How Mahatma Gandhi used the concept of non-violence as a practical tool of resistance to the colonial rule

Throughout the ages mankind often instinctively turns to the use of violence to defeat an enemy. Violence is part and parcel of the culture of human beings. And yet one of the greatest freedom struggles in modern history was apparently won through the specific rejection of violence, and the active use of a policy of non-violence. That struggle was between the Indian independence movement and the British colonial administration. At the head of that independence movement was Mahatma Gandhi, a simple Indian who held no office or great wealth, and yet was able to unite a whole subcontinent against the British Empire.

Not only that, but he did it in such a peaceful, virtuous way that he made the British question their own moral’s and eventually forced them out of India. This is the general version that is recorded in history. However, this version of events generally ignores the other forces that influenced the British to withdraw from Empire in India. Here we will critically examine the view that the use of non-violence was the main reason for the ending of British rule in India, by examining the true organisational nature of non-violent civil disobedience, and other events, British and global.

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Firstly we shall examine Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence in more detail, then the other major reasons that contributed to the downfall of British rule. Mohandas K. Gandhi, known popularly as Mahatma (‘great soul’), was a philosopher and a social campaigner as well as a charismatic politician. Gandhi led the Indian Nationalist movement from 1915. Through skilful use of symbolic imagery from Hindu culture and India’s history, he succeeded in widening the appeal of what had previously been an upper class, city based campaign to create a popular mass movement that drew support from India’s huge rural population (Derbyshire:1999).

He led a number of campaigns of civil disobedience, involving non co-operation through the 1920’s and right up until the 1940’s. He had used the technique of passive resistance during campaigns in defence of the rights of Indian’s in South Africa before 1915, and now called upon educated Indians in crucial positions to withdraw their labour and to refuse to buy foreign clothes and alcohol (ibid. ). Gandhi’s campaign’s had international support from other imperial possessions.

In 1916, when armed Irish Republican’s rose in revolt against the British, revolutionaries in Bengal took up the slogan ‘England’s difficulty (meaning World War One) is Ireland’s opportunity’, applying it to their own situation. When a Bengali political prisoner died as a result of a hunger strike, a telegram arrived from the widow of a Sinn Fein ‘martyr’ saying that Ireland joined in India’s grief, and adding ‘freedom shall come’ (French: 1996). The aim of Gandhi’s campaigning was to bring the Raj to a grinding halt, forcing the British to concede self rule quickly.

However, this was not the reality – The independence movement was many decades old by the time independence was given. Why was this? What other ingredients were needed to make the British leave? There are a number of short and long term causes that combine to make British withdrawal inevitable. One of the biggest long term causes was in the very nature of British rule itself. The British in India made up a tiny percentage of the overall population, and so were generally not in a position to use force to keep control of the country.

Co-operation was needed and Indian concerns and problems addressed. During the latter part of the 19th Century a number of financial crises propelled the Raj to introduce more local government institutions in order to increase revenue by increasing the tax base (Allen 1992). This decision had important consequences. More taxation meant more representation. It also meant in this case the opening of political office to elections (although on a limited franchise). The consequences of this were additional avenues of political advancement were opened up to aspiring groups.

On occasions when riots and other agitation’s occurred, the government increased consultation with Indian political leaders in an attempt to prevent such occurrences. To provide that consultation, the government created new political institutions through which talks could take place. Thus, more people began to participate in political life. As political mobilisation occurred, enhanced by the spread of education and the introduction of new means of communication, (railways, newspapers, universities and others) areas of political association widened (ibid. ).

During the final phase of colonial rule, the gradual extension of representatives institutions and the franchise continued. This process reached it’s climax in the Government of India Act 1935, which provided for popularly elected assemblies in the provinces of British India and other institutional reform. Indian leaders therefore had some experience of working in (semi) democratic institutions before the end of colonial rule, and had already assumed a large part of overall control. So slowly over the entire period of the Raj, power was gradually given away to extend the life of Empire.

Logically, therefore the end result would be the handover of all power, with or without the non-violence movement. And so the seeds of the end of Empire were within the nature of Empire itself. But that is not to discount civil disobedience itself. In may 1930 it was clear that civil disobedience was a very severe challenge to the British. Purshotamdus Thakurdas, sober businessman and established though not uncritical ally of the imperial regime, warned the Viceroy Lord Irwin that Gandhi had attracted immense public support.

But as Mr Thakurdas pointed out this was mainly because the start of the civil disobedience coincided with the effects of the Great Depression, making the degree of mass sympathy greater that previous ineffectual protests (Brown: 1977). However, the movement had no all-India blueprint for disobedience as might be imagined, and in practice the movement became a series of loosely co-ordinated local conflicts. The Working Committee that governed the movement gave extensive provincial flexibility, and it’s communication with local groups were more often suggestions rather than directives.

For example, at it’s May 15th 1931 meeting it resolved in favour of a complete boycott of foreign cloth, but though suggesting that the time had come for new forms of civil disobedience, such as non-payment of land revenue, it left the initiative in the hand of local co-ordinators (ibid. ). So in reality protesters may have been protesting over differing things depending upon which part of India they were in. An article in Young India warned, “Each town, each village may have to become it’s own battlefield.

The strategy of the battle must then come to be determined by local circumstances and change them from day to day. . . . . They should need little guidance from the outside (Young India: 17th July 1930: Brown). For various reasons tight central control of civil disobedience was impossible. As the global economic crisis deepened through 1930 affecting different regions in varying ways and degrees, so local strategies became more sharply differentiated. This increased local congress leaders’ need for freedom from central control if they were to exploit local discontents.

