Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: Part Three Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: Part Three

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
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A Pinch of Salt - The March to Dandi Beach and the Salt Works Raid

After the Mahatma was released from prison in 1926 due to ill-health, he travelled and wrote a lot. By 1929 he had moved a step ahead in his movement by leading Congress with a vow of nothing less than complete independence. Throughout the country members of Congress repeated this pledge — a confrontation between the father of the nation and the British authorities was now inevitable.

For a long time Gandhi had been pondering ways to confront the viceroy. It was finally decided that, since salt was an essential ingredient in everyone's diet in the hot climate, that it would be the ideal tool. The manufacture and sale of salt was an exclusive monopoly of the state, which added tax to its selling price. Even though this was small, for a peasant it represented about two week's income each year.

At 6.30am on 12 March, 1931, Gandhi, wearing his loin cloth, sandals, white shawl and holding a bamboo stick, and several followers marched out of Sabarmati Ashram and headed towards Dandi beach, 240 miles away. Thousands lined the way and spread the route with strewn leaves. News reporters, including a certain US reporter named 'Walker' who had covered the Mahatma's struggle in South Africa, began to cover the story. From one village to another, people knelt by the roadside as the 'father of the nation' passed by. Every day the British authorities saw nothing but the news on the march to Dandi.

Almost ten years after the massacre at Amritsar's Jallianwallah Bagh, Gandhi reached the beach on the banks of the Arabian Sea, near the town of Dandi. In front of thousands, he scooped up some salt with his hands. By doing this, he had broken the law which indicated that anyone who had not obtained salt from the authorities would be punished. As a result, everyone went to the beaches with pans to collect salt and began selling it on the streets of every town and city. The police arrested thousands of people as well as some members and leaders of the Congress party. But there was more to come.

A few days after the march to Dandi beach, the Mahatma wrote a letter to the British authorities in which he mentioned he would lead a raid on the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. He was arrested immediately. Leadership of the protest was then handed to Abbas Tayabji, a retired Muslim judge, and Gandhi's wife, Kasturba. But they were also arrested. It was eventually handed to Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, a Muslim follower of Gandhi and member of the Congress party, and Sarojini Naidu, a female member.

The crowd that gathered outside the salt works was urged not to use any form of violence under any circumstances; and they should not resist or raise a hand to ward off the blows they would be receiving. On 21 May, thousands gathered outside and faced the police who were there to stop them — they held lathis (batons) which were tipped with steel. A US reporter, Webb Miller, witnessed the beatings, and his report attracted worldwide attention. In it, he described how he could hear the sickening whacking sounds on the unprotected skulls. Men fell down in pain from fractured skulls, bleeding and broken shoulders. It is estimated that 320 were injured and two died. Some men were also kicked in the testicles, while many others had not received any medical treatment several hours later. The report Miller tried to despatch telegraphically to his office in England was initially censored by the British authorities. When he threatened to expose the censorship it was lifted.

The marchers had neither cringed, complained or retreated, and it was this that made the talks of possible Indian independence. It was this information that was passed on to the Mahatma upon his release by the viceroy, Lord Irwin, who also informed him that he had been invited to London for this reason. On 29 August, Gandhi sailed from Bombay to London, via Aden, on the SS Rajputana.

Gandhi in London

The British authorities organised the round table talks on the back of growing demand for independence. By the 1930s many British politicians believed India needed to move towards dominion status. But there were significant disagreements between Indian and British political parties which had prevented a conference from ever beginning.

The first round table talks began in November 1930 and were chaired by the then British prime minister  Ramsay MacDonald. They were attended by the Muslim League members, the Hindu Mahasabha and a large number of Maharajas from various princely states, including Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir. But there were no members from the Congress, as most of them were in jail due to their participation in civil disobedience. At the conclusion of the talks it was decided that 'All India' must be represented, including the untouchables. This led to the second round of talks, which included members of the Congress: Gandhi was the sole representative.

