It is not boastfulness to say that India’s struggle for freedom from British rule was unique among, and morally inspiring to, anti-colonial and revolutionary movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, that changed the history of the world.
The mainstream of India’s national liberation struggle, organised by the Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, adopted his philosophy of Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (nonviolence).
There were, undoubtedly, also non-Gandhian streams of thought and action, both before and after his arrival on the national scene in 1915, and we must not belittle their contribution to India achieving political independence in August 1947.
There was even one stream, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League, which demanded, and violently secured, India’s Partition leading to the birth of Pakistan.
In modern world history, there is simply no other example of a large-scale mass political movement pitted against a violent opponent – in this case, the mightiest empire on the globe – that declared nonviolence as its credo and followed it with a high degree of honesty and commitment.
By doing so, India demonstrated that the teachings of the Buddha, Mahavira, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Baba Farid and other spiritual leaders of the ancient and medieval past were not dead words for ritualistic prayer and singing, but guides to political action for the nation’s rebirth and renewal.
It is not for nothing that, both in India and globally, Gandhi’s name is reverentially associated with the great teachers of the human race who championed the cause of peace and universal brotherhood.
The considerable “soft power” – which is just another word for “respect” – that India enjoys around the world is because, historically, our country is seen as a propagator of peace. This reputation got further reinforced in modern times by Gandhi’s leadership of the freedom movement.
For example, when I visited China some years ago to deliver a series of lectures on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, one scholar said – and this was, quite unbelievably, at the prestigious Communist Party School in Shanghai – “The difference between your country and our country is that we had Mao (who had famously declared that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun), and you had Gandhi.”
The Irony of Modi-Yogi Commemoration
India’s road to independence was by no means smooth. And Gandhi’s own advocacy of nonviolence was severely tested on many occasions because of the harshly repressive measures that the colonial rulers frequently resorted to.
One such tragic incident happened on 4 February 1922 at Chauri Chaura in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh (then called the United Province). Prime Minister Narendra Modi is inaugurating its year-long centenary commemoration in all the 75 districts of UP on Thursday, 4 February.
The commemoration, though, is ironic in several ways. UP’s chief minister Ajay Mohan Bisht ('Yogi' Adityanath), who hails from Gorakhpur, is not a follower of Gandhian philosophy, especially its two key pillars – nonviolence and Hindu-Muslim harmony.
And for all of his outward show of respect for the Mahatma, Modi’s own record as prime minister (and earlier as Gujarat’s chief minister) raises questions about his own fidelity to what the Father of the Nation stood for.
What happened in Chauri Chaura ninety-nine years ago is well known. The police opened fire on a large gathering of protesters participating in the Non-Cooperation Movement.
Four persons were martyred. Enraged by this, the protesters attacked the police station and set it afire, killing 22 policemen (all of them Indians). Nineteen demonstrators were later sentenced to death by the British administration and over 100 others were imprisoned for life.
Alarmed by the eruption of violence, Gandhi stopped the Non-Cooperation Movement, even though it was at its peak nationwide. He did so because, as the leader of the movement, he owned up moral responsibility for the violent turn it had taken.
He stuck to his decision even though several of his colleagues criticised him and millions of non-cooperators in the country felt deeply disappointed.
Significance of Non-Cooperation Movement
The significance of the Non-Cooperation Movement, which set one of the high watermarks in India’s freedom struggle, needs to be understood in its historical context. The end of the First World War (1914-18) had created an upsurge of desire for ‘Swaraj’ (self-rule) among all sections of Indian society.
The Khilafat Movement (launched in 1919 for the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate) had mobilised intense Muslim anger against the British Empire. Notably, both Gandhi and earlier Lokamanya Tilak had supported this movement to forge Hindu-Muslim solidarity against the British.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in April 1919, in which nearly 400 Sikh, Hindu and Muslim patriots were gunned down, had triggered mass outrage nationwide.
