It was the Rowlatt Bill with its denial of civil liberties which finally brought Gandhi into active Indian politics. From 1919 to his death in 1948, he occupied the centre of the Indian stage and was the hero of the great historical drama which culminated in the independence of his country. He changed the entire character of the political scene in India. He only grew. In the thick of the battle he remained a man of God
Since the Rowlatt Bill was not a local issue and the struggle was to be launched on an all-India scale, Gandhi pondered deeply what shape it should take. He had to rouse the people's enthusiasm and yet keep their passions from breaking into violence. Finally, he hit upon the idea of hartal or a national observance of mourning or protest by the closing of shops and places of business.
The hartal was observed all over India, by Hindus and Muslims alike, with an enthusiasm which surprised every one. Even Gandhi had not realized how great was his hold on the imagination of the Indian masses. The Government's complacency received a rude shock to see the war-time "recruiting sergeant" of the Empire turn a rebel. When Gandhi who was now in demand everywhere left for Delhi and Amritsar, he was served with a notice at Palwal station forbidding him to cross into the Punjab. On his refusal to obey the order, he was arrested and brought back to Bombay.
The news of his arrest spread like wild fire and created great excitement among the people. Crowds gathered in cities and some violence took place. When Gandhi came to Ahmedabad and found that a police officer had been killed by the mob, he was horrified and felt that "a rapier run through my body could hardly have pained me more". He suspended the satyagraha movement and undertook a fast for three days as penance for the violence committed by people.
On the very day, April 13, 1919, when Gandhi announced his three-day fast in Ahmedabad, the British General Dyer ordered the massacre of unarmed and peaceful citizens attending a meeting in Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar. Later, even the official report admitted that 400 people had been killed and between 1,000 and 2,000 wounded, though the unofficial inquiry conducted by the Gandhi himself estimated 1,200 dead and 3,600 wounded. This cowardly massacre of the innocent was followed by the declaration of martial law in the Punjab, with wholesale arrests, floggings and the inhuman order by which no Indian could pass a certain street except by crawling on his belly. The events of that day which has been called by Sir Valentine Chirol as "that black day in the annals of British India" mark a turning point in the history of the Indian struggle. The moral prestige of Britain received a fatal blow. Henceforth, Gandhi could not keep away from the battle-field of Indian politics.
It was typical of Gandhi that great as was his concern over the happenings in the Punjab, he shared with equal zeal the Indian Muslim's concern at the rate of the defeated Turkish Sultan who was also the Caliph or the religious head of Islam. In fact, it was at a Muslim Conference held in Delhi in November 1919 that he first advocated non-cooperation with the British Government.
It is interesting to recall that four years earlier, when he attended the Lucknow session of the Congress, he was more an observer than a participant and had seemed to Jawaharlal Nehru "very distant and different and unpolitical". In 1920, he dominated the political scene. In fact, he re-created the Congress and turned talking politicians into active revolutions and anglicized leaders of society into servants of the people who henceforth wore white home-spun. He bridged the gulf between the intelligentsia and the masses and widened the concept of Swaraj to include almost every aspect of social and moral regeneration. From now on, the story of life is the story of how Congress fought for and won India's freedom.
Like a magician, Gandhi roused a storm of enthusiasm in the country with his call to non-cooperate. He began the campaign by returning to the Viceroy the medals and decorations he had received from the Government for his war-services and humanitarian work. "I can retain", he wrote to wrong to defend its immorality." Many Indians renounced their titles and honours, lawyers gave up their practice, students left colleges and schools, and thousand of the city-bred went into the villages to spread the message of non-violent non-cooperation with the "satanic" government and to prepare the masses of defy the law. The somnolent people woke up in a frenzy of courage and self-sacrifice. Bonfires of foreign cloth lit the sky everywhere and the hum of the spinning wheel rose like a sacrificial chant in thousands of homes. Women, secluded for centuries, marched in the streets with men and incidentally freed themselves from age-old shackles. In speech after speech, article after article in his two weeklies, Young India and Navjivan, Gandhi poured forth his passionate utterances which electrified the people. Thousands of people were put in prison and many more thousands were preparing to court arrest.
