Book Title: Noncooperation in India: Nonviolent Strategy and Protest, 1920-22
Author: David Hardiman
HINDU-MUSLIM unity, which finds itself under severe strain in today’s India, was a vital element of the Mahatma Gandhi-led Noncooperation Movement of 1920-22. This campaign, says author David Hardiman, united Hindus and Muslims in a way that was never again achieved during the freedom struggle.
Hardiman, a renowned historian, delves deep into this national movement, right from its launch in 1920 to its disappointing end with Gandhi’s arrest two years later. In his previous book, ‘The Nonviolent Struggle for Indian Freedom 1905-19’, the author had examined the role of nonviolent resistance in the Indian freedom movement.
The discriminatory treatment of Indians in South Africa spurred Gandhi to launch satyagraha, a form of nonviolent resistance. After returning to India in 1915, he campaigned to make nonviolence a core commitment of the Indian National Congress; the idea soon gained currency through a series of local-level campaigns.
Gandhi launched his first all-India campaign in 1919, the Rowlatt Satyagraha, in protest against the draconian legislation that gave the officials absolute powers to keep suspects interned without a trial. The agitation was brutally suppressed, with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar being the most horrifying and devastating of the excesses committed by the British rulers. It was a shocker not only for Punjab, which had been at the forefront of providing soldiers for Britain’s World War-I campaign, but also for the entire country. This momentous incident triggered a nationwide antipathy to imperial rule and paved the way for the launch of the Noncooperation Movement.
The 1920-22 campaign’s main objective was to secure immediate self-rule; that did not happen, but the movement succeeded in rattling the colonial masters in the post-World War-I years. The book covers not only developments at the national level but also local manifestations of the movement. Besides British government officials, these campaigns targeted British businessmen, including factory managers, indigo planters and tea garden operators. Also on the radar of the agitators were the Indians who were closely aligned with the British rulers, such as landlords and Sikh priests. The Noncooperation Movement coincided with the early years of the Gurdwara Reform Movement, which was aimed at liberating gurdwaras from the clutches of decadent mahants who were giving Sikhism a bad name. The latter were in league with the British, who eventually passed the Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Act, 1922, in the face of a spirited agitation by Sikhs. Later, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, was passed; it brought the gurdwaras under the control of an elected body of the community.
The Gandhian credo of nonviolence took a big hit when Chauri Chaura village in eastern Uttar Pradesh witnessed clashes between the police and local noncooperation volunteers on February 4, 1922. A mob later set the local police station on fire, killing 23 cops who were burnt or battered to death. A distraught, guilt-ridden Gandhi went on a fast and called off the campaign of civil disobedience that he had planned to launch from Bardoli (Gujarat). He was arrested in March 1922 in connection with three articles he had written for Young India. The tumultuous turn of events sounded the death knell for the Noncooperation Movement. Opinion was, however, divided over whether Gandhi had been right in calling off the Bardoli programme. Nehru believed that a movement that was going strong had been stopped in its tracks; he admitted that the Chauri Chaura incident was ‘a deplorable occurrence and wholly opposed to the spirit of nonviolence’, but he had doubts and misgivings about whether what had happened in a ‘remote village’ deserved the huge importance it had been accorded.
Warts and all, the Noncooperation Movement posed a serious challenge to the ‘divide and rule’ policy which had largely enabled the British to subjugate India. The coming together of the majority and minority communities provided strength and vitality to the freedom struggle for a while. Hardiman observes ruefully: “The mass support of Muslims — such an important feature of noncooperation — was missing in the subsequent campaigns… a grave loss to the national cause that was to culminate in the Pakistan Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s and the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947.” When Hindu-Muslim amity began waning, it became easier for the British to maintain their dominance. That’s an illuminating lesson for contemporary India, whose secular fabric is in danger of being torn asunder.