Towards Civil Disobedience

  • In February 1922 , Mahatma Gandh i decided to withdraw the Non-Cooperation movement.
  • He felt that the movement was turning violent and satyagrahis needed to be properly trained before they would be ready for mass struggles .
  • Within the Congress , many leaders were tired of mass struggles and wanted to participate in the elections to the provincial councils that had been set up by the Government of India Act of 1919 .
  • They felt that it was important to oppose British policies within the councils, argue for reform and also demonstrate that these councils were not truly democratic.
  • Swaraj Party was formed by C.R.Das and Motilal Nehru within the Congress to argue for a return to council politics.
  • Young leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose pressed for more radical mass agitation and for full independence.


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  • The new Tory government in Britain constituted a Statutory Commission under Sir John Simon.
  • The Commission was set up in response to the nationalist movement.
  • The Commission was to look into the functioning of the constitutional system in India and suggest changes.
  • The problem was that the commission did not have a single Indian member . All the members were British.
  • When the Simon Commission arrived in India in 1928 , it was greeted with the slogan ‘Go back Simon’.
  • Congress and Muslim League both the parties participated in the demonstrations.
  • In October 1929 , the viceroy , Lord Irwin announced a vague offer of ‘ dominion status ’ for India in an unspecified future, and a Round Table Conference to discuss a future constitution .
  • Congress leaders were not satisfied with this.
  • The Radicals within the congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose , became more assertive.
  • The liberals and moderates , who were proposing a constitutional system with the framework of British dominion , gradually lost their influence.
  • In December 1929 , under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru , the Lahore Congress formalised the demand of ‘Purna Swaraj ’ or full independence for India.
  • It was declared that 26 January 1930 , would be declared as the Independence Day when people were to take pledge to struggle for complete Independence.

            Simon Commission greeted with slogan ‘Simon Go Back’

The Salt March and the Civil Disobedience Movement 

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  • Mahatma Gandhi found in salt  a powerful symbol that could unite a nation.
  • On 31 January 1930 , he sent a letter to viceroy Irwin stating eleven demands .
  • Some of these demands were of general interest ; others were specified demands of different classes , from industrialists to peasants .
  • The idea was to make the demands wide-ranging , so that all classes within Indian society could identify with them and everyone could be brought together in a united campaign .
  • The most stirring of all was the demand to abolish the salt tax .
  • Salt was something consumed by the rich and the poor alike.
  • It was one of the most essential items of food .
  • The tax on salt and the government monopoly over its production , Mahatma Gandhi revealed the most oppressive face of British rule .
  • The letter sent by Mahatma Gandhi was in a way an ultimatum .
  • Demands written in the letter were not fulfilled by 11 March , the letter stated, the Congress would launch a civil disobedience campaign .
  • Viceroy Irwin was unwilling to negotiate .
  • Mahatma Gandhi started his famous Salt March accompanied by 78 of his trusted volunteers .
  • The march was for over 240 miles , from Gandhiji’s ashram in Sabarmati to the Gujarati coastal town of Dandi .
  • The volunteers walked for over 24 days , about 10 miles a day .
  • Thousands came to hear Mahatma Gandhi wherever he stopped , and he told them what he meant by Swaraj and urged them to peacefully defy the British.
  • On 6 April he reached Dandi , and ceremonially violated the law, manufacturing salt by boiling sea water.

