How Gandhi became a Congress Leader in Four Years

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

In January 1915, a 46-year-old Mohandas Gandhi relocated to India after spending 20 years in South Africa. He wanted to be the leader of the Independence movement, but it was challenging, as Indians knew him as a foreigner. known for his unconventional social activism in South Africa. But in four years, he became a national leader of the Congress, surpassing leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose, Abdul Kalam Azad, and Annie Besant, who had earned battle scars in India. What were Gandhi’s tactics? How did he win against constant opposition to his each and every move? How did he overcome his blunders? At the end who held the ladder so that he could ascend the throne?

The Initial Activities

Though Gandhi had fame from his activities in South Africa to the Indian leaders of that time, Gandhi looked “queer and quixotic, an eccentric specimen of England returned educated Indian.” He was not liked by many people. At that time there were two camps in Congress — the moderates and extremists. The moderates were an earlier generation of leaders like Gopalkrishna Gokhale and his followers who believed in a constitutional approach like appealing to the British Government. The extremists — Aurobindo, Tilak — believed in radical approached, like violent rebellion. Both of these groups did not like Gandhi.

A series of unfortunate events happened to some of the key players. Gokhale and Pherozha Mehta passed away in 1915. Tilak, who was released from prison was lying low. Lala Lajpat Rai was in exile. Aurobindo Ghose had moved to Pondicherry. The Khilafat supporters, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were imprisoned.

The disappearance of these leaders did not give Gandhi an automatic path to leadership. Annie Besant and C. R. Das were still there. Also, Indians had not seen Gandhi’s skills in action in India. Naturally, Gandhi’s first course of action was to build on what he knew well – satyagrahas. He launched satyagrahas in Champaran, Ahmadabad, and Kaira — small scale ones at local level — to show his agitational capabilities. He was able to mobilize people who were considered politically irrelevant and enhance both his following and reputation. These were good activities but did not have enough importance to catapult him to the national level.

Then an opportunity came in 1917. Gandhi’s competitor Annie Beasant was interned and he wanted to launch an all India agitation to release her. This was scuttled by Gokhale’s protege, Srinivasa Sastri and Gandhi lost another chance.

In the next year, 1918, which marked the end of World War I, the Montague Chemsfold report was published. This was a package for the gradual development of self-governing institutions. These institutions would be part of the British Empire though. To get some support for this report, Annie Besant was released, but that did not help. The nationalists felt that the report was inadequate and unsatisfactory. Annie Besant thought it was unworthy of India to accept it. Tilak called it sunless dawn. But Gandhi felt this was perfectly acceptable. Gandhi was ignored.

Next came the Rowlatt Act bearing the gifts of summary trial and detention. Even Gandhi flipped and thought this was perfect for launching a national agitation. On 24th February 1919, he announced that he was going to launch a nationwide satyagraha. Annie Besant warned that any such act would release forces that cannot be controlled. Gandhi still went ahead and on April 6th, the whole country observed a hartal — a testimony to Gandhi’s leadership.

Soon violence erupted in Delhi, Bombay and Ahmadabad and the worst of all happened at Jalianwala Bagh. Gandhi realized the importance of Annie Besant’s warning. Calling it a Himalayan blunder, Gandhi suspended the satyagraha on 18th April 1919. It was yet another failure as a leader. Thus from his arrival in January 1915 to the events of 1919, he had no major national success to show. But Gandhi was not a person who would melt away like ice cream on a hot day.

Soon a cause arrived that helped him. He could promise an unattainable goal to a set of people, who overwhelmingly supported him. That was the Khilafat movement, triggered by the events following World War I.

The Khilafat Movement

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

During World War I, the countries of the world were all aligned with one Asuric force or the other. Turkey was a German Ally and fought against the British. Indian Muslim soldiers in the British Army were tasked against fighting the Germans and their allies. The problem was not fighting Germany, but Turkey, whose sultan was the Caliph. This was a problem for Indian Muslims who looked up at the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph (Tipu Sultan had appealed to the Turkish Sultan for recognition of his Mysore sovereignty).

