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Is This the Passing of Mr. Gandhi?

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

There are some who profess to forecast for Mr. Gandhi a fate not dissimilar to Woodrow Wilson’s —an appeal to the finest ideals in human nature; a following almost without precedent in the history of the world; the obstinate and irrelevant insistency of interested politics; the infirmity of human nature; and finally isolation in a world not yet prepared for his coming. To each the end desired appeared so near and easy of achievement. Is India today writing the failure of Mr. Gandhi? There is a story of an old Athenian citizen who gave his vote against a leader simply because his ears were weary of hearing him called Aristides the Just. Is India similarly lifting the heel against the stern code of Mahatmaji? Ane his Indian critics right; and must India look elsewhere for guidance in this political crisis?


Mr. Gandhi came at a unique time and with a unique program. There has been nothing in all European history quite like the setting of the stage, the tenseness of the audience, and the entry of the hero. For parallels one must look to the history of the orient and the dramatic suddenness of Mohammed or Buddha. Indeed he has more than once been compared with the saintly prince who learned wisdom seated in contemplation beneath the bo tree. But the Lord Buddha never tried to mix politics and religion.

India knew Mr. Gandhi by the work he had done for his exiled compatriots in South Africa. During the Boer War and again during the World War he had done magnificent service for the British Commonwealth. And in 1918 he felt convinced of the honesty of the British promise of the year before, that India should, in return for its war service and its utter loyalty in the crisis, be accorded a larger measure of control of its own destinies. But 1919 was a dark year for India. There had been political storms before, which had passed and left little to mark their path. This year, however, by a singular and fortuitous combination of unfortunate circumstances, seems destined to mark the beginning of a new era.

There was first the world-wide restlessness after the war. To add to the discontent India, never affluent, had a serious crop shortage, a calamity repeated in 1920 and 1921. For a time wheat was selling at the unprecedented figure of three or four seers to the Rupee. Times like these give abundant opportunity to any prophet of things-as-they-ought-to-be. The Indian government with its eye on Bolshevik Russia and with an Afghan war on its hands was nervous—who was completely sane in 1919?—and insisted in spite of violent protest in passing the Rowlatt Anti-Sedition Bills. It resulted that the newly constituted Indian Legislature promptly and without government opposition repealed these laws. They were never invoked. But India, and probably justly, asked pertinently if repressive legislation was to be her reward for the loyal sacrifices during the war. Then like a thunder clap came to all India the news of the trouble in the Pan jab—the Amritsar Massacre as the Indians now call it. Whether Governor O’Dwyer and General Dyer were justified in their act on this occasion, as some of the British assert, and things had come to such a pass that European lives were in danger; or whether, as Indians assert,.the gathering in Amritsar was wholly peaceful; is now after these five years somewhat beside the mark. The fact is that the story of the shooting down of Panjabi citizens by the British forces—the story was never quite rightly told, for it was a small company of sepoys that was engaged —went the length and breadth of India, and no possible dramatic embellishment was spared in the telling. The All Indian Congress named a committee to investigate and report on the “wrongs of the Panjab.” This Amritsar affair followed by other disturbances in the Panjab, and the “crawling law” passed by the Panjab government in answer to provocation, though they may have seemed justifiable to nervous officials, in political tactics were “Himalayan” blunders.

During all this stress the Mohammedan community, traditionally friendly to the British, might have looked on with indifference if things had been going better with Turkey. They had assisted in the defeat of the Turk, with the understanding that, after punishment had been inflicted for the German alliance, Turkish sovereignty was to be respected in the treaty of peace. But the negotiations at Sevres were pointing in exactly the opposite direction, and it looked as though all Muslim sentiment was to be shocked by the dismemberment of the last independent Muslim power. Even the most loyal Indian Mohammedans were inarticulate at the thought of a Khalifate reduced to European vassalage. There arose overnight in India under the skillful manipulation of the Ali brothers, Shaukat and Mohammed, the Khalifate party, with its undisguised hostility to the British government in India. Thus by acts for which it was not quite responsible England had antagonised the two most resolute and aggressive communities in India, the Sikhs and the Muslims, formerly the two chief bulwarks of British power in India. Into this atmosphere already dangerously surcharged the British government introduced a new force, the Government of India Act of 1919, the result of the Montague-Chelmsford Report, and planned to give India a larger share in its government. In the political excitement of the time it made few friends. Its provisions were scarcely studied. Time may show, and probably will, the wisdom of the act. The leaders of Indian radical thought wanted complete self-government; it left the responsibility of sovereignty divided between Whitehall and the Indian electorate.

