Arrival of Gandhi in India and initial movements

Arrival of Gandhi in India and initial movements

This article deals with ‘ Arrival of Gandhi in India and initial movements  – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here

Arrival of Gandhi in India

  • Came back to India in  Jan 1915 & was warmly welcomed ( now celebrated as Pravasi Bhartiya Divas) . His work in SA was well known already
  • On Gokhale’s advice & by keeping his own style of never intervening in a situation without first studying it with great care,  first year he didn’t take a public stand on any political issue. He spent the year travelling around the country, watching things for himself and in organizing his ashram in Ahmedabad where he, and his devoted band of followers who had come with him from South Africa, would lead a community life. He decided he would join an organisation or movement that adopted non violent Satyagraha as its method of struggle
  • From 1917 to early 1918 , he was involved in three struggles but these struggles were localised in nature & were for economic demands of masses  ( Champaran in Bihar & Kheda & Ahmedabad in Gujarat)

Gandhi’s initial years in politics

Nationalist Movement in India before arrival of Gandhi has been described by Judith Brown as “politics of studied limitations“and by Ravinder Kumar as “movement representing the classes” as opposed to the masses.  Nationalist politics was participated only by a limited group of western educated professionals , they belonged to certain specific castes & communities , certain linguistic & economic groups living primarily in Presidency towns

Breaking Policy of Limitation – Reasons for Popularity

  • Famous Historian , Judith Brown suggested that Gandhi’s rise marked beginning of Breaking of the Policy of Limitation. Ie before Gandhi’s rise in the politics , nationalist movement remained limited regionally & to small class of people. It wasn’t able to penetrate into rural world.
  • It was Gandhi’s achievement that he was managed to build the bridges with the countryside .
  • With rise of Gandhi, new generation of leaders also rose . Center of gravity of Indian politics began to shift from maritime cities eg Bombay,  Madras & Calcutta to heartland of India (Northern plains) – Some historians have called this phenomenon as Rise of the Submerged Regions.

Reasons for his rise

  • Conditions after World War I
    • There was phenomenal increase in defense expenditure during war & kept on increasing even after war was over . By 1923 national debt rose to ₹3 million & what it meant was heavy war loans & rising taxes
    • There was under production of food crops during war years  and what was produced , large amount was exported to feed fighting army . Hence there were famine like conditions throughout further compounded by outbreak of influenza epidemic(12-million people lost life )
    • Between 1914-1923,  forced recruitment for army was going on . Hence popular resentment in the countryside
    • While prices of industrial & imported goods & food crop was rising affecting poor peasantry , that of exported Indian agricultural raw material didn’t increased at same pace . In some areas organised peasant protests such as Kisan Sabha Movement in UP started
    • Growth of Industry during WW .  Wartime & post war periods witnessed super profits for businessmen but declining real wages for workers . In cities like Lahore & Bombay avg cost of living for workers increased by 70% but wages rose by just 20%
    • Number of workers increased tremendously . Sort of epidemic strike fever  affected all industrial centers in India 
    • Indian soldiers fighting abroad came in contact with new ideas there . They  spread it in India after coming back
    • The war also brought disillusionment for the educated youth, long mesmerized by the glitter of the West; suddenly they discovered the ugly face of Western civilization.
  • Both the groups ie extremists & moderates had lost credibility as they had failed to achieve their stated goals .  Constitutional politics of moderates had failed to achieve their stated goal as reflected in Morley Minto reforms and Extremism was confined only to Bengal, Punjab & Maharashtra and was facing ruthless repression of government . For the younger generation of Indians, frustrated by the eternal squabbles between the moderates and extremists, he offered something refreshingly new
  • There was also rift between Muslim community between Aligarh old guard & younger generation of  Muslim leaders . Gandhi alligned himself with young leaders by supporting Khilafat issue
  • He had charismatic appeal which rested on skillful use of religious symbols & idioms . His simple attire, use of colloquial hindi, reference to the popular allegory of Ramrajya made him comprehensible to popular appeal . In popular myths , he was invested with supernatural power which could heal pain & deliver the common people from day to day miseries.  
  • He declared  swaraj as his political goal, but never defined it and therefore could unite different communities under his umbrella type leadership.
  • Due to his appeal to Ahimsa , Gandhian model would prove acceptable also to business groups, as well as to relatively better-off or locally dominant sections of the peasantry, all of whom stood to lose something if political struggle turned into uninhibited and violent social revolution
  • Role of Rumours – Rumours in a predominantly illiterate society going through a period of acute strain and tensions played important role. From out of their misery and hope, varied sections of the Indian people seem to have fashioned their own images of Gandhi,  a holy man with miracle-working powers. Thus peasants could imagine that Gandhi would end zamindari exploitation & agricultural labourers of U.P. believed  that he would ‘provide holdings for them’ 

