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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 12, New Delhi, March 6, 2021

Message of Chauri Chaura: Violence or Nonviolence ? | Siby K. Joseph

Friday 5 March 2021

by Siby K. Joseph

The yearlong centenary commemoration of Chauri Chaura incident by the Government of India was started in February 2021.The Prime Minister of India formally inaugurated ‘Chauri Chaura’ Centenary Programme and saluted the brave martyrs of Chauri Chaura. He also released a postal stamp dedicated to the event via video conferencing on 4 February 2021. It was also reported that 1.4 lakh students across the State of Uttar Pradesh recited Vande Mataram while standing in salute pose, during the event to create a world record. The Chief Minister directed the Secondary Education Department officials to include the episode in the curriculum of schools affiliated to Uttar Pradesh Secondary Education Board (UPSEB). However, it is pertinent to note that there was no mention of Mahatma Gandhi who led the Non-Co-operation and the episode took place at Chauri Chaura hundred years ago was a part of this larger movement. I noticed the similar type of omission when I was invited to give a special lecture on Martyrs’ Day on January 30, 2021 by a Central University in South India. It was the annual observance of the memory of those who gave their lives for India’s Freedom. There was no mention of the name of Mahatma Gandhi in that invitation. However, in my speech, I discussed about the significance of Gandhi and his non-violent path in India’s struggle for freedom. Needless to say, no one can think of freedom struggle forgetting Gandhi and his non-violent path which ultimately led to the attainment of freedom from the British rule in a unique way. Gandhi was an embodiment of truth and non-violence. Gandhi sacrificed his life on the altar of non-violence and communal unity and became a role model for the whole world to emulate. After my speech, Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, gave a brief and meaningful message. The ensuing discussion focused on the importance of non-violence in the freedom struggle. This does not mean that the sacrifices of those who gave their lives and fought for India’s independence in a violent manner are trivial. Of course, no one can ignore their heroic contributions. In the above context, as we are observing the centenary of Chauri Chaura it is necessary to understand its significance in India’s freedom struggle and the tireless efforts taken by Gandhi to keep the struggle largely nonviolent after the outbreak of violence in Chauri Chaura.

Non-violence was a lifelong commitment for Mahatma Gandhi in his personal and public life. It was developed in the course of his fight for the rights of people of Indian origin in South Africa. This was further strengthened in the course of his struggle for India’s independence. Gandhi returned to India in 1915 after spending more than 20 years in South Africa. He then established the Satyagraha Ashram at Kocharab in Gujarat with the intention of using the Satyagraha method in India which he developed in South Africa in the course of the struggle. During this period, many extremist nationalist leaders in India believed that we could gain independence from the British rule only through the path of violence. Gandhi was aware of the fact that the use of violence provided an opportunity for the Britishers to use harsh means to crush the protests. He was convinced of the effectiveness of non-violence through the successful conduct of Satyagraha struggles in South Africa from 1906 to 1914. He was instrumental in using the matchless weapon of Satyagraha for the first time in the Indian soil at Champaran in Bihar. British planters severely exploited the farmers of Champaran by forcing them to cultivate Indigo. The Satyagraha in Champaran was aimed at saving the poor farmers. In 1918, another Satyagraha struggle was waged for the farmers in Kheda district of Gujarat who were facing untold miseries due to failed crops in the wake of the famine and was demanding remission from paying land revenue. Further, Gandhi used the method of fasting to settle a dispute between the owners and workers of a cotton mill in Ahmedabad. In 1919, Gandhi led the Satyagraha against the brutal Rowlatt laws which aimed at crushing extremist nationalists. In the Punjab province, the British reacted with great violence to crush the protest. They massacred an unarmed mob at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. This incident was largely responsible for the transformation of Gandhi from a British loyalist into a hardcore rebel and non-co-operator. [1] By 1920, Gandhi had taken over the leadership of the Congress and India’s freedom struggle.

Gandhi led mainly three major national movements’ viz. Non-Co-operation Movement (1920), Salt Satyagraha (1930) and Quit India Movement (1942). These movements were the classic examples of large-scale massive political movements aimed to subjugate the world’s most powerful imperialist force through the weapon of non-violence. We hardly find any such example in the modern world history. It will not be an exaggeration to say that India’s struggle for independence was a source of inspiration for the anti-colonial and revolutionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries that changed the course of world history. The Non-Co-operation movement and the Chauri Chaura teach us important lessons which will be of great significance in the conduct of massive political struggles.

We need to understand the importance of the Non-Co-operation movement in its historical context. It was the first time since the brutal suppression of the first War of Independence in 1857; the Indian people launched the Non-Co-operation movement for attaining Swaraj on a massive scale. The deteriorating economic situation after the end of World War- I created anti-government sentiment among the people. The Home Rule Movement started by Annie Besant and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Khilafat wrongs, Government of India Act of 1919 and Jallianwala Bagh Massacre provided a fertile ground for the development of desire for swaraj in all sections of population and all these factors finally paved the way for the Non-Co-operation Movement.

