Tax Resistance in the Indian Independence Struggle

Beginning on , The Spectator published a few articles that touched on tax resistance in the Indian independence struggle. Here are some excerpts from these articles.

First, from the issue (though the dispatch itself is dated ), the dismissive and condescending voice of colonial orthodoxy speaking from within the Bombay bubble:

Mr. Gandhi’s Edicts

Has the world for centuries witnessed anything comparable to what is occurring in India to-day? From his Ashram at Ahmedabad, where eighty devoted followers submit themselves to a discipline so iron that none can write a letter without his permission, Mr. Gandhi has issued his edict to the Viceroy, demanding that certain things shall be immediately done, under pain of challenge to all authority in the country. Here is a manifestation of a truth often forgotten in England — that whilst some Indians speak in terms of democracy, all think in the language of autocracy. Mr. Gandhi speaks for none but himself. He has secured complete immunity, even from such authority as the National Congress may wield. His edict needs only the stroke of the Vermilion Pencil and the words — fully intended — Tremble and Obey, to carry us back to the most despotic days of the Manchu Emperors. The Edict was borne to Delhi by a young Oxford graduate called Reynolds, of whom none heard before yesterday. He has gone in a Gandhi cap and cotton homespun; picture the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland with his box cap and clad in “shorts,” and you have the scene.

What is in this edict? It is a long tirade against “the curse” of British Rule, with not a word of the peace it wrought; of the one and sixpenny ratio, of which Mr. Gandhi knows no more than of Chinese metaphysics; of the land revenue, centuries old, and cast on an equitable basis in Lord Curzon’s days; and of The Salt Tax, which averages five annas per head yearly. There is not one concrete proposal not a single justification for the revolution which Mr. Gandhi intends to inaugurate.

The scene of action will probably be the coast of Surat; where the British Factors had their first settlement; the objective will probably be to encourage the villagers to make salt from sea water and thereby to break the law under which the Salt Tax is collected. Many young folk will go to gaol, and then the movement will peter out. That is to imagine the most favourable situation. In less fortunate circumstances there will be riot and bloodshed, strikes and disturbances, from which many innocent people will suffer.

What does India think of this? To that inquiry none but the very ignorant would attempt a dogmatic answer. India is not Europe; the Hindu mind has little in common with the West. Most of the Indians with whom you come in contact say that Mr. Gandhi must completely fail; they think that the land wants peace and quiet in order to recover from the industrial depression and prepare for the Free Conference which will consider the report of The Simon Commission. In short, they regard Mr. Gandhi as an annoying megalomaniac, who is disturbing men’s minds without the possibility of success, particularly the minds of the young men, so apt to be swept by gusts of emotion. But that is not the whole truth.

The Indian, and particularly the Hindu, sees nothing inappropriate, but rather a reversion to tradition, in the individual challenging the State. Then, remember always that the strongest emotion in India to-day is the emotional surge towards Swaraj, expressed in the yearning for independence — an unreasoning emotion, unchastened by knowledge of the principles of constitutional growth or experience, but not less strong for that. Even those who differ markedly from Mr. Gandhi, who see the perils of the course on which he has embarked, are not without a hidden sympathy for an Indian who deliberately throws down the gauntlet to the British Raj.

This afternoon it was my good fortune to fall into intimate talk with a wise Indian, long prominent in the public life, who has held high office. He dwelt on the extraordinary difficulties of the Government of India. “The Administration,” he said, “stands in the eyes of the people chiefly as the tax-gatherer. The Government officials seen by the villager are the tax-gatherer and the policeman; in addition to the dues they collect there are the petty exactions of the Native subordinates. In England if you do not like the Government of the day you can turn it out through the ballot-box; you have to pay the same taxes under the new. Government, but you have the satisfaction of venting your displeasure. Here there is no such relief. Then every evening, when work is done, the rural folk gather round the village banyan tree, and the schoolmaster reads from one of the Extremist newspapers vehement denunciations of the ‘Foreign Government,’ to which all ills, real and imaginary, are attributed. My wonder is not that the Government is unpopular, but that it is as well liked as it is.”

The 18 April issue included another dispatch, presumably from the same correspondent, dated . It is another desperate attempt to ridicule, dismiss, and downplay the impact of Gandhi’s movement, and reminds us that the role of journalism has long been to tell us what we want to hear as though it also happened to be true:

Mr. Gandhi — Complete Nihilist

My knowledge of and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Gandhi goes back many years. I recall the days during and immediately after the War when we worked in complete harmony; when he used to sit in my office, and in his own words “pour out his soul.” He was then an eminently reasonable man. At the end of these long discussions the feeling uppermost in my mind was the intense desire to agree with him, though that was impossible. Since we parted company when he launched on non-co-operation, I have been sorely baffled. Is he the sincere, simple-minded gentleman that I should still like to think him, or is he, as my Indian friends tell me, an ingenious, not to say cunning, politician? Perusal of the uncensored reports of the speeches he has been making in the Kaira district on his pilgrimage to the sea to violate the Salt Laws removes the last doubt. They reveal either the revolutionary politician or a monomaniac who is a danger to the State.

Consider the nature of these speeches, made to people who are politically ignorant, made at a time when India is so riven by militant communalism that no District Magistrate can rest secure against the peril of an émeute. Regardless of facts which show that by every test which can be applied to modern societies India has made immense progress in all that indicates national growth, he declares that British rule has brought about the moral, material, cultural, and spiritual ruination of the land: “I have made it my religion to destroy this government as early as I can do it. I pray God day and night that this system of Government may be destroyed once and for all. I appeal to you to make it your dharma to destroy this satanic government… this Government is so Monstrous that it is a sin to allow it to exist any longer.” And so on — one long unqualified hymn of hate. And this in a programme launched in the name of love and non-violence. Doubt is no longer permissible. If there is a spark of sincerity left in Mr. Gandhi — if he really believes that language of this character can be used to untutored villagers without producing violent reactions of the most virulent character — he is no longer sane. The kindest act towards him and to the country is to put him under the restraint the law imposes on dangerous lunatics.