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  • Manufacturing of Salt marked the beginning of the Civil Disobedience Movement .
  • People were asked not only to refuse cooperation with the British , as they had done in 1921-22, but also to break colonial rules .
  • Thousands in different parts of the country broke the salt law , manufactured salt and demonstrate d in front of the government salt factories .
  • Foreign cloth was boycotted and liquor shops were picketed.
  • Peasants refused to pay revenue and chaukidari taxes and village officials resigned .
  • In many places forest people violated forest laws - going into Reserved Forests to collect wood and graze cattle .
  • Worried by the developments, the colonial government began arresting the Congress leaders one by one.
  • Violent clashes took place in many places.
  • Abdul Gaffar Khan , a devout disciple of Mahatma Gandhi , was arrested in April 1930, angry crowds demonstrated in the streets of Peshawa r, facing armoured cars and police firing . Many people were killed.
  • A month later Mahatma Gandhi was himself arrested , industrial workers in Sholapur attacked police posts , municipal buildings, law courts and railway stations - all structures that symbolised British rule .
  • A frightened government responded with the policy of brutal repression.
  • Peaceful Satyagrahis were attacked , women and children were beaten and about 100,00 people were arrested .
  • Seeing the condition, Mahatma Gandhi once again called off the movement and entered into a pact with Irwin on 5 March 1931.
  • This came to be known as the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.
  • Gandhiji consented to participate in a Round Table Conference (the congress had boycotted the first Round Table Conference) in London and the government agreed to release all the prisoners .
  • In December 1931 , Gandhiji went to London for the conference , but the negotiations broke down and he returned disappointed.
  • Back in India , he discovered that the government had begun a new cycle of repression .
  • Ghaffar Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru were both in jail , the Congress had been declared illegal , and a series of measures had been imposed to prevent meetings , demonstrations and boycotts
  • With great apprehension, Mahatma Gandhi relaunched the Civil Disobedience Movement.  
  • For over a year, the movemen t continued, but by 1934 it lost its momentum.

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How Participants saw the movement

  • Rich Peasant Communities

  • Patidars of Gujarat and Jats of Uttar Pradesh - were active in the movement .
  • Being producers of commercial crops , they were very hard hit by the trade depression and falling prices.
  • Their cash income disappeared , they found it impossible to pay the government’s revenue demand.
  • Refusal of the government to reduce the revenue demand led to widespread resentment.
  • Rich peasants became enthusiastic supporters of the Civil Disobedience Movement , organising their communities, and at times forcing reluctant members to participate in the boycott programmes.
  • For them the fight for swara j was a struggle against high revenues.
  • They were deeply disappointed when the movement was called off in 1931 without revenue rates being revised .
  • So when the movement was restarted in 1932 , many of them refused to participate .
  1. Poorer Peasantry  

  • Poorer peasantry was not just interested in lowering revenue demand .
  • They were small tenants cultivating land they had rented from landlords .
  • Depression continued and cash incomes dwindled , the small tenants found it difficult to pay their rent .
  • They wanted the unpaid rent to the landlords to be remitted .
  • They joined a variety of radical movements , often led by Socialists and Communists .
  • Apprehensive of raising issues that might upset the rich peasants and landlords , the Congress was unwilling to support ‘no rent’ campaigns in most places.
  • The relationship between the poor peasants and the Congress remained uncertain .
  • Business Classes

  • During the First World War , Indian merchants and industrialists had made huge profits and had become powerful .
  • Keen on expanding their business , they now reacted against the colonial policies that restricted business activities .
  • They wanted protection against imports of foreign goods .
  • A rupee-sterling foreign exchange ratio that would discourage imports.
  • To organise business interests , they formed the Indian Industrial and Commercial Congress in 1920 and the Federation of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) in 1927.
  • Led by prominent industrialists like Purshottamdas Thakurdas and G.D. Birla , the industrialists attacked colonial control over the Indian economy, and supported the Civil Disobedience movement when it was first launched.
  • They gave financial assistance and refused to buy or sell imported goods.
  • Most businessmen came to see swaraj as a time when colonial restrictions on business would no longer exist and trade and industry would flourish without constraints.
  • Failure at the Round Table Conference , business groups were no longer uniformly enthusiastic.
  • They were apprehensive of the spread of militant activities , and worried about prolonged disruption of business , as well as of the growing influence of socialism amongst the younger members of the Congress.
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  • Industrial Working Classes

  • The industrial working classes did not participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement in large numbers , except in the Nagpur region.
  • Workers stayed aloof , as the Industrialists came closer to the Congress .
  • But some workers did participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement
  • Selectively adopting some of the ideas of the Gandhian programme , like boycott of foreign goods , as part of their own movements against low wages and poor working conditions .
  • There were strikes by railway workers in the 1930 and dockworkers in 1932 .
  • In 1930 thousands of workers in Chotanagpur tin mines wore Gandhi caps and participated in the protest rallies and boycott campaigns .
  • Congress was reluctant to include workers demands as part of its programme of struggle .
  • Congress felt that this would alienate industrialists and divide the anti-imperial forces .
  • Women