Louis Fischer, American biographer of Gandhi, in his classic work, Mahatma Gandhi — His Life and Times explains how Gandhi arrived at the idea of Non-Co-operation and its significance. He wrote “He (Gandhi) was looking for a programme and then for a word that would be alike a slogan and a perfect summary of that programme. Finally, he found it, and when he was called on to speak he said, ’Non-co-operation’. Indians could not simultaneously oppose the government and work with it. To boycott British exports was inadequate; they must boycott British schools, British courts, British jobs, British honours; they must non-co-operate. ’Non-co-operation’ became the name of an epoch in the life of India and of Gandhi. Non-co-operation was negative enough to be peaceful but positive enough to be effective. It entailed denial, renunciation and self-discipline. It was training for self- rule. [2]

In April 1920, Shaukat Ali, one of the leading figures of Khilafat movement, warned the government that a joint Hindu-Muslim Non-Co-operation movement would be launched under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, through his support to the Khilafat issue, was successful in bringing together two major religious communities in India viz. Hindus and Muslims. It was furthered accelerated in the Non-Co-operation movement that unleashed unprecedented mass mobilization. In September 1920, Gandhi presented his plan of Non-Co-operation Movement at the special session of Indian National Congress (INC) in Kolkata. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Indian freedom struggle. As decided earlier, the Non-Co-operation Movement was formally launched on August 1, 1920, the day on which Lokmanya Tilak passed away. Many people fasted to pay tributes to the memory of Tilak and took part in demonstrations and hartals as a part of the Non-Co-operation movement. With the passing away of Tilak, Gandhi became the undisputed leader of the Congress. The annual convention of the Congress held at Nagpur in December unanimously approved the movement. It was in the Nagpur session, the Congress adopted its new constitution duly drafted by Mahatma Gandhi and passed resolutions for the removal of untouchability, the revival of Khadi and the collection of one crore rupees as Tilak Memorial Fund. Gandhi was of the view that if the movement was effectively carried out, India would win swaraj within a year.

People from all walks of life took part in the movement. Students boycotted schools and colleges run by the government. People boycotted government institutions and offices. Thousands of lawyers left the legal practice. Motilal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das, Rajagopalachari and others were prominent among them. Five institutions of national education viz.Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Jamia Millia Islamia, Tilak College, Bihar Vidyapeeth and Kashi Vidyapeeth - were set up to provide alternative education to young people who boycotted the school and colleges to free themselves from the bondage of British colonial rule. The Gujarat Vidyapeeth was established by Mahatma Gandhi himself in October 1920 to equip the youth to involve themselves in the national reconstruction activities. Prominent personalities registered their protest by returning titles and honours. The working class and farmers actively participated in the movement and the British Government was literally paralyzed.

In December 1921, the first mass imprisonment of people began. Tens of thousands of people were jailed for alleged violations of law. Many leaders like Motilal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das, Maulana Azad, Lala Lajpat Rai and Jawaharlal Nehru were imprisoned. On February 1, 1922, Gandhi informed the Viceroy that he intended to initiate civil disobedience in Bardoli, a small tahsil in the Surat District in the Bombay Presidency of those days.

On 2 February 1922, as a part of Non-Co-operation Movement, volunteers under the leadership of a retired Army soldier viz. Bhagwan Ahir, protested against high food prices and liquor sale at Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur district in the United Provinces. (now Uttar Pradesh) Protesters were beaten up by local police and several leaders were detained at the Chauri Chaura police station. In response to this incident in Chauri Chaura around 2,000-2,500 people marched to the market on February 4 to express their protest. The protesters picketed the roadside liquor shop. Subsequently the police tortured and arrested their leader and was imprisoned. A group of protesters gathered in front of the local police station demanding the release of the leader. Another group continued to protest and raised anti-government slogans. Police fired into the air in an attempt to disperse the demonstrators. The mob started throwing stones at the police. To control the situation, the sub-inspector in charge of the police directed the police to open fire. Three were killed instantly and several others were injured. The enraged mob stormed the police station and set the station on fire. In this unfortunate incident, 22 policemen were burnt to death inside the station.

Mahatma Gandhi was highly saddened by the sudden violent turn of events and changed his whole plan of action. On the 8th of February he circulated a private letter to the members of the Working Committee indicating this change. Subsequently the working Committee of the Congress met at Bardoli on the 11th and 12th of February decided to halt the movement. The resolutions passed at the Working Committee at Bardoli were subsequently adopted by the A.I.C.C. on its meeting in Delhi on February 25, 1922.  [3]

