Gandhi and the Myth of Non-Violent Action By Alex Kahn The ideas of Mahatma Gandhi have enjoyed resurgence. The non-violent non-cooperation tactics used in the struggles against the Franklin Dam in Tasmania and the Greenham Common missile base in England owed their inspiration directly to him. Richard Attenboroughâ€™s Academy Award winning film â€œGandhiâ€ further revived the myth that his pacifist tactics won India its independence. Yet socialists have always been quite scathing about Gandhi. Read for example, what George Orwell had to say about him: Gandhi has been regarded for twenty years by the Government of India as one of its right hand men. I know what Iâ€™m talking aboutâ€“I used to be an officer in the Indian police. It was always admitted in the most cynical way that Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against taking any action that would make any difference. The reason why Gandhi when in prison is always treated with such lenience and small concessions sometimes made when he has prolonged one of his fasts to a dangerous extent, is that the British officials are in terror that he may die and be replaced by someone who believes less in â€œsoul force â€œ and more in bombs.1 In this pamphlet, we will outline Gandhiâ€™s Indian campaigns to show just what Orwell meant. We will argue that Gandhi failed to launch any non-violent campaigns that remained non-violent, at least on his terms. We will argue that when these campaigns started to threaten the interests of the Indian capitalist class, Gandhi always called them off. And we will argue that the British left India for reasons of their own, not anything that Gandhi can take credit for. Early days Gandhiâ€™s social views were always reactionary, in the most literal sense of the word. In 1909 he expressed them as follows: It is not the British people who are ruling India, but it is modern civilisation, through its railways, telegraphs, telephone, and almost every other invention has been claimed to be a triumph of civilisation â€¦ Medical science is the concentrated essence of black magic â€¦ Hospitals are the instruments that the Devil has been using for his own purpose, in order to keep his hold on his kingdom â€¦ If there were no hospitals for venereal diseases or even for consumptives, we would have less consumption, and less sexual vice amongst us. Indiaâ€™s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years or so. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like all have to go.2 But it is Gandhiâ€™s political strategy that we are mainly concerned with here. Gandhi developed his methods of non-violent non-cooperation, or â€œsatyagrahaâ€ (literally â€œway of the righteous heartâ€) to fight for civil rights for Indians in South Africa. In this first campaign, he met with some success largely for two reasons. He made considerable use of strike action by Indian workers, and the Indians, being a somewhat peripheral minority in South Africa, could be afforded concessions by the white ruling class that could never be granted to the blacks. Even during this campaign â€“ Gandhiâ€™s most creditable effort â€“ the limitations of his pacifism became obvious. In an episode passed over by Attenboroughâ€™s film, Gandhi recounts how he called off the struggle at one stage, rather than join cause with a â€œviolentâ€ general strike by European workers, and this won the gratitude of the South African ruling class: In the course of the satyagraha struggle in South Africa, several thousands of indentured Indians had struck work. This was a satyagraha strike, and therefore entirely peaceful and voluntary. Whilst the strike was going on the strike of the European miners, railway employees, etc. was declared. Overtures were made to me to make common cause with the European strikers. As a satyagraha, I did not require a momentâ€™s consideration to decline to do so. I went further, and for fear of our strike being classed with the strike of the Europeans in which methods of violence and use of arms found a prominent place, ours was suspended, and satyagraha from that moment came to be recognised by the Europeans of South Africa as an honourable and honest movement, in the words of General Smuts, â€œa constitutional movementâ€.3 Recruiting for the British When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, his qualms about violence suddenly disappeared. He went out recruiting volunteers for the British Army from the Indian population, under the slogan â€œ20 recruits for every villageâ€. Gandhi apparently believed that by recruiting cannon fodder to defend the Empire, he could impress the British with Indiansâ€™ loyalty and thus earn independence. He seemed to have regarded it as a victory that he made recruiting speeches in Hindustani! Gandhi explained his actions, which went against much of the rest of the independence movements thinking, by saying. â€œI discovered the British Empire had certain ideals with which I have fallen in love.