What was Gandhi to Ordinary Man

  • Gandhi was something like God to the ordinary masses who felt blessed even to have one sight of him. People came from far to have ‘darshan’ of him. After hearing that Gandhi was coming to address meeting, people used to gather in thousands to have one sight of him thinking that they would be blessed after having a look of great soul.
  • Rumours : Shahid Amin (Historian) has worked on how rumours about magic powers of Gandhi was spreading . Eg
    • Newspapers of UP gave account of following rumours about Gandhi . There were rumours that every person who wanted to test the power of the Mahatma had been surprised:
      • Sikandar Sahu from a village in Basti said on 15 February that he would believe in the Mahatmaji when the karah (boiling pan) full of sugar cane juice in his karkhana (where gur was produced) split into two. Immediately the karah actually split into two from the middle.
      • A cultivator in Azamgarh said that he would believe in the Mahatmaji’s authenticity if sesamum sprouted on his field planted with wheat. Next day all the wheat in that field became sesamum
  • Shahid Amin has written that there were rumours that those who opposed Mahatma Gandhi met with some tragedy.
    • A gentleman from Gorakhpur city questioned the need to ply the charkha. His house caught fire.
    • In April 1921 some people were gambling in a village of Uttar Pradesh. Someone told them to stop. Only one from among group refused to stop and abused Gandhiji. The next day his goat was bitten by four of his own dogs.
    • In a village in Gorakhpur, the peasants resolved to give up drinking liquor. One person did not keep his promise. As soon as he started for the liquor shop brickbats started to rain in his path. When he spoke the name of Gandhiji the brickbats stopped flying

Tagore vs Gandhi

  • Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915 & one of the first place he visited was Shantiniketan . This was the start of their relationship which lasted till 1941. They had long correspondence over the years.
  • Tagore can be viewed as friendly critic of Gandhi . Tagore knew that Gandhi was the person who can lead the nation and lead it in a very different way than anyone else. But he had some reservations about Gandhi.
  • Best way to know about this is Public Exchange in Journal called ‘ The Modern Review‘ which started in 1921 (Tagore wrote then Gandhi replied and went on like this) 
    • Tagore was disturbed by number of things happening in Non Cooperation Movement (NCM) . He argued that, ” Idea of Non Cooperation is Political Asceticism. Our students are bringing their sacrifices to what? Not to full education but non education. NCM  has at its back a fear joy of annihilation.” But then he reminded Gandhi that he was his friend because he shared with Gandhi his disdain for material civilisation . He wrote, “You know that I don’t believe in the Civilisation of the West as I don’t believe in the physical body to be the highest truth in men. But I still less belief in the destruction of physical body. What is needed is the harmony between Physical and Spiritual nature of man maintaining the balance between the foundation & superstructure.”
  • Then in 1934 , there was an Earthquake in Bihar. Gandhi issued a pronouncement that EARTHQUAKE WAS REFLECTION OF THE WRATH OF GOD . What Gandhi was refering to was earlier killing of the members of low caste by higher caste & Gandhi said this was the punishment of God for their gross misbehaviour towards lower sections of the society. Tagore was horrified after looking into his argument . Tagore opined that Indian masses were already very much superstitious and his statement would harden their superstitions. Hence, Gandhi issued rejoinder taking back his statement 
  • He was also against the cult following of a leader.
  • Unlike Gandhi who believed in  Handspun cotton  , swadeshi consumer goods and self sufficient villages .  Tagore held  this  point of view parochial, short sighted and  impractical. He tried  cooperative farming in the Zamindari lands.
  • Tagore also has reservation about Wardha System  of Education. In his view it was very mechanical approach . Rural poor students in this scheme has limited choice of vocation and it gave precedence to material utility  over development of personality . He believed in Lively and enjoyable schools like Shantiniketan.