Provincial politicians wanted access to the prestige and resources of the all-India body but they did not hesitate to modify or ignore central advice if this clashed with provincial interests. The Raj realised that the Working Committee had limited control over civil disobedience, and the experienced Governor Sir Malcolm Hailey, told Lord Irwin, ” I know of course the military argument . . . . . . that the most effective way to cripple the enemy is to strike a crushing blow at his most vital point.

I am always a little mistrustful of General Staff advice on civil affairs, and I would think more of the argument if the blow was really likely to be crushing, and if the working committee were today the real motive and directive force behind the movement. It issues resolutions, but does very little actively in the way of organisation or direction” (Brown: 1977). The civil disobedience movement seemed to make an impact and enthuse people, not because it was a protest against British rule (these had gone before and had failed), but because it took up the economic plight of ordinary people in a harsh world economic climate.

This economic crisis was to affect the Empire as a whole as well as ordinary people. Britain had been declining from the beginning of the century, as the USA and Germany caught up with Britain’s levels of economic activity. Increasingly the cost of defence and reductions in trade made empire less profitable than it had been in the past. At the end of the day, all empires must be economically successful if they are to survive. This itself would not have caused imperial collapse alone. The greatest catalyst towards the depletion of Britain’s wealth and the independence of India was World War II.

The Second World War stimulated political and economic changes which weakened Britain’s hold on the Empire (Marshall: 1996). Britain made full use of India’s assets during the war, but under an earlier agreement, it would be the British government and not the Indian government that would have to pay the costs. These were enormous, and combined with the other costs of the war bankrupted Britain. In 1942, as Japan invaded Southeast Asia and British forces were tied up defending Burma, Gandhi launched a wave of strikes.

He called this the ‘Quit India’ movement; it was designed to make the country ungovernable and force the British to pull out. Gandhi claimed that Britain was incapable of defending India, and said that a free India’s first objective would be to negotiate with Japan (French:1996). This caused a great deal of consternation as almost all of the Congress working committee disagreed with him. Nehru was adamant that British troops would be needed in the event of a Japanese attack on India (ibid. ). Satyagraha was a protest tactic, which Gandhi was trying to elevate into a defence strategy.

It was apparent that the British would not voluntarily leave in wartime, so Gandhi must have realised that the success of mass disorder would mean a revolution. His stand, reluctantly accepted by his colleagues, unleashed wild forces and set a dangerous precedent for the post-war period (ibid. ). The Quit India movement was quelled and British politicians promised India could decide her own future after the war, in return for support from Indian politicians for continuing India’s involvement in the war. The pressures of war also made Britain conciliate the USA.

American opinion was not enthusiastic about preserving colonial empires when the war was ostensibly about liberating people from foreign oppression. American pressure on Britain played no small part in the whole saga. Outside enemies were eventually beaten, but the price of keeping the Germans and Japanese at bay was to increase the pressure for change from within. After the war, Britain was heavily indebted and the incoming Labour government’s main priority was to rebuild Britain, not to spent non-existent resources in foreign countries.

Many in the Labour government were very sympathetic to India’s cause in any case. Britain no longer had the will or the resources to run India. Indeed, in 1946 Lord Wavell, the penultimate Viceroy of India, suggested British withdrawal from India, not because of overwhelming nationalist pressure (indeed, the INC and the Muslim League were in stalemate), but because government was on the verge of collapse (Marshall: 1996). Shortly after this advice the government sent Louis Mountbatten to negotiate a swift departure.

It was no longer in Britain’s own interests to remain in India. What tends to be obscured in all the attention given to Gandhi and the nationalist movement is that the Raj held firm, despite nationalist pressures, and continued to rule and have an enormous impact on the politics of the day until the very end (Allen:1992). For example, in 1942 when the war was still going badly in Europe and Burma, the Raj still managed to quell the Quit India movement, the most serious disorder since the mutiny.

It is therefore an oversimplification to say that non-violence, civil disobedience and Congress forced the British out. Gandhi’s various campaigns were important, as he became a figurehead with which ordinary Indian’s could identify. He could provide the appearance of national unity which Congress was unable to do (even during it’s own organisation of protests). He provided the appearance of a national movement that would build a nation for all, even if the protests in most cases were based on local issues.

Ironically though, it was the British who gave India the instruments with which to resist colonial rule and establish a nation. The railways united a whole continent in a way that had never been done before. Great distances could be travelled relatively quickly by even the most lowly peasant and political campaigners could move quickly. For the first time, ordinary Indian’s looked upon India as one country.

The establishment of universities and provincial governments educated enough Indian’s in the art governance that they felt confident enough to ask for the power to govern without foreign help. Indeed, Gandhi himself had been educated in law in England. The hegemony of the English language was a great communication device, as it gradually became the only language that people from all over India could unite around. These factors were instrumental in ensuring the widespread appeal of the Indian National Congress.

The British finally left for several reasons, most of them international. But the non-violence struggle was of course an important factor in the ending of British rule. Any use of violence would allow the British to be seen as ‘the law’ protecting India from ‘vandals’, and so justify the continuance of the Raj for a little longer. Without the non-violence movement the British would probably have moved at a much slower pace than they did, but even Britain could not fight against the economic and international climate that made British withdrawal from India inevitable.