During the talks Gandhi claimed the untouchables were Hindus and should not be treated as a minority, and that there should be no separate electorates or special safeguards for any minorities, which included the princely states. But these calls were rejected and no agreement reached with the Muslims over Muslim representation and safeguards. But in 1932 Gandhi managed to resolve the issue with the untouchable leader BR Ambedkar. At the end of the talks, which failed, the British prime minister went on to produce a communal award for minority representation with the provision that any free agreement between the parties could be submitted for his award.

The third and final talks took place between November and December 1932 under the supervision of Sir Samuel Hoare. However, many political figures, including those from India, were not present. It was at this meeting that a college student by the name of Chaudhary Rahamat Ali thought of the name 'Pakistan'. It was this that led to thoughts of the creation of the state of Pakistan, which means 'the land of pure'.

The round table conference that Gandhi attended in London was a failure, and many thought he had returned 'empty handed' — as did he. Gandhi informed those whom he met in Bombay that civil disobedience was back on. A few days later, the man dressed in a loin cloth, shawl and sandals, who had recently had tea at Buckingham Palace with the king emperor, was once again a guest of his imperial majesty at the Yervada prison.

World War Two

After the round table talks, the Mahatma found himself in and out of prison, while, in London, Winston Churchill insisted that whatever Gandhi stood for should be crushed. Instead, an Act was introduced in which the provinces of India were offered autonomy.

As Gandhi was released from prison, he turned his attention to two projects that were considered close to him: untouchability and the situation in the villages. As the outbreak of hostilities in the world became more and more inevitable, he became further convinced that non-violence was the guiding principle of India's domestic struggle, and that this philosophy was capable of saving man from self-destruction. When Italy, a member of the League of Nations, invaded Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), also a member of the League, Gandhi urged the Ethiopians to allow themselves to be massacred. He said the result would be more effective than resistance, as the Italian leader Benito Mussolini did not want a desert. At the same time, Gandhi was sickened by the Nazi persecution of the Jews, which he spoke against. His wife Kasturbai also spoke out against war.

However, when war broke out in 1939, Gandhi failed to persuade the Congress leaders against it. This led him to split from them; and not for the first time. It was the British prime minister's position that was to throw them together, as he refused to consider any compromises that would allow India's nationalists to join the war effort. It was not until March 1942, when the Japanese were almost bordering India, that Churchill, after being put under pressure by US president Franklin Roosevelt, sent a message to Delhi via Sir Stafford Cribbs. The message offered the Indians a solemn pledge which amounted to independence once Japan was defeated. It also contained calls for an Islamic state which the Muslim League and its leaders also wanted. Within two days of Cribbs' arrival, Gandhi rejected the proposal and told him it was a post-dated cheque on a failing bank. He went on to add that he should leave India on the next flight.

The calls for the British to 'Quit India' grew louder. On 9 August, 1942, the Mahatma and Congress leaders were put in prison. This was soon followed by violence, as, in the meantime, the Muslim League supported Britain's war effort and this enabled growth in the demand for a creation of an Islamic state. With this, the 'father of the nation' announced he was to go on a fast for 21 days.

Halfway through the fast Gandhi was moved from Yervada prison to the Agha Khan Palace in Poona, where his health soon began to deteriorate. Unknown to anyone, the British authorities began preparations for his funeral by calling in two Hindu priests and gathering sandalwood for a funeral pyre. As it turned out, the sandalwood was not used for his funeral but his wife's. On 22 February, 1944, Kasturbai, whom Gandhi had married at the age of 13, laid her head on the Mahatma's lap and passed away, having suffering acute bronchitis and a coronary arrest.

As the Second World War came to a close, so did the Churchill government in Britain. Soon there were elections which enabled the Labour government, under the leadership of Clement Atlee, to come to power. The new British prime minister appointed the Earl of Burma, Lord Louis Mountbatten, as the last viceroy to India. He was to make every effort to arrange the transfer of sovereignty to a single nation of the Commonwealth by no later than 30 June, 1948.

