The Non-Cooperation Movement was the first-ever series of nationwide people's movements of nonviolent resistance, led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. The Movement opened the Gandhi Era in the Indian Independence Movement.
The Rowlatt Acts were legislation that imposed authoritarian restrictions upon Indian people. The notion of habeas corpus was discarded, and the police and army were empowered to search and seize property, detain and arrest any Indian without the slightest need for evidence. Promulgated by the British Parliament, the Viceroy and the Imperial Legislative Council, they were to be enforced on April 6, 1919.
Furthermore, many Indians were already infuriated by the British authorities' decision to send Indian soldiers to World War I without the slightest desire to consult the Indian people in any manner or form. While Indians had been mostly divided about supporting or opposing the war, they were all together in their frustration with the British disregard and dismissal of Indian opinions and views, and disrespect of Indian political bodies.
The calls of liberal and moderate political leaders like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Annie Besant, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak for Home Rule were accompanied only by petitions and major public meetings, and not disorder or obstruction of government services. Neither of these leaders had spoken of leaving the British Empire. Indeed, many were against it. Yet the British authorities felt the need to impose martial law-style control as if India was in full rebellion and anarchy.
Champaran, Kheda, Khilafat and Amritsar
See also: Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha and Amritsar Massacre
Mohandas Gandhi had shown in South Africa and in 1918 in Champaran, Bihar and Kheda, Gujarat that the only way to earn the respect and attention of British officials was to actively resist government activities through civil disobedience. On two occasions in South Africa, Gandhi had forced the British authorities to repeal oppressive laws and inhumane practices regarding Indian indentured labor in the Natal province.
Now in Champaran and Kheda in 1918, he led farmers who were extremely poor, mired in all kinds of social evils like poverty, unhygienic conditions, domestic violence, discrimination, oppression of women and untouchability. On top of their miseries, these people were forced to grow cash crops like indigo, tobacco and cotton, instead of food, and virtually not compensated. In addition, they would have to pay taxes despite a famine.
Gandhi organized a team of devoted activists, inspired and united the people and wrote and published detailed reports about the horrors in the region. The people refused to pay taxes and organized protests, fully bracing themselves for arrests and seizures of property. Gandhi himself was arrested by police in Champaran, but the outcry that followed was worse for the authorities. The whole nation was outraged, hundreds of thousands of people protested all over Bihar and Gujarat and Gandhi had to be released.
The Governments of the affected regions would sign agreements suspending taxation in face of the famine, allowing the farmers to grow their own crops, releasing all political prisoners and returning all property and lands seized. It was the biggest victory against the British Empire since the American Revolution.
Mahatma Gandhi was assisted by a new generation of Indian revolutionaries like Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru. In Kheda, the entire revolt had been led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who would become Gandhi's lieutenant. Now these men and millions inspired by them were ready to this again on the national stage. It was already clear by some terrible happenings in Amritsar, Punjab that the British martial law administration would be tragic and unacceptable to every Indian.
Millions of India's Muslims were also antagonized by the Government's support of Mustafa Kemal of Turkey, who had overthrown the Sultan of Turkey, considered the Caliph of Islam. Muslim leaders formed the Khilafat committee to protest the actions and find a way to effectively stop the British authorities from neglecting their concerns.
A public meeting of unarmed civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar was fired upon by the troops under command of Reginald Dyer. Hundreds of people died and thousands were injured. Women, children and the elderly were not spared. The outcry in Punjab led to thousands of arrests, beatings and more deaths at the hands of police and some violent protestors. The Amritsar Massacre became the most infamous event of British rule in India. To Gandhi and many others, it became clear that a reckoning with the British was not far.
Gandhi's idea was a nationwide protest against the Rowlatt Acts. All offices and factories would be closed. Indians would be encouraged to withdraw from Raj-sponsored schools, police services, the military and the civil services, and lawyers to leave the Raj's courts. Public transportation, English-manufactured goods, especially clothes would be boycotted. Gandhi however did not want to refuse tax payments or call for immediate independence, and certainly wanted no force or coercion upon the part of the protesters. And he wanted every protestor to court arrest and if attacked by police, to take the blows but not strike back. Every Indian must observe Hindu-Muslim unity, and reject all caste and ethnic reservations in order to unite the country and make an effective revolt.
