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Ch.8 The Partition of India in 1847. Gandhi's Method

posted 14 May 2011, 01:52 by Admin uk

Why not do it the Gandhi way? He defeated the British Empire and

he had no weapons!

Michael Moore in ‘Bowling for Columbine’

After the Second World War, Britain was forced to cede independence to many colonies, including India. However, contrary to how Indian independence is usually presented it was not a peaceful affair inspired by Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent resistance. If it really had been Gandhi and his methods that had defeated the British Empire, there would be an alter­native to the working class’s collective and democratically organised strug­gle for peace. But Gandhi gave India neither independence nor peace.

Earning one’s rights

Gandhi first became involved in politics in South Africa and it was there his ideas evolved. He had studied in Britain, but after taking his law degree had found it difficult to get employment in India. Therefore he took a job as a representative of wealthy Indians living under British rule in Natal.1 In South Africa, Gandhi saw that Indians were treated as second class citizens, even if they had money. The turning point in his life came when he was ejected from a first-class train carriage because of his ethnic origin.

Gandhi saw the injustice around him, but his response was to try and make the Indians good members of the Empire. In his view, this was the way to show that they deserved to be treated as equals. They were to conduct themselves properly, observe cleanliness, and learn good English. When the Boer War (1899-1901) broke out between the British colonial forces and the Dutch settlers, the Boers, Gandhi urged the Indians to support the British.2 Gandhi himself organised an ambulance brigade and volunteered as a medical orderly together with more than a thousand other Indians. He later wrote: “I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire”.3

Gandhi adopted the same approach in response to the Zulu uprising of 1906, when the Zulus revolted against the colonial regime’s taxation of their huts. The tax was a way of forcing the Africans to work for the British for cash. The rebels were surrounded and 500 of them were mown down by machine-gun fire. Crops and homes were burnt for good measure.4 De­scribing the event, Gandhi would write: “This was not war, but a manhunt.” Although he and his fleet of ambulance workers also treated wounded Zu­lus, they remained faithful to the government side. Gandhi himself was temporarily awarded the rank of staff sergeant and given a uniform by the government to encourage the recruitment of more Indians as ambulance workers. The Indian volunteers later received medals for their efforts – but no civil rights. On the contrary, laws were introduced in Transvaal the fol­lowing year under which all Indians had to register with the authorities, supply fingerprints and carry passports with them at all times. Those who refused were no longer entitled to live in Transvaal.

Non-violence as a method

After having been deceived by the regime on a number of occasions, Gan­dhi realised that displays of loyalty would not bring about change. Instead, he began organising the burning of passports and other forms of civil disobedience. Indian businessmen traded without a licence, and Indians crossed the border into Transvaal without permission. It was during this period that the satyagraha (‘truth-force’) method, or passive resistance, began to be used systematically. Gandhi’s basic tenet was that one should not subject ones opponents to violence or hatred. His followers should set an example and confront brutality without hitting back, and in that way eventually persuade their opponents that they were in the wrong and cause them to change. The idea was ”the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self”.5 Gandhi also described this approach in the following terms: “The real road to ultimate happiness lies in going to jail and undergoing suffering there in the interest of one’s own country and religion”.6 Over a number of years, he and his supporters were jailed time and again, and hundreds were deported to India. But no laws were changed.

In 1913, the South African leader, General Smuts, once again reneged on his promises.7 He had pledged, for instance, to abolish a special tax imposed on Indian contract workers at the end of their term of labour. In practice, this tax forced them to either sign a new contract or leave the country. In addition, a judge ruled that only Christian marriages were to be considered legal, which meant Indian wives were officially regarded as mistresses without rights.

However, the same year, the struggle took a completely new turn. Indian miners came out on strike in protest at the hated tax on contract workers. Suddenly, the protests were no longer a matter of Indians (mainly busi­nessmen) violating the passport laws here and there and being jailed. Coal production in Newcastle was brought to a halt.

The mine-owners turned off both the electricity and the water supply to the workers’ barracks. For a socialist, the obvious thing to do in such cir­cumstances would have been to provide and mobilise financial support to ensure that the strike spread and grew stronger, and to try and establish unions in the mines.

