Seven years after he returned from South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi was arrested and tried for sedition on 10 March 1922, a trial that led to a six-year jail sentence. However, he eventually served only two years of that term.
When Gandhi returned toIndiafor good in 1915, he was already a well-known activist for the Indian community’s cause inSouth Africaand all his theories—satyagraha, non-violent struggle, etc.—had been practised and honed in the African nation. In his initial years back home he travelled extensively inIndia, understanding for himself the social, economic and political landscape the country. The senior Congress leader and nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale helped Gandhi get a better grasp of the Indian situation. Gokhale had earlier observed about Gandhi: “He has in him the marvellous spiritual power to turn ordinary men around him into heroes and martyrs.”
In 1918 Gandhi’s leadership skills were put to test during the Champaran and Kheda peasant agitations. In both cases he pursued a strategy of non-violent protest to gain concessions on the peasants’ behalf.
The following year, Gandhi reached out to the Muslims by supporting the Khilafat movement, a pan-Islamic agitation to protect the status of the Caliph in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Indian Muslims, like their counterparts elsewhere, feared that the prestige of their religion was at stake and their most important places of worship might no longer be safe.
For Gandhi this was a moment to strengthen the bond between Hindus and Muslims and he became a spokesperson for the Khilafat cause. This also made Gandhi the first major Congress leader to work towards Hindu-Muslim political unity in an overt way. Though the Khilafat movement did not last beyond 1922, Gandhi’s support to it broadened the Congress’s base across the country.
The Khilafat movement ran almost parallel to another pan-Indian protest launched by Gandhi: the Non-Cooperation movement.
By 1920 there was a lot of discontent among Indians. The Rowlatt Act, the Jaillianwala Bagh killings, and the imposition of marital law inPunjabhad made things worse. Added to this were the widespread economic distress and alienation among the Indian Muslims due to the happenings in west and centralAsia. The Non-Cooperation movement was launched on 1 August 1920 after the failure of the British to respond to a letter by Gandhi to the Viceroy in June that spoke about the right recognised “from time immemorial of the subject to refuse to assist a ruler who misrules”.
The agenda of ‘non-cooperation’ included surrendering titles and honours, and boycotting government-run schools and colleges, courts, and foreign-made cloth. All this could be extended to a mass civil obedience and non-payment of taxes. At the same time, the movement envisaged setting up of national schools and colleges, panchayats for settling disputes, and encouraging spinning and weaving by hand. Most importantly, both protest and reform were to be carried out by non-violent means.
The Non-Cooperation movement was, by and large, a success. However, in February 1922, a section of the Congress and the Khilafat activists attacked a police station in Chauri Chaura in response to police firing, leading to the death of 22 policemen.
Gandhi’s response was immediate: he withdrew the Non-Cooperation movement, saying violence had no place in any mass disobedience campaign. There was disbelief in a section of the Congress leadership about Gandhi’s decision, but his view prevailed.
However, on 10 March 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition.
In his remarkable statement to the judge during the trial, Gandhi said: “I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for me to dissociate myself from the diabolical crimes of Chauri Chaura . . . Non-violence is the first article of my faith . . . But I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered has done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips. I know that my people have sometimes gone mad. I am deeply sorry for it; and I am, therefore, here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. The only course open to you, Mr. Judge, is . . . either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty.”
The judge, while sentencing Gandhi to six years’ imprisonment observed that, “you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely ever to try . . . in the eyes of millions of your countrymen you are a great patriot and a great leader; even all those who differ from you in politics look up to you as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life.”
Eventually, Gandhi was released from prison after two years as he had to undergo an appendicitis operation in 1924. There were still many struggles and many jail terms ahead for this extraordinary man about whom one of the greatest of modern minds, Albert Einstein, said: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as [Gandhi] ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Also on this day:
1932 — U.R. Rao, space scientist and chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, was born
1939 — Asghar Ali Engineer, social reformist and writer, was born
1943 — Dolly Thakore, theatre actress, was born
1945 — Madhavrao Scindia, Congress leader and union minister, was born
1970 — Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was born
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