The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 11

gandhi-INThe story thus far… For two years Gandhi traveled extensively in India and had talked at different places. His interest first centered on the problem of indentured labor where poor, ignorant laborers were enticed away from India to work in the British colonies. He disapproved of this system in South Africa, fought it there, and he wanted to see it abolished. Gandhi started a great agitation on this issue. As a result, the Government announced that the system of indentured labor would be stopped before July 31,1917. In Ahmedabad at textile mills, prices had gone up and the mill workers were demanding higher wages. The mill owners would not agree. Gandhi sympathized with the workers and launched a struggle and resorted to peaceful resistance. The workers proudly followed Gandhi and paraded the streets saying they would not go back to work until a settlement had been reached.

Days passed. The mill owners wouldn’t budge. The strikers were getting impatient for they were faced with starvation. Their discipline became weak. Gandhi feared that some workers would break their pledge and go back to work. That would be a great moral defeat. One morning he called the workers and told them that unless the mill workers held to their pledge, and reached a settlement, he would not eat. The workers were shocked.  “Not you, but we shall fast,” they said. “Please forgive us for our lapse; we shall remain faithful to our pledge.”

Gandhi did not want anybody else to fast. His fast was not against the mill owners, but against the lack of coordination and unity among the workers. The fast lasted only three days. It was powerful enough to influence the mill owners that they came to an agreement with the workers. Hardly was the mill workers’ strike over, when Gandhi had to plunge into the Kheda satyagraha struggle. The Kheda district of Gujarat was on the verge of a severe famine. Crop yield had been so low that the cultivators, especially the poor farmers, were unable to pay the revenue. But the government insisted that the yield had not been so bad and that the cultivators should pay the tax.

Gandhi saw the injustice advised the farmers to offer satyagraha by not paying their taxes. Leaders, like Vallabhbhai Patel, Shankarlal Banker, Mahadev Desai and others took an active part in this struggle. There had been signs that the campaign might fizzle out, but after four months of struggle there was an honorable settlement. The government asked rich farmers to pay and granted relief to poor farmers. The Kheda satyagraha marked the beginning of an awakening among the peasants of Gujarat, the beginning of their true political education. It gave to the educated public workers the chance to establish contact with the actual life of the peasants.

During this time the war had entered a critical phase. Britain and France were in a difficult position. In the spring of 1917 Germany had inflicted crushing defeats on both the British and French troops in France. Russia’s war effort had broken down and the Revolution was threatening its Government. Though America had entered the war, no American troops had yet reached the battlefront. The Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, invited various Indian leaders to attend a War Conference. Gandhi was also invited. He accepted the invitation and went to Delhi. Gandhi was not happy that leaders like Tilak or the Ali brothers had not been invited to the conference, so he was un- willing to attend. After meeting the Viceroy, however, he went to the conference. The Viceroy was keen to get Gandhi’s support on military recruiting. Gandhi spoke only one sentence. “With a full sense of my responsibility I beg to support the resolution.”

Gandhi had supported going to war! Many of his friends were taken aback. Some said, “You are a votary of ahimsa, how can you ask us to take up arms?” Others said, “What good has the government done to India to deserve our cooperation?”  Even some of his best friends could not understand how he could reconcile his war effort with his campaign for ahimsa. But Gandhi stuck to the belief he held at that time that “absolutely unconditional and wholehearted cooperation with the government by the educated Indians will bring India within sight of our goal of Swaraj as nothing else will.”

Gandhi had made his decision and he now set out to implementit. The response to recruit went was not in any way encouraging, but Gandhi was determined to carry out his mission. He held meetings. He issued leaflets asking people to enlist in the forces. His steady work began to bear fruit. Many men were recruited and he hoped to get a bigger response as soon as the first batch had been sent. Gandhi nearly ruined his health during the recruiting campaign. He worked very hard. He could not take his food at regular times, nor could he take enough nourishment to keep up his energy. He had an attack of dysentery. He refused to take medicine and his condition worsened. Friends tried their best to advise him but he was beyond all advice. He passed restless days and nights and he himself felt at times that he was near death’s door.

It took him a long time to regain his health, but before then news came that World War I was over. Germany had been completely defeated. Friends and doctors advised him to go away for a change and recover his health. He went to Matheran, but the place did not suit him. He went to Poona, where a doctor was consulted. He advised him to take milk to rebuild his body, and prescribed some medicine. Gandhi took the medicine but he would not agree to take milk, for he had given up cow’s milk and buffalo’s milk. He was finally convinced to take goat’s milk.

Gandhi returned to Ahmedabad. He was recouping his health there when he read in the papers the Rowlatt Committee’s report had just been published. The committee recommended that for the maintenance of peace, the government could arrest any person without a warrant and detain him for any length of time without any trial or right to appeal. Thus, the law was a direct attack on the ordinary civil liberties of the people and a clear indication of the autocratic and barbarous tendencies of the British rule in India. These recommendations startled Gandhi. He described them as “unjust, subversive of the principles of liberty and justice, and destructive of the elementary rights of individuals.”

Friends approached him for guidance. “Something must be done,” he said to them. “If the proposed measures are passed into law, we ought to offer satyagraha.” Gandhi lamented the fact that he was in poor health. From his sick-bed he wrote articles for the Indian papers explaining that the proposed bill was an act of tyranny which no self-respecting people could submit to it. The only possible step against the government’s proposal, Gandhi thought, would be to launch a satyagraha movement in right earnest. A meeting of some of the leaders was called at the ashram and a satyagraha pledge was drafted. It was unanimously signed by everybody present.

Gandhi did not believe that the existing institutions could handle such a noble weapon, so a separate institution named Satyagraha Sabha was formed with headquarters in Bombay. There were agitations everywhere against the Rowlatt Committee’s report. But the government was determined to implement the Rowlatt recommendations and in 1919, the Rowlatt Bill was introduced. When the bill was debated in India’s Legislative Chamber, Gandhi attended as a visitor.

— To be continued next week