But such an approach was alien to Gandhi, and according to his autobi­ography his friends from the trader class were not prepared to help. They had business relations with the mine owners. So, instead, Gandhi told the workers to sell their household goods and join him on a pilgrim’s march to Johannesburg. Their destination was Tolstoy Farm, where Gandhi and his supporters lived. The mineworkers’ wives and children went along as well, and the march amassed 2 000 people in all. (Gandhi sometimes refers to 4 000 – 5000 people, which suggests that others joined along the way).

Gandhi did not intend them reaching the farm. He wanted to “see them safely deposited in jail.” He even wrote to the government asking it to be “kind enough to arrest us where we stood.” His plan was to turn the work­ers’ mass struggle into an act of civil disobedience: to cross a border, go to jail and then see if the government lost heart. 8

After a 13-day march, when the workers had almost reached Tolstoy Farm, the authorities struck. Troops rounded up the strikers and marched them to special trains commandeered to take them back to Newcastle. Gandhi was already in jail, but he had previously instructed the workers to accept whatever befell them without resistance. He had transferred the leadership of the movement to one of his friends, Polak.

The workers, however, were not totally amenable. They demanded that Gan­dhi be summoned to the railway station and agree in person to their being arrested by the government. Gandhi did not like the idea. The workers were told that imprisonment was their goal and that they should appreciate the government’s action. The workers climbed aboard the trains. They were im­mediately taken back to the mines, which had now been enclosed by barbed wire and turned into prisons. The mine-owners’ European staff had been appointed prison guards and they ordered the workers to return to work. When the strikers refused, they were whipped and kicked. The march and its brutal conclusion cost a number of lives, including those of two babies.9

Gandhi wanted to call off the workers’ struggle at this point. But against his will, and despite mounted police opening fire on the mineworkers, the strike spread to Indian workers on the sugar plantations, on the railways, in factories and in offices. Gandhi wrote afterwards: “I had warned my co-workers against allowing any more labourers to go on strike…But when the floodgates are opened, there is no checking the universal deluge. The labourers everywhere struck work of their own accord, and volunteers also posted themselves in various places to look after them.”10

After the “Great March” of 1913, General Smuts appointed a commission to review the position of the Indian community in South Africa. Gandhi argued that the Indians themselves should be allowed at least one repre­sentative on the commission. When Smuts refused, Gandhi prepared to go to jail once again and urged a group of Indians to begin a protest march on Durban. But the march never came about. Gandhi explains why in his memoirs: ”Just at this time there was a great strike of European employees of the Union railways, which made the position of Government extremely delicate…But I declared that the Indians could not assist the railway strikers, as they were not out to harass the government, their struggle being entirely different and differently conceived.”11

Instead of trying to establish ties with the striking white workers, Gandhi once again took the government’s side. Smuts had no qualms about using force against the white workers. He declared a state of emergency in a bid to smash the strike. When the railwaymen’s union, the Transvaal Federa­tion of Trades, responded by calling a general strike, Smuts brought in an army, arrested nine union leaders and deported them to Britain.12 Gandhi’s strategy made things difficult not only for the black population, but also for white workers engaged in active struggle. Gandhi later notes that “British friends in South Africa” applauded his decision and Lord Ampthill had sent him a telegram wishing him luck.


In the end, the government backed down and a short time later passed the Indian Relief Act.13 Under this law, the ‘three-pound tax’ was abolished, Indian marriages became legal, the immigration laws were eased and those who had taken part in the conflict were pardoned. It was a remarkable vic­tory that gave hope and inspiration to many people labouring under the colonial yoke far beyond the borders of South Africa. But why did the government concede defeat?

Gandhi himself suggests that it was the ‘chivalry’ of the Indians towards the government and his own correspondence with General Smuts that were the decisive factors.14 He also notes that the violence aroused such wide­spread indignation in India that Lord Harding, the British Viceroy, spoke out against the South African government and its laws.

A more obvious explanation for the retreat of the South African govern­ment is that it was severely shaken by the Indian and white strikes, which had come at a time when the blacks, too, had begun to organise nationally, across tribal boundaries. The ANC (African National Congress) was found­ed in 1912, and in 1913 black women in the Orange Free State launched protests against the rule whereby they had to pay for their passports every month. In June 1913, both white and black miners went on strike. When 13 000 African workers downed tools, the strike leaders were jailed and troops were brought in to force the strikers back to work.15 When Gandhi met General Smuts after the Great March, he observed that the South African leader was extremely troubled by the strikes, and more docile than ever. Smuts himself declared that the government needed a breathing space, and Gandhi was happy to grant it one.

