By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
The 1908 correspondence between Leo Tolstoy and an Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das inspired Mohandas Gandhi, in 1909, to write what many consider to be his definitive work: Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule). In it, he presents a dialogue between ‘the editor’ and ‘the reader’. Gandhi, positioned as the editor, makes the case that India needs to establish home rule because British rule has morally and economically impoverished India.
Thoreau and Tolstoy’s influence on Mohandas Gandhi comes across in his book, Hind Swaraj. The editor states that
the English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them.
Recognizing this gives the Indians agency. Should the people of India decide to claim their latent power, they could find emancipation. Mohandas Gandhi, as the editor writes,
Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance, the government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me… If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of the self.
In other words, India needed to forgo European methods of struggle rooted in violence and force. And to bring about self-government, Indians needed to look to their own cultural legacy. This would lead them to non-violent struggle (ahimsa) rooted in truth, morality and self-sacrifice.
The Indian National Congress
While Gandhi was living in South Africa, Indian nationalism was developing back home. The Indian National Congress formed in 1885. Consisting of ‘72 social reformers, journalists, and lawyers’, it sought to have Indian voices represented and heard. The men of this congress were much like Gandhi had been before he left for London. They were elites who benefited from the British rule. They aspired not to break away from the British Empire but to have Indians included in the country’s rule.
In 1901, Gandhi appeared before the congress for the first time. Back from South Africa temporarily, he called upon the assembly to support “the struggle against racial discrimination and exploitation in the country.”
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Discrimination was especially pronounced at this time because of the regulations the new Viceroy of India, Lord George Curzon, had passed. For instance, Curzon restricted the number of Indians who could enter English universities. That directly affected elites like those in the Indian National Congress. It was a reminder that in spite of the elites’ privileges, the British considered them inferior.
In 1905, Curzon’s plan to partition Bengal—in the eastern part of the subcontinent—heightened Indian grievances. Protests erupted, including a ‘Made in India Movement’ encouraging Indians to boycott British-made goods. As the first major nationalist activity in India, it garnered the Indian National Congress a large base of support.
Growing Movement for Self-rule
Lord Curzon now returned to Britain and his partition plan was abandoned. But the dispute made Gandhi’s book extremely relevant and popular. As it gained influence, British authorities banned it. Even though the movement for self-rule was growing during these years, most Indians still considered themselves part of the empire.
When World War I broke out in 1914, India sent troops to take part in the British effort. Indians felt pride in the sacrifice of their troops during the war. This heightened their sense of entitlement to self-rule afterward. By this point, Gandhi was back in India, living an ascetic life of prayer and meditation. He abandoned his Western suits that he’d worn in England and South Africa and adopted the simple clothing of Indian peasants. He soon became known as Mahatma, meaning great soul.
The Rowlatt Acts
Gandhi campaigned on behalf of Indian peasants and organized a successful strike by textile workers. But his efforts were primarily local until 1919. That year, the British passed the Rowlatt Act, which granted the government emergency powers to suppress public unrest. In response, Gandhi called for peaceful protest. Specifically, he urged hartals, or work stoppages, and began to fast and pray.
That April, Gandhi-inspired protests had tragic consequences. Near the city of Amritsar, a British Brigadier General named Reginald Dyer ordered troops to fire on 10,000 peaceful protesters. At least several hundred were killed; more than a thousand were wounded. Gandhi used the Amritsar Massacre to turn popular opinion against Britain. His campaign for ‘Indian Home Rule’ now became a populist movement.
The Government of India Act
In December 1919, the British parliament passed the Government of India Act to ease tensions. The act provided for the transfer of some administrative functions to provincial governments. It was designed to foster “the gradual development of self-governing institutions” that nevertheless would remain “an integral part of the British Empire”.
When Gandhi had first returned to India in 1915, the Indian National Congress considered him an outsider. Gandhi’s decision to adopt peasants dress was out of step with India’s largely anglicized elite. But by the end of 1920, his moral authority made him the congress’s undisputed leader. Gandhi now argued that Indian nationalism must be inclusive of all Indians regardless of ethnicity, religion, and class.
In fact, he rarely used the term nation to refer to India, or nationalism for self-determination. Instead, the Hindi variants he used, like swadesh, referred to home country; swaraj was self- government. This was intentional. Gandhi stressed that Indians needed to embrace their own culture and history and not the language or example of an alien power. In this way, Gandhi transformed the Indian National Congress from a party for elites to a mass movement.
Common Questions about Gandhi’s ‘Swaraj’ and Indian Nationalism
In 1901, Mohandas Gandhi appeared before the Congress for the first time. Back from South Africa temporarily, he called upon the assembly to support “the struggle against racial discrimination and exploitation in the country”.
The British passed the Rowlatt Act which granted the government emergency powers to suppress public unrest.
In December 1919, the British parliament passed the Government of India Act to ease tensions. The act provided for the transfer of some administrative functions to provincial governments.