Myth: Gandhi’s Techniques Worked Because the British Were Gentle and Restrained

One of the frequently-voiced myths about Gandhi’s non-violent strategy for leading the Indian independence movement is that it only had a chance of success because of the civilized restraint practiced by the British colonial government. Such techniques, the myth goes, would never have worked against a brutal enemy unrestrained by principles of humanity.

The image that people seem to bring to mind about the British empire is people with well-trimmed moustaches in white suits sitting straight in their wicker chairs over tea quietly discussing where to put the cricket field. It’s something that was borrowed from literature and imported into Hollywood and that capitalizes on centuries-old American feelings of inferiority compared to the mother country.

In fact, massacres and brutality were part of the British imperial project in India and elsewhere. Here’s a report from :

British Tax-Gatherers in India.

The friends of peace have had many assailants, who have laughed at them as Utopian enthusiasts; but we have never heard even the most reckless opponent attempt to defend the existence of an army, or the practice of war, except as a dreadful necessity, and only to be legitimately employed in defence against invasion, or some threatened peril of life or province. What, however, will be said by the war party in reference to the news received by the last mail from India; by which it appears that British soldiers have been employed to collect taxes at the point of the bayonet, and that three villages have been razed to the ground, and several hundreds of the natives slaughtered, because the chief had neglected to pay his tribute?

What would be the state of public feeling in this country, if we heard from Ireland that, because some board of guardians had neglected to refund one of the Government loans, their town had been sacked and burned to the ground, and a couple of thousand poor Irish men and women massacred on the spot? It is impossible to conceive the indignation which would be excited by such a revolting outrage, if perpetrated at home; but what is there to alter the character of the foul deed because it has been perpetrated in India instead of Ireland? Yet the newspapers thus cooly narrate some of the incidents of this bloody tragedy:— “The practice of the artillery was very good and pretty. The whole business was over by ten o’clock. The rebels had immense numbers killed; and lost flags, swords, and matchlocks without end. At about three o’clock, the three villages having been razed, the force retired to the level ground, and, on being drawn up, the brigadier thanked his army, and seemed pleased with their achievements.”

When will the eyes of the people be opened to the real character of our military achievements in India? It is scarcely twelve months since the newspapers were filled with the revolting details of our great battles with the Sikhs. In one action alone, twenty-six British officers were killed, and sixty-six wounded, whilst 2500 men were slain or disabled, besides the fearful slaughter of the Sikhs; and yet, even the Times, writing of this, spoke of it as “a needless affair.”

An officer engaged in one of those actions, thus describes the conduct of our troops, the servants of a Christian nation, be it remembered:— “The cavalry charged in amongst the enemy, and the horse-artillery rattled on at a gallop, mowing them down in heaps, while we took possession of their guns and camp, leaving the cavalry to deal with the fugitives; and awful execution they did amongst them, pursuing them for ten miles. Not a rein was drawn till the horses could go no farther; their sabres drank deep of blood that day, and they returned, wearied and jaded, and gutted with slaughter. The whole line of their flight was strewed with dead; for but little quarter, I am ashamed to say, was given; but, after all, it was a war of extermination.”

Are these the deeds of which a Christian people should boast? Are the actors in such scenes to be the especial objects of national honour and reward?

from The British Friend, .


And here are a couple of notes from Gandhi’s salt tax resistance campaign. The first was carried in The Argus in :

Indian Salt Tax.

“Mass Civil Disobedience”

The salt tax controversy continues. The leader of the Democracy party in a manifesto says that it is absurd to speak of the party’s objections to the tax as purely sentimental or political. A severe blow had been dealt at reforms by certification, and the cumulative effect of such an exercise of executive authority would render the position of the people’s representatives under the reformed constitution wholly illusory.

The president of the Liberal Association has sent a cable message to the Secretary of State for India (Viscount Peel), asking for Parliamentary intervention with the view of allaying the discontent caused by the Viceroy’s certification, stating that it has weakened the Indian Government’s prestige and the position of those who loyally supported the Government in making the reforms a success. The Bengal extremists, by an overwhelming majorty, passed a resolution proposing that non-co-operators should refuse to pay the enhanced salt tax, and requesting the All India Congress to empower the Bengal congress to order mass civil disobedience of the certification.

The second is a United Press dispatch from Bombay dated (excerpts):

A new move in which a woman will lead the followers of Mahatma Gandhi in opposition to the government was announced today in plans for fresh attacks on the Dharsana salt works.

Shortly after martial law had been established at the terrorized city of Sholapur, Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, who succeeded yesterday to the leadership Gandhi was forced by his arrest to abandon, started enlisting volunteers for the salt works raid. Both Gandhi and his first successor, Abbas Tyabji, were arrested when they prepared to raid the Dharsana works.

Mrs. Naidu’s determination to force the policy of Gandhi to the limit was demonstrated in violations of the salt laws at Shiroda and Belgaum last night and today. She expected to enlist about 300 volunteers.

There was also danger at Karachi where a hartal was declared in protest against sentencing of Abbas Tyabji, noted jurist, to three months in prison. All Hindu shops and markets were closed. Moslems were not affected. A mass meeting was arranged for tonight after several peaceful parades had been held.

An accompanying article by UP’s Webb Miller included these notes:

Dissatisfaction with the salt tax as a result of agitation inspired by Gandhi — although the salt tax actually amounts to only a small sum per head yearly. The followers of Gandhi, however, claim it is iniquitous because it hits the poverty stricken comparatively harder than the rich. Salt is a vital necessity for the poor, who, with big families, must eat as much as the wealthy.

Furthermore, dissatisfaction has existed in certain districts as a result of the land tax, the only levy with which millions are familiar. The government collects the land tax in accordance with the area in crops. The rent production tax is often revised in accordance with alterations of the fertility and productiveness of the land.

By a colossal system of accounts, every cultivated field in India’s 500,000 villages is registered and taxed. Revisions, or absence of revisions, was responsible for the outbreak at Bardoli, where the followers of Gandhi recently said they would not pay the tax unless Gandhi instructed them to do so.

The Indians object to the government’s payment of 30,000,000 to 40,000,000 rupees a year (about $8,500,000 to $11,500,000) in pensions to retired officers. They also object to the fact European businesses take great sums out of the country instead of investing here.

The claim was made during these conversations that a widespread practice has come into existence, namely, shipping raw materials from India abroad and then buying products manufactured from these raw materials for sale in India. This, the Indians complain, forces them to pay freight two ways and allows several profits.

The Indian leaders insist they must build their own industries.

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