The survival of the South African regime, which guaranteed white privi­lege, was contingent on its ability to divide the working class along racial lines. The troubles that broke out in 1913 posed a threat to the entire struc­ture. If the workers’ struggle had been linked across colour lines, things would have turned out very differently. Even the white union, the Transvaal Federation of Trades, acted in solidarity with the striking Indian workers in 1913 – despite the fact that it officially sanctioned segregation between whites and blacks. The union issued a statement expressing “sympathy for the Asians in their struggle” and demanded that “no white man should act as a strike-breaker”.16

The protest actions organised by Gandhi’s movement might have encour­aged the blacks in their struggle, but the fact that Gandhi refused to coop­erate with white, black or coloured workers helped the government. The regime took the opportunity to cement a split in the working class by grant­ing certain rights to Indians alone.17 At the same time, things were made considerably more difficult for the blacks. A law was passed under which the white minority – about a fifth of the population – was to control over 90% of all land.18 The Native Land Act decreed that the black population could not own land outside special reserves. Blacks were thrown out of their homes and deprived of their livelihoods. They then had no choice but to register as labourers in mines, industries and plantations. A somewhat higher status for Indians had been achieved at the expense of the majority of the population.

The First World War

In 1914, Gandhi called off the satyagraha campaign and left South Africa. He travelled first to Britain, where he arrived two days after the outbreak of the First World War. Once again, he demonstrated his loyalty to the Brit­ish colonial power. When Indians argued that this was the right moment to fight for their rights, Gandhi protested: “I thought that England’s need should not be turned into our opportunity, and that it was more becoming and far-sighted not to press our demands while the war lasted.”19 Instead, he urged Indians living in Britain to join the war effort! He felt it was com­pletely wrong to refuse to serve out of “anger and ill-will” or “ignorance and weakness”.

For the third time, he began to organise an ambulance brigade, but he also urged those who did not believe in ahimsa (non-violence) to take up arms to help Britain. He wrote to Lord Crewe to inform him that he and his com­patriots were at the service of the Empire.

Many of Gandhi’s supporters found this difficult to swallow. When asked later to explain his stance, he offered different explanations at different times. In 1920, he wrote: “When the choice is between cowardice and violence, I would strongly recommend violence”.20 In 1925, he wrote: “By enlisting men for ambulance work in South Africa and in England, and recruits for field service in India, I helped not the cause of war, but I helped the institution called the British Empire in whose ultimate beneficial character I then believed (…) life is not a single line; it is a bundle of duties very often conflicting.” In 1928, he stated that one of the motives was to promote the cause of Indian self-rule by serving the Empire’s statesmen. Whichever explanation was closest to the truth, the result was that Gandhi was now asking his supporters to kill and die for the sake of their oppres­sors. Gandhi himself fell ill and returned to India.

Colonialism in India

India was a British colony for 200 years. Colonial India was larger than modern India. In those days, neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh were inde­pendent. The British merchants who first arrived there were drawn by spic­es, sugar, silk and cotton. They traded these commodities for British goods. Via their business dealings, the merchants eventually became involved in local politics and conflicts, and in 1757 a British force defeated a rebellious domestic army for the first time. This marked the beginning of Britain’s empire-building in India.

For India, colonisation meant the suppression of the country’s own eco­nomic development. The British industrial barons did not want competi­tion, so they closed down most of the Indian textile industry as well as other forms of local manufacture. In the 19th century, food was exported to Britain, even when Indians were starving. The main purpose of the in­frastructure built by the British, especially the railways, was to facilitate the plunder of the country’s natural resources.

The British considered themselves naturally superior to the natives, but were nevertheless keen to gain the loyalty of the Indian upper class. The sons of the elite were sent to the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford to absorb the ideology, economics and lifestyles of their masters. This educa­tion had a profound impact. Besides Gandhi, people like Jawaharlal Nehru (later to become India’s first prime minister) and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the future leader of Pakistan) attended these institutions.

