The period between 1929 and 1939 marks an important stage in the political and constitutional history of India. The Congress moved from Dominion Status demand to Complete Independence in 1929. January 26 became the day for national oath to fight for Complete Independence. Later, it was on this day in 1950 that India adopted its new Constitution and proclaimed itself a “Sovereign Democratic Republic”. Mahatma Gandhi led two satyagraha movements in 1930 and 1932. The “Gandhian alchemy” was again at work. The young and the old, women and children—all joined in the pilgrimage to the shrine of complete freedom. The Congress Socialist Party was formed. Bhagat Singh and his associates were hanged. India became militant. The communist leaders were arrested. But the Left movement grew and began to play an important role in the Nationalist Movement.
The British Government declared in 1929 that Dominion Status for India was the goal of its policy in India. The Simon Commission submitted its report and the Round Table Conference was called. The Meerut Conspiracy Case was started to curb communist activities. Mahatma Gandhi was arrested. The “Communal Award” was followed by the Act of 1935, which was, however, inaugurated, on the first of April 1937. It was a “Charter of Slavery” for India. India remained irreconciled. The Congress fought elections and got majority in most of the provinces. It came to power in 8 out of 11 British-India provinces. The rebels became the rulers. This proved that Indians could be politicians and agitators as well as efficient administrators. Communalists again became active and assertive. These communalists opposed and fought against the Congress Governments though they never raised a finger against the British Raj. They celebrated “Deliverance Day” when the Congress resigned from Provincial Ministries to vindicate the national honour in protest against the unilateral act of the British Government to make India a party to war without consulting political leaders of India and Indian representatives in the Central Legislative Assembly or in the Provincial Assemblies. The communalists openly came forward with their demand for partition of the country.
It was now that the principle of federation was accepted. The rulers of Indian States agreed to join one unified India. The broad outlines of the Constitution of free India began
taking shape. The Indian industry was growing. The Indian capitalists and working classes were taking their respective positions. The national movement took three postures—the Right, the Left and the middle of the road. Yet, all joined hands to fight for Independence. All demanded for a Constituent Assembly to frame India’s Constitution.
Resolution for Purna Swaraj
The Congress gave an ultimatum to the British Government in 1928 that it should take steps to actualise Dominion Status by December 31, 1929, failing which it would launch a mass movement. Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India, clearly said that the “Dominion Status” was the goal of British policy. However, no steps were taken to make it a reality. On the other hand, the Simon Commission was touring the country to make recommendations as to what further constitutional reforms be introduced towards that end. The Dominion Status was still a far distant goal. The British Government also, on the recommendations of the Commission, announced the convening of Round Table Conference of the Indian representatives and the representatives of the British Government to discuss what further constitutional steps could be taken and not how to actualise the Dominion Status.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the young lawyer-turned freedom fighter like Gandhiji, was elected President of the Lahore Annual Session of Congress in December 1929.
On the banks of Ravi in Lahore, under the presidentship of the “passionate and resolute” young Nehru, the Congress adopted the resolution on Complete Independence or Purna Swaraj on January 1, 1930. The resolution read:
“We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We believe also that if any government deprives the people of these rights and oppresses them, the people have a further right to alter or abolish it. The British Government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the principle of exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. We believe, therefore, that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or Complete Independence.”
The resolution further laid down the methods to achieve the goal. “We recognise, however, that the most effective way of gaining our freedom is not through violence. We will, therefore, prepare ourselves by withdrawing, so far as we can, all voluntary association from the British Government and will prepare for civil disobedience including non-payment of taxes.” January 26 was decided as the “Independence Day” when the nation pledged to fight for freedom to finish. The Independence Day was thus observed solemnly on January 26, 1930 all over the country, and people assembled and took the pledge for Complete Independence.
The people, thus, asserted their right to forgo all ties with the British Raj in order to have full opportunities for growth. The Government viewed the defiance with contempt. There was bound to be a new confrontation between Gandhiji and the British Government. What would be its form and technique could be anybody’s guess. Rabindranath Tagore, who met Gandhiji at Sabarmati Ashram on January 18, 1930, asked him as to what he proposed to do. His reply was, “I am furiously thinking night and day, and I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” The inner struggle in his mind went on for days and days. The answer he finally got was the finest fruit of his creative genius. It was so simple, yet so dramatic and so enchanting to everyone. It was to be salt, which he had given up as a part of his daily diet many years ago. Yet, it was so important to everyone—an essential ingredient of food. There could be no life without salt. Its manufacture was, however, the Government’s monopoly, which raised its price by imposing a tax upon it. Economically, the price rise or the tax was too insignificant, but it hit the poor people. That was the reason why Gandhiji decided to embark upon his struggle against it. As Nehru wrote, “Salt suddenly became a mysterious word—a word of power.” The Salt Satyagraha drew worldwide attention and invigorated the country’s struggle for freedom.