However, if the Earl of Burma failed to get an agreement to unite the warring parties, he was to recommend an alternative — division; the plans of which had already been formulated earlier by a Cabinet mission under Sir Stafford Cribs and then stowed away. Even the Earl of Burma believed that if India was divided it would sow the seeds of hatred.

A Shattered Dream

By the time Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina arrived in India it was evident there was a division between the Hindus and many Muslims. Within the first two weeks of his arrival, the viceroy met the Muslim leader Jinnah at least six times. Although they disagreed on a lot of items, they agreed on one point: the need for speed to independence. Jinnah warned the viceroy that if a speedy division of the country didn't take place it would perish. In return, Mountbatten expressed his concerns that division would lead to bloodshed and violence. The Muslim leader reassured him that, once the 'surgical operation' had been completed, all troubles would cease and the two countries would live in peace.

When Mountbatten told this to the leaders of the Congress it shattered the Mahatma's dream of a united India. The 'father of the nation' insisted partition would only happen 'over his dead body'. He then informed the viceroy that in order to avoid it he would ask Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to step down and let Jinnah become the first prime minister of an independent India, and that he should appoint a Muslim as every head of department. In reply, the viceroy said he would agree so long as all the members of the party agreed. No-one, including Nehru, agreed, and they informed Bapu that many Hindus feared too much would be given to the Muslims. Thus the Mahatma's dream of a united India now lay completely shattered.

The job of drawing border lines went to a barrister in England, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who knew nothing about India or where the states of Punjab or Bengal were. At the same time Nehru and Jinnah were not able to agree on where the border lines should be drawn, and Gandhi was in any case totally opposed. Therefore the plan for partition lay solely on the viceroy's shoulders, as the Mahatma went around towns and villages talking to people about peace and urging them not to fight each other.

The lines to be soon drawn up would separate thousands of people, with many displaced and lands divided. It led to riots pitching Hindus against Muslims; and slogans such as 'Death to Hindus' and 'Death to Muslims' could be heard. The Mahatma and the others soon began to appeal for peace.

In the meantime, Nehru came up with the idea that the viceroy should be appointed as the first governor general of India. This idea was suggested to Jinnah, who had been informed he had a limited time to live as he was suffering from terminal cancer. He rebuked it by taking up the position himself. At the same time he insisted Pakistan should receive its independence first, and then India, and that India should change the words to its national anthem because both sounded similar.

It was finally decided that Pakistan would be awarded its independence on 14 August, while India would receive it on 15 August — at midnight. This meant time was running out for Sir Cyril, who was sitting behind closed doors amid tight security, to complete the redrawing of the map of India which now showed two separate states.

A mass migration between the two sides began. Partition of the country did not just mean division of lands but also property, families, furniture and small items such as kitchen utensils as well. Riots exploded throughout the cities, towns and villages, and began to spread like wildfire, as did fanaticism. Many Hindus thought the Mahatma, who was campaigning for peace and was against division, had given too much away to the Muslims. It was at this time that some people began to hatch a plot to assassinate him. One of those was Nathuram Godse, and another was his brother, Gopal Godse.

Many people were not even aware the land they owned and worked on would soon become a border line, or, in some cases, not the country they had hoped to be living in. On 14 August, 1947, the state of Pakistan came into existence and India received its independence at midnight on 15 August. People in both countries celebrated their freedom from over 200 years of colonial rule. Gandhi, sitting in his ashram, all alone at his spinning wheel, felt depressed as he thought of the future and the riots that were soon to commence. He believed he had failed to bring peace and unity.

A mass migration started from both sides, which was soon followed by riots, and millions were misplaced. Hindus and Muslims began to kill each other. Once again, the Mahatma walked to towns and villages to preach peace and peaceful co-existence. As more and more people became misplaced, refugee camps were set up in various parts in India by the governor general's wife.

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