Individual Civil Disobedience


So instead of the intoxication of the thought of freedom which would unleash our energies and throw us with a nation’s enthusiasm into the world struggle, we experienced the aching frustration of its denial. And this denial was accompanied by an arrogance of language, a self-glorification of British rule and policy, and an enumeration of conditions which were said to be necessary before India could claim freedom, conditions some of which seemed impossible of realization. It became obvious that all this talk and ritual of parliamentary debate in England, of rounded phrases and pompous utterance, was just political trickery, barely veiling the fixed intention to hold on to India as an imperial domain and possession for as long as this was possible. The claws of imperialism would continue deep in the living body of India. And that was the measure of that international order of freedom and democracy for which Britain claimed to be fighting.

There was yet another significant indication: Burma had put forward a modest claim that an assurance of dominion status after the war be given her. This was long before the Pacific War started, and in any event it did not interfere with the war in any way, for it was only intended to take effect after the conclusion of hostilities. She asked for dominion status only, not independence. As in the case of India, she had been told repeatedly that dominion status was the goal of British policy. Unlike India, she was a much more homogeneous country and all the objections, real or fancied, which were advanced by the British in the case of India, did not apply to her. Yet that unanimous demand was refused and no assurance was given. Dominion status was for some distant hereafter; it was a vague and shadowy metaphysical conception which applied to some other world, some different age from ours. It was, as Mr. Winston Churchill had indicated, empty verbiage and ceremony with no relation to the present or to the immediate future. So also the objections that were raised against India’s independence, the absurd conditions that were laid down, were empty verbiage which everyone knew had no reality or substance. The only realities were Britain’s determination to hold on to India at all costs and India’s determination to break this hold. All else was quibbling, lawyer’s talk, or diplomatic prevarication. Only the future could show the result of this conflict between incompatibles.

The future showed us soon enough the results of British policy in Burma. In India also that future slowly unrolled itself, bringing struggle and bitterness and suffering in its train.

To remain passive spectators of what was happening in India after the last insolent repulse from the British Government became impossible. If this was the attitude of that Government in the middle of a perilous war, when millions of people all over the world believed and faced enormous sacrifices in the cause of freedom, what would it be when the crisis was over and that popular pressure had subsided ? Meanwhile, our people were being picked off all over India and sent to prison; our normal activities were interfered with and restricted. For it must be remembered that the British Government in India is always carrying on a war against the nationalist and labour movements; it does not wait for civil disobedience to take action. That war flares up occasionally and becomes an attack on all fronts, or it tones down a little, but always it has continued.* During the brief period of Congress governments in the provinces, it was in a quiescent stage, but soon after their resignation it started afresh, and the permanent services took peculiar pleasure in issuing orders to and imprisoning prominent Congressmen and members of the legislatures.

Positive action became inevitable, for sometimes the only failure is in failing to act. That action could only be, in accordance with our established policy, in the nature of civil disobedience. Yet care was taken not to have any popular upheavals, and civil dis-obedience was limited to chosen individuals. It was what is called individual civil disobedience as contrasted with the mass variety of it. It was really in the nature of a great moral protest. From a politician’s point of view it seems odd that we should deliberately avoid any attempt to upset the administration and make it easy for it to put the trouble-makers in prison. That has not been the way of aggressive political action or revolution anywhere else. Yet that was Gandhi’s way of combining morality with revolutionary politics, and he was always the inevitable leader when any such movement took place. It was his way of showing that while we refused to submit to British policy and showed our resentment and determination by voluntarily inviting suffering for ourselves, yet our object was not to create trouble.

This individual civil disobedience movement started in a very small way, each person having to pass some kind of a test and get permission before he or she could take part in it. Those who were chosen broke some formal order, were arrested, and sentenced to imprisonment. As is usual with us, men at the top were chosen first—members of the Congress Executive, ex-ministers of provincial governments, members of the legislatures, members of the All-India and Provincial Congress committees. Gradually the circle grew till between twenty-five to thirty thousand men and women were in prison. These included the speakers and a large number of members of our provincial legislative assemblies, which had been suspended by the Government. Thus we demonstrated that if our elected assemblies were not allowed to function their members would not submit to autocratic rule and preferred prison to it.

Apart from those who offered formal civil disobedience, many thousands were arrested and sentenced for making speeches or for some other activity, or detained without trial. I was arrested at an early stage and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for a speech.

From October, 1940, for over a year, all these persons remained in prison. We tried to follow, with such material as we could obtain, the course of the war and of events in India and the world. We read of the Four Freedoms of President Roosevelt, we heard of the Atlantic Charter, and, soon after, of Mr. Churchill’s qualification that this Charter^ had no application to India.

In June, 1941, we were stirred by Hitler’s sudden attack on Soviet Russia, and followed with anxious interest the dramatic changes in the war situation.

On December 4th, 1941, many of us were discharged. Three days later came Pearl Harbour and the Pacific War.

* Many people have been in prison continuously from the pre-war period. Some young-comrades of mine have now spent fifteen years in prison and are still there. They were boys when they were sentenced, barely out of their teens; now they are grey-haired and middle-aged. I have come across them during my repeated visits to the United Provinces prisons. I have come, stayed for a while, and then gone out; they have remained. Although they are United Provinces men and have been kept for some years in United Provinces prisons, they were sentenced in the Punjab and are therefore under the orders of the Punjab government. The Congress government in the United Provinces recommended their release but the Punjab government did not agree.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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