Before embarking upon the Salt Satyagraha, Gandhiji published his eleven-point demands depicting, inter alia, the evils of the British Raj and wrote to the Viceroy on March 2, 1930 that if the Government accepted them, he would not resort to the Civil Disobedience Movement. He also asked for an interview with the Viceroy. These points touched on reduction of land revenue, prohibition, disbanding of the secret police, imposition of a protective tariff on foreign cloth, reservation of coastal traffic to Indian shipping, an amnesty for political prisoners and finally, abolition of salt tax for the peasants and poor people.
Civil Disobedience of 1930
In February 1930, the Congress Working Committee called upon Gandhiji to lead the Civil Disobedience Movement. Mahatma Gandhi, along with 79 inmates of his Ashram, started his famous Dandi March on March 12, 1930 from Sabarmati Ashram. Dandi was a wayside village at a distance of 200 miles from Sabarmati. On April 6, he broke the salt law by picking up salt at the seashore. On April 9, 1930, the people were advised to manufacture salt in violation of government prohibition. The other items of the programme included picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops, burning of foreign cloth, boycott of schools and colleges, resignation from government services, universal spinning, anti-untouchability and communal unity. The movement spread from town to town and from village to village. Thousands of men and women braved police lathis and courted arrest.
Such was the success of the movement that for some months Midnapore appeared to be beyond the reach of Bengal Government. For ten days, the writ of the British Government could not run in Peshawar. The working classes set up their own authority for a week at Sholapur. The peasantry rose in revolt in many areas, especially in the United Provinces and withheld the payment of land revenue. Those were great days—joyous and proud. At Peshawar, the 18 Royal Garhwal Rifles refused to fire on the crowd. From April 25 to May 4, Peshawar was in the hands of the people. It was “recaptured” by the government with the help of British forces and air squadrons. This heroism of Garhwalis will always live in the hearts of people and will always be cherished.
Gandhiji was arrested on May 5. He had become the symbol of the people’s unbending will to attain freedom. His arrest was followed by hartals and mass demonstrations all over the country. The most spectacular event occurred at Sholapur. For a week, the people of Sholapur established their own administration till May 12 when the Martial Law was declared.
The government let loose repression and terror. The Congress and all its organisations were declared illegal. According to government figures, 60,000 persons were sentenced for various terms of imprisonment in one year. Between April and July, firing was resorted to at 29 places, killing 103 persons and injuring another 426 persons. Jails were packed to capacity with satyagrahis. Repression failed. Viceroy Lord Irwin frankly admitted the magnitude of this movement. He said in one of his speeches, “However emphatically we may condemn the Civil Disobedience Movement, we would, I am satisfied, make a profound mistake if we underestimate the genuine and powerful meaning of ‘nationalism’ which is today animating much of Indian thought.”
Gandhi-Irwin Pact of 1931
While on the one hand the government was following a policy of repression, it was eager for a compromise on the other. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru and Dr. M. R. Jayakar made attempts to bring the Congress and the government nearer. They started negotiations. They met the Viceroy and later on Gandhiji and other Congress leaders in jail. The government transferred Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sayed Mahmood and others to Yeravada Jail to enable them to confer with Gandhiji. The negotiations failed. The First Round Table Conference was held without Congress being represented.
On January 26, 1931, Gandhiji and other members of the Congress Working Committee along with their spouses were released. Negotiations for settlement began. On March 5, 1931, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed. The movement was provisionally suspended. Gandhiji agreed to forgo the demand for an inquiry into police atrocities in order to suspend civil disobedience and to participate in the Round Table Conference on the basis of three principles : (1) the establishment of federation of India, (2) the establishment of responsible government and (3) certain safeguards or reservations in India’s interest for matters like defence, external affairs, minorities and the financial credit of India. The pact was, in many respects, a disappointing one. None of the major demands of the movement was conceded by the government, not even the repeal of the Salt Tax. “Imperialism sought a treaty with Indian nationalism, but obviously on its own terms.” Jawaharlal Nehru commented, “Was it for this that our people had behaved so gallantly for a year? Were all your brave words and deeds to end in this?” The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was not liked by the people though it was endorsed by the Congress in 1931. The Congress leaders were greeted with black flags in Karachi. Youth and student conferences and organisations passed resolution after resolution denouncing the pact. Gandhiji faced hostile demonstrations when he left for London to attend the Second Round Table Conference as the sole official representative of the Congress.