Toward the Declaration of Independence
Gandhi's trial for sedition, and the subsequent imprisonment that began in March 1922 and ended with his release in January of 1924, marked the first time that he had faced prosecution in India. The judge, C.N. Broomfield, was uncertain what to do with his famous prisoner–Gandhi was clearly guilty as charged, and willingly admitted as much, even going so far as to ask for the heaviest possible sentence. Like many Englishmen, Broomfield developed a liking for the Mahatma, commenting, "even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life." He gave Gandhi the lightest sentence possible: six years in prison, which would be later reduced to just two years.
Willingness to accept imprisonment was, of course, an integral part of satyagraha, and Gandhi was perfectly content while in prison. His captors allowed him a spinning wheel and reading material, and save for a bout of appendicitis (which actually hastened his release), he was, he wrote to a friend, "happy as a bird."
Still, it must be noted that during his two-year imprisonment, Gandhi's great nonviolent revolution essentially fell apart. Non-cooperation gradually died away as Indians drifted back to their jobs and routines; the Congress leaders, notably Motilal Nehru and C.R. Das, were participating in local government again; worst of all, Hindu-Muslim unity had fallen apart, and violence rocked many communities. The struggle for Indian independence had run aground on the immense, seemingly insuperable problem of disunity among Indians, who had never been a nation in the Western sense, and remained divided by caste, language, and most of all, religion.
Gandhi's greatest achievement, throughout the '20s, '30s and '40s, was to overcome these differences, to unify India by making himself the symbol of unity. Of course, he never explicitly claimed this role–to do so would have been anathema to his selfless philosophy–yet it was undeniably Gandhi's person, more than the slogans of nationalism and liberation, that united Brahmins and untouchables, Hindus and Muslims in the struggle against the British. His amazing personal determination served as a beacon to all–his behavior after leaving prison is a perfect example: no sooner had he left the trying conditions of prison than he immediately commended a three-week fast requesting peace between the warring religious factions, an event that captured the imagination of the world and indeed went a long way toward easing tensions between Hindus and Muslims. His "soul-force" may well have been the only thing that could bring all Indians together, and he used it to amazing effect.
Even as Gandhi served to unify the Indian people, his figure served to expose the contradictions within the British position on the subcontinent. For while the members of Gandhi's home-rule movement strengthened their arguments by pointing to the oppression of the British Viceroys, those Viceroys attempting to quell the Gandhi phenomenon in fact failed because of a policy not oppressive enough. Theirs was a liberal empire in the end, and they were raised in a liberal tradition that prized freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly; thus they could not counter satyagraha and stay true to themselves. Had Gandhi practiced satyagraha in, say, Stalin's Soviet Union or Hitler's Germany–or had the British been willing to violate their own liberal principles and imprison him for life, deport him, or even execute him–the struggle for independence might have taken a dramatically different turn. But then, such a crackdown was never a realistic possibility. Indeed, most of his British antagonists genuinely liked Gandhi, and by the 1920s, weary of war and empire, most of them had reconciled themselves to some sort of home rule for India in the near future. Independence was coming, in one shape or another, despite the resistance of die-hard imperialists in Britain, because the British had lost the will to sustain their empire; and yet the Viceroys, governors and Secretaries of State were still not willing to give India total independence.
And Gandhi was willing to accept the delay, at least for a time. After his fast ended in October of 1924, he withdrew from political life and devoted himself to "swaraj from within"–working to prepare India morally for its independence. This preparation took the form of travel throughout India, combined with speeches and articles in his magazine, Young India, advocating good hygiene, exercise, sexual self-control, and an end to child marriages, which Gandhi now considered a grave evil. The strangest, and yet perhaps the most important part of his program, was a devotion to his spinning wheel.
For Gandhi, influenced by John Ruskin's paeans to hand labor, homespun clothing had become the great external symbol of a free India, and wherever he went, he encouraged young people to learn to make their own garments. When the Indian National Congress pressured him into accepting its presidency in 1925, he did so on the condition that every member wear homespun clothing to the sessions; by the late '20s, khadi, as homespun was called, had become the official garb of every Indian nationalist.
His period of political quiescence came to an end in 1928. The British had sent a board of inquiry, called the Simon Commission, to investigate social conditions in India and recommend solutions. Since the board lacked any Indian representation, it was considered a slap in the face by the nationalists–as were the comments of Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India, who remarked that there was no prospect of Indian control over their own government in the foreseeable future. Gandhi now returned to his once-abandoned plan for large-scale civil disobedience, which was carried out between February and August in the district of Bardoli, near Bombay. Led by Sardar Valabhbhai Patel, a Bombay lawyer and a friend of Gandhi for some twelve years, the inhabitants of Bardoli refused to accept an increase in taxes, and held firm despite imprisonment and threats from the authorities. To Gandhi's delight, no violence erupted, and on August 6 the government gave in, released the prisoners, and repealed a recent tax increase.
After the success in Bardoli, there was much talk of immediate independence, especially among the young nationalists like Subhas Chandra Bose of Bengal and Jawaharlal Nehru, son of Motilal Nehru. Gandhi was wary of such hotheadedness, since "independence" was an uncertain term, given that no mechanism for an Indian government existed. Nevertheless, he toured the country in 1929 and prepared for another satyagraha campaign. The nervous British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, who had just seen a coalition government of left and right take over from the Conservatives in London, suggested a "Round Table Conference" of British and Indian representatives to discuss the possibility of Dominion status for India–which would give it a significant degree of self-rule. But the Conservatives were still powerful, and their fury at such a notion forced Irwin to back down. Disappointed, Gandhi gave in to the demands of the young men in the Congress– which was now presided over by the younger Nehru, who was forty in 1930. He returned to his ashram and emerged, in January of 1930, with a Declaration of Independence of India.
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