Knowing the sensitivity of Indian Muslims, the British administration promised them that the Caliphate would be respected in the peace treaty at the end of the war. But this promise turned out to be like a line drawn in the sands of Arabia. Not only was Ottoman Turkey broken up, but as per the Treaty of Sèvres, Islamic holy places were ceded to the Arabs. Upset by this, Indian Muslims returned medals, declined appointments and boycotted government institutions. They also formed committees to petition and pressure the British Government.

Soon, the Khilafat issue was going out of control. Muslims decided to boycott peace celebrations, British goods and refuse cooperation with the British unless the issue of Caliphate was resolved. They even warned of boycotting the British Amy. At the same time, Gandhi persuaded Congress to support a program of a boycott. He was channeling the widespread anger over Jalianwala Bagh and now the Congress was willing to go with him.

Seeing the energy around the Khilafat movement, Gandhi argued that if Hindus and Muslims united and did satyagraha, then there would be a victory. Gandhi entered into a pact with one Abul Bari that Hindu politicians would support the Khilafat issue if Muslims stopped slaughtering the cow. Mohammad Ali , a Khilafat proponent, agreed to support Gandhi in return for Gandhi’s promise of Swaraj in a year. This was the same Mohammad Ali, who said that if the Amir of Afghanistan invaded India, it was the duty of Indian Muslims to join him and fight the Hindus if they refused to co-operate.

Gandhi’s promise to deliver the Khilafat was equivalent to saying that he had a bridge to sell. The Arabs or Egyptians did not want to be ruled by a Turkish Caliph. Come to think of it, even the Turks did not want a caliph. They were the ones who got rid of him and converted to a secular democracy. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and some of the lands were under French control. There was no way a few petitions would cause France and Britain to sit and undo the damage they did. None of this mattered to Gandhi. He went so far as to suggest that Indian swaraj activity could be postponed if Khilafat ask could be advanced. Thus from a Swaraj which meant self-rule for India, it got converted overnight to support for an imaginary Caliphate in faraway Turkey.

This got Gandhi massive Muslim support — much more than the Hindu followers. Gandhi was invited to preside over the Khilafat Conference in Delhi in November 1919 and the annual session of the Muslim League in Amritsar in December 1919. He was able to get the Muslims to pass a resolution expressing gratitude to the King-Emperor and offering a hearty welcome to the Prince of Wales. The Khilafat committee also adopted his Non-Cooperation program. At the same time, Congress decided to postpone the adoption of the Non-Cooperation program. The resolution related to the emperor and prince of Wales also was met with considerable opposition.

Based on the resolution passed by the Muslim leaders, an ultimatum was sent to the Viceroy and the non-cooperation movement was started on August 1, 1920. Life came to a standstill on August 1 and it confirmed a mass approval for Gandhi. In the special session of the Congress that met on September 1920 in Calcutta, Muslims gave him the required majority to consolidate his leadership. Saifuddin Kitchlew, the Ali brothers, and the entire Muslim bloc supported Gandhi. Annie Besant, C. R. Das, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Madan Mohan Malavya opposed Gandhi. The resolution was passed by 1886 to 884 votes. Muslims seconded and defended the motion and voted for it en masse. 161 delegates from Madras voted for the resolution; 125 were Muslims.

At the annual session of the Congress in Nagpur in 1920, Gandhi consolidated his position. Muslims stood by Gandhi. They turned up in such large numbers that it looked like a Muslim session. The resolution passed at Calcutta was now ratified in Nagpur, making Gandhi an undisputed leader. While World War I removed the Turkish Sultan, it helped Gandhi become the Sultan of Congress.

Swaraj came back to the Congress agenda only in 1929. But in 1921, the Hindus of Malabar paid a price for this capitulation by Gandhi. Exactly, one year to the date — Aug 1, 1921 — at which Gandhi had promised Swaraj to the Ali brothers, the Muslim uprising started in Malabar.

References

  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462., www.jstor.org/stable/44155789.
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram

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