There was resistance to British rule in India throughout the colonial period, although it took different forms. Peasant uprisings, strikes and army revolts occurred time and again. The British rulers were obviously anxious to chan­nel these protests into manageable forms. Consequently, a political party, the Indian National Congress, was set up in 1885 by “a worthy British civil servant”, Octavian Hume.21

From the outset, this became the party of the Indian upper class, both Hindus and Muslims. It supported the British in the First World War, and remained silent when young Indians who revolted against colonial rule were sentenced to be hanged. As the Congress Party received substantial economic support from the owners of industry, it condemned a strike by textile workers in Bombay in the 1920s. Gandhi adopted both the party line and the party itself. He declared that no-one should expect him to “under­take a fight that must end in anarchy and red ruin”.22 When the Viceroy, Britain’s chief representative in India, in 1917 sought his support for the war, Gandhi complied. At the outbreak of the First World War, Gandhi had only appealed to Indians living in Britain to enter the war as volunteers on the side of the British Empire. He now urged Indian men at home to do so too. Just as before, he felt that Indians should prove themselves worthy of political rights. Once again, this strategy failed to work. Indians died in Mesopotamia and in the ghastly trenches on the Western Front in Europe, but nothing improved in India. Instead, the emergency powers introduced during the war remained in place once it was over. The Rowlatt Act pro­vided for the arrest and detention without trial of people suspected of anti-government activities.

Not until after the war did Gandhi begin openly resisting the British govern­ment. In April 1917, in protest at the country’s unfair laws, he proclaimed a hartal, i.e. a day of fasting and prayer during which no-one was to work. Shops were to close and workers were to strike. The decision was never discussed in the Congress Party. Gandhi explained later that it had been reached after discussion with “some friends”. The day of protest met with an enthusiastic response. But the police intervened and provoked violence and rioting, and Gandhi called off the action. He condemned those who had fought the police, and as recompense for the protestors having gone too far, he announced that he himself would fast for 74 hours. He urged others to fast for 24 hours. Gandhi later described the protest as a “blunder of Himalayan proportions”. He said he had come to realise that you must show respectful obedience for the laws of the state, if you want to practise civil disobedience. The protestors had failed in this. When he tried to mo­bilise voluntary instructors who were to educate the general public in this aspect of satyagraha, he got no response at all.23

Shortly after Gandhi called off his campaign, British brutality in India reached new heights. In the Sikhs’ holy city of Amritsar, a mass meeting was held on 13 April 1919 attended by thousands of men, women and children. As the meeting was illegal under colonial law, the British commander on the spot, General Dyer, took action. Without warning, he gave his soldiers orders to open fire on the crowd. People were surrounded by buildings and had no means of escape. The shooting continued for ten minutes, leaving 379 people dead on the ground and more than 1 200 wounded.24 (According to a commission set up by the Congress Party, the death toll was 1 000.) The massacre sent shock waves through India. Hatred and fury at colonial rule flared anew. Even Gandhi lost respect for the British system. He returned the war medals he had been awarded in South Africa, and wrote a letter of protest to the Viceroy. But he still hoped to awaken the British conscience, and became an increasingly dedicated advocate of non-violence.

Throughout the 1920s, Gandhi’s movement continued to waver back and forth. To combat poverty in rural areas, Gandhi organised a boycott of im­ported fabrics and burned them in public. But when the protests got out of hand, and a number of police were killed, the campaign was called off.

The Salt March

In 1929, Gandhi organised a march in protest at a British government deci­sion to introduce a tax on salt. He urged people to defy the British and fetch their salt directly from the sea. Mass arrests ensued, and at least a hundred people were killed by the police. The protest against the tax was, of course, justified, but once again unarmed Gandhi followers were exposed to actions that caused loss of life. When 2 500 demonstrators marched on the salt works at Dharasana, they were met by police armed with lathis, heavy staffs with iron bands. The demonstrators walked towards the police lines and wave after wave of them were struck down without resistance. The incident is depicted in Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi, and it is truly sickening to watch. The crack of the staffs against unprotected heads. The men going down like ninepins and being dragged away with fractured skulls. Two men died and 320 were injured.25This episode illustrates Gandhi’s methods.

All who dare oppose brutal oppression must of course expect injury and perhaps even loss of life. Oppression is maintained by violence. But when you decide to enter into battle, surely it is best to do so when you can rea­sonably hope to win? If people who rise up show enough strength and determination, the armed forces of those in power will begin to hesitate, split up and eventually join the struggle themselves. This is also a way of minimising the violence and the injuries inflicted on people.