Many Indian political leaders criticized Gandhi's plans. Veterans like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Annie Besant opposed the idea outright. The All India Muslim League also criticized the ideas. But the younger generation of Indian nationalists were thrilled and backed Gandhi. The Congress Party adopted his plans, and he received extensive support from Muslim leaders like Maulana Azad, Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Abbas Tyabji, Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali. Gandhi was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1919 and 1920, as well as the All India Home Rule League - the latter erstwhile dominated by Gandhi's critics like Jinnah, Besant and Tilak.
Success and Suspension
The success of the revolt launched was a total shock to British authorities and a massive encouragement to millions of Indians. Apart from a near-total boycott of the government services, millions flocked out of Raj-sponsored schools, colleges, the police and army to join the institutions developed by nationalists and the revolt proper by enlisting with Gandhi's Congress.
Gandhi, Azad, Nehru, Prasad, Ansari, Khan and the Ali brothers were arrested for many months. The Army had to take over essential services to in order to keep the government running. Many hundreds of thousands of people were arrested nationwide, and the revolt spread into India's small towns and even villages. Large public pyres burning European clothes and goods spread out across the country. Sadly, many thousands were wounded and hundreds killed by police and army firings and beatings.
A series of revolts periodically broke out over three years. However in 1922, 15 policemen were hacked to death and a police station set on fire by a nationalist mob in Chauri Chaura. The mob had been angered by the sight of police cornering and beating two other protestors. All the policemen killed were Indians. Prior to the incident, there had been other attacks on European civilians and police officials.
Gandhi felt that the revolt was veering off-course. He did not want the movement to degenerate into an orgy of violence where police and angry mobs attacked each other back and forth, victimizing civilians in between. Many people had been shocked by the Chauri Chaura incident, but Gandhi decided to call off the revolt nationwide, not merely apologize for the violence. He blamed himself for the killings, for not training the people and emphasizing peaceful methods enough.
Gandhi went on a fast-unto-death joined with an appeal for all resistance to end. Steadily over 21 days, millions of nationalists, many bewildered by the shift, gave up their activities to save Gandhi. All Congress leaders, though many were disappointed and angry, backed an end to the revolt.
Despite stopping a national revolt single-handedly, Gandhi was soon imprisoned for two years for publishing seditious materials. The British judge who passed the sentence was shaking with emotion of admiration, and said he would himself be the happiest if the government released Gandhi.
Although most Congress leaders remained firmly behind Gandhi, the disillusioned broke away. The Ali brothers would soon become fierce critics, and Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das formed the Swaraj Party, rejecting Gandhi's leadership. Many nationalists had felt that the Non-Cooperation Movement should not have been stopped due to isolated incidents of violence, and most nationalists, while retaining confidence in Gandhi, were depressed.
Contemporary historians and critics suggest that the movement was successful enough to break the back of British rule, and possibly even result in the independence most Indians strove for till 1947.
But many historians and Indian leaders of the time also defend Gandhi's judgment. If he had not stopped the revolts, India would probably have descended into an anarchy-style rebellion which would alienate common Indians and impress only violent revolutionaries. Such a rebellion would not enjoy the participation of the millions of ordinary people who felt liberated by a discipined adherence to non-violence. The open commitment against violence made revolution a more respectful activity for many decent Indians who did not want to commit murder or arson.
Gandhi's commitment to non-violence was redeemed when between 1930 and 1934, India committed itself to full independence and tens of millions again revolted in the Salt Satyagraha which made India's cause famous worldwide for its unerring adherence to non-violence. The Satyagraha ended in glorious success - the demands of Indians were met, and the Congress Party was recognized as the real representative of Indian people. The Government of India Act 1935 also gave India its first taste in democratic, self-governance.