A few days ago, I learned that a common insult among young boys playing video games is: ‘Who taught you to fight? Gandhi?’ There’s a certain logic to the insult. While Gandhi was dedicated to suicidal self-sacrifice, which can be honoured on the battlefield, he was equally committed to not physically harming his opponents, which has its limitations in military strategy, whether the conflicts are real-world or virtual.
At the same time, Gandhi was a proponent of what we might call nonviolent militarism, referring to himself as the ‘general’ of the Indian independence struggle, and asking for obedience from his footsoldiers. In May 1930, in his weekly newspaper Navajivan, Gandhi quoted these lines from Tennyson, honouring the virtues of British soldiers in the Crimean War:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
The Mahatma (‘great soul’) commented: ‘I feel that this is as it should be’. Those considering becoming part of the independence struggle should use their rational faculties in deciding whether or not to join the movement, but, having joined, they should put aside their own thoughts and obey their leaders (ultimately, Gandhi himself) unquestioningly.
For many of us looking back, these sentiments (which Gandhi repeated often) jar with the picture of Gandhi we have inherited. This airbrushed picture has been constructed by Gandhi’s devoted followers and by a political and social mainstream that prefers to tame figures such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr rather than engage with their complexity and their radicalism.
If there is a single iconic Gandhian act, it is the Salt March of 1930, a campaign Gandhi led that triggered a national nonviolent uprising that led to the arrest of over 60,000 people.
The bare facts of the campaign, as usually recounted, run as follows. Starting on 12 March 1930, Gandhi marched 220 miles from his ashram to the sea, and once there he made salt from sea water on 6 April, encouraging people all over the country to publicly defy the British Salt Act which forbade Indians from collecting or selling salt. After Gandhi was arrested on 5 May, he escalated the campaign from prison by ordering a nonviolent assault on the Dharasana Salt Works on 21 May 1930. Some 2,500 Indian men marched on the works and allowed themselves to be brutally beaten (two died) without retaliating. After months of massive civil disobedience, in 1931, Gandhi was released from prison and he subsequently negotiated an end to the campaign face-to-face with the British viceroy Lord Wavell. Gandhi was acclaimed by the people of India for his victory.
There are troubling omissions at several points in what we may call ‘the standard account’. (We should note that the Tennyson quotation and Gandhi’s injunction to obey nationalist leaders unquestioningly comes precisely as the salt campaign was heating up in May 1930.)
Let’s take the start of the Salt March. One important fact about Gandhi’s departure from his ashram – with 78 of his followers – is that it violated his own principles. Gandhi had written less than a year earlier in June 1929, that while he did not believe in vaccination against diseases such as smallpox, he recognised that ‘No one has the right to endanger society through his obstinacy’. He went on: ‘Hence, when smallpox spreads in a community which believes in vaccination, those who do not believe in it should, in addition to observing the rules of sanitation, segregate themselves voluntarily from that society.’ Gandhi did not follow this injunction to segregate himself and his fellow ashramites in March 1930, instead setting off on a long march through a string of villages. This was despite the fact that smallpox had just struck in his ashram, killing three unvaccinated children by 9 March 1930, just three days before Gandhi set off for the sea.
There may have been good strategic or tactical reasons for Gandhi not to have delayed his march to the sea. There may have been good strategic or tactical reasons for him to have kept secret the existence of smallpox in the ashram as he led the next phase of the Indian independence struggle. These are matters that can be debated. What is not debatable is that leaving out this significant aspect of genesis of the Salt March distorts our picture of a man who dedicated himself to Truth with a capital ‘T’.
The next major turning point moment in the salt campaign was the march on the Dharasana Salt Works. What is generally omitted in accounts of this extraordinary action is the interrelationship between Gandhi’s salt campaign and the armed campaign of another wing of the Indian nationalist movement.