All these gave Mr. Gandhi an opportunity such as seldom comes to the leader of a political opposition. He caught at the chance of uniting with a common purpose the agelong foes, Hindu and Muslim; and for the first time in British India there were meetings of Hindu Swarajists and Mohammedan Khalifists, neither interested in the ultimate aims of the other, but both keen to destroy an iniquitous administration. But it was Mr. Gandhi who wrote the platform of this newly awakened party of revolt. He denounced the government and all western civilization as “Satanic.” The new Reforms were inadequate, misbegotten, monstrosities, which could win the confidence of no patriotic Indian. And he proclaimed that until the Khali-fate wrongs had been righted and satisfaction given to the outraged Pan jab there could be no trafficking or agreements with the prostituted British government.

While he was thus becoming a political power of almost unprecedented potency in India, Mr. Gandhi gained an ascendency also in matters religious. Indeed in India there is scarcely any other means of touching the imagination of the populace than through religion; and, the more his influence spread in Indian politics, the richer became his reputation for holiness. It was then that he acquired the title of Mahatma, the great-hearted, the saintly, an honor rarely bestowed and only on those in the last stages of sanctity. The weapon he proposed for his war on the government was one quite in keeping with his character, and peculiarly suited to the genius and philosophy of India. Moreover, it had the success of Mr. Gandhi’s South African campaign for Indian political and social rights to lend it prestige. It is the Hindu doctrine of Dharna translated into practice, the belief in the supremacy of soul force, asserting itself resolutely by national passive resistance, fasting, and restraint. This weapon it was confidently believed would ultimately bring India national salvation and Swaraj, The years of 1920 and 1921 were the zenith of Mr. Gandhi’s career. His first act was to capture the Indian National Congress—an all India organization founded in the 80’s with a liberal program of social reform. He welded it into a political machine with executive committees in all parts of India pledged to carry out his program among the masses. In September, 1920, came the first large political manifesto, calling upon all members of the Congress and all patriotic Indians to subscribe to the fivefold boycott of the government. All government titles and decorations were to be renounced—and Gandhi himself set the example by resigning the decorations that he had received for war service. Government courts were to be shunned and lawyers to give up their practice; in the place of government courts were to be set up local arbitration boards. All students were called upon to leave at once all government supported schools; and that education would not be neglected, national schools were to be set up free from government contagion. To bring India economic independence all foreign-made cloth was to be boycotted, and each individual was called upon to spin. Finally no one should defile himself by having any part or lot in the newly created Councils or legislatures. In their place and until Khalifate wrongs were adjusted, the Panjab satisfied, and Swaraj assured, the Indian National Congress should speak for India. In 1921 in order to make these boycotts the more effective National Congress Volunteers were enrolled by the thousands to preach the cause, to steady the wavering, and to rebuke the erring. So confident was Mr. Gandhi that he predicted that by the end of 1921 complete Swaraj would be assured.

There was also the positive social program; and here Mr. Gandhi is always at his best. He incessantly preached national discipline; and in a thousand ways showed the utter incompatibility of violence and national salvation. In this he is a true Tolstoian. He made every effort to abolish the drink traffic; and, a thing hitherto unattempted, to raise the social prestige of the millions of outcasts, the untouchables. But above all, he in season and out of season called for a return to the simple life of the old India, the symbol of which was to be the spinning wheel; and Khaddar, hand woven cloth, the outward sign of the simplicity of heart and “non-violence” of temper that was to make the new era prevail.