Despite the nationwide momentum created by the Non-Co-operation movement and consolidation of the people throughout the country, the movement was abruptly halted at the national level. As the leader of the movement, Gandhi took the moral responsibility for the outbreak of violence. Nehru described the halting of the movement as a setback and extremely demoralized the workers who were in Jail. Gandhi wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru who was in Jail in connection with the movement from Bardoli on February 19, 1922. “I see that all of you are terribly cut up over the resolutions of the Working Committee. I sympathize with you, and my heart goes out to Father. I can picture to myself the agony through which he must have passed, but I also feel that this letter is unnecessary because I know that the first shock must have been followed by a true understanding of the situation.... but the brutal murder of the constables by an infuriated crowd which was in sympathy with Non-Co-operation cannot be denied. Nor can it be denied that it was politically minded crowd. It would have been criminal not to have heeded such a clear warning. ... the Chauri Chaura news came like a powerful match to ignite the gunpowder, and there was a blaze. I assure you that if the thing had not been suspended we would have been leading not a non-violent struggle but essentially a violent struggle. It is undoubtedly true that non-violence is spreading like the scent of the otto of roses throughout the length and breadth of the land, but the foetid smell of violence is still powerful, and it would be unwise to ignore or underrate it. The cause will prosper by this retreat. The movement had unconsciously drifted from the right path. We have come back to our moorings, and we can again go straight ahead. You are in as disadvantageous a position as I am advantageously placed for judging events in this due proportion. [4]

Gandhi was convinced about his decision and that was very much reflected in the writings on this issue. He wrote: “I know that the drastic reversal of practically the whole of the aggressive programme may be politically unsound and unwise, but there is no doubt that it is religiously sound. The country will have gained by my humiliation and confession of error. The only virtue I want to claim is truth and non-violence. I lay no claim to superhuman powers. I want none. I wear the same corruptible flesh that the weakest of my fellow-beings wear, and am therefore as liable to err as any. My services have many limitations, but God has up to now blessed them in spite of the imperfections.

For confession of error is like a broom that sweeps away dirt and leaves the surface cleaner and brighter. I feel stronger for my confession. And the cause must prosper for the retracing. Never has a man reached his destination by persistence in deviation from the straight path. It has been urged that Chauri-Chaura cannot affect Bardoli. ... I have no doubt whatsoever on that account. The people of Bardoli are, in my opinion, the most peaceful in India. But Bardoli is but a speck on the map of India. Its effort cannot succeed unless there is perfect cooperation from the other parts.... Just as the addition of a grain of arsenic to a pot of milk renders it unfit as food so will the civility of Bardoli prove unacceptable by the addition of the deadly poison from Chauri-Chaura.... The latter represents India as much as Bardoli. Chauri-Chaura is, after all, an aggravated symptom. [5]

 Romain Rolland (1924), well known French writer and author of the acclaimed work Mahatma Gandhi: The Man who Became One with the Universal Being, wrote about Gandhi’s decision to undergo fasting to redeem the bloodshed by others“ ...he imposes on himself a continuous five days’ fast. He does not want his co-workers to follow his example. He must punish himself. "I am in the unhappy position of a surgeon proved skill-less to deal with an admittedly dangerous case. I must either abdicate or acquire greater skill." His fast is penance and punishment for him and for the rioters of Chauri-Chaura who sinned with his name on their lips. Gandhi would like to suffer for them alone, but he advises them to hand themselves voluntarily to the Government and to make a clean confession, for they have injured the cause they meant to serve. [6]

Gandhi himself was arrested in March 1922, and charged with sedition. He was sentenced to six years in prison. However, he was released in February 1924 due to ill health. Two hundred and twenty-two people were tried on charges of rioting and arson in connection with the Chauri Chaura incident. Six of them died in police custody. One hundred and seventy-two persons were sentenced to death by hanging. This led to widespread protests. On April 20, 1923, the Allahabad High Court reviewed the death sentence and upheld the death sentences of 19 convicts. One hundred and ten persons were sentenced to life imprisonment and others to long imprisonment.

Gandhi wanted the freedom struggle to continue non-violently in all circumstances and he was not ready to make any compromise. For him nonviolence was not a policy of political expediency. It was a creed and part and parcel of his life. He listened to the voice of his conscience when the massacre took place in Chauri Chaura. Otherwise India’s struggle for freedom would have turned into a violent struggle and may not have produced the desired results. In a sense, he changed the course of Indian history and our struggle for freedom became a unique model for others to emulate. Ignoring Gandhi’s role in freedom struggle and projection of violence are veiled attempt to rewrite history. It is against the great tradition of nonviolence this country inherited from seers and saints and also from Mahatma Gandhi. The need of the hour in our country is not remembrance of violence but remembrance of non-violence.

(The author is Dean of Studies and Research, Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha, Maharashtra and his most recent books on Gandhian thought include Gandhi in South Africa: A Racist or Liberator ? and  Kasturba Gandhi: An Embodiment of Empowerment. His email id is skjigs[at]gmail.com )


[1Gandhi in his written Statement placed before Justice C. N. Broomfield, during the Great Trial on 18th March 1922, explained his journey from a loyalist of the British Empire to an uncompromising disaffectionist and non-co-operator.

[2See the online version of the book written by Louis Fischer Mahatma Gandhi — His Life & Times available on the website www.mkgandhi.org pp.212- 213. It was first published by Jonathan Cape in London in 1951.

[3See M. K. Gandhi, Young India, 2-3-1922.

[4See Jawaharlal Nehru, A Bunch of Old Letters, (Bombay: Asian Publishing House 1960), pp. 22-25.

[5As cited by Romain Rolland in his book Mahatma Gandhi: The Man who Became One with the Universal Being
 See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/61575/61575-h/61575-h.htm

[6Ibid .

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