The grave menace which lurks in this propaganda is its complete nihilism. Nowhere in his writings or speeches can you find a trace of constructive imagination. When Mr. Gandhi is tackled on the subject of the system of government he would establish in place of that which exists, he takes refuge in the excuse that this is the business of the politician. That is not simplicity; it is cunning, because he knows full well that the moment the stage of construction emerges immense problems arise. That is illustrated by the unbridgeable differences that stamp the report of the Indian Committee which was appointed to co-operate with the Simon Commission. His doctrine is one of political anarchy, and that in a land beset with religious, racial, and communal feuds. Were the issue less serious, there would be an element of grim humour in the mountain of hate he seeks to rear and the significant duty on which it is based. The actual incidence of the Salt Tax is a little less than sixpence per head of the population. In the history of civilization is there a more grotesque disproportion between cause and effect?

What has induced this development of splenetic hate in the man who at the Lahore Congress fought a losing battle with the forces of youthful revolution? Already Mr. Gandhi has found that his followers are too few. He has had to lower the standards for admission into the ranks of volunteers and to agree to a simplified form of pledge. The volunteer now agrees to accept the creed of the National Congress — “the attainment of Purna Swarajya (complete independence) by the people of India by all peaceful and legitimate means”; to express his willingness to suffer imprisonment and to refuse if he is sent to jail to seek any monetary help for his family from the Congress funds. Unlike the old pledges, this simplified form makes no mention of the wearing of khaddar, of the promotion of communal unity and the removal of the stain of untouchability. For years Mr. Gandhi has written as though each of these aims was a cardinal factor of his political philosophy. Is it possible that the man who has told no one what is to be done when he has won complete independence for India is ready to sacrifice his principles merely to win more recruits for his new campaign? It was at one time possible to understand Mr. Gandhi’s attitude to the political future of India. But now it appears that Mr. Gandhi advocates anarchy because he is himself suffering from a complete anarchy of thought.

The movement will probably soon cease to be non-violent. For this Mr. Gandhi’s lack of prescience is to blame. The All-India Congress Committee is ready to act as soon as Mr. Gandhi manufactures salt at Dandi. The breaking of the Salt Act is to be nothing more than a ritual, and Mr. Gandhi no more than a master of ceremonies. The future of the movement belongs not to Mr. Gandhi but to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the younger men who control the Indian National Congress, if the Congress can be said to be controlled at all. They have made preparations in various parts of the country. Congress supporters in Bombay propose to manufacture salt at Juhu, “the Brighton of Bombay.” The proceedings will bring thousands to Juhu; and Bombay, which has had more than its share of communal riots and industrial discontent within the last two years, does not like the new menace.

Mr. Gandhi is old and far from well. He refuses to return to the Ashram until he has won the war with the “Satanic” Government. He will die or be arrested. No one knows what gesture he will make when the movement comes into the control of revolutionaries fed on pamphlets from Moscow and when even the pretense of non-violence is given up.

What an atmosphere in which to launch the report of the Simon Commission! Sir John and his colleagues have kept their counsel well; none has an inkling of the tenor of their proposals. But this careful secrecy does not affect the realities of the situation. With the Congress directly committed to revolution, and the Indian Liberals outbidding the Congress by demanding almost immediate Dominion status, the issue is fast clarifying itself. There seem to me to be only two alternatives — everything or nothing. Either Parliament must face the tremendous risks involved in virtual responsible government or dig its toes in and maintain the strong central government which must be predominantly British. Halting between these two will induce nothing but failure and confusion.

The “Simon Commission” was Britain’s attempt to mollify Indian protests by setting up a committee to study the grievances and make recommendations for reform. Independence-minded Indians were largely unimpressed with the idea of a reform of their country’s Constitution as decided upon by a commission of seven British parliamentarians, and had been dismissive of the commission from the start.

Next comes a brief report in the issue:

The Situation in India

The news from India is still grave, but better than might have been expected. On , Mr. Gandhi was arrested in his camp at Jalalpur. Receiving every consideration; he was removed by train, and then in a car with the blinds drawn, to Poona, where under an ancient regulation — issued by the East India Company in  — he is being detained “during the Government’s pleasure.” The Governor of Bombay has thus hit upon an ingenious way of avoiding the clamorous demonstrations which would have attended a political trial, and Mr. Gandhi’s treatment as a guest rather than as a prisoner should atone for a revival of the raison d’état. In a Press note the Bombay Government charges Mr. Gandhi with “incitement to withhold payment of land revenue” and with having threatened to raid salt which was the property of salt manufacturers. We must congratulate the Government of India on a forbearance which is duly appreciated throughout the world, but which also confers on the Government a certain tactical advantage. The careful plans of the Congress leaders for a campaign of resistance to succeed the arrest of the Mahatma are in disarray, since several of the organizers are already under restraint and out of mischief. The Government’s arrangements were much the better.

History didn’t quite play out in the way the author suggested it should. Indians didn’t shrug their shoulders at Gandhi’s “treatment as a guest” but, more realistically, were infuriated at his arrest and detention without trial. The Dharasana salt raids continued under new leadership, and when those leaders were arrested, new ones took their places. Salt raiders who peacefully submitted to savage beatings by soldiers guarding the salt depots became the face of the Indian independence movement in the international press, and helped to strengthen and radicalize the Indian independence movement. A year after his imprisonment, Gandhi would be negotiating on behalf of the Indian independence movement