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  • Another important feature of the Civil Disobedience Movement was the large-scale participation of women .
  • During Gandhiji’s salt march , thousands of women came out of their houses to listen to him.
  • They participated in protest marches, manufactured salt , and picketed foreign cloth and liquor shops .
  • Many women went to jail also.
  • In Urban areas , these women were from high-caste families ; in rural areas they came from rich peasant households.
  • Moved by Gandhiji’s call, women began to see service to the nation as a sacred duty .
  • This increased public role did not necessarily mean any radical change in the way the position of women were visualised .
  • Gandhiji was convinced that it was the duty of women to look after home and hearth , be good mothers and good wives .
  • The Congress was reluctant to allow women to hold any position of authority within the organisation.
  • Congress was keen on their symbolic presence.

The Limits of Civil Disobedience

Not all social groups were moved by the abstract concept of Swaraj.

  • Depressed Classes

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  • One such group was the nation’s ‘untouchables’ , who from around the 1930s had begun to call themselves dalit or oppressed .
  • Congress for a long time had ignored the dalits , for fear of offending the Sanatanis , the conservative high-caste Hindus .
  • Mahatma Gandhi declared that the swaraj would not come for a hundred years if untouchability was not eliminated .
  • Gandhiji called the ‘untouchable’ Harijan , or the children of God .
  • Organised Satyagraha to secure them entry into temples , and access to public wells , tanks, roads and schools.
  • He himself cleaned toilets to dignify the work of the Bhangi (the sweepers) , and persuaded upper castes to change their heart and give up ‘the sin of untouchability’.
  • Many dalit leaders were keen on a different political solution to the problems of the community.
  • They began organising themselves, demanding reserved seats in educational institutions and separate electorate that would choose dalit members for legislative councils.
  • Dalit participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement was therefore limited, particularly in the Maharashtra and Nagpur region where their organisation was quite strong .
  • Dr B.R. Ambedkar , who organised the dalits into the Depressed Classes Association in 1930 , clashed with Mahatma Gandhi at the second Round Table Conference by demanding separate electorates for Dalits .
  • The British government conceded Ambedkar’s demand , Gandhi began a fast unto death .
  • Gandhiji believed that the separate electorates would slow down the process of their integration into society.
  • Gandhiji's position was ultimately accepted by Ambedkar and the result was the Poona Pact of September 1932.
  • The Pact gave the Depressed Classes (later to be known as Scheduled Castes) reserved seats in provincial and legislative councils , but they were to be voted in by the general electorate.  
  • Muslim Community

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  • Some of the Muslim political organisation in India were also lukewarm in the response to the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • After the decline of the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat Movement , a large section of Muslims felt alienated from the Congress .
  • From the mid-1920s the Congress came to be more visibly associated with openly Hindu religious nationalist groups like the Hindu Mahasabha .
  • Relations between Hindus and Muslims worsened , each community organised religious processions with militant fervour , provoking Hindu-Muslim communal clashes and riots in various cities.
  • Every riot deepend the distance between the two communities .
  • The Congress and the Muslim League made efforts to renegotiate an alliance , and in 1927 it appeared that such a unity could be forged.
  • Muhammad Ali Jinnah , one of the leaders of the Muslim League , was willing to give up the demand for separate electorates, if Muslims were assured reserved seats in the Central Assembly and representation in proportion to population in the Muslim-dominated provinces ( Benga l and Punjab ).
  • Hope for resolving the issue at the All Parties Conference in 1928 disappeared when M.R. Jayankar of the Hindu Mahasabha strongly opposed efforts at compromise .
  • Thus, an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust was there between the two communities when the Civil Disobedience Movement started.
  • Alienated from the Congress, a large section of Muslims could not respond to the call for a united struggle .
  • Many Muslim leaders and intellectuals expressed their concern about the status of Muslims as a minority within India.
  • Muslims feared that the culture and identity of minorities would be submerged under the domination of a Hindu majority.
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Davneet Singh

Davneet Singh has done his B.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He has been teaching from the past 14 years. He provides courses for Maths, Science, Social Science, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science at Teachoo.