The special session of the congress was held in Calcutta in September 1920 under the Presidentship of Lajpat Rai to consider the programme of non-cooperation presented by Gandhi. Gandhi urged the congress to adopt the policy of progressive non-violent non- cooperation until the wrongs were undone and self rule or Swaraj was established. Gandhi's resolution was approved and later in the annual session of the congress at Nagpur in December 1920 it was passed. Thus, at Nagpur the era of constitutional struggle came to an end and the Gandhian era of direct action began.
Gandhi became the undisputed leader of the congress. To quote S.R. Mehrotra " Gandhi brought a new message of faith and hope by offering them a new ideology, a new programme of action which were revolutionary without ceasing to be constitutional."
The non-violent non-cooperation movement was started with the object of redressing the Pubjab and Khilafat wrongs and attainment of Swaraj. The movement captured the imagination of the people. The people were called upon to go through the ordeal, privation and suffering and to make the utmost sacrifices for winning Swaraj, which was promised within one year by Gandhi. There was intense activity and unprecedented cooperation between Hindu and Muslims. Several distinguished persons like Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, Dr. Jayakar, Rajendra Prasad, V.B. Patel, C, Rajgopalachari gave up their lucrative practice at the bar and plunged into the movement. Among the Muslim leaders Ali brothers, Dr. M.A. Ansari, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad played important role.
Thousands of students boycotted government schools and colleges and joined the newly opened national schools and colleges such as Gujurat Vidypitha, Kasi Vidyapitha, Bihar Vidyapitha, Tilak Maratha Vidyapitha, the Bengal National University, Jamia Milia in Delhi and the National Muslim University of Aligarh. The Tilak swarajya fund was started to finance the movement. Seth Jamna Lai Bajaj gave up the title of Rai Bahadur and donated one lakh rupees to the fund. Women showed great enthusiasm and freely offered their jewellery. Swadeshi got great impetus and hand spinning was revived. Khaddar became the symbol of freedom. Huge bonfires of foreign cloth were organised all over the land. Besides boycott of foreign goods and use of Swadeshi goods, anti-liquor agitation was also launched. Gandhi himself surrendered his title of Kaiser-i-Hind and many others followed him.
In July 1921 the Khilafat committee declared that no Muslim should serve in the army and the congress advised the people not to serve a government which degraded India socially, politically and economically. The visit of the Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne was boycotted. A complete hartal was observed in Bombay on 17 November, 1921 i.e. the day of his arrival at Bombay.
The Government took all measures to suppress the movement. Both the congress and the Khilafat organisations were declared unlawful and public meetings were totally banned. Thousands of volunteers were put in jail, while many people were wounded or killed by firiing. By December 1921, except Gandhi all leaders like, C.R. Das, Motilal Nehru, Lajpat Rai, Maulana Azad, Ali brothers were put behind the bars. Gandhi protested against the repressive policy of the government and on 1 February 1922 sent an ultimatum to the Government that he would start mass Civil disobedience, including non-payment of taxes, unless within seven days the political prisoners were released and the press freed from government control.
But before Gandhiji could start the movement, there was the tragedy of Chauri Chaura in U.P. on 5 February 1922. A congress procession of 3000 peasants was fired upon by the police. The angry crowd attacked and burnt the police station causing the death of 22 policemen. Chauri Chaura incident was not the only act of violence committed by the people during the movement. Similar tragic events had already taken place at other places like Bombay and Madras. The most terrible acts of violence were committed by the Moplahs of Malabar who brutally murdered several Hindus at the time of the visit of Prince of Wales at Bombay. Gandhiji was full of grief at all these happenings. He felt that the movement was losing its non-violent character. He realised the the country was not yet ready for a non-violent movement.
He also perhaps believed that the British would be able to crush easily a violent movement. On his suggestion the congress working committee met at Bardoli in Gujurat on 12 February and suspended the movement. The sudden withdrawal of the movement came as a shock to many leaders while some had implicit faith in Gandhiji, others resented his decision to retreat. Subash Bose commented, "To sound the order of retreat just when public enthusiasm was reaching the boiling point was nothing short of a national calamity."
The Government arrested Gandhi on 10 March 1922 and charged him with spreading disaffection against the Government. He was sentenced with six years imprisonment. By that time the Khilafat issue also lost its relevance. The Turkish people under the leadership of Mustafa Kamal Pasha rose in revolt against the Sultan and Captured power. Caliphate was abolished and Turkey was declared a secular republic.
The Non-cooperation Movement failed in its main objective. The promise of Swaraj within one year was unrealistic. Even Gandhiji admitted that he should not have launched the movement without adequate ground work and proper training of masses in the technique of satyagraha. The introduction of the Khilafat question which was definitely a religious issue, into the national movement was unfortunate and proved ultimately counter productive. The appeal to the cause of Khilafat issue led to the rise of Muslim fanaticism, creating a great communal divide between Hindus and Muslims. It eventually led to partition of the country.
Despite the shortcomings, the non-cooperation movement raised the pitch of political agitation to a height dreamt never before. The people revived tremendous self-confidence and self-esteem. For the first time the Indian movement was turned into a mass movement. The programme of organising national eductational institutions, of popularising the values of Khadi and boycotting the foreign goods and of setting of panchayats was something that began to eat into the vitals of the British Raj. With Gandhiji's efforts the congress became a revolutionary body from resolutionary one. It was transferred from an upper class debating club into a mass organisation.
To quote Prof. Harbans Mukhia, "Gandhi changed the idiom of the freedom struggle by bringing it much closer to the indigenous ambience and simultaneously introduced a strong moral and ethical element into the movement so that it did not remain confined to mere political agitations or demands but highlighted the very immorality of the British rule in India." The movement greatly helped the cause of nationalism in India. Uniform slogans were repeated everywhere and a uniform policy and ideology was adopted all over India. Indeed, it was the first revolutionary movement in India since the birth of the congress. The movement inspired the people for further sacrifices for the cause of national independence.