Gandhi and his Civil Disobedience

It was the winter of 1930, almost 90 years ago. Millions of underprivileged Indians, were trying to bear the cold wave with scanty resources at hand. But the political atmosphere in India was nowhere close to being cold. Political diaspora was abuzz with excitement. Simon Commission had come and gone. under the Presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru, tri-colour was unfurled and a call for ‘Poorna Swaraj’ was given by INC in its Lahore session in Dec’29. Britishers had done their bit in antagonising, INC had done its bit. Now, every eye in the nation, Indian and Britishers alike, was looking at just one man, and waiting for His call to action.

But the man, commonly known as Bapu, was a wily fox. He wasn’t to be moved by the emotional turmoil into a hurry despite the cajoling of a whole nation. Instead, the man, who had recently turned 60, just retired to his ashram in Sabarmati to contemplate over the _possibility of launching_ an agitation. The young nationalists not to be shut down by the Old man, decided to observe 26 January 1930 as Independence Day with a series of meetings across urban and rural India. The final push or perhaps the end of his sadhana, we will never know. At last, Gandhi sprang into action with a memorandum to Lord Irwin on 31 January. The memorandum, contained 11 points varying from Prohibitions, Right to Carry Arms, reduction of exchange ratio, tax on salt, reduction of various expenditures like military, salaries, coastal shipping rights, condemnation of political prisoners, abolition of CID.

As well intentioned and wide appealing as these demands were, none could make any sense of the demands in the times of heightened political anticipation. Looking at it in retrospect, 90 years down the line, we can easily guess what he was getting at, but at the time, it would have been a mystery to friend and foe alike. The magic of how these seemingly innocuous demands turned into a powerful pan India movement forcing the passing of Government of India Act,1935 by the British parliament, is the essence of Gandhi.


The way Gandhi acted through the hot winter of 1929-30 to the eventual breaking of Salt Law followed by the epic Dandi march gives us more than a few lessons. Some of the points that we can learn from this bracket, I have tried to list below:

  1. Timing and theatrics – Mass mobilisation is all about how you can connect with the people and Gandhi was the master at this! Congress call for Poorna Swaraj, observance of Independence Day, were symbolism of new age. But when Gandhi came, he brought his own new dimensions. A peaceful march of 400 kms through the Indian hinterland with a select band of 78 Satyagrahis from all parts and sections, was a managerial nightmare no administration would want to face. Through 24 days of walking, 10 miles a day, Satyagrahis covered a distance of 384 kms from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, thereby giving the press, both Indian and International, enough time and material to report on the Mahatma waging war against the mighty British with a walking stick. We have had great orators who have moved millions with their call, most notably his contemporary, a certain Adolf Hitler. And yet, this man, leading a nation of 350 million towards their tryst with destiny quite literally moved them from their homes to the sea. The pot-pourri of 24 days was the perfect pressure cooker for Indian populace to unite in an all drawn battle against the British. The morning of 6th April, Gandhi just added _salt to taste_ and brought the country to boil with his _Soul Force_. Added to all this, one can only imagine, the influence he would have exercised on the multitude he met over the course of this march.
  1. Planning – The 11 demands as listed by Gandhi would seem to be more of a hogwash when looked at from the lens of Poorna Swaraj. But, when seen through keener eyes of a political observer, we begin to realise the genius and ingenuity of the man. A mass movement needs the masses, goes without saying but a prolonged and sustainable movement of any sort also requires the resource base provided by the sympathetic rich, the industrialists of the day. Thus, while his concern was always the common man. But, his list also contained 3 demands specifically for the capitalists which referred to Rupee-Sterling exchange ratio, Textile protection and reservation of coastal shipping. Abolition of salt tax, reduction of land revenue were intended for the peasantry. Reduction in civil and military expenditure, abolition of CID etc were for the populace as a whole. Demand for release of political prisoners was in line with the milieu. Right to carry arms was a clarion call for self-respect. These non-political demands served the political purpose much more than any other means, With the alignment of national interests with the interests of different sections of the society, Gandhi ensured heart felt support across the spectrum. For the first time, Industrialists were in active support of the nationalists during Civil Disobedience movement. It was the Gujarati baniya buddhi which kept thinking of innovative solutions which held him in good stead through his life.
  1. Autocracy – Gandhi is quite frequently blamed for being an autocrat. I am quite inclined to agree with the assessment. My way or the highway was quite often the case with him, bending nationalists, INC or the people as per his wishes. That, was perhaps a character flaw, but, it will always remain a conjecture, if, and how much successful would a less staunch Gandhi be against the British, his unflinching resolve was perhaps the greatest strength of his Satyagraha. And yet, there is one point, which manifests on a deeper understanding. Gandhi’s means were more of Highway or My way, he always gave the option to the party rather than ordering the party out of his domain. True to his training as a lawyer, his calls to action, carried an implicit contract between him and his fellow Satyagrahi and any breach would effectively be loss of trust and he would dissociate himself with the party rather than ousting them, (Netaji, might be looking at this line in a frowning sort of way!) which is what he most frequently did with Congress or most famously after Chauri Chaura.
  1. Strength of Character – They say, it takes courage to stand against your enemy, but infinitely more courage is required to stand up against your own men, especially when they trust you to the extent of worship. If Gandhi was a man of masses, he also had the courage to stand up to them if they strayed from the path of right. Even this time, he was not to be lured into action due to inducement by the people and INC until he didn’t believe in the timing and efficacy of the act that he was about to initiate.


In the 150th year of his birth, we might think of taking the man out from our wallets and bring him and his teachings into our lives. In a world loaded with single minded democratic autocrats, we might look at the inclusivity, the staunchness of that gentle autocrat who wielded a walking stick and frail body as his only weapon and yet, went on to tame the Shrewdest of Shrews!