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Mohandas Gandhi

"Constructive Work" and World War II

The Salt March and its Consequences

The Final Years

From 1934 until the outbreak of war in 1939, Gandhi left the struggle for political independence to others. He began traveling through India again, working with women and children, helping untouchables, and promoting use of the spinning wheel. He went from village to village, preaching his gospel of cleanliness, harmony, and love, barefoot and on the road for months at a time. Eventually, he began advocating what he called "Basic Education": based in part on the Montessori system developed in Italy, it was a form of schooling that combined books with practical education, a necessity for the poor peasants he was trying to reach.

Later, nearly everyone in India would claim to have seen Gandhi at one time or another during this period of wandering. Meanwhile, politics went on without him. Politicians continued to consult him, of course, but the Congress was now being guided by its rising star, the charismatic and intelligent Nehru. And the march to independence continued, aided greatly by the Government of India Act, which passed Parliament in 1935 (and led the ardently imperialist Churchill to resign from the cabinet). The Act's ultimate goal, however–an Indian federation that would unite all the provinces and princely states–was rejected by the Congress and their increasingly fractious adversaries in Jinnah's Muslim League.

But the ancillary provisions of the Act went into effect anyway, and by 1937 local legislatures, made up of elected Indians, held effective control on the provincial level. On the national level, though, the British still ruled India, and British and Indians alike tensely questioned what sort of legitimate government could be forged out of the growing Muslim-Hindu rift. The Congress, now enmeshed in local government issues and on its way to becoming the Congress Party that would dominate Indian politics for decades, continued to agitate for immediate independence. However, it remained unclear, as it had been at the Round Table Conference in 1931, how a national Indian government could work.

It was World War II that finally brought the itinerant saint-politician back into public life. After war broke out in September 1939, the British immediately brought India into the conflict without consulting the nationalist leadership. Even as howls of outrage rose from the Congress and the Muslim League, Gandhi was invited to see the Viceroy, now Lord Linlithgow. Having never lost his deep respect for Britain, and detesting Nazism as "naked ruthless force reduced to an exact science," Gandhi pledged his personal support to Britain and the allies. Nehru, however, was less excited by the idea of aiding the Empire's war effort, and along with the other Congress leaders, he drafted a manifesto that essentially asked for complete independence in return for Indian support against the Nazis. Gandhi, unhappy at taking advantage of Britain's weakness (it was now 1940, and the Germans were rolling across France), reluctantly went along.

Gandhi's support was immaterial–Churchill was now in command of Britain, and he had no intention of allowing Indian independence, certainly not in war- time, and not with the issue of minorities (Muslims, practically speaking) still unresolved. Nehru's demand was turned down, and now Gandhi, previously unwilling to further debilitate the British in their time of struggle, agreed to a small-scale campaign of civil disobedience, in which only the Congress leaders went to jail. This small-scale campaign lasted until 1942, when Sir Stafford Cripps arrived on the subcontinent, offering India Dominion status in the British Commonwealth after the war (which meant de facto independence, since a nation could leave the Commonwealth at any time). The Congress might have accepted this, however the proposals also insisted–in an effort to deal with the Muslim problem–that any province would have the right to secede from the Dominion. This Gandhi and the rest of the Congress could not accept, since it would mean the "vivisection" of India.

Of course, as it was, vivisection was to accompany independence anyway, in the form of the partition, so it is worth asking if the Indian nationalists would have been better off hammering out the agreement in 1942, when the country was on a war-time footing and British troops could have maintained order. As it was, independence came only in 1947, and the country collapsed into chaos. Alternatively, we might ask if the British should have acceded to the Congress' demands for immediate independence, and used their troops to police India while Nehru and others established a national government for the subcontinent. Both ideas, though appealing, are ultimately pure fancy–in 1942 or 1947, Jinnah and the Muslim League were unlikely to accept a national government that would have inevitably been dominated by Hindus (as they were the group already in power), regardless of whether British troops remained or not; and a partition in 1942 would never have been accepted by a Congress that still hoped to rule a united India.

With the failure of the Cripps mission, the Congress now decided on an immediate campaign of civil disobedience. Before it could begin, however, all the Congress leaders, including Gandhi, were arrested in August of 1942 and imprisoned in the palace of the Aga Khan. Without the Mahatma's voice to calm the people, India exploded into violence. The Viceroy demanded that Gandhi speak out against the civil strife, but for once he refused, choosing instead to begin a fast in February of 1943 that lasted for three weeks and left the government terrified that he might die in confinement. But still, he seemed less dangerous to them in his velvet prison than out of it, and so the government kept him in the Aga Khan's palace, surrounded by his friends and family, while the war dragged on. He was not released until May of 1944, a month before D-Day, and he left the palace nursing a profound personal grief– Kasturbai, his wife and companion for the last sixty-two years, had died during their confinement.

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