â€ Later, defenders of Gandhi were to justify his recruiting drive by saying that he â€œonlyâ€ raised troops for the medical corps. But of course, medical corps are a vital part of any military machine, and Gandhiâ€™s actions freed other recruits for the front line fighting. He certainly made no attempt to raise medical corps for the Germans or Turks, so even if there were elements of misguided humanitarianism in Gandhiâ€™s thinking, it was very conveniently one-eyed. During the years 1917 to 1920, Gandhi made some very important friends amongst the wealthy business families of West India. These included the Sarabhais, textile magnates in his home state of Gujarat, and the Birlas, the second largest industrial group in India. For the rest of his career, Gandhi regularly consulted with them, and they made sure that he never lacked money. This is not to say that Indian capitalists created Gandhi. But his commitment to the pacifist action suited their interests perfectly. They wanted a limited mobilisation of the masses to drive out the British so that they could run India instead. They had seen the Russian revolution just to the north, and they realised how important it was to stop the workers and peasants getting arms, or mobilising against their local exploiters as well as the British. Gandhi was also committed to a capitalist India. He regarded Indians as one big family, exploiters and exploited alike. â€œI do not regard capital to be the enemy of labour,â€ he said. â€œI hold their co-ordination to be perfectly possible.â€ Gandhi came up with a justification of the capitalistâ€™s role that many capitalists themselves would smile on as ingenious. He called them â€œtrusteesâ€ for the people, and urged the workers and peasants to peacefully persuade â€œthe land-owners and employers to behave ethically as trustees of the property they held for the common goodâ€. Why did Gandhi so quickly gain a mass following in India? The popular impression, reinforced by Attenboroughâ€™s film, is that it was due to his simple, humble life-style, combined with the work he did with the peasantsâ€™ and millhandsâ€™ grievances. These may have helped, but there were far deeper reasons as well. Before Gandhi, the Indian independence movement had suffered from two major weaknesses. Its leaders tended to be strongly identified with particular regions, and its activity was hopelessly elitist. One wing busied itself with terrorism, the other with sterile motion-passing, Gandhi had established a national reputation for himself through his South African campaign, and thus was able to give the movement a national figurehead that transcended petty regional divisions. And to his credit, he also gave the movement a mass orientation at a time when, inspired by the Russian Revolution to the north and the Turkish nationalist movement to the west, the masses were ready to go into action. But why should Gandhiâ€™s â€œnon-violenceâ€ have had such particular mass appeal? Leon Trotsky provides a shrewd insight. Trotsky observed exactly the same phenomenon in the early stages of the Russian Revolution. Non-violence, Trotsky argued, reflected the low development of class struggle in the countryside and the peasantsâ€™ resulting lack of confidence: If the peasants during the first period hardly ever resort to open violence, and are still trying to give their activities the form of legal pressure, this is explained by their insufficient trust in their awn powers â€¦ The attempt to disguise its first rebel steps with legality, both sacred and secular, has from time to time immemorial characterised the struggle of every revolutionary class, before it gathered sufficient strength and confidence to break the umbilical cord which bound it to the old society. This is more completely true of the peasantry than any other class â€¦ From the milieu of the nobility itself there arise preachers of conciliation. Leo Tolstoy (the novelist) looked deeper into the soul of the muzhik [peasant] than anybody else. His philosophy of non-violent resistance was a generalisation of the first stages of the peasant revolution. Mahatma Gandhi is now fulfilling the same mission in India â€¦ The 1919 hartal (Strike) In 1919 the British passed the Rowlatt Acts, which extended wartime powers of arbitrary arrest, to keep the independence movement in check. There was massive resentment throughout India, and in February Gandhi formed a Satyagraha League and announced a â€œhartalâ€ (day of general suspension of business) for April 6. The response amazed everyone. Through March and April, there was a wave of mass marches, strikes, some rioting and violent repression by the British. The April 6 hartal was a huge success. It was accompanied by sporadic riots in Calcutta, Bombay, Ahmedabad and elsewhere. In Amritsar, the British massacred 379 people at a rally with machine-gun fire and wounded another 1200. The British were clearly alarmed by the upsurge. â€˜The movement assumed the undeniable character of an organised revolt against the British Rajâ€, in the view of British official opinion.4 Just as alarmed was Gandhi. Condemning the violence, not of the British but of rioters on his own side who had gone beyond pacifist action, he declared that he had committed â€¦ a blunder of Himalayan dimensions which had enabled ill-disposed persons, not true passive resisters at all, to perpetrate disorder.5 Within a week, Gandhi suspended passive resistance just as the movement was reaching its height. He subsequently explained in a letter to the Press on July 21 that â€œa Civil resister never seeks to embarrass the governmentâ€.6 To defuse the movement, Gandhi turned his attention to the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms passed by the British Parliament, which set up puppet legislatures in India operating on a limited franchise. Gandhi won the Congress Party around to supporting the Reforms against sharp opposition. He urged the national movement â€œto settle down quietly to work so as to make them a success.â€7 The 1920-22 campaign The movement did not â€œsettle down quietlyâ€. The first half of 1920 saw a huge strike wave. So Gandhi switched over to rejection of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, and evolved the plan of â€œnon-violent non-cooperationâ€ to once again take the head of the movement. The Congress Party was to give leadership but the price of that leadership was once again to be non-violence. Gandhi had learned from 1919 that mobilising the workers and peasants through a hartal was an explosive business. So this time, despite the more ambitious demand of â€œswarajâ€ (self-rule), Gandhi focussed the action entirely on the middle class. Voters boycotted elections to the new assemblies â€“ only one third of those eligible under the income rules to vote did so. Students boycotted colleges en masse. An attempt to get lawyers to boycott the courts and set up local arbitration sittings met with much less success. The only role for the masses of workers and peasants in all this was to be the â€œconstructive taskâ€ of â€œhand-spinning and hand-weavingâ€ A proposal of a tax boycott was held in reserve until â€œa time to be determinedâ€. Gandhi was extremely vague on how these tactics were to gain victory, or even on what son of gains he was after. Subhas Bose. a future leader of the Congress Party Left, tried to get a clear picture from Gandhi of the strategy. What his real expectation was, I was unable to understand. Either he did not want to give out all his secrets prematurely or he did not have a clear conception of the tactics whereby the hands of the government could be forced8. Nehru also had his doubts about Gandhiâ€™s goals. It was obvious that to most of our leaders Swaraj meant something much less than independence. Gandhi was delightfully vague on the subject, and he did not encourage clear thinking about it either.9 Despite Gandhiâ€™s attempts to limit the campaign to the middle class, mass struggles erupted throughout 1921 to accompany it â€¦ the Assam-Bengal railway strike the Midnapore No-Tax Campaign, the Moplah rebellion in the South, and the militant Akali movement in the Punjab. By the end of 1921, all Congress leaders except Gandhi were behind bars. Amidst all this struggle and enthusiasm. Gandhi got cold feet. Some activists, especially amongst the Muslims, were demanding the abandonment of â€œnon-violenceâ€. Gandhi declared that swaraj stank in his nostrils. In early 1922, various districts began demanding a No Tax campaign. Due to a misunderstanding, Guntur District began one without permission. So great was the enthusiasm of the peasants that less than 5 percent of taxes were collected. Then Gandhi heard of it and ordered that tax-paying resume immediately. Finally, Gandhi decided to embark on â€œmass civil disobedienceâ€ â€¦ in one tiny district. Bardoli where he had taken special care to ensure â€œnon-violentâ€ conditions. His mass civil disobedienceâ€ to win release of the 30,000 political prisoners was to involve the 87,000 people of the district â€“ just one four-thousandth of the Indian population! The Chauri Chaura backdown Before the token Bardoli campaign could take off, angry peasants at the village of Chauri Chaura in the United Provinces burned a police station, killing 22 policemen. Gandhi, who five years earlier had happily recruited cannon fodder for Britain to try and win independence, â€œdeploredâ€ the violence and cancelled, not just the Bardoli campaign, but the entire campaign of civil disobedience across the country. Gandhiâ€™s decision created fury and dismay in the Congress Party. Subhas Bose recalls: To sound the order to retreat, just when public enthusiasm was reaching the boiling point was nothing short of a national calamity. The principal lieutenants of the Mahatma, Deshbandhu dos, Pandit Morilal Nehru and Lala Lajpat Pal, who were all in prison, shared the popular resentment. I was with the Deshbandhu at the time, and I could see that he was beside himself with anger and sorrow.10 Motilal Nehru and Lajpat Rai sent Gandhi long letters of protest. Gandhi coldly replied that men in prison were â€œcivilly deadâ€ and had no say over policy. Apologists for Gandhi later claimed that the decision was necessary because the movement was â€œgoing to pieces.