In November, 1921, Mr. Gandhi was ready, he thought, for the next and last step in the program—Civil Disobedience. He selected the district of Bardoli in Gugerat as the one best fitted for the self-restraint which was to accompany the refusal to pay taxes, and thus be a model for all India later. But events were moving rapidly to a crisis; and this leader of passive revolt found that he had set in motion forces which he could not all control. First came the rising of the Moplahs of the Malabar, a fanatical Muslim tribe, that declared for Swaraj, and then in the old way set about offering the alternative of the sword or Islam to their neighbor Hindus. It was not a pretty object lesson to the millions of Hindus in upper India; and Hindus and Muslims began eyeing one another suspiciously, though they still talked the new Hindu-Muslim unity. Then came the Bombay riots on the occasion of the boycott of the Prince of Wales’ visit to that city. For this Mr. Gandhi fasted publicly for days. Finally in the United Provinces came the massacre of police at Chauri-Chaura. It was not enough to plead that his non-cooperators had had no hand in these outrages. The facts were patent; in his condemnation of government, he had let loose forces beyond his control, and India seemed on the point of drifting into violent anarchy.

Mr. Gandhi, to his credit it must be said, was quick to perceive the trend of events. At once he proclaimed that India was far from sufficiently disciplined for his non-violent campaign of civil disobedience; and at once had the Bardoli experiment indefinitely postponed. The moral courage it must have required to cancel the program is one of the finest things in his character. At once he met the sullen opposition of his most ardent followers; to them it was almost a betrayal of a cause now almost victorious. But it is safe to record that if it was Mr. Gandhi who kindled the fires of revolt in India, it was also the same pacific leader who did as much as any other power to quench them. And it was his own example that went farthest to give their complexion to the subsequent events of 1922 and 1923. He immediately insisted that what India needed was a long period of discipline, with its symbols, the spinning wheel and Khaddar, its political program the five boycotts, and its watchword non-cooperation.

In the meanwhile the position of the government had not been an enviable one. It had been comparatively easy to muzzle or to imprison the more radical, men like the two Ali Brothers who had openly attempted to tamper with the army. But Mr. Gandhi was a more serious problem. Such was his reputation for sheer sanctity that apocryphal stories were told of how he had escaped miraculously from the clutches of the sircar. One story commonly repeated in the villages was that he had been stood up against a wall and fired at by cannon, but the balls had refused to wound him. His utterances too were uniformly pacifistic, though his moral influence led to a contempt for law. Even the Liberals, who had no faith in his doctrine of non-cooperationr had the utmost respect for his person and his influence, and tried more than once, in vain, to secure him as a party at a round table conference, at which all India might be represented.

But in March, 1922, things had taken on a new complexion. The new constitution for India with the Liberals plentifully represented was working beyond the expectations of even the most sanguine. The non-co6peratorsrmany of them, saw that their policy of boycott was a tactical blunder, and that there were representative assemblies which spoke genuinely for India, and in them they had no voice. It began to be borne into their minds that more sweeping reforms and even Swaraj might be achieved by constitutional means, and not by Mr. Gandhi’s program, and that too without disorder or loss of time. Furthermore, the postponement of the mass civil disobedience had considerably dampened the ardor of the more energetic, especially the Muslims, who never had deeply taken to heart Mr. Gandhi’s ideal of passive resistance. They saw before them nothing much more than the spinning wheel and Khad-dar, the spiritual significance of which was too fine for their political consciences. In addition the repeated clashes between Mohammedans and Hindus, at a time when respect for authority and law was at its lowest, convinced many that the much vaunted harmony between these traditional enemies was for a long time to come an unattainable ideal. And finally the persistent efforts of the Indian government to press its views on the necessity for preserving the integrity of Turkey, and the forced resignation of Mr. Montague, the Secretary of State for India, won over many ardent Khalifists to the feeling that after all more could be got for Turkey by cooperating with the government than by a policy of obstruction.