This situation prompted the Congress to adopt the non-cooperation programme at its annual session in Nagpur in December 1920. The patriotic enthusiasm it aroused all over India was so massive that it unnerved the British rulers.
For the first time since the brutal suppression of the 1857 War of Independence, Indian people plunged into mass action for Swaraj.
Also, for the first time since the 1857 uprising, Hindus and Muslims marched shoulder to shoulder, both accepting Mahatma Gandhi as their leader. With the Non-Cooperation Movement, Gandhi, within five years of arrival from South Africa (where he had spent twenty long years) established himself as the undisputed leader of the Congress and India’s freedom struggle.
Responding to his call, thousands of lawyers all over India gave up their practice – they included luminaries like Jawaharlal Nehru in Allahabad, Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, Rajendra Prasad in Bihar, Chittaranjan Das in Calcutta and C Rajagopalachari in Madras. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (whose 130th birth anniversary falls on 6 February) and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad joined Gandhi’s movement. Many leaders did “Medal Vapsi”, surrendering titles and decorations given by the Raj.
Among them was Hakim Ajmal Khan, one of the founders of the Muslim League and, later, Jamia Millia Islamia. Gandhi himself returned the medals he had received from the Empire for his humanitarian service in South Africa. Hundreds of national (“atmanirbhar”) educational institutions were established all over India.
Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and one of India’s finest historians, writes in his book The Good Boatman – A Portrait of Gandhi:
“In many Muslim homes, Eid was celebrated without beef. Orthodox Brahmins invited Muslims to meals in their homes. Muhammad Ali (one of the leaders of Khilafat Movement) said: ‘After the Prophet, on whom be peace, I consider my duty to carry out the commands of Gandhiji.’ The Raj’s surprise and concern were reflected in a remark that Lord Reading, successor to Chelmsford as Viceroy, made to his son about ‘the bridge over the gulf between Hindu and Muslim’ being created.”
Mahatma’s Confession After He Stopped the Movement
India was united as never before. But India was also seething with anger. And anger had the potential to ignite violence.
This was completely unacceptable to Gandhi, who wanted the freedom struggle to remain nonviolent under all circumstances. So, when Chauri Chaura happened, he did what his conscience commanded him to do. What he said in his self-defence – rather, by way of confession – is classic Gandhian wisdom. It helps us know how his mind worked.
“I know that the drastic reversal of practically the whole of the aggressive programme may be politically unsound and unwise, but there is no doubt that it is religiously sound. The country will have gained by my humiliation and confession of error. The only virtue I want to claim is truth and non-violence. I lay no claim to superhuman powers. I want none. I wear the same corruptible flesh that the weakest of my fellow beings wear, and am therefore as liable to err as any. My services have many limitations, but God has up to now blessed them in spite of the imperfections,” Gandhi had said.
“For confession of error is like a broom that sweeps away dirt and leaves the surface cleaner and brighter. I feel stronger for my confession. And the cause must prosper for the retracing. Never has a man reached his destination by persistence in deviation from the straight path…. Chauri Chaura is, after all, an aggravated symptom... The tragedy of Chauri Chaura is really the index-finger. It shows the way India may easily go if drastic precautions be not taken. If we are not to evolve violence out of nonviolence, it is quite clear that we must hastily retrace our steps and re-establish an atmosphere of peace… Let the opponent glory in our humiliation and so-called defeat. It is better to charged with cowardice than to be guilty of denial of our oath and sin against God,” he added.
Gandhi always felt a sense of personal responsibility whenever society behaved in a wrong and aberrant manner – a Hindu-Muslim riot, an act of atrocity against untouchables, and even a misdeed by his own son or an inmate in his ashram.
Therefore, after the mob hysteria in Chauri Chaura, he wanted to redeem the blood shed by others:
“I must undergo personal cleaning. I must become a fitter instrument able to register the slightest deviation in the moral atmosphere about me. My prayer must have deeper truth and humility. For me there is nothing so cleansing as a fast. A fast undertaken for fuller self-expression, for attainment of the spirit’s supremacy over the flesh, is a most powerful factor in one’s evolution.”