Gandhi had a different aim. In essence, his method was to let innocent people be injured or killed without offering resistance. Such a strategy, however, meant that the police or soldiers who act on the power holders’ behalf are given no chance to revolt. The police at the Dharasana salt works were also Indians. Clubbing down fellow-countrymen who were protest­ing against injustices that they, too, suffered from was doubtless repulsive to them. Gandhi’s tactic left them with no choice, however. There was no fighting resistance movement for them to join. The police could not even tell their superiors they had been overpowered and had thus been unable to use force against the demonstrators. Refusing to obey orders would have been tantamount to suicide. Consequently, the death of demonstrators was unavoidable.


Gandhi’s non-violent approach was strangely one-sided. It afflicted those who turned to Gandhi in the hope that he would lead them in their struggle, and it spared those in power. Gandhi was not even prepared to use violence against Hitler’s monstrous Nazi regime. In 1940, he appealed to the British people in the following terms: “If these gentlemen (Hitler and Mussolini – editor’s note) choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them”.26 Gandhi called this method non-violent non-collaboration.

Violence, then, was not to be used against colonial oppressors or capitalist exploiters. But in the case of soldiers and police, they were not allowed to practice non-violence, at least not without permission, according to Gan­dhi. In 1922, when Hindu soldiers from the Garhwal Rifles bravely refused to open fire against an anti-imperialist demonstration staged by Muslims in Peshawar – Gandhi condemned their behaviour! He explained: “When a soldier refuses to fire then he is guilty of betraying his oath. I can never advise soldiers to defy the orders of officers because, if tomorrow I form a government, I will have to use the same soldiers and officers.”27

Gandhi shows here that he identifies with those who usually give the or­ders, not with those who are expected to obey. He wants to represent all Indians, but when he has to choose sides, he aligns himself with the ruling class. When Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress in South Africa in 1894, it was principally an organisation for well-off Indian merchants. The uneducated contract workers could not afford to pay the membership fee. The fee was three pounds – the same sum as the hated tax that the con­tract workers laboured under.28 During the Great March of 1913, Gandhi showed an open distrust in the workers: “Well-known and intelligent vol­unteers were required to look after these obscure and uneducated men, and were very forthcoming”.29

On another occasion, Gandhi wrote that capitalists are often greedy, “but when labour comes to fully realise its strength I know it can become more tyrannical than capital. The mill-owners will have to work on the terms dictated by labour, if the latter could command intelligence of the former. It is clear, however, that labour will never attain to that intelligence….The capitalists do not fight on the strength of money alone. They do possess intelligence and tact.”30 In 1922, Gandhi warned against political strikes, despite the fact that it was precisely such a strike that first brought him fame in South Africa in 1913.

Gandhi admired British civilisation. He had no wish to defeat the British Empire or its economic system. He mixed freely with representatives of the British ruling class. For example, he joined the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in draw­ing up what was known as the Irwin-Gandhi Pact. Under this agreement, the campaign of civil disobedience was to be terminated in exchange for the British allowing salt to be freely produced in India.

The mass movement

How, then, did India manage to win independence in 1947, and why was the country partitioned?

Films and books about Gandhi seldom mention the fact that other powerful forces were also on the move at this time. One indication of this was the enthusiasm aroused in India by the Russian revolution, and the setting up of a Communist Party, the CPI, in the 1920s. Despite the fact that the party was outlawed most of the time and severely repressed, and also committed a number of errors under the influence of Moscow, it was widely supported. In 1938 it mobilised 50 000 workers in Calcutta in support of a demand for a ‘Workers’ Socialist Republic’. In the same year, more than half a million im­poverished peasants registered to attend a CPI rural conference.31 When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the CPI organised anti-war demon­strations and a one-day protest strike under the slogan: “Long live freedom in India!” Many Communist workers were imprisoned for agitating.

Meanwhile, the Congress Party was becoming polarised, and a number of leftist groups were aligning themselves more closely with the CPI. Among those who called for a more aggressive struggle against the British was Dr Subhas Bose. In 1939, he defeated Gandhi in a vote to decide who was to head the Congress Party. This marked a radicalisation of the movement. It was followed, however, by Stalin’s about-turn and the alliance between Stalin and Churchill. In 1942, the Communists were instructed to cooperate with ‘British democracy’, whereupon the CPI called off its anti-imperialist agitation. This led to conflict and confusion within the ranks, and sowed division in the broad-based left that had just begun to take shape.