In March, 1922, Mr. Gandhi’s influence had suffered, in consequence, a considerable eclipse, and the government felt it incumbent, in order to suppress disorder, to lay hands on him. He was arrested, tried and imprisoned. The expected outbreaks did not occur. Instead and almost at once there came such quiet as India had not known for two years. This was the end of the first chapter of Mr. Gandhi’s political activities.


The year 1922 was a time of desolation and searching of soul for the more immediate of Mr. Gandhi’s followers.

With him in jail, there was no one to whom they could turn for the word of leadership. There were astute politicians aplenty, men like C. R. Das, Pundit Motilal Nehru, Mr. Rajagopalachariar, Pundit Mandan Mohun Malaviya, Dr. Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan. But none of these had the consecration that in India wins the devotion of the masses. They could speak to India’s head, but not to the heart and imagination.

In addition the decisive victory of the Angora Turks over the Greeks and the attitude of the British at Mudania and later at Lausanne once and for all removed the Khalifate question from Indian domestic politics. This settlement immediately took away the purely adventitious bond that Mr. Gandhi had forged between the Hindus and Muslims in India, and old rancors began to show themselves. There were religious riots in Multan in 1922, in Delhi in 1923, which were difficult to suppress. And the bickerings in the Assemblies and in the press about proportionate representation for the two religions do little to bring about the era of good will so confidently promised in 1921.

In the meanwhile the strength of Mr. Gandhi’s lesson of Ahimsa, or non-violence, was clearly manifested by an incident in the Punjab that might otherwise have had serious consequences. A reforming sect of the Sikhs, the Akalir., had recently acquired from the local mahant, or priest, the custody of a famous shrine near Amritsar. The Garden adjoining, the Gurukabagh, was still in the hands of the mahant when some Akalis went in to cut wood, were promptly arrested for trespass, and police protection of the garden was asked of the government. At once the Akalis proclaimed a Satyagraha, a species of passive crusade, and marched in bands against the cordon of police. Some were beaten unresistingly, some arrested, and the whole incident for a time occupied the front pages of all Indian newspapers as a splendid example of the victory of the spirit over material force, and the Akalis were everywhere proclaimed national heroes.

But there were other signs not less unmistakable that Mr. Gandhi was losing control of the political situation. His power was never complete over the intellectuals—men like C. R. Das, once a prominent Calcutta attorney, or Pundit Motilal Nehru, or editors like Mr. Natarajan of the “Social Reformer.” They felt strongly the moral appeal, but his economic nostrums and his theory of non-cooperation left them intellectually cold. The first two while he was in power bowed before his judgment and his popularity; but when he was silenced attempted to find a way out of the impasse to which he had brought them. They first suggested direct action, Civil Disobedience on as generous a scale as possible, and a committee was named in 1922, on which both held prominent places, to tour India and report the feasibility of at once declaring war on the government by a refusal to pay taxes. Their report was interesting reading. Unanimously the committee reported that India was yet unready for extreme action; but a minority led by Mr. Das advised giving up the boycott of the new Councils; fighting the government by methods constitutional; and if the government would not listen to their constitutional demands, by obstructive tactics wrecking the whole legislative machinery of the new Act.

The fight was carried to the National Congress at Gaya in December, 1922. Mr. Das was president and pressed his desire most warmly, but after a spectacular debate, from which all rancor seemed utterly absent, he was defeated. He countered by forming a new party within the Congress, now known as the Swarajists, who defied the authority of Congress, and were pledged to the effort to secure control of the new Councils at the next election.

Nearly all of 1923 was spent in the effort to reconcile these two factions of the Congress. Conferences were held in Bombay in February and later at Delhi between leaders; and finally the Executive Committee of the Congress passed what might be called a dispensing act, permitting those with tough consciences, who could transgress the Mahatma’s decree, to stand for election to the Central and Provincial Legislatures. It was a victory for the Protestants, as Mr. Das’s party might be termed, and was confirmed by the whole Congress later. But the gulf between the true blue non-cooperators and the Swarajists gradually widened. Mr. Gandhi was mentioned with the same reverence as before, but strange deeds were done in his name.

