Civil Disobedience Movement

Civil Disobedience Movement launched in 1930 under MK Gandhi's leadership, was one of the most important phases of India's freedom struggle. The simon commission, constituted in November 1927 by the British Government to prepare and finalise a constitution for India and consisting of members of the British Parliament only, was boycotted by all sections of the Indian social and political platforms as an 'All-White Commission'. The opposition to the Simon Commission in Bengal was remarkable. In protest against the Commission, a hartal was observed on 3 February 1928 in various parts of the province. Massive demonstrations were held in Calcutta on 19 February1928, the day of Simon's arrival in the city. On 1 March 1928, meetings were held simultaneously in all thirty-two wards of Calcutta urging people to renew the movement for boycott of British goods.

Following the rejection of the recommendations of the Simon Commission by the Indians, an All-Party Conference was held at Bombay in May 1928 under the presidentship of Dr MA Ansari. The Conference appointed a drafting committee under Motilal Nehru to draw up a constitution for India. The Nehru Report was accepted by all sections of Indian society except by a section of Indian Muslims. In December 1928, the Indian National Congress pressed the British Government to accept the Nehru Report in its entirety. The Calcutta Session of the Indian Congress (December 1928) virtually gave an ultimatum to the British Government, that if dominion status was not conceded by December 1929, a countrywide Civil Disobedience Movement would be launched. The British Government, however, declared in May 1929 that India would get dominion status within the Empire very soon.

A few months later, Lord Irwin, the Governor General, stated that the ultimate goal of the constitutional reforms was to offer dominion status to the Indians. Following this statement, Indian leaders like MK Gandhi, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Pandit Madan Mohan Malavya and Annie Besant urged the Governor General to devise a more liberal formula so that the whole constitutional crisis could be rescued in a peaceful manner. They demanded the release of all political prisoners. They also urged the British government to convene the proposed Round Table Conference in which the constitutional problems of India were supposed to be discussed. Meanwhile within the Congress itself young leaders like subhas chandra bose and Jawaharlal Nehru demanded that their aim was not to fight for dominion status but for complete independence. The Congress, at its historic Lahore Session (December 1929) under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru, adopted a resolution to this effect. It authorised the Working Committee to launch a Civil Disobedience Movement throughout the country. It was decided that 26 January should be observed all over India as the Purna Swaraj (complete independence) Day.

MK Gandhi, who was called upon to lead the movement, decided to do so in a non-violent way. The violation of the unpopular Salt Law was his first challenge to the government. His famous march from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi (March-April 1930) initiated a countrywide movement to violate the Salt Law. It soon turned into a popular movement. Realising the popularity as well as the intensity of the movement, the government decided to crush it. The Congress Committee was banned. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi were put behind bars.

Gandhi's Dandi March had drawn members from Bengal also and the March aroused enormous enthusiasm in the province. Thousands of Bangalis went to jail and faced lathis, bullets and loss of property in the course of the Civil Disobedience Movement. In April 1930 there were violent police-crowd clashes in Calcutta. After the death of chitta ranjan das, Bengal Congress politics became faction-ridden. Provincial Congress leaders like Subhas Chandra bose and Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, a barrister from Chittagong, set up rival organisations to conduct the Civil Disobedience Movement. Both Bose and Sengupta along with many of their followers were arrested and spent about half of 1930 in prison.

It is estimated that approximately 90,000 people were imprisoned in the course of the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-31) and the province of Bengal provided the largest contingent. According to one official estimate, the number of prisoners from this province alone during the period mentioned above was 15000. While Gandhi was in jail, the First Round Table Conference was held in London in November 1930 without any representation of the Indian National Congress. The Congress refused to consider the proceedings of the conference. Meanwhile the Government of India realised the serious economic and administrative difficulties caused by the Civil Disobedience Movement. Both the Viceroy and the Secretary of State felt the necessity of making some readjustment of official policy towards the Congress. They also realised that it was not possible to solve India's constitutional impasse without the active participation of the Congress. Hence the ban upon the Congress was removed and Gandhi along with other members of the Congress Working Committee was released from prison in January 1931.

Bengal experienced a revival of revolutionary activities during the Civil Disobedience Movement. The Chittagong outburst (1930) went beyond the proportions of Gandhian Civil Disobedience. In April 1930, the Bengal revolutionaries, led by Mastarda surya sen, captured and destroyed the Chittagong Armoury. They fought a battle on the hills of Jalalabad where twelve revolutionaries were killed. Though far beyond the Gandhian method of non-violence, the revolutionaries received some support from the inhabitants of Chittagong. Some scholars hold that 'the relative weakness' of the congress organisation in Bengal, as compared to other provinces of India, 'perhaps led to a more multifarious and violent, also more fragmented, kind of movement'. Centering round the salt and Chaukidari tax, powerful movements developed in Midnapore (Medenipur), Arambag and in a number of other rural areas of Bengal. It is to be noted here that Muslim participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement remained generally low in Bengal. Among the Muslim leaders who participated in the movement and courted imprisonment, Maulavi Shamsuddin Ahmed, Maulavi Afsaruddin Ahmed, Maulana Ahmad Ali, Asrafuddin Ahmad Chowdhury, Shah Abdul Hamid, Ismail Hossain Shiraji, Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish and Moazzem Hossain Choudhury were prominent. Indeed the initial support of the Muslims to the movement was withdrawn when communal riots erupted in Dhaka in May and in Kishoreganj villages in July 1930.

In March the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed and the government agreed to set all political prisoners free. On the other hand, Gandhi agreed to discontinue the Civil Disobedience Movement and participate as the sole representative of the Congress in the Second Round Table Conference, which was held in London in September 1931. In Bengal, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta was entrusted with the responsibility of defending the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. But Subhas Chandra Bose began to criticise the terms of the pact. He also challenged Gandhi's right to be the sole spokesman of the Indian National Congress in the second Round Table Conference.

However the Second Round Table Conference ended in failure in December 1931. Gandhi came back to India without achieving his goal. Meanwhile the government of India renewed its policy of suppressing Indian political movements. Gandhi was utterly disgusted at the attitude of the government and decided to resume the Civil Disobedience Movement in January 1932. The government, on its part, lost no time in taking retaliatory measures. Prominent Congressmen were arrested. The Congress was declared illegal. In spite of the ruthless repression the Civil Disobedience Movement continued and within a short period nearly 120,000 people courted arrest. But as time passed, the leaders who had always been active were imprisoned. The ruthless action of the Government slowed down the movement. Consequently the movement was suspended for three months in May 1933 and ultimately ended in April 1934.

The Civil Disobedience Movement ended without any result. It could bring neither Swaraj nor complete independence to India. It had practically no significant contribution towards the process of constitution making which culminated in the Government of India Act, 1935. Nevertheless, it was an important step in the Indian struggle for independence. It generated political consciousness among the Indian multitude. But it failed to bring about communal harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims, the two major communities of India. [Chitta Ranjan Misra]