After Gandhi made salt on 6 April, but before he was arrested on 5 May (there was a month-long pause by the sea), there was a daring raid on the government armoury at Chittagong in Bengal on 18 April, when 50 young men and women shot sentries and set one of the buildings on fire. A large number of the raiders were later killed in gunfights with the police. This much-admired action was followed by violent riots in Madras in the south-east. In Peshawar in the north-west, a riot on 24 April turned into a rebellion that overthrew British rule in the city for 10 days.
Gandhi’s biographer Kathryn Tidrick writes that the decision to march on the Dharasana Salt Works ‘was clearly made with the Chittagong raid in mind’: ‘The Dharsana raid would be its non-violent equivalent in courage and its spiritual antidote.’
The Chittagong attack is an important part of the story of the Salt March and Gandhi’s somewhat desperate decision-making regarding Dharasana. By erasing the impact of the Chittagong raid, the standard account of the Salt March diminishes Gandhi’s humanity, and elevates him into an untroubled strategic guru removed from history, escalating his campaign at the strategically appropriate moment.
Gandhi was an extraordinary political force, a scarcely-believable example of what nonviolence can accomplish. Speaking personally, no figure had more impact on me as I came to consciousness than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and I’ve no doubt I would have been an unquestioningly obedient devotee if I’d ever met him. Nevertheless, it is no service to the man, and damaging to us today as we struggle with similar problems of liberation, if we turn Gandhi into a saint and an icon, removing him from history and sandpapering off his strange edges.
On the day he was arrested, 5 May 1930, Gandhi wrote to the British viceroy condemning the ‘reign of terrorism’ of the British and disowning responsibility for the violent actions of other nationalists. He added: ‘the question of responsibility apart, I dare not postpone action on any cause whatsoever, if non-violence is the force the seers of the world have claimed it to be and if I am not to belie my own extensive experience of its working’. Gandhi went on: ‘If you say, as you have said, that the civil disobedience must end in violence, history will pronounce the verdict that the British Government, not bearing because not understanding non-violence, goaded human nature to violence which it could understand and deal with.’
The then British Secretary of State for India, William Wedgewood Benn (Tony Benn’s father), said before Gandhi’s arrest: ‘if Gandhi is arrested and disorder followed, it [the civil disobedience campaign] would become merged in the terrorist organization and thereby strengthen it’. Benn added that if the independence struggle became simply a terrorist movement, at least it would be ‘a straight fight with the revolver people, which is a much simpler and much more satisfactory job to undertake’.
Simpler partly because an armed struggle inevitably involves a small cadre of trained and armed militants, rather than the millions of people who were galvanised and transformed by the mass nonviolent struggle around the Salt March. Frantz Fanon argued that the colonised must use violence against their oppressors to free themselves psychologically from their internalised oppression, created by centuries of imperial violence. The tens of thousands who volunteered to be arrested during the salt campaign, and the millions who defied British imperial law, found another way to breach the myth of their inferiority.
The final turning point of the Salt March campaign was its end. The standard account glosses over the fact that Gandhi’s personal handling of the negotiations with Wavell in early 1931 led to this massive national convulsion ending without any advance for the independence movement. Those who had been arrested during the struggle were freed, and land that had been confiscated and not yet sold was returned to its former owners. The campaigners’ most passionately-advanced demand, that there be a government inquiry into police action during the protest campaign, was not granted. The Salt Law itself, at the centre of the storm, remained law. Gandhi naively believed he had converted the viceroy, and he allowed all these concessions to the British without gaining any concrete advantage for his people in return. And yet Gandhi was acclaimed by the ordinary people wherever he went in India for his victory.
Winston Churchill identified the nature of Gandhi’s victory, saying of his negotiations with Wavell: ‘It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.’ Gandhi’s assertion of equality with the viceroy, his counter-power based purely on articulating the feelings of the Indian people, was a subtle yet devastating strategic blow to British imperialism. Perhaps he did know how something about fighting.
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