In the election of 1923, as was expected, the Swarajists won a succession of victories over the more moderate Liberals. Yet in only one province, the Central Provinces, were they in an absolute majority. There were obstructionist tactics, and in Bengal the next year a serious constitutional impasse, which led the Governor of the Province to invoke the extraordinary provisions of the Government of India Act, to prorogue the Assembly, and govern directly. But there was as much good as evil in this apparently arbitrary action, as it taught Mr. C. R. Das, who was acting as leader of the opposition, to see the futility of heckling obstruction. Before his death this year he too was beginning to feel the need of closer cooperation with the British, and began to shift his interest from Calcutta and Delhi to London.

Other things, too, were at this time and later going over Mr. Gandhi’s head. In February of last year the Central Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution asking for a Round Table Conference of all parties interested in India’s future, preliminary to the framing of a new constitution for India. To be sure the Labor Government, then, gave no hearty welcome to the plan. But it is highly significant how all parties are seemingly coming together on a common platform, and that Mr. Gandhi and the non-cooperators are yet not represented.

Lala La j pat Rai, who only recently was released from prison, and who is highly respected by Liberals and Swarajists and Non-Cooperators, though he belongs to no party, set out clearly before a body of Indian students in London what he wanted: “No revolution by violence,” and “either to appeal to the good will of the British people or to put our own people under such discipline as would make our demands irresistible.” What he does not want is a British made constitution. He would gladly accept “dominion status with such reservations as may be agreed on between us for a number of years.”

Mr. Srinivasa Sastri, the leader of the Liberals, wishes complete autonomy of the provinces, and the handing over of the civil departments of the Central Government to ministers responsible to the Legislature. And even more recently a memorandum was presented to the Secretary of State by Mrs. Besant, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, and others asking for practically the same thing. There is no doubt these demands would have met the desires also of Mr. Das and Pundit Motilal Nehru. The significant thing is that here was an agreement between once widely separated parties, and it had been arrived at without the aid of Mr. Gandhi. The editor of the “Indian Social Reformer,” himself an ardent admirer of Mahatmaji, had at the beginning repudiated non-cooperation. Pertinently he asks: “Is nonviolent non-cooperation possible?” And India does not desire violence.

When Mr. Gandhi was released from jail, all India wondered what would be his advice to his followers. Wisely for weeks he waited and studied. There were conferences at Juhu with the leaders of both of the Congress parties. At first he was inclined to accept the Council entry as a fait accompli and advised waiting for results. But later he had a change of heart. There was still to be the party of non-cooperators, for “to be out of the legislative bodies is far more advantageous to the country than to be in them.” His constructive program is still the “Charka” and “Khad-dar” To those in the Councils he recommended that they move that the Central and Provincial governments make all their cloth purchase in hand spun and hand woven khaddar; impose a prohibitive duty on foreign cloth, and abolish by prohibition the drink and drug revenue; and that if the government does not agree to this program they resign and prepare the country for civil disobedience.

This to those in the Councils is the ecstacy of delirium; and when at the Ahmedabad meeting of the Congress Committee he put through a motion requiring all Congress Executives to sit at the charka and spin ten tolas of thread each day under set penalties, Mr. Nehru led fifty-five of his followers from the hall. That the penal clause was later by a technicality rescinded, has not been sufficient to close the breach.

Even at this time Mr. Gandhi was still mentioned by all with deepest respect. But, if one may judge, he had led some of his followers from delirium to disorder and now to despair. He broke with the Liberals because of his insistence on novel economic theories and on non-cooperation. He broke with a considerable body of his non-cooperators on the question of the Councils. Will he break with India now because of his absolute trust in the fetish charka? Yet the Executive Committee elected him to preside over the 1924 meeting of the National Congress in December. In the meanwhile he sat and still sits spinning at least ten tolas of thread each day.

