‘The Nonviolent Struggle for Indian Freedom, 1905-19’ review: Passive resistance

A historian explains how Gandhi finessed the principle of ahimsa, that could be followed by anyone, young or old, man or woman

Being a member of the subaltern studies group that formulated a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia, David Hardiman sets the tone of the book in the introduction itself. He follows Mary King’s idea of using nonviolent as a word without hyphenation, giving it a more positive meaning. Building his theory in five chapters, Hardiman engages with Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘constructive method actively designed to create alternative institutions to those of imperial rulers.’

Widening the base

In ‘Building A Nationalist Base in Rural India’, a chapter that stands out in the book, Hardiman explains how the idea of passive resistance took root. This brought the freedom struggle to the subaltern level and it was no more the fight of the educated middle class against the rulers alone.

Gandhi exhorted the educated and wealthy to become champions of the peasantry and that was his biggest success as it mobilised the masses against the British. Hardiman compares the movement led by Ashwini Kumar Dutta in Bengal to the Punjab movement where urban nationalists managed to make common cause with the peasantry in an agitation in 1907 that was successful.

Hardiman points out that if ‘ahimsa’ was the original word thought by Gandhi, it indeed had different meanings at different times. In fact, according to Hardiman, the boundaries between ‘himsa’ and ‘ahimsa’ were always a matter of debate and they shifted according to time.

However, initially, according to him, ‘ahimsa’ was hardly deemed to have any applicability to a popular protest or accepted as an effective political tool. But Gandhi pushed through with the idea because he believed in it, and while on a tour to Madras, proclaimed truth and ‘ahimsa’ as his main guiding principles in life. In Gandhi’s words: “If we are unmanly today, we are so, not because we do not know how to strike, but because we fear to die.”

Spirited protests

Hardiman dwells on the idea of passive resistance to the British when in 1905 Lord Curzon initiated the division of Bengal that was rejected by the educated middle class, which put up spirited protests.

Rabindranath Tagore declared October 16, the day of the proposed partition, as one of mourning. The Lal Bal Pal (Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal) triumvirate’s assertive nationalist movement gained support — Hardiman traces the Swadeshi movement from its origins and explains how Bengal took the lead in taking it forward. In Maharashtra, Tilak invoked Shivaji as a national hero to lead the anti-imperial movement in a more practical way appealing to the masses.

However, the British crushed the Bengal movement and Tilak was exiled, but other forms of resistance cropped up.

Lessons from South Africa

Gandhi led a campaign in South Africa and seeing its success, both moderates and extremists in India celebrated it.

Hardiman elaborates the South African movement in the second chapter to show how in contrast to an armed struggle, Gandhi proved that passive resistance could be applied by anyone, young or old, man or woman. Gandhi’s soul force had its strength and one of the secretaries to Transvaal colonial secretary J.C. Smuts told Gandhi, “You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limits of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness.”

Hardiman demolishes the myth that Gandhian nonviolence succeeded in India because the colonial state observed the law, and that if faced with a ruthless regime the results would have been different. He argues that even under colonial rule, the masses were not protected from atrocities committed by white planters and local elites. People lived in constant fear of these subordinate groups. But under Gandhi this fear was overcome, and particularly his leadership in Champaran and Kheda proved an inspiration for persons from all classes.

The massacre

Hardiman devotes a chapter to ‘State Terror’, caused by the Rowlatt Act, and with a surgeon’s precision discusses it in detail along with Gandhi’s call for satyagraha. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, deeply moved Gandhi. He and other leaders had raised their voices against the repressive Rowlatt Act. General Dyer’s action at Jallianwala saw an outpouring of protests from both the elite and ordinary people.

In conclusion, Hardiman says, Gandhi had seen that mass mobilisation was a force with great potential and this led to the subsequent launch of the non-cooperation movement against the British without losing the nonviolent approach. This is a book every university should have in its library.

The Nonviolent Struggle for Indian Freedom, 1905-19; David Hardiman, Penguin/ Viking, 699.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:58:41 AM |

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