Letters on Civil Disobedience

I spent my last morning at the British Library pouring over a volume of letters marked confidential and private “Correspondence with and Noting about Mr. Gandhi 1931-1932, ” which provided a glimpse into the lives of those engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience movement in India as well as the colonial response to those efforts.

The beginning of the collection includes a letter from Gandhi to the Viceroy regarding police brutality against those participating in nonviolent protest. On one incident women who were organizing “to protest against a brutal treatment of a girl 17 years old by a police official,” found themselves too, the victims of such brutality. Gandhi writes:

“The injuries were severe in several cases. Some of those who were assaulted belong to the Satyagraha Ashram at Sabarmati. One of them, an old widow, a Member of the Managing Board of the Ashram, was drenched in blood. To give you some idea of the nature of the police barbarity I give a free translation of her letter to me.”

This translated letter describes not only the abuse these women endured, but also the strength of their conviction and compassion:

“It was on this occasion that I understood somewhat the meaning of Ahimsa. I was quite fearless when the blows were coming down upon me, and I assure you I had no hatred or anger in me. Even now I feel no resentments toward the police, and its is growing upon me that we shall achieve success to the extent we cultivate the spirit of Ahimsa.”

Gandhi implored that the Viceroy look into this matter and set up a Committee “to investigate the allegations of excesses against officials in different parts of India since the inauguration of the Civil Disobedience Campaign…Till I hear from you and know your wish in this matter I am not sending this letter to the press.”

This file did not contain the actual letter back to Gandhi from the Viceroy, but rather draft notes on how to respond. While Gandhi’s letter is a moral plea, the draft response is an offering of advice regarding political strategy.  The language is what Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night called “totalitarianese which is to say ,technologese, which is to say any language which succeeds in stripping itself of any moral content.”

 I would suggest that the following principles be kept constantly in view:

  • Avoidance wherever possible for any enquiry into the past on both sides.

  • Avoidance of action which suggests any implied admission that Government are in the dock or which involves implied censure or humiliation of our officers and servants.

  • Avoidance of action which will allow Congress to claim a victory, i.e. if relief is given in cases of hardships it should be given as an act of sympathy and generosity from Government and not as a concession wrung from them.

  • ….

  • The above to be subject always to the condition precedent that the civil disobedience movement will be effectively called off and that there will be no attempt to revive it at least during discussion in India.

These notes show the audacity of power and the fear of losing it.

In 1931 Gandhi met with H.W. Emerson, the Home Secretary for four days in Simla. Emerson wrote to His Excellency, Sir Malcolm Hailey with insight gleaned from this meeting:

“Lord Irwin [the Viceroy] gave me a tip which I have found very valuable in dealing with him, namely that he is always more impressed by practical difficulties than by theoretical principles, and he is often ready to see the dangerous results of a particular course of action, where he will not admit that the action itself is wrong. He has a keen sense of humor, and I found it useful, when we got on the to a sticky patch, to have a comparatively frivolous diversion. He is very fair in seeing the other side of the case and is ready quietly to argue any point at issue. He is very sensitive to the personal touch, but does not mind and in, in fact, rather welcomes plain speaking. I apologise for troubling you with these apparent trivialities, but I have great hopes that your meeting with him will result in him using his influence to quieten things down, although the snag may be his unwillingness to admit that Congress should not uphold the cause of the “unfortunate” in matters of rent and land revenue.”

Gandhi’s hand written letter to Emerson after their meeting, however, revealed that he had not thought  favorably about  what had transpired:

“This is to tell you how grieved I felt in Simla over what appeared to me to be your obstructive tactics… I have written this freely in the exercise the privilege of friendship and therfore not to be misunderstood…My right hand needing rest, I have to write with the left hand. I could not dictate a personal letter like this.”

Emerson replied playfully:

“Incidentally, I did not know you were ambidextrous. May I congratulate you on the excellence of your left hand writing. It is neater than I can achieve with the right hand…I confess that I was very annoyed with you when I got your letter—but have now forgiven you…You have claimed the privilege of friendship for telling me off, I am going to claim the same privilege for making to you a suggestion which is probably superfluous. Start with the assumption that British statesmen and the British public want to do the best they can for India. If their views and yours differ on some points, don’t ascribe the difference to distrust or selfishness. Assume they are honest and that they believe in what they say until convinced to the contrary…And, as I told you, when I said good-bye at Viceregal Lodge, don’t get into mischief now I am not there to look after you.”

The next letter from Gandhi in the file was sent  from Yeravada Prison, January 15, 1932 written to the next Viceroy, Lord Willingdon:

 “…Is it wrong for Indians to desire complete independence for their country? Is it wrong to seek to do so through non-violent direct action, when negotiation fails or becomes impossible?… My regards to Lady Willingdon. She must not be angry with me that I am causing worry to her husband. I do not want to. If at all, she must be angry with you in that in your anger or distrust, you banded the door in the face of a poor old man who knocked and was denied entrance.

I am,

Yours sincere Friend

Sd. M.K. Gandhi

On August 18, 1932, the Mahatma pens another letter from Yeravada Central Prison to Honarable J. Ramsay Macdonald, Prime Minister of London:

“I have read the British Government’s decision on the representation of the Minorities and have slept over it…. I have to resist your decision with my life. The only way I can do so is by declaring a perpetual fast unto death from food of any kind, save water, with our without salt and soda. This fast will cease if, during its progress, the British Government, of its own motions or under pressing of public opinion, revise their decision and withraw their scheme of communal electorates for the depressed Classes whose representatives should be elected by the General electorate under a common Franchise, no matter how wide it is.

Joseph Lelyveld in his biography on Gandhi provides additional context:

“This was the outcome—the kind of “special representation” for untouchables—that Gandhi, now sixty-three, had vowed at the conference to “resist with my life” for the hight principled reason that it would tend to institutionalize, and thus perpetuate, untouchability, a status he’d sometimes compared to slavery as he had the indenture system in South Africa.”

Eradication of untouchability was one of the four pillars that Gandhi argued were essential for swaraj (self-rule) [in addition to Hindu Muslim unity, revitalization of self-sustaining rural villages, and ahimsa, nonviolence.] In 1933, Gandhi started the weekly newspaper the Harijan, that articulated these points. Gandhi had started referring to the untouchables as Harijans, children of God, (though this term was found patronizing by some, most notably Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar).

I had a chance to peer through some volumes of the Harijan in the British Library. The first issue was edited by R.V. Sastri “Under the auspices of the The Servants of the Untouchable Society,” while Gandhi was still incarcerated at Yeravada prison.  In each issue there were reports from the field on progress in various issues- Temple Entry, Water and Sanitation. For example under the category water supply, it was noted: “ All public wells at Khandip and Vazirpur villages were thrown open to Harijans. 1well is under construction for Harijans at Dausa (Jaipur). 1 cistern is being constructed at Jhunjhunu.”

These excerpts from  letters and newspapers articles showed the connections between acts of civil disobedience that were part of a political struggle and acts of service that were part of a social struggle.

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