The government against satyagrahas, then and now
ERA SEZHIYAN IN THE HINDU
The events that marked the supreme authority of the British regime in India are now being blatantly followed by the United Progressive Alliance government. But time is running out.The term ‘satyagraha’ (satya is truth, and agraha is firmness) was coined by Gandhiji to designate his struggle of ‘passive resistance.’ He initiated it in South Africa during his agitations from 1894 onwards against the oppressive British regime there.
As president of the Congress in 1924, Gandhiji transformed the party into a fighting organisation, and launched several satyagraha agitations to involve people in constructive programmes. The Calcutta Session of the party (in December 1928) gave an ultimatum to the British government that unless Dominion status was given to India by December 31, 1929, the Congress would launch a Civil Disobedience Movement. When no favourable response was received, at midnight on December 31, 1929, the Indian National Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, or Purna Swaraj. The party’s Working Committee gave Gandhiji the responsibility to launch the first act of civil disobedience.
Gandhiji chose to begin with a satyagraha against the Salt Tax imposed by the British. The Salt Act of 1882 gave the British the monopoly on the manufacture of, and collection of tax on, salt. Several leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress president at that time, had felt that there were more important issues to be taken up as a part of the demand for full independence. But Gandhiji felt that the salt tax was a richly symbolic choice since salt was something that was used by nearly everyone in India. He believed that the protest would dramatise the demand for Purna Swaraj in a way that would be meaningful to even the least Indian.
On March 2, 1930, Gandhji wrote to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, offering to stop the march if 11 demands were met, including a reduction in land revenue assessments, an end to the enormous exploitation of the people, and the misuse of public funds by the British. Gandhiji added: “If my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws. As the Independence Movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil tax.”
The Viceroy’s reply simply expressed the opinion that Gandhiji was “contemplating a course of action which is clearly bound to involve violation of the law and danger to the public peace.” Gandhiji selected the first batch of 78 satyagrahis, all members of the Sabarmati Ashram. On March 6, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel set out to make arrangements in the villages and regions through which the Dandi March would pass. On March 7, Sardar Patel was arrested as he was about to address villagers at Kheda; he was sentenced for three months. There was speculation that Gandhiji and the satyagrahis too might be arrested.
On March 12, at 6.30 a.m., Gandhiji started off with his satyagrahis on the Dandi March. After covering 241 miles in 24 days, they reached Dandi on April 5. A large number of journalists from India and abroad had camped there. For them, Gandhiji wrote a short note: “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might — Dandi, M.K. Gandhi.” On the morning of April 12, Gandhiji raised a lump of salt in his hand and declared: “With this, I am shaking the foundation of the British Empire.” He then boiled it in sea water, producing salt illegally. Gandhiji’s satyagraha became a mass satyagraha throughout India. Then, the government resorted to repressive laws. Jawaharlal Nehru was arrested on April 14, and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment under the Salt Act. On April 28, C. Rajagopalachari was arrested, to be sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment after he and his satyagrahis entered the Coromandel coast at Vedaranyam.
While these leaders were being arrested, Gandhiji was going to other places near Dandi to defy the salt law. The climax of the campaign came when Gandhiji was arrested on May 4, 1930. He was resting at the Karadi Camp three miles from Dandi. At midnight, the District Magistrate, along with several police officers armed with pistols and 30 policemen bearing rifles, entered the room. Gandhiji asked about the charges under which he was being arrested. The Magistrate said it was under Regulation 28 of 1927 which allowed imprisonment without trial. At 1.20 a.m. the police put him in a lorry on the way to Yerwada Jail in Poona.
Gandhiji’s arrest and internment led to hartals and strikes across in India, and there were sympathetic demonstrations all over the world. On May 12, a second batch of satyagrahis led by Abbas Tyabji was arrested. On May 21, Sarojini Naidu and Manilal Gandhi were arrested; some 2,500 satyagrahis being led by them were beaten ruthlessly by 500 policemen commanded by British officers. In this action, four persons were killed; more than 300 persons were hospitalised with severe injuries. Still the satyagrahis observed absolute non-violence and discipline.
Reports on Gandhiji’s campaign during the Dandi March appeared each day in 1,350 newspapers across the world. Time magazine declared him Man of the Year, commenting on his march to the sea “to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied the British tea tax.” The Press Ordinance promulgated by the Irwin regime caused 67 Indian newspapers and 55 printing presses to be shut down. Over 80,000 Indians were jailed without trial under the Salt Law.
The civil disobedience movement continued until early 1931. The rest is part of the political history of India — from the Gandhi-Irwin Pact leading to the Second Round Table Conference, to the Quit India Movement, and the emergence of independent India.
The Salt Satyagraha challenged the very existence of the British regime in India. Sir Charles Innes, who was a provincial Governor, wrote thus about the events of 1930 struggle: “England can hold India only by consent. We cannot rule it by sword.” It is true that the 1930 Salt Satyagraha was not successful with respect to many of its aims and demands. However, it was a historic turning point: thereafter every political move on the part of the Congress was to assert Purna Swaraj as the basic demand.
The events that marked the supreme authority of the British regime in India — and the stupid atrocities committed by it — are now being blatantly followed by the United Progressive Alliance government.
Anna Hazare’s movement has become a symbolic protest against the most corrupted government of free India. At least, Lord Irwin’s government arrested Gandhiji under a primitive Salt Act after the event. The high lords of the UPA government, living in the ivory towers of power and authority, sent the police to arrest a person who was planning to observe a peaceful agitation — without rhyme or reason. It was a mockery of governance to arrest a person in the morning and to order him to go out 12 hours later.
While Gandhiji invited openly the press in India and abroad to support his ‘battle for Right against Might,’ the UPA government, creating crisis after crisis, blames the media for every discord that is created.
Demand for ombudsman
During the Lok Sabha Debates on Demands for Grants of the Ministry of Law on April 3, 1963, Law Minister A.K. Sen said on the demand for an Ombudsman in India that it was a matter for the Prime Minister to decide. However, he observed: “In this country, my own view is that to make it effective, a constitutional provision should be made, as of the Election Commissioner or of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I think that if you really want to set up an effective organisation like Ombudsman with over-riding powers and spreading over the entire field of governmental activity, you will have to give him some constitutional position.”
The Lokpal Bill was introduced in May 1968. When it was considered on August 13, 1969 in the Lok Sabha, S.M. Joshi said: “Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaking at the AICC at Jaipur on 3 November 1963 said that the system of Ombudsman fascinated him; for the Ombudsman had overall authority to deal with charges even against the Prime Minister and confidence of all.”
As far as I know, that is the only remark on the subject recorded in Parliament Debates. None from the government side contradicted that statement.
While it is desirable to establish Lokpal as a constitutional authority, I feel that the government and the civil society team should come around to some sort of a bill. Hitherto the members of the public who have been supporting Anna Hazare have been non-violent and disciplined. In the event of a critical situation arising, things could turn ugly. After some time, amendments could be brought in to make the legisaltion more effective.
If UPA-II is certain of the support of Parliament and the people to its position on the issue, let it go to the electorate, or conduct a referendum on the specific issue of the Lokpal Bill.
(Era Sezhiyan is an eminent parliamentarian and author.)
- Ambedkar’s way & Anna Hazare’s methods (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Satyagraha among top 10 influential protests: Time (hindu.com)
- Ambedkar’s way & Anna Hazare’s methods (thelawfile.wordpress.com)