Initial Year Movements

1 . Champaran Satyagraha ,1917

  • First Civil Disobedience Movement
  • Area: Champaran District of Bihar
  • European Planters forced Indian farmers to cultivate indigo on 3/20th of their land holding.
  • Tinkathia System – It is an indirect system of cultivation .  Peasants leased lands from the planters binding themselves to grow indigo each year on specified land (3/20th)  in return for land . An  advance was given at the beginning of cultivation system
  • Planters always forced them to sell their crop for a fixed and usually uneconomic price. At this time the demand of Indian indigo in the world market was declining due to the increasing production of synthetic indigo in Germany. Most planters at Champaran realised that indigo cultivation was no longer a paying proposition. The planters tried to save their own position by forcing  the tenants to pay the burden of their losses. They offered to release the tenants from growing indigo (which was a basic condition in their agreement with planters) if the latter paid compensation or damages. Apart from this, the planters heavily inflated the rents and imposed many illegal levies on the tenants.
  • If the farmer did not want to grow indigo, he had to pay heavy fines
1916 A farmer Raj Kumar Shukla contacted Gandhi during Congress Session at Lucknow.
1917 Gandhi arrived in Bihar & started investigation in person. He was served an order to quit as he was regarded as threat to public order. But he decided to disobey that order & was arrested & tried in court . Government later ordered to abandon proceedings & released him


  • Government appointed a committee to investigate, even included Gandhi as one of the member.
  • Government abolished Tinkhatia System and ordered to pay 25% compensation to the farmers.
  • Gandhi got new allies: Rajendra Prasad, JB Kriplani, Mahadev Desai and Braj Kishore Prasad
  • This area became strong base for future Gandhian movements

2. Ahmedabad  Mill Strike, 1918

  • First hunger strike
  • Ahmedabad was becoming the leading industrial town in Gujarat. But the millowners often faced scarcity of labour and they had to pay high wages to attract enough millhands. In 1917, plague outbreak made labour shortage more acute because it drove many workers away from Ahmedabad to the countryside. To dissuade the workers from leaving the town, the millowners decided to pay ‘Plague Bonus’
  • After Plague was over , employers wanted to withdraw bonus but workers wanted to continue due to increase in cost of living due to war . This led to strike
  • British collector asked Gandhi to intervene because mill owner Ambalal Sarahbai was his friend . Gandhi persuaded both to settle this via Tribunal but later mill owner withdrew from agreement .  Gandhi asked workers to go on strike & after study concluded that they deserve 35% pay hike
  • Ambalal’s sister Ansuya Behn was Gandhi’s main lieutenant
  • After sometime workers started to exhibit signs of weariness . Gandhi decided to sit on Hunger Strike saying that if anybody died out of starvation he would be first . This put pressure on mill owners . They agreed to go to tribunal &  Tribunal granted 27.5% wage hike .

Although the workers ultimately got only 27.5 per cent wage rise, this movement went a long way in mobilizing   and organizing the working classes in Ahmadabad, paving the way  for the  foundation of the Textile Labour Association in February 1920.

3. Kheda Satyagraha , 1918

  • First non cooperation movement
  • Severe drought in Kheda District, Gujarat
  • Kanbi-Patidar farmers were making decent living through cotton, tobacco and dairy. But Plague and famine during 1898-1906 reduced their income. Yet government increased Revenue demand.
  • In 1917 , excessive rains &  Crops were less than 1/4th of normal yield . According to tax code in such situation they were entitled to remission of land revenue
  • Gandhi said that any farmer wouldn’t pay land revenue & those who can pay would also not pay for interest of others but if government agree to demands then those who could pay can pay
  • Government tried various repression measures like seizing cattle, household items , standing crop but farmers were firm not to pay
  • Government too realised they cant pay taxes but cant announce this in open because this is what Gandhi was demanding . Gandhi in interest of people terminated struggle . Government ordered officials to recover Revenue only from those farmers who were willing to pay.
  • Gandhi gets new allies : Vallabhbhai Patel, Indulal Yagnik etc

