongest pillar of the Cabinet.” Sardar Patel wrote back: “My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of my life and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength.”

Gandhi undertook his last fast in Delhi from January 12, 1948 for Hindu-Muslim unity and the refusal by the Govt. of India to pay Pakistan its share of revenue of Rs. 55 crores. This became the ultimate provocation for Godse and his accomplices to end the life of the greatest Indian ever. After a failed attempt on 20 January 1948, when a bomb was thrown at his prayer meeting by Madanlal Pahwa, the assassin, Nathuram Godse, a Brahmin from Maharashtra, assassinated the Mahatma on January 30, 1948.

He died as he wanted: with the word ‘Hai Ram’ escaping from his lips.

With eyes filled with tears, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stepped before the microphone of All India Radio and made his second most memorable speech after the famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ on the eve of Independence: “Friends and Comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. Our beloved leader, Bapu, as we called him, the ‘father of the nation’ is no more. The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shove in this country was no ordinary light. In a thousand years, the light will still be seen…The world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented more than the immediate present, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom”

Thus ended an epoch in the history of modern India.

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Published: 19 Oct 2019, 10:00 PM