The Communist Party leadership was suddenly on good terms with the British rulers. The party was legalised and its leaders released from prison. They now sought to stop strikes, prevent soldiers from deserting and pre­vent young people from demonstrating. For years, the CPI was completely isolated from the mass movement.

Instead, popular power was channelled into the Congress Party. Its leaders took a stronger stand, and in August 1942 Gandhi delivered his ‘Quit India!’ speech, calling on the British to abandon India altogether. A new wave of revolt swept the country. Gandhi and thousands of others were impris­oned. Many were whipped, tortured or hanged for their audacity, while the reputation of the Congress Party grew apace. Gandhi was released after a few months. He was ill, and the Viceroy was afraid that the protests would be even greater if he were to die in jail.

After the war, a new situation developed. The British Empire had been weakened. Powerful leftist currents were making headway in both Europe and the US. In Britain, the Labour Party came to power. And in India, too, the resistance movement found new strength.

The revolution of 1946

1946 was a year of revolution in India.32 First, a mass movement forced the British to release a group of political prisoners. One was a Hindu, one a Sikh and one a Muslim. A mutiny then followed among soldiers and offic­ers of the British army in India, and finally a series of general strikes. The most ambitious of these revolts was an uprising in Bombay by sailors of the British Indian Navy.33

The rebellion began with a strike on 18 February aboard the battleship HMS Talwaar anchored in Bombay harbour. The following day, the strikers contacted naval personnel on land. Together, they took over naval vehicles, hoisted red flags on them and began patrolling the city. They also invited the people of the city to join their struggle. By the evening of the following day, a growing number of naval personnel had joined. The Union Jacks on the Royal Indian Navy ships in the harbour were torn down and replaced by red flags and flags representing the parties fighting for Indian independ­ence. After just two days, news of the revolt had spread far afield, both by word of mouth and via a radio station taken over by the rebels that broad­cast revolutionary songs and poetry round the clock. The revolt eventually spread to 74 ships, 20 fleets and 22 naval units in various places along the coast, including Calcutta, Karachi, Madras and Cochin. Two days after the revolt had begun only ten ships and two naval stations were not in complete revolt. Earlier a strike committee had been formally set up, with a Muslim as president and a Sikh as vice-president. The choice of leaders was designed to avert religious division.

On the third day of revolt, British elite troops opened fire on the sailors in Bombay as they were leaving their barracks. At a stroke, a peaceful uprising was turned into an armed confrontation. Over the next few days, several hundred sailors and workers lost their lives. The factory workers who had joined the sailors’ revolt were also subjected to brutal attacks by the British. To defend their comrades in the cities, sailors of the Narba fleet announced over loudspeakers that they would destroy the British military bases by shelling them if the British troops dared to attack.

The British government was badly shaken. Sir Claude Auchinleck, com­mander-in-chief of the British armed services in India, wrote in a telegram to London that “if you do not promise them independence within three days, they will take it by force”. Prime Minister Clement Atlee (Labour) demanded that the uprising be smashed, while in India itself, Sardar Vallabhbai Patel of the Congress Party immediately came out in support of the British.

Isolated and betrayed by their national leadership, the strike committee saw no alternative but to surrender. They hoisted black flags to signal their defeat. At its final meeting, however, the strike committee had adopted a resolution describing the action: “We, the workers in uniform, shall never forget this. We also know that you, our proletarian brothers and sisters, shall never forget this. The coming generations, learning their lesson, shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live the revolution.”34

The struggle continued. In Bombay, a general strike paralysed the entire city and barricades were built to prevent the passage of police and troops. Over a three-day period, more than 400 people were killed in street fighting. In March, the police were among those who took part in a wave of strikes that swept through major cities. In May, workers of the North-Western Railway downed tools, and in July more than 100 000 postal workers came out on strike. Industrial workers throughout the Indian subcontinent joined in. In this movement, Hindus and Muslims fought side by side. They revolted together in the army, they built barricades, they organised demonstrations – and they hoisted red flags everywhere.

Bloody partition

The British government knew that the era of direct colonial rule in India was over. How were they to salvage their economic interests and maintain their domination of the country? The answer was not clear. Several ac­counts of Indian history give the impression that it was Muhammad Ali Jin­nah and the Muslim League that were entirely to blame for what followed – the partition of India. But that was not the case.

