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Gandhi and the non-violent way

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Issue 1725

What do socialists say?

Gandhi and the non-violent way

By Matthew Cookson

THE RISE of the anti-capitalist movement has brought hundreds of thousands of new people into the fight for change. Every time people demonstrate against capitalist institutions or question the priorities of the system they face heavy police repression.

In response many people look to non-violent methods of struggle. Mahatma Gandhi, who campaigned to end British rule in India in the first half of the century, is seen as someone who used non-violent action to bring about fundamental change.

Gandhi was a very brave and committed man. He suffered beatings and imprisonment for the cause of Indian independence. But it was not the politics of non-violence which forced the British out. At key turning points militant struggles by workers and the poor were the crucial factor.

Britain had controlled all of India since 1850. The colonial masters exploited and oppressed the population, and divided people along religious lines so that they could rule more easily. This repression created huge bitterness and a movement to end British rule, of which Gandhi became the main leader.

The popular image of Gandhi is of a poor peasant in white robes. But Gandhi came from a middle class background and was trained as a lawyer in London. When he returned to India in 1915 he urged Indians to fight for Britain in the First World War.

The end of the war saw a huge wave of strikes, demonstrations and riots against British rule sweep India. British troops killed 379 peaceful demonstrators in the Amritsar Massacre in 1919.

Gandhi had a clearly thought out strategy. He wanted to build a mass movement which would frighten the British. But he also wanted to make sure the movement was kept under strict limits. Struggle was necessary to show the potential power that could sweep away colonialism.

But it had to be reined back if it threatened to go beyond the demand for national independence and begin to raise, say, the whole relationship between rich and poor.

On this basis Gandhi was able to attract the support of a layer of Indian industrialists. They wanted to become the rulers in their own land, to see the British leave. But the bitterness and militancy of Indian peasants and workers worried them. They feared the movement would spin out of their control. So Gandhi fitted their needs and they helped him come to the leadership of the Congress movement which pushed for independence.

Gandhi said his way would lead to independence with only minimal bloodshed. But it meant postponing the struggle, and the result was that the violence of imperialism continued.

When the agitation was turning into a real rebellion in 1922 and had the British on the run, Gandhi called the protests off without consulting any of the other leaders of Congress.

Gandhi even argued against launching a second campaign of civil disobedience in 1928 because there was a strike wave at the time. The second campaign was only launched in the 1930s after the strikes had ended.

Anger towards Britain grew when, during the Second World War, it announced India was at war with Germany without consulting any Indians. A huge “Quit India” campaign, supported by Gandhi, was launched in 1942. Strikes, mass demonstrations and guerrilla attacks upon the imperial authorities began to stretch the resources of Britain. Brutal repression was used to break the protests.

Instead of urging the Indian people forward, Gandhi appealed for calm from his prison cell. The British killed 2,000 people and sentenced 2,500 to be whipped in Bombay alone. Another wave of struggle broke out in February 1946.

Indian sailors in the British navy revolted against racism and low pay. The mutiny that developed involved 78 ships and 20,000 sailors. Some 300,000 workers in Bombay held a general strike in solidarity with the sailors.

Gandhi condemned the mutiny, saying that the sailors were setting “a bad and unbecoming example for India”. Congress leaders successfully persuaded the sailors to abandon their action. But the mutiny was the final mass action that convinced Britain’s rulers they could no longer control India.

As they left India in 1947 they encouraged the partition of the country on religious grounds. Because many areas of India contained Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, forced partition led to brutal massacres.

Around one million people were slaughtered with the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan, and over ten million people were made into refugees. Gandhi despised the communal massacres that took place. But his demobilisation of the mass protests undermined the unity across religious divides that was necessary to prevent the slaughter which imperialism caused.

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