Romain Rolland, the Nobel laureate French writer who authored the Mahatma’s biography in 1924 (he also later authored acclaimed biographies of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda), writes: “And he imposes on himself a continuous five days’ fast. He does not want his co-workers to follow his example. He must punish himself. ‘I am in the unhappy position of a surgeon proved skill-less to deal with an admittedly dangerous case. I must either abdicate or acquire greater skill.’ His fast is penance and punishment for him and for the rioters of Chauri Chaura who sinned with his name on their lips… ‘I would suffer humiliation, every torture, absolute ostracism, and death itself to prevent the movement from becoming violent or a precursor of violence.’”
Rolland then comments: “The history of humanity’s spiritual progress can point to few pages as noble as these. The moral value of such action is incomparable.”
To his critics in the Congress, Gandhi wrote: “Let us be truthful. If it is by force that we wish to gain Swaraj, let us drop nonviolence and offer such violence as we may. It would be a manly, honest and sober attitude, and no one can accuse us of the terrible charge of hypocrisy.”
Then came the austere but essential message to Congress followers: “The patriotic spirit demands loyal and strict adherence to nonviolence and truth. Those who do not believe in them should retire from the Congress organisation.”
One of the provincial Congress leaders in Nagpur, who later left the organisation because of his differences with Gandhi, was Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. He founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925.
Will Our Swaraj ‘Stink in Our Nostrils’?
I have completed this article before the launch of the governmental commemoration of the centenary of the Chauri Chaura incident. I do not know, and hence cannot comment on, what the prime minister is going to speak on the occasion.
But Chauri Chaura, and the entire context of the Non-Cooperation Movement and its aftermath, present dozens of important lessons to all the stakeholders in today’s India:
To Modi, BJP and the bigoted Hindutva Parivar, many of whose members now regard Gandhi as a villain and his assassin Nathuram Godse as a hero; to the Congress party that is struggling to find its ideological feet; to the Left parties and others who are yet to fully understand Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence; to the Muslim parties (including those in Pakistan) who need to introspect on all the costly Muslim missteps in India’s freedom struggle and in the post-1947 journey of the subcontinent; to the political and religious leaders in Kashmir; and even to the ongoing farmers’ movement, whose leaders should know how even acts of violence (provoked, in this case, also by government agencies and pro-government vigilante groups) can discredit it; to large sections of the pro-government mainstream and social media that daily nurture violent thoughts and instincts; and to me, you and all of us.
Next year, in 2022, the centenary of Chauri Chaura will coincide with the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence. If incidents of Indians-against-Indians violence continue, our Swaraj, as the Mahatma had warned, will “stink in our nostrils”.
When PM and CM Didn’t Even Mention the Mahatma!
I just listened to PM Modi’s online speech at the function in Gorakhpur to launch commemoration of the centenary of the Chauri Chaura incident. To say I am disappointed is an understatement. He did not once mention the name of Mahatma Gandhi. Not one word about the context: Non-Cooperation Movement, in which Hindus and Muslims fought unitedly against the British rule. Complete silence on Gandhiji’s decision to halt the movement because it had turned violent. And total suppression of that ‘dangerous’ word – Ahimsa (Nonviolence).
Ditto in the speech by the UP chief minister.
To commemorate Chauri Chaura without any reference to the Mahatma and the mantra of nonviolence he gave to India’s freedom struggle is akin to giving a lecture on Einstein without mentioning his work on the Theory of Relativity. The only difference is that non-mention of the Theory of Relativity in a lecture on Einstein can be attributed to stupidity. Non-mention of Mahatma Gandhi and nonviolence in a function on Chauri Chaura is both an amusing and alarming example of how the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar are deliberately trying to rewrite, falsify and appropriate the history of India’s freedom movement.
As if to keep mum on the real significance of Chauri Chaura, the PM spent more time talking about his government’s recent budget and its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at email@example.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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