Republic Day Special Series




Chapter III: The Character of the Freedom Movement (Part 2)

The advent of Mahatma Gandhi

Lokmanya Tilak was incarcerated for six years at Mandalay.  This shattered the radical nationalist movement, but the Moderates could not take advantage of the downfall of the Radicals.  A new freedom movement appeared to be gathering force.

The new freedom movement would represent the vast majority of the oppressed, throwing aside both Moderates and Radicals.  It was then that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa.  He did not form any new organisation for the freedom movement; rather, he entered Congress itself to stand up in the assembly of the suited and booted Congressmen.  Gandhi repeatedly affirmed his faith in the British sense of fair play and justice.  He built up a movement on tenets steeped in Indian tradition -- spiritualism, truth, non-violence, simple living.  This was the cult of devotion at its highest and had a nation-wide appeal irrespective of caste divisions. At the same time, he put programmes for social reform and the economic welfare of the down trodden on the agenda, thus creating a huge awakening in the country.  The Radicals lost their glamour and Congress became a movement rather than a conference of speechifying, anglicized gentry.

With the coming of Gandhi, Congress rose up with determination, went forth, blossomed and expanded.   Thus triumphed the right wing of the high caste movement.  The Radicals subsided, the Moderates won; but all this was only a mock tussle among the high-born.  Due to Gandhi's halo, the movements of the bahujan samaj lost their appeal and began to fade out.  

Under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and others, Congress created an awakening among peasants.  It reached out to adivasis.  Finally, it became impossible for the movement of the bahujan samaj to maintain its momentum and its leaders joined the national mainstream of the freedom movement at the Faizpur Congress (December 1936).

Gandhian spiritualisation of politics may or may not have worked with the British rulers or the Muslim leaders. It certainly silenced for half a century the voice of the subaltern Hindus.  In the Gandhian mainstream of the freedom  movement, the two streams, that of the bahujans and that of the high castes, never really came together.  Even though many prominent leaders of the bahujan samaj joined Congress, leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar distanced themselves from the Congress mainstream and confronted the Congress and Mahatmaji himself in polemics and on the ground.  Muslims, as a community, remained deeply skeptical of Gandhism.  The majority of Muslims also got alienated from the freedom movement.   This finally resulted in the partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan.

The transfer of power

The satyagraha of 1930 was unsuccessful.  Gandhi was in  a dilemma,  searching for some new direction, keeping Congress activists involved here and there in the responsive satyagraha and constructive programmes, hoping to see some light in the midst of surrounding darkness.  At this time, the waves of socialist ideology began to blow in India and a new leadership appeared to emerge, keen on  resolving the problems of the masses on the basis of a socialist ideology and programme.  As the clouds of World War II gathered and the storm broke, the socialist movement was divided and sidetracked by the need felt by some to support the British as an ally of the Soviet Union   

The great war erupted.  The British could win victory in it, but the British lion lay prostrate, exhausted in the effort.  It became clear that the empire in India could no longer be run through the Indian elite.  If the Raj were to be maintained it would be necessary to keep hundreds of thousands of British soldiers and citizens here, and even then, even at such a terrible cost, the Raj would not endure for long.  The British decided to leave the country and return home.   

At the time of transfer of power, Congress had, it is true, recognition as the representative of the majority of people.  But Congress itself was a mixture of numerous streams of urban, commercial, industrial, landlord, peasant, Gandhian and socialist thinking.  A new movement based on protecting the interests of the masses, supremely indifferent to fruitless debates on violence and nonviolence, and influenced by socialist thought, had sprouted in the 1942 campaign.  The British realised that if Gandhism collapsed then very rapidly a socialist bahujan movement would proliferate, and then it would be very difficult to have a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.  It was thus in the interest of the British to partition the country and give power in India to the anglicized elite of the Congress.

Gandhi - The first victim

Independence came; Pandit Nehru became prime minister.  Power fell to a leadership that was English in everything but the colour of their skin, a leadership represented those that had achieved wealth, knowledge and power under British rule.  Now, this urban elite no longer required the support of Mahatma Gandhi's popular movement.  Godse ended Gandhiji's life; immediately after that Nehru started subverting Gandhi's economic and political thinking.  Rather than giving priority to agriculture and village industries and panchayat raj institutions, the country began to move towards a system dominated by urban industries with total power concentrated in the hands of the state – a system of "brahmanic socialism."  And, within fifty years, the country came to brink of calamities.

The bahujan samaj, which had been enslaved for thousands of years, had at least three opportunities during the British Raj to organise and improve their position, but each of these occasions was lost.  Once the benefit of the liberal policy of the Company Sarkar began to appear, the revolt of 1857 burst into conflagration.  With the retreat of the British rulers from commitment to social reform, the bahujan samaj was pushed backward.  After the Extremist movement crumbled, the bahujan samaj movement could have arisen, but this opportunity was also lost when Gandhi's mixture of nationalism and social reform within the framework of a traditionalist spiritualism came to influence the country and rejuvenate the Congress.  Finally, due to the eruption of World War II, the socialist bahujan movement was sidetracked and uprooted.  When independence came, just as Jotiba Phule had predicted, it came as a new form of the Peshwai.  The black British took the place of the white British. Though they had come to power on the basis of a Gandhian-dominated Congress, they could not digest a Gandhian village-based economic system.  Consequently,  once they had power in their hands, under the name of socialism, the anglicized Congress casually threw away the mask of Gandhism.   After independence the new avatar of "brahmanic socialism" descended on the subcontinent and a chain of calamities ensued.

A review of the various streams and their internal contradictions in the freedom movement would give some idea how difficult inning evaluation of 50 years of Independence would be. An analysis of post-independence downfall requires a strict discipline including three precautions. The diagnosis should not be tricky-tracky and there should be some assurance that if the identified ill is taken care of the nation can get out of the present difficulties. The evaluation exercise should not be inhibited by considerations of personality cult. And finally, whenever necessary even the freedom movement should not escape close scutiny so that the causes of downfall may be better understood.


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