Importance of these movements

  • Judith Brown has argued that the main importance of these early movements lay in the recruitment of ‘sub-contractors’ who would serve as his life-long lieutenants—like Rajendra Prasad, Anugraha Narayan Sinha and J.B. Kripalani in Champaran, or Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahadev Desai, Indulal Yajnik and Shankarlal Banker in the two Gujarat movements.
  • Policy of Satyagraha can work was demonstrated to public at large
  • Gandhi started journey of becoming leader of people
  • Gandhi came to know about strength & weaknesses of people of Indian masses
  • Was able to create space  for own 

Rowlatt Act, 1919

  • While on one hand British government dangled carrot of Constitutional Reforms in 1919. On other hand, it decided to arm itself with extraordinary powers to suppress any discordant voices against reforms
  • Rowlatt Act authorised the government to ‘Imprison any person without trial and conviction in the court of law,just on the basis of suspicion.’ This was basically to curb the revolutionary terrorism

Rowlatt Act (1919)

  • In 1917 , Government of India appointed a committee under chairmanship of Justice Sydney Rowlatt (Sedition Committee) to investigate  “Revolutionary Crime” in the country & to recommend legislation for its suppression. After a review of the situation, the Rowlatt committee proposed a series of change in the machinery of law to enable government to deal effectively with the revolutionary activities.
  • In  context of these recommendations the Government of India drafted two bills . New bills attempted to make war-time restrictions permanent. They provided
    • Trial of offences by a Special Court consisting of three High Court judges. There was no provision of appeal against the decision of this court which could meet in camera and take into consideration evidence not admissible under the Indian Evidence Act.
    • Give authority to the government to search a place and arrest a person without a warrant. Detention without a trial for maximum period of two years was also provided in the bills.

Anti Rowlatt Satyagraha – first mass strike

  • Gandhi’s initial programme was modest . Along with few close associates, he signed Satyagraha Pledge on 24 Feb 1919 & 26 Feb he issued open letter to all Indians urging them to join Satyagraha
  • Satyagraha was to be launched on April 6, 1919 but even before that there were large scale violent Anti-British demonstrations in Calcutta , Bombay and Delhi . Government was inexperienced to handle this & they arrested Gandhi on April 9 provoking mob fury
  • In Punjab particularly , situation became very explosive due to wartime repression and forcible recruitment. Army had to be called in, on 10 April two main leaders of  Punjab were arrested(Dr Satyapal & Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew)  & city of Amritsar was given to control of General Dyer who issued notice prohibiting meetings & assemblies

Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 1919)

  • A large unarmed crowd had gathered in small park to protest arrest of Saifuddin Kitchlew & Satyapal .
  • General Dyer ordered to shoot the people killing 379  people in 10 mins
  • Incident was followed by uncivilised brutalities on the inhabitants of Amritsar like crawling on the bellies before Europeans which was placed under Martial law  ( mainly after British lady Miss Marcela Sherwood was assaulted )
  • RN Tagore renounced his knighthood in protest
  • Gandhi was overwhelmed by amount to violence and withdrew the movement on 18 April, 1919 but this doesn’t mean it was end of Satyagraha but a little break to prepare Indians for using this method . He admitted to have committed Himalayan Blunder by giving weapon of satyagraha to people not trained to use it. But the movement was significant nevertheless, as it was the first nationwide popular agitation, marking the beginning of a transformation of Indian nationalist politics from being the politics of some restricted classes to becoming the politics of the masses.
  • Shankaran Nayyar resigned from the Central Executive Council

Analysis of Anti Rowlatt Satyagraha

  • Whole of India wasn’t affected & was more effective in cities than rural areas
  • In cities too , strength of movement was more due to local grievances like price rise, scarcity of basic commodities than protest against Rowlatt Act 

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