India is all set to celebrate its 75th Independence Day. The importance of the day increases when one thinks of all the years of pain and strain, and deprivation that the leaders and revolutionaries of the struggle-filled history endured for their beloved nation.
Coinciding with the commemoration of the day is the 100 years of what has gone down in history as ‘The Great Trial’ of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma of India, for sedition in 1922. The trial led to a six-year jail sentence, although the Father of the Nation served only two years of it thanks to his good behaviour and ill health.
When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he was already a well-known activist for the Indian community’s cause in South Africa and the principle of non-violent struggle that he had honed against British rule. A lawyer by profession, he used truth and non-violence in the struggle to achieve freedom for his people and country.
During the initial years back home, Gandhi travelled extensively in India to understand the social, economic, and political landscape of the country. He was loved and respected as the Mahatma, the great soul with voluntary poverty, simplicity, humility, and saintliness.
Gandhi was swept to the top of the freedom struggle in 1919-20 because he had caught the imagination of the people. But by this period, the discontent among Indians against the British rule reached its peak ignited by the Rowlatt Act, the Jallianwala Bagh killings, and the imposition of martial law in Punjab.
The non-cooperation movement was launched by Gandhi on August 1, 1920, after the failure of the British to respond to a letter by him to the Viceroy in June that spoke about the right recognised “from time immemorial of the subject to refuse to assist a ruler who misrules”.
The movement called for boycotting government-run schools and colleges, courts, and foreign-made cloth and surrendering all government honours. This finally led to mass civil obedience and non-payment of taxes.
However, Gandhiji had to withdraw from the ‘Non-Cooperation Movement’ in February 1922 because at a dusty market town known as Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur in the present north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a peaceful mob turned violent and clashed with the police resulting in the deaths of several policemen.
Gandhi realised that the movement was turning violent and agitations needed proper understanding. He construed this mob violence as unimpeachable evidence of the fact that the country was not yet ready for swaraj (self-rule) and unilaterally decided to call off the non-cooperation movement.
In response, Gandhi called off the movement, which was gaining lot of momentum, and vociferously condemned the violence in Chauri Chaura to reinforce the principle of non-violence.
Gandhi was convinced about his decision and that was very much reflected in the writings on this issue when he wrote, “I know that the drastic reversal of practically the whole of the aggressive programme may be politically unsound and unwise, but there is no doubt that it is religiously sound. The country will have gained by my humiliation and confession of error. The only virtue I want to claim is truth and non-violence. I lay no claim to superhuman powers”.
However, on March 10, 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition.
Gandhi held himself accountable, fasted in penance, and asked for the highest penalty at his trial. For him, no future goal justified violence in the present; it could not be the means to any political end. Self-discipline was crucial to self-sovereignty, swaraj.
In his remarkable statement to the judge during the trial, Gandhi said: “I have concluded that I can't dissociate myself from the diabolical crimes of Chauri Chaura... Non-violence is the first article of my faith...”
Non-violence was a lifelong commitment for Mahatma Gandhi in his personal and public life. As it is the centenary year of Chauri Chaura, every Indian must understand its significance in the country’s freedom struggle and the tireless efforts taken by Gandhi to keep the struggle largely non-violent.
The idea of non-violence was central to Mahatma Gandhi’s beliefs. From the railway platform in Pietermaritzburg to the indigo plantations of Champaran, the response to Chauri Chaura, and the salt march at Dandi, underpinned his steadfast resistance to injustice and guided him on every step of his leadership of the freedom struggle.
While sentencing Gandhi to six years imprisonment, the judge observed, “you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely ever to try... in the eyes of millions of your countrymen you are a great patriot and a great leader; even all those who differ from you in politics look up to you as a man of high ideals and noble and even saintly life.”
No doubt, non-violence has great appeal in the current scenario where nations are involved in a war with each other and the non-violence movement removes the illogicality of trying to make the world a less violent and more just place by using violence as a tool.
In post-independent India, there have been leaders and workers from all political parties actively committing and encouraging violence towards India’s citizens. Many leaders, while paying profuse lip service to Gandhi, never have shown the moral will or courage to unambiguously discourage violent followers and violent acts as the Father of the Nation consistently did.
Violence, while never being a solution to any problem, also gives birth to further perpetuating disasters!