When the mighty British Empire was forced to grant India independence in 1947 the world credited one man with the victory. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and his method was non-violent direct action.
For more than 25 years Gandhi had led a mass movement of millions to free India.
Waves of protest marches, boycotts and strikes targeted British institutions. Thousands were jailed, and even then maintained their defiance.
The British-Indian state hit back with the utmost brutality. Yet even in the face of massacres, beatings and torture, Gandhi insisted his followers never give up their struggle and never physically retaliate.
He called this strategy Satyagraha, which combined spiritualist thinking with non-violent resistance.
When the British finally left, many saw it as a victory for tactics of non-violence. And ever since, people fighting for justice against
tremendous odds have looked to the Indian independence struggle for inspiration.
Martin Luther King, who led the US movement for black civil rights, based his tactics on those of Gandhi.
He said the Indian struggle was “one of the most significant things that has ever happened in the history of the world”.
But while it is true that Gandhi’s leadership played a vital role in the historic defeat of the British, it is wrong to think that non-violence alone forced them out.
The struggle frequently involved massive revolts in which brutalised people fought back with whatever was to hand. They directed their anger at property or at those associated with empire.
The great appeal of Gandhi and his strategy rested on a contradiction at the heart of the Indian freedom movement—between rich and poor.
The leadership was exclusively in the hands of the rising Indian bourgeoisie who believed themselves more than capable of running Indian society.
Frustrated at being carved out, and slighted by the racism of the colonialists, they felt that the empire was bleeding India dry economically.
Despite their education in Britain, this group were allotted only government “advisory” positions. They needed the active support of the poor to take power.
Workers, peasants and poor farmers hated the British too. The First World War led to shortages, huge price rises and hunger. Yet, the British happily exported food to Europe, while the poorest Indians starved.
Riots and protests were commonplace. Mostly the British were the target, but Indian merchants accused of hoarding grain were also attacked.
In the shadow of the 1917 Russian Revolution, these outbreaks of class anger terrified both India’s present rulers, and those who hoped to replace them. The Indian rich needed a way of galvanising the poor in the fight against empire, but at the same time placing limits on how far that struggle went.
Gandhi had returned from South Africa in 1915, where as a lawyer he had fought against racial discrimination against Indians enforced by the British government there.
He shunned his posh upbringing and English education and instead embraced an idealised version of peasant life. Gandhi repeatedly spoke out against British rule, but also became a champion of the poor.
The Indian bourgeoisie saw his growing popularity, and hoped he could divert class anger away from themselves. Gandhi was elected as head of the once timid Indian National Congress in 1920 and immediately started escalating demands for freedom.
Some of the many thousands who answered his calls for action became devotees and shared his Satyagraha vision.
But many more adopted non-violence for tactical rather than religious reasons.
They calculated violent protests or acts of terror against their rulers would only lead to brutality at the hands of the British Raj.
British retaliation after the 1857 Indian Mutiny saw men blown from cannons and whole villages destroyed.
They hoped that by mobilising millions in a peaceful fashion, the British rulers could be shamed into not using terror against them.
But the three major waves of anti-British agitation between 1920 and 1947 were to prove them wrong.
Millions of Indians answered the call and took to the streets. English institutions were boycotted, the streets were full of protesters and British-made goods were destroyed.
Peasants demanded an end to vicious exploitation by Indian landlords and workers struck against Indian-owned firms.
When the panicking Raj sought to “restore order”, huge confrontations took place. Many who joined the movement rightly felt they had to resist rather than accept defeat.
An example of the dilemma came in the town of Chauri Chaura, where a huge crowd gathered in support of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922.
The police jailed the leaders, and when the crowd gathered at a police station to demand their release, cops shot live rounds and attacked them with batons.
Some protesters were killed and many were injured. In Chauri Chaura, they chose to fight on, and many police officers were killed.
Gandhi and the Congress leaders were appalled, and immediately called an end to the nationwide movement, saying that many had not grasped his Satyagraha tactic.
The truth was that the young and the poor were not prepared to back down.
After the second wave of struggle, in the early 1930s, ended in similar fashion, one school student activist wrote, “I was to serve as a picket, and the police flogged me every day.
“When I had recovered, I was sent back to discharge the same duty, with the same consequences.
“I was able to fight for a month but was then sent to the Dum-Dum special jail built for prisoners involved in the civil disobedience movement.
“All the time we were in jail, we youngsters were haunted by the question, ‘How many days must we tolerate this torture? Is this the only way of winning freedom?’.”
Non-violence was supposed to characterise the movement, but events quickly took over as the British state increasingly felt India slipping away.
Even the arrests of thousands of activists, including Gandhi, could not slow the momentum.
And each action contained two explosive tendencies that Gandhi opposed.
First, the struggle for national liberation became increasingly fused with the fight against exploitation. It became part of a wider class struggle.
Second, brutal responses by the British were increasing being met with violent retaliation. But Gandhi’s moves to draw down the struggle had terrible consequences.
At its height, the struggle created unity between different religious groups facing a common enemy, but when the movement slumped, demoralisation set in.
Right wing forces that wanted to whip up religious hatred rather than fight the British saw their opportunity.
Communalism—to identify on religious grounds—vied with the national liberation struggle for control of the streets.
But agitation against the British continued, and it still had the capacity to bring people together.
Hundreds of Indian sailors from the Royal Indian Navy mutinied at Mumbai harbour in 1946. They hoisted three flags on their ships, those of Gandhi’s Congress, the Muslim League, and the red flag of the Communist Party.
Their rebellion was condemned by Congress, but spread nonetheless to Karachi and Kolkata and soon involved 20,000 people.
In Mumbai, a general strike in support of the mutiny was joined by members of the Royal Indian Air Force, and even some local police. The British retaliated by firing shells at the rebellious ships and threatening to bomb Mumbai from the air.
Just as the Indian bourgeoisie had feared, the struggle was spinning out of their control, and often they too became targets.
Nevertheless, the British started drawing up plans to withdraw.
Many of those who were inspired by Gandhi’s call and joined the movement now rejected his tactic.
They knew that the British could not have been defeated if each time the state countered with violence, they had simply accepted the blows.
Eventually the whole movement would have be driven from the streets—and the extreme violence of British rule would have continued for years to come.
- Mohandas Gandhi—Experiments in civil disobedience, by Talat Ahmed, £15
- India—Imperalism, Partition and Resistance, by Sam Ashman bit.ly/AshmanIndia
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk