Mohandas Gandhi

Toward the Declaration of Independence

Summary 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.

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