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10-08-2015, 16:43

GANDHI AND THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS

Nowhere in the colonial world were these issues debated more vigorously than in India. Before the Sepoy Mutiny, Indian consciousness had focused primarily on the question of religious identity. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a stronger sense of national consciousness began to arise, provoked by the conservative policies and racial arrogance of the British colonial authorities. The first Indian nationalists were almost invariably upper-class and educated. Many of them were from urban areas such as Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Some were trained in law and were members of the civil service. At first, many tended to prefer reform to revolution and accepted the idea that India needed modernization before it could handle the problems of independence. An exponent of this view was Gopal Gokhale (1866 –1915), a moderate nationalist who hoped that he could convince the British to bring about needed reforms in Indian society. Gokhale and other like-minded reformists did have some effect. In the 1880s, the government launched a series of reforms introducing a measure of self-government for the first time. All too often, however, such efforts were sabotaged by local British officials. The slow pace of reform convinced many Indian nationalists that relying on British benevolence was futile. In 1885, a small group of Indians met in Bombay to form the Indian National Congress (INC). They hoped to speak for all India, but most were high-caste Englishtrained Hindus. Like their reformist predecessors, members of the INC did not demand immediate independence and accepted the need for reforms to end traditional abuses like child marriage and sati. At the same time, they called for an Indian share in the governing process and more spending on economic development and less on military campaigns along the frontier. The British responded with a few concessions, such as accepting the principle of elective Indian participation on government councils, but in general, change was glacially slow. As impatient members of the INC became disillusioned, radical leaders such as Balwantrao Tilak (1856 –1920) openly criticized the British while defending traditional customs like child marriage to solicit support from conservative elements within the local population. Tilak’s activities split the INC between moderates and radicals, and he and his followers formed the New Party, which called for the use of terrorism and violence to achieve national independence. Tilak was eventually convicted of sedition. The INC also had difficulty reconciling religious differences within its ranks. The stated goal of the INC was to seek self-determination for all Indians regardless of class or religious affiliation, but many of its leaders were Hindu and inevitably reflected Hindu concerns. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Muslims began to call for the creation of a separate Muslim League to represent the interests of the millions of Muslims in Indian society. In 1915, the return of a young Hindu lawyer from South Africa transformed the movement and galvanized India’s struggle for independence and identity. Mohandas Gandhi was born in 1869 in Gujarat, in western India, the son of a government minister. In the late nineteenth century, he studied in London and became a lawyer. In 1893, he went to South Africa to work in a law firm serving Indian émigrés working as laborers there. He soon became aware of the racial prejudice and exploitation experienced by Indians living in the territory and tried to organize them to protect their living conditions. On his return to India, Gandhi immediately became active in the independence movement. Using his experience in South Africa, he set up a movement based on nonviolent resistance (the Indian term was satyagraha, “hold fast to the truth”) to try to force the British to improve the lot of the poor and grant independence to India. Gandhi was particularly concerned about the plight of the millions of “untouchables,” whom he called harijans, or “children of God.” When the British attempted to suppress dissent, he called on his followers to refuse to obey British regulations. He began to manufacture his own clothes (dressing in a simple dhoti made of coarse homespun cotton) and adopted the spinning wheel as a symbol of Indian resistance to imports of British textiles. Gandhi, now increasingly known as India’s “Great Soul” (Mahatma), organized mass protests to achieve his aims, but in 1919, they got out of hand and led to British reprisals. British troops killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the enclosed square in the city of Amritsar in northwestern India. When the protests spread, Gandhi was horrified at the violence and briefly retreated from active politics. Nevertheless, he was arrested for his role in the protests and spent several years in prison. Gandhi combined his anticolonial activities with an appeal to the spiritual instincts of all Indians. Though born and raised a Hindu, he possessed a universalist approach to the idea of God that transcended individual religion, although it was shaped by the historical themes of Hindu religious belief. At a speech given in London in September 1931, he expressed his view of the nature of God as “an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything . . . , an unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof.” In 1921, the British passed the Government of India Act to expand the role of Indians in the governing process and transform the heretofore advisory Legislative Council into a bicameral parliament, two-thirds of whose members would be elected. Similar bodies were created at the provincial level. In a stroke, five million Indians were enfranchised. But such reforms were no longer enough for many members of the INC, which under its new leader, Motilal Nehru, wanted to push aggressively for full independence. The British exacerbated the situation by increasing the salt tax and prohibiting the Indian people from manufacturing or harvesting their own salt. On release from prison, Gandhi resumed his policy of civil disobedience by openly joining several dozen supporters in a 200-mile walk to the sea, where he picked up a lump of salt and urged Indians to ignore the law. Gandhi and many other members of the INC were arrested. In the 1930s, a new figure entered the movement in the person of Jawaharlal Nehru, son of the INC leader Motilal Nehru. Educated in the law in Great Britain and a brahmin (member of the highest social caste) by birth, Nehru personified the new Anglo-Indian politician: secular, rational, upper-class, and intellectual. In fact, he appeared to be everything that Gandhi was not. With his emergence, the independence movement embarked on dual paths: religious and secular, native and Western, traditional and modern. The dichotomous character of the INC leadership may well have strengthened the movement by bringing together the two primary impulses behind the desire for independence: elite nationalism and the primal force of Indian traditionalism. But it portended trouble for the nation’s new leadership in defining India’s future path in the contemporary world. In the meantime, Muslim discontent with Hindu dominance over the INC was increasing. In 1940, the Muslim League called for the creation of a separate Muslim state, to be known as Pakistan (“Land of the Pure”), in the northwest. As communal strife between Hindus and Muslims increased, many Indians came to realize with sorrow (and some British colonialists with satisfaction) that British rule was all that stood between peace and civil war.

 

 

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