Over time, a rift that had developed between the Muslim and Hindu elites gradually widened. It was not a religious conflict – neither the Muslim lead­er, Jinnah, nor the Hindu representative Jawaharlal Nehru were particularly religious – but a struggle for power. Back in 1906, the Muslim bourgeoisie had built up a political organisation of their own, the Muslim League, that was to protect their interests against the Hindu majority. At first, this did not prevent leading Muslims from becoming involved with the Congress Party. In the 1930s, however, some elements in the Muslim League began talking about an independent Muslim state. Such a solution would enable Muslims to avoid having to compete for power and markets with the Hin­dus; they would automatically become the ruling clique in a future Pakistan. For a long time, however, these ideas were considered unrealistic. In virtu­ally every village, Hindus and Muslims lived alongside one another. But during the Second World War, the Congress Party and the Muslim League went separate ways. The Muslim League continued to collaborate with the British, and the idea of setting up an independent Pakistan began to be taken seriously, especially by Jinnah.

In May 1946, a British delegation sent to India presented the ‘Cabinet Mission Plan’. Under this plan, India was to remain a single entity, but the central government would only be responsible for defence matters, foreign policy and communications. For the rest, the country would be divided into three zones, of which the Muslims would totally dominate one and have a slight majority in another. The Hindus would totally dominate the third zone. The plan was designed to satisfy the Muslims and reassure them that they would not be neglected as a minority. After three days of discussion, Jinnah and the Muslim League Council agreed to the proposal. Jinnah was not happy with it, but felt it was the best the Muslims could hope for. Ac­cordingly, he withdrew the demand for partition. The Council’s decision was unanimous. Later the plan was also adopted by the Congress Working Party and subsequently by the All-India Congress Committee (AICC).

This, however, was not the end of the story. At about the same time, a power struggle developed in the Congress Party when Maulana Abdul Ka­lam Azad was to step down as president. Jawaharlal Nehru emerged as the victor. Three days after the meeting of the AICC, on 10 July 1947, Nehru held a press conference at which questions were asked as to whether the Congress Party had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan in every detail. Ne­hru’s answer astonished everyone. He stated that the Congress Party would enter the Constituent Assembly “completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise”. The party, he added later, consid­ered itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best. This statement left the fragile agreement in tatters. For Jinnah, it was a slap in the face. The Congress Party’s stance, he declared, meant that the minorities in India would be left at the mercy of the majority.

The small-mindedness of the elites, both Muslim and Hindu, enabled the new British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, to decide that India needed to be divided. It was Mountbatten himself, as the representative of the Empire, who wielded the knife. “Mountbatten as Viceroy was given the difficult task of phasing out the British Empire in India. He performed this task with considerable diplomatic skill, and the Hindu and Muslim leaders accepted partition of the country, albeit reluctantly”.35 It was a classic tactic: divide and rule. Bearing in mind how intimately he and his wife, Lady Edwina, fraternised with Nehru in particular (but also with Gandhi), it seems likely that he had more than one finger in the pie when the Cabinet Mission Plan was toppled.

The result was two new states based on religious affiliation: India (Hinduism) and Pakistan (Islam).36 Not even the future rulers of these new states knew in advance where the borders were to run.

Gandhi was initially against the partition of India. But there was only one way to oppose partition and that was by supporting the workers’ struggle for a socialist India. Given his background, Gandhi could never countenance such a move. He therefore had no choice but to accept the terrible alternative of partition. Congress Party leader Maulana Abul Azad wrote: “When I met Gandhi again, I had the greatest shock of my life to find that he had changed. He was still not openly in favour of Partition but he no longer spoke so vehemently against it. What surprised and shocked me even more was that he began to repeat the arguments which Sardar Patel (a leader of the Congress Party that advocated partition – editors comment) had already used. For over two hours I pleaded with him, but could make no impression on him.”37

The independence and ensuing partition of India brought about the great­est wave of forced resettlement in modern history, some 12-16 million. Around a million people lost their lives. The whole situation changed. People lost hope of a new and better society. Suddenly, millions no longer belonged where they had always lived and worked, simply because they did not share the same religious faith as the majority. Muslims became hos­tages in India and Hindus hostages in Pakistan. This created a tremendous amount of anger and frustration. The relative harmony in which Muslims and Hindus had lived down through the ages was suddenly shattered. The scenes that occurred when different religious groups confronted one an­other were terrible. In Lahore, the gutters ran with blood. People had their hands and feet chopped off or their eyes poked out. One police officer described Lahore as “a city in the throes of committing suicide”. In utter panic, people fled from their homes to railway stations, which became so overcrowded that many were crushed beneath the wheels when the trains rolled in.