Then, at the moment when it looked as though he was about to be called to London to confer with the Secretary of State for India, Mr. Das died. He had forgotten much of his old virulence, and it seemed not impossible that he might negotiate between the more ardent Swarajists and the more moderate Liberals—so much his lesson in constitutional government in Bengal had taught him. His death left his party leaderless, and Mr. Gandhi has been busy, these last few months, traveling the length and breadth of India trying to bring order out of the chaos of a party without a program or a voice of authority. Nor can Mr. Gandhi give it a program, for he has none save the charka. He is pleading for good will and patience, but he cannot be a leader unless he unsays all he has preached in season and out of season these five years.

More than this Mr. Gandhi has reduced the Indian National Congress to political impotence. Even the Swarajists confess that less than ten thousand of its members follow Mr. Gandhi’s request and spin their ten tolas daily, or compound for their “non-cooperation” in money. Having gained their point in the Councils the Swarajists are no longer interested in the Congress.

India is now at peace, at least, on the surface. Whether this is to be followed by an era of good-will depends on many unknown factors. Lord Reading, the late Viceroy, not long ago was invited to London to confer with the Secretary of State. Already many Indian leaders have in the same way had the ear of the British Government in London. Even the most radical papers are burning far less red fire in their editorials. Perhaps the spirit of Mr. Gandhi’s ethical teachings have been of far more influence in India than his political leadership. He is a prophet but not a law-giver.

More recent events only strengthen the opinion that the mass of India cares less for the policies of Mr. Gandhi than for his personality. At the Cawnpore meeting this winter of the “All India National Congress” his slightest movement was a signal for an admiring crowd—or was it only curiosity that compelled attendance? An automobile driven by an American missionary, with his wife in the rear seat, was taken for the car of the Mahatmaji and instantly surrounded by a clamoring and finally disillusioned mob. Yet the old cries of Gandhiji ki jai (Glory to Gandhi), Mahatmaji ki jai were not greatly in evidence. There was no spontaneous outburst of generous enthusiasm as there had been in Ahmedabad in 1921, or silent devotion to the martyr saint then in jail when the same Congress in 1922 met in sacred Gaya.

In the Congress at Cawnpore the old leader still urged his plea of khaddar, spinning for all Congress members, and the boycott of the Councils. The Congress listened respectfully; but voted with Mr. Motilal Nehru, that the Councils may be entered only for the purpose of obstructive tactics such as prevailed in Bengal over a year ago, and proved the temporary undoing of the Reforms. A vigorous minority led by Pundit Malaviya protested against the Nehru resolutions—but not in the name of Gandhi. This advice will undoubtedly ultimately be followed, the old policy of the Liberals, to use the Councils as a constitutional means of introducing constitutional reforms, gradually. The angry resolutions of Mr. Nehru seem only a gesture, though not a pleasant one, to be sure, for those who believe in constitutional government. There are not many thinking persons in India who are losing sleep overnights now.

In the meanwhile things in general in India have not been going altogether in a way that shows a large diffusion of Mr. Gandhi’s ideal ahimsa, the old Hindu ideal of non-injury. Ill feeling between Hindus and Muslims has not been so tense for many years. As I write we have the news of serious outbreaks in Calcutta, where the police had to be reinforced by soldiery. Delhi, Allahabad, Kohat, and a half dozen smaller places have been the scenes of bloodshed and arson. It is difficult to attach blame. After the Delhi outburst Mr. Gandhi, as an example of vicarious punishment, set for himself a fast of twenty-one days. While he was still undergoing this ordeal a riot broke out in Allahabad. The prophet and saint will need to summon all his marvelous patience.

In the meanwhile the English Government seems to be going forward sincerely in the effort to sustain the Reforms and to promote the interests of Indians in India. The Excise duty required of all Indian produced cotton has been removed. Will this ultimately take the last argument, save one, from Mr. Gandhi’s plea for khaddar?


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