The anti-climax came suddenly in February 1922. An outbreak of mob violence in Chauri Chaura so shocked and pained Gandhi that he refused to continue the campaign and undertook a fast for five days to atone for a crime committed by others in a state of mob hysteria. Many of his colleagues protested and though Gandhi admitted that "the drastic reversal of practically the whole of the aggressive programme may be politically unsound and unwise", he maintained that "there is no doubt that it is religiously sound". He felt that "it is a million times better to appear untrue before the world than to be untrue to ourselves". Where Gandhi's conscience was concerned he was always ready to stand alone.
However, the immediate result was that the British Government found this anti-climax a convenient opportunity to arrest him. He told the English judge at the trial : " I have no personal ill-will against any single administrator, much less can I have any disaffection towards the King's person. But I hold it a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to Indian than any previous system. India is less manly under British rule than ever before. Holding such a belief I consider it a sin to have any affection for the system.......... The only course open to you, the judge is either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil and that in reality I am innocent; or to inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country, and that my activity is therefore, injurious to the public weal."
The judge sentenced him to six years' simple imprisonment and expressed the hope that "if the course of events in India should make it possible for the Government to reduce the period and release you, no one will be better pleased than I."
Prison was for Gandhi more a luxury than a punishment. He could devote more time to prayer, study and spinning than he could outside. But in January 1924 he fell seriously ill with acute appendicitis. He was removed to a hospital in Poona where a British surgeon performed the operation. While he was convalescing he was released by the Government.
What he saw of India as a free man greatly pained him. At the time of his arrest he had left his people on the wave of a great moral upsurge which had united Hindus and Muslims as never before. But in the meanwhile the Khilafat issue had been killed by Kamal Ataturk. The Muslims no longer needed Hindu support; the two communities had drifted apart. There were communal riots in several places. Not knowing how to stem this tide of frustration, he undertook a fast if twenty-one days a to atone once again for the sins of his people. "It seems as if God has been dethroned," he said, announcing the fast. "Let us reinstate Him in our hearts." The fast caused considerable heart-searching, and long before it was over, pledges of amity poured in upon him from men of various communities.
For the next five years Gandhi seemingly retired from active agitational politics and devoted himself to the propagation of what he regarded as the basic national needs, namely, Hindu-Muslim unity, removal of untouchability, equality of women, popularization of hand-spinning and the reconstruction of village economy in general. "I am not interested". he wrote in June 1923, "freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing and social and economic freedom, must go together.
There was also the fact that Gandhi, on his release from prison, had found the Congress divided. By 1929, however, the various groups had once more rallied under his leadership, and when on the last day of that year he himself moved the Resolution in the Congress session declaring complete Independence as the goal of Congress policy, it was obvious that he was again ready to lead the nation in an open challenge which was taken by millions throughout the country on January 26, 1930, which day has been celebrated as Independence as the goal of Congress policy, it was obvious that he was again ready to lead the nation in an open challenge to British rule. He drew up a pledge of "Purna Swaraj" or complete independence which was taken by millions throughout the country on January 26, 1930, which day has been celebrated as Independence Day ever since. All eyes were now turned to Sabarmati. What will the wizard of non-violence do next?
On March 12, 1930, after having duly informed the Viceroy, Gandhi, followed by seventy-eight members of his ashram, both men and women, began his historic 24-day march to the sea beach at Dandi to break the law which had deprived the poor man of his right to make his own salt. This seemed a small issue, but the dramatic manner in which he announced and executed the plan, the march on foot of this unarmed man of God for 241 miles, with villagers flocking from miles around to kneel by the roadside, set the imagination of the nation aflame and roused enthusiasm such as no one had anticipated. Early in the morning of April 6, after prayers, he went to the beach and picked up a little lump of salt left by the waves. This simple act was immediately followed by a nation-wide defiance of the law. Men and women, simple villagers and sophisticated city folk, marched in thousands to invite arrest, police lathi charges and even shooting in many cases. Gandhi himself was arrested on May 4, soon after midnight. Within a few weeks about a hundred thousand men and women were in jail, throwing mighty machinery of the British Government out of gear.
When the First Round Table Conference met in November 1930, the Labour Government was faced with an embarrassing situation. At the closing session of the Conference, on January 19, 1931, Ramsay MacDonald expressed the hope that the Congress would be represented at the Second Round Table Conference. Gandhi and some other Congress leaders were therefore unconditionally released on January 26, exactly a year after the first independence pledge had been taken. Soon after, on February 14, the Gandhi-Irwin talks began to the disgust of Winston Churchill, who was scandalized at "the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple Lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy's palace, there to negotiate a parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."