Essay on the Struggle for Swaraj during 1927-47

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Was gagged through strict censorship of news. According to official figures over 110 persons were killed and over 300 wounded in police firings. Unofficial estimates place the number of dead far higher.

Moreover, thousands of persons had their heads and bones broken in lathi-charges. South India in particular experienced repression in its most severe form. The police often beat up men just for wearing khadi or Gandhi caps.

Meanwhile, the British government summoned in London in 1930 the first Round Table Conference of Indian leaders and spokesmen of the British government to discuss the Simon Commission Report.

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But the National Congress boycotted the Conference and its proceedings proved abortive; for a conference on Indian affairs without the Congress was like staging Ramlila without Rama.

The government now made attempts to negotiate an agreement with the Congress so that it would attend the Round Table Conference. Finally, Lord Irwin and Gandhiji negotiated a settlement in March 1931.

The government agreed to release those political prisoners who had remained non-violent and conceded the right to make salt for consumption as also the right to peaceful picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops; the Congress suspended the Civil Disobedience Movement and agreed to take part in the Second Round Table Conference.

Many of the Congress leaders, particularly the younger, left wing section, were opposed to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, for the government had not accepted even one of the major nationalist demands. It had not agreed even to the demand that the death sentence on Bhagat Singh and his two comrades be commuted to life imprisonment.

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But Gandhiji was convinced that Lord Irwin and the British were sincere in their desire to negotiate on Indian demands. His concept of satyagraha included the need to give the opponent every chance to show a change of heart.

His strategy was based on the understanding that a mass movement must necessarily be of short duration and could not go on forever, for the people’s capacity to sacrifice was not endless.

Consequently, a phase of extra­legal mass struggle must be followed by a more passive phase when political struggle was carried on within the four walls of the law.

Gandhiji had moreover negotiated with the Viceroy on equal terms and, thus, at one stroke enhanced the prestige of the Congress as the equal of the government. He prevailed upon the Karachi session of the Congress to approve the agreement.

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Gandhiji went to England in September 1931 to attend the Second Round Table Conference. But in spite of his powerful advocacy, the British government refused to concede the basic nationalist demand for freedom on the basis of the immediate grant of Dominion Status.

In the meanwhile, peasant unrest had developed in several parts of the country as peasants found that the fall in prices of agricultural products because of world depression had made the burden of land revenue and rent unbearable.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress agitated for reduction of rent and prevention of eviction of tenants. In December 1931, the Congress started a no-rent, no-tax, campaign.

The government’s response was to arrest Jawaharlal Nehru on 26 December. In the North-West Frontier Province the Khudai Khidmatgars were leading a peasant movement against the government’s land revenue policy. On 24 December, their leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was arrested.

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Peasant struggles were also developing in Bihar, Andhra, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Punjab. On his return to India, Gandhiji had no choice but to resume the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The government, now headed by the new Viceroy Lord Willington, who believed that a major error had been made in signing a truce with the Congress, was this time fully determined and prepared to crush the Congress. In fact, the bureaucracy in India had never relented.

Just after the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, a crowd had been fired upon in East Godavari, in Andhra, and four persons were killed simply because the people had put up Gandhi’s portrait. On 4 January 1932, Gandhiji and other leaders of the Congress were again arrested and the Congress declared illegal.

The normal working of laws was suspended and the administration carried on through special ordinances. The police indulged in naked terror and committed innumerable atrocities on the freedom fighters. Over a lakh of satyagrahis were arrested; the lands, houses and other property of thousands was confiscated.

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Nationalist literature was banned while the nationalist newspapers were again placed under censorship. Government repression succeeded in the end, helped as it was by the differences among Indian leaders on communal and other questions. The Civil Disobedience Movement gradually waned.

The Congress officially suspended the movement in May 1933 and withdrew it in May 1934. Gandhiji once again withdrew from active politics. Once again many political activists felt despair.

As early as 1933, Subhas Bose and Vithalbhai Patel had declared that “the Mahatma as a political leader has failed.” Willingdon, the Viceroy, had also declared: “The Congress is in a definitely less favourable position than in 1930, and has lost its hold on the public.” But in reality this was not so.

True, the movement had not succeeded in winning freedom, but it had succeeded in further politicising the people, and in further deepening the social roots of the freedom struggle.

As H.N. Brailsford, the British journalist put it: as a result of the recent struggle Indians “had freed their own minds, they had won independence in their hearts.” A true measure of the real outcome, the real impact, of the Civil Disobedience Movement was the heroes’ welcome given to political prisoners on their release in 1934.

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