“There can be no question as to the permanency of British rule in India”
—Viceroy Lord Harding, 1912. (Copland 19).
Soon after Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, he led the Indian National Congress in calling for civil disobedience against the British Raj. Gandhi looked for a way to seize the moral advantage. He found it in the “anti-terrorism” Rowlatt Act, which allowed the British to arrest and detain any Indian without trial (Fischer 42). Gandhi and Congress called for a protest of the legislation that curbed basic civil liberties. Protesters disconnected telegraphs and railway lines and boycotted British goods. With the Sepoy Rebellion still in mind, the British government in India worried about the almost 1.5 million sepoys returning home from Word War I (Copland 21). How would they react to economic destitution and second class citizenship they would find in India? Would masses of disgruntled Indian sepoys revolt as they did in 1857?
In the spring of 1919, tensions escalated into a massacre in the town of Amristar, the Sikh capital in the Punjab. The local deputy commissioner arrested the satygraha leaders. When protesters went to the British commissioner’s house, guards fired on the crowd and killed several. Riots ensued in which several British and Indian civilians were killed. The local government declared martial law, which outlawed the right for groups to assemble in public. Either unaware of or undaunted by the declaration of martial law, thousands of locals gathered to attend an annual festival on April 13, 1919. General Dyer directed his company of fifty sepoys (ethnic Gurkhas, Pathans, and Balucs) to fire without warning on over 10,000 unarmed Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus (Fischer 67). The sepoys killed 379 and wounded over 1,137 in 10 minutes (Fischer 66). The wounded were left unattended. After the Amritsar Massacre, General Dyer was questioned about why he did not warn the crowd, stop firing, or attempt in any way to disperse the crowd: “It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect not only on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity…. I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good” (Fischer 66-67). After a British investigation into the Amritsar Massacre, Dyer was forced to resign his post and retire. But, the local governor of the Punjab congratulated him on his “correct” action (Wikipedia). Back in Great Britain, conservative newspapers collected a retirement fund for him of 26,000 silver pounds, a fortune at the time (Wikipedia).
The Amritsar Massacre changed Gandhi’s focus from asking for equal rights to demanding Indian independence. In the eyes of the international community and Indian leaders, Britain had no moral right to rule 300 million Indians.
The INC announced a “non-cooperation” movement but then suspended it after it turned violent and twenty-two policemen were killed (Copland 49). Gandhi was arrested and spent four years in jail.
The most influential satyagraha started with a pinch of salt. The Imperial government in India collected revenue by taxing salt. This policy touched all Indians, rich and poor, because it was a part of the daily diet. To break the British monopoly on salt, Gandhi led one of his most famous campaigns, a 241-mile walk to the sea to make salt. Before the march, Gandhi informed the viceroy of his plans and why he decided to do it. “Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to an legitimate interest he may have in India . . . . And why do I regard the British rule as a curse? It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinous expensive military and civil administration which the country can never afford” (Fischer 96). Gandhi’s March to the Sea in1930 attracted world attention. The march lasted almost two months and gained marchers as it passed through each village. At the time, Gandhi was sixty-one years old and averaged 12 miles a day. People were amazed at his vigor, and when journalists asked about his ambitious timetable, he responded, “The modern generation is delicate, weak, and much pampered” (Fischer 98). He arrived at the sea with thousands of marchers and illegally grabbed salt from the seashore. Peasants and Congress leaders followed suit. The imperial government responded with a strategy to fill the jails and imprisoned over 60,000 (Fischer 100). Still, the non-violent marches and protests continued.
Gandhi’s most dramatic and influential civil disobedience protest was the Dharsana Satyagraha, which was also part of the salt protest. Ironically, he was unable to attend. Gandhi intended to march on the Dharsana salt factory. “Nothing but organized nonviolence can check the organized violence of the British government” (Fischer 97). As was his want, Gandhi informed the viceroy of his plans. He was promptly arrested just before the march. Though most Congress leaders were in jail, 2,500 volunteers participated. A famous poet, Sarojini Naidu, took over the leadership of the protest. She warned the marchers that they would be hit and made to suffer. But they must swear to take the blows without resisting or fighting back. The non-violent protesters stayed true to their vow. Two were killed and hundreds injured on the first day of the protest (Brendon 387). The Dharsana Satygraha became a model for civil disobedience for the Civil Rights protests in the United States led by Martin Luther King Jr.
The Salt protests were the beginning of the end for the British Empire in India. The strategy of filling the jails failed and made the British aware that they would have to use force to get Indians to comply with the Raj. It also gave Indians a sense of their moral strength and identity. The Bengali artist, Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, described how the British Raj lost its moral legitimacy by reacting so violently to non-violent protests: “Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia. She is no longer regarded as the champion throughout the world fair dealing and the exponent of high principle, but as the upholder of Western race supremacy and exploiter of those outside her own borders. For Europe this is, in actual fact, a great moral defeat that has happened. Even though Asia is physically weak and unable to protect herself from aggression where her vital interests are menaced, nevertheless she can now afford to look down on Europe where before she looked up” (Fischer 102).
In response to the large-scale civil disobedience in India and international pressure abroad, the British agreed to hold roundtable discussions with Congress about the future of India. The British released the satyagraha prisoners and Congress stopped the civil disobedience campaign. Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not contain his frustration and humiliation of having to negotiate with Gandhi. He was disgusted by the “nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the Viceroy’s palace, there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor” (Fischer 103). The viceroy that Churchill referred to staffed his opulent palace in Delhi with 6,000 servants and 400 gardeners (Ferguson 215). The disparities between the British rulers and the average Indian seemed wider than ever. The discussions were simply a short-term British strategy to enervate the swaraj movement. It was a show for the media. The British invited Gandhi to London to negotiate. He wore his usual homespun peasant loincloth when he met the King and Queen. When someone asked if perhaps he was wearing too little clothes for such a formal meeting, Gandhi replied, “The King had enough on for both of us” (Fischer 105). In the end, Gandhi returned to India empty handed. Indian leaders who thought Independence would come quickly and smoothly were disappointed.