Gandhi Fights British Attempt to Divide Hindus – Part 15

GANDHI_INAt  home Gandhi found that the Government had returned to the policy of repression. There were widespread arrests and the Government seized the properties and bank balances of people and organizations who were hostile to their interests.

Early in 1932 Gandhi wanted to meet the new Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, but the Viceroy made it clear that the days of negotiation were over. Gandhi informed the authorities that he was again starting a civil disobedience campaign.

The Viceroy thought it was a threat. He had Gandhi arrested and imprisoned in Yeravda Central Jail. Several other leaders and many of Gandhi’s followers were also arrested and sent to jail.

In March the struggle entered a new phase. Gandhi had always insisted that the untouchables were a part of the Hindus and must be treated as Hindus. Now, however, it was announced that the British proposed to set up separate voting for the untouchables. That meant that untouchables could vote only for members of their own caste.

Gandhi regarded the Hindu religion as one and indivisible. He saw the game the British were playing. It was an attempt to weaken Hindu society.  “Separate treatment of untouchables cannot be allowed,” Gandhi declared. “Here is an attempt to make untouchability last forever. Unless untouchability is destroyed we shall  never have self-government.” “But what can you do about this election law now?” asked a friend. “I can die,” was his prompt reply. “I will resist this evil provision with my life.” Gandhi announced that he would soon start a fast unto death unless the plan for separate electorates was changed. The public announcement of his intention threw the country into panic.

The Indian leaders were shocked at Gandhi’s decision. Even Jawaharlal Nehru thought that Gandhi was taking a drastic step on a side issue. During the time between the announcement and the day when Gandhi’s fast was to begin, streams of visitors arrived at Yeravada jail. The authorities, anxious to avoid any tragedy, allowed everyone to have free access to Gandhi. But all efforts to dissuade him from fasting unto death were of no avail. The die was cast. Gandhi was going to fast.

Rabindranath Tagore sent a telegram: “It is worth sacrificing precious life for the sake of India’s unity and her social integrity. Our sorrowing hearts will follow your sublime penance with reverence and love.”

Gandhi started his fast on September 20, 1932. The first day of the fast was observed all over India as a day of prayer and fasting. Many temples were opened to untouchables and meetings were held all over India urging the removal of untouchability.

Outside the jail political activity came to a boil. Leaders of upper case Hindus and untouchables met and discussed various measures to try to arrive at a compromise that would satisfy Gandhi. Proposals and counterproposals were made and considered.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the most powerful leader of the untouchables, met Gandhi and assured him that he would try his best to find a just solution. On the third day of the fast, Gandhi’s condition caused anxiety to all his friends. He was very weak and had to be carried to bathroom on a stretcher. His voice was feeble, his blood pressure was rising. The authorities grew panicky. They sent for Kasturba and allowed all his friends and followers to be with him in jail.

On the fifth day of the fast, Hindu leaders finally reached an agreement and signed a pact that would do away with the separate electorates. Gandhi, however, would not accept the pact unless it had been ratified by the British rulers.

News came that the British had approved the pact; but still Gandhi would not break his fast until he had seen the text of the approval. The official document of the British government’s approval to the pact came and Gandhi accepted it. Gandhi was released from prison in early 1933. Shortly thereafter he suspended the mass civil disobedience movement but sanctioned individual civil resistance resistance to the government’s policy of repression.

For the next seven years, Gandhi worked hard for the social and spiritual awakening of the people. Many leaders, including Nehru, did not approve of many of Gandhi’s activities. “But,” said Nehru, “how can I presume to advise a magician?”

Sabarmati Ashram had been seized by the government during the salt satyagraha. So Gandhi established a little retreat at Sevagram near Wardha in Maharashtra. This became his headquarters. New reforms sponsored by the government got little support from the people. However, many people, including Congress workers, wanted to try them out as a means of furthering the Swaraj movement.

In 1939, the Second World War broke out. England and France declared was on Nazi Germany. Without consulting Indian leaders, Britain declared India also to be at war on the side of the allies.

Though Gandhi’s sympathies lay with the British, he believed that all violence was evil and therefore he would have nothing to do with the war effort. The Indian National Congress wanted to help Britain and fight on the side of the allies, but only as a free nation. But to grant India independence seemed ridiculous to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his government. They had no intention of letting India go by default.

Britain refused to accept the cooperation offered by the Congress. As a protest, all the Congress ministries in the provinces resigned. The government took over the administration and they too all measures that would help the was effort. Acting on the goodwill and restraint taught by Gandhi, the Indian leaders showed no reaction.
However, events in Europe were having repercussions in India. The Congress Working Committee found itself unable to accept in its entirety Gandhi’s attitude to the war. In particular, they would not accept his view that the defence of India should not depend on the armed forces.

Congress leaders met several times in Gandhi’s room at Sevagram and talked of their desire to start some action. Finally a proposal was put forward that all provincial governments should join with the British authorities in the defence of India, but the British rejected the offer.

-To be continued next week

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