Another outcome of partition was that Kashmir – where the population is three quarters Muslims – was split in two and largely came under Indian jurisdiction. Since then, the Kashmir conflict has been a flashpoint in the wars between India and Pakistan in 1948, 1965 and 1971. More than 40 000 people have died in confrontations in the region since 1989. In 1999, the two armies clashed at Kargil in Kashmir, but under strong pressure from Washington the Pakistani forces pulled back. The last time things hotted up was in 2002. More than a million soldiers were mobilised along the border between India and Pakistan, and any kind of incident or skirmish might have triggered all-out war.

The conflict in Kashmir came before the UN Security Council for the first time in 1948, when two resolutions calling for a referendum were adopted. The idea was that the people of Kashmir themselves should decide who they wanted to be ruled by. Over half a century has passed since then, and further resolutions have been adopted, but none of them have been implemented.

The wounds inflicted by partition have yet to heal. Like boils, they burst time and again, unleashing violence and destruction. The ruling classes and the state in India and Pakistan have used the issue to deflect popular discontent in their own countries. Army leaders for their part have used Kashmir as a means of justifying huge military budgets paid for by impov­erished peoples. Both India and Pakistan are military giants today, and both have nuclear weapons. At the end of the 1990s, former CIA chief William Casey described the region as the most dangerous in the world. A nuclear war in the area cannot be ruled out. This is the dead end of Gandhi’s road to peace.


1 At that time, South Africa was divided into four ‘states’. Cape Province and Natal were

British colonies, while Transvaal and the Orange Free State were controlled by the Boers, i.e. colonial settlers with Dutch roots.

2 The British army triumphed and annexed Transvaal and the Orange Free State as well.

3 Mohandas Gandhi: Gandhi’s Autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth

4 Ernst Harsh: Sydafrika, vit makt svart revolt, 1985

5 Michael Nicholson: Mahatma Gandhi, 1987

6 ibid.

7 The South African Union had been established in 1910, uniting the four states and turn

ing them into provinces.

8 Mohandas Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa, Second Edition 1950

9 K. Chetty: Gandhi – Mahatma in the making 1893-1914, 1996

10 Mohandas Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa

11 ibid

12 A. Lerumo: Fifty Fighting Years, The South African Communist Party 1921-1971, 1987

13 Act No. 22 of 1914

14 Mohandas Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa, 1950

15 Ernst Harsh: Sydafrika, vit makt svart revolt, 1985

16 A. Lerumo: Fifty Fighting Years, 1987, p.28

17 Ernst Harsh: Sydafrika, vit makt svart revolt, 1985. Later, when the apartheid system was

fully in place, the Indians became a racial category in their own right, midway between the whites and the blacks. The Indians and the coloureds had slightly more extensive rights than the blacks. They did not have to carry passports, they could find better jobs and they were allowed to engage in certain kinds of business activities.

18 Ernst Harsh: Sydafrika, vit makt svart revolt, 1985. The blacks were originally allocated

7.3% of the land surface. This was later raised to just over 13%.

19 Mohandas Gandhi: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 1948

20 Mohandas Gandhi: For Pacifists, 1981

21 Lal Khan: Partition, Can It Be Undone? 2nd edition, 2003

22 ibid.

23 Mohandas Gandhi: The Story of My Experiments with Truth

24 Michael Nicholson: Mahatma Gandhi, 1987

25 ibid

26 Ed. Homer Jackson: The Ghandi Reader, 1956

27 Lal Khan: Partition – Can it be undone? 2nd edition, 2003

28 K Chetty: Gandhi – Mahatma in the making 1893-1914, 1996 (http://scnc.udw.ac.za/doc/


29 Mohandas Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa, 1950

30 Ed. Homer Jackson: The Ghandi Reader, 1956

31 Lal Khan: Partition, Can it be Undone? 2nd edition, 2003

32 Missionary E. Stanley Jones, too, notes that “India in 1946 was ripe for revolution”.

Mahatma Gandhi, 1948

33 Lal Khan: Partition, Can it be Undone? 2nd edition, 2003