â€11 In the sense that Gandhi was losing control, this was true. But the British did not think it was dissipating. The Viceroy cabled London just three days before Gandhiâ€™s decision describing the numerous areas of unrest, and concluding: The Government of India are prepared for disorder of a more formidable nature than has in the past occurred, and do not seek to minimise in any way the fact that great) anxiety is caused by the situation.12 Lord Lloyd, then Governor of Bombay, later recounted how Gandhi had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: He gave us a scare! His program filled our jails. You canâ€™t go on arresting people forever, you know not when there are 319 million of them. And if they had taken his next step and refused to pay taxes! God knows where we should have been! Gandhiâ€™s was the most colossal experiment in world history, and it came within an inch of succeeding. But he couldnâ€˜t control menâ€™s passions. You know the rest. We jailed him.13 The motion that Gandhi got through the Working Committee at Bardoli calling off the campaign suggests the real reason Gandhi backed down. No less than three of its seven points ordered peasants to pay taxes to the government, and respect landlordsâ€™ rents and rights. Gandhi was clearly worried that the No-Tax campaign would take off and spread into a No-Rent campaign as well. Neither of these can be classed as â€œviolenceâ€ in any way. but they could have turned the movement into a wholesale struggle against the Indian landlords as well as the British. Chauri Chaura only confirmed the increasing restiveness of the peasants. So although not the first outbreak of violence during the campaign, it provided a convenient pretext for Gandhi to call hostilities off before a full-scale class war broke out. The movement demoralised Gandhiâ€™s back down flattened the national movement for several years. The Congress Party, demanding an alternative course, moved to the right and stopped boycotting the puppet assemblies. Communal divisions grew. The active non-co-operators of 1921 now emerged as spokespersons for this and that community. Muslim or Hindu. Violent clashes broke out as the movement turned in on itself and, despite the temporarily soothing effect of a protest fast by Gandhi, continued over time. Since Gandhi had refused to polarise the movement on class lines, in the demoralised atmosphere after 1922 it polarised on religious lines instead. But a section of the movement took a more radical direction. During the 1920s the working class emerged as an important force. Unions grew, and the All-India Trade Union Congress formed. Many of its leaders turned to radical anti-imperialism. The Workers and Peasants Party formed, and along with other radical nationalists began to demand complete independence rather than mere self-rule. Against Gandhiâ€™s opposition, the Congress Party also took up the demand of complete independence, or Puma Swaraj, in the late 1920s. Gandhi was forced to change his stance, at least on paper. But, as time would show, he was to sign the demand away again at the first opportunity. Salt Satyagraha At the end of 1929, the Congress Party decided to take action for Purna Swaraj. Passive demonstrations on January 26. 1930 took a pledge to struggle for complete independence. But Gandhi already had other ideas. On January 9. he told the New York World that â€œthe independence resolution need frighten nobodyâ€, a claim he repeated to the Viceroy in a letter in March.14 And on January 30. he offered Eleven Points to the British for which the Congress Partyâ€™s civil disobedience campaign would be called off. These Eleven Points fell way short of independence, or even home rule. The most radical demands were for the release of political prisoners, a halving of military expenditure. a tariff on foreign cloth, and licences for firearms for self-defence. There were no demands for workers or peasants, except a call for the halving of land tax. Clearly. Gandhi saw the demand for independence as just an opening gambit in a haggle for reforms. When it came to strategy. Gandhi defeated a move by the left wing of Congress to set up a parallel government in the country and mobilise workers and peasants behind it. Instead he launched the Salt March, a three-week march by Gandhi and 78 of his disciples to the sea, where they defied the British monopoly on salt by boiling seawater. Gandhi then called on each village to do the same. All this was very spectacular for the press. But it was even more carefully limited than his previous two campaigns. The initial action was confined to 78 handpicked disciples. The ensuing tactic of producing salt provided no role whatsoever for the industrial working class. The peasantsâ€™ attention was turned away from conflicts with their landlords to producing illegal salt in their villages, and burning and boycotting foreign cloth â€“ a move that mainly benefited Indian textile magnates, a number of whom happened to be on close terms with Gandhi. Nevertheless, the Salt March sparked another upheaval, way beyond Gandhiâ€™s expectations. Strikes and mass demonstrations erupted. Demonstrators raided a police armoury at Chittagong. Peasants launched No-Rent movements, especially in the United Provinces, where, true to form, the Congress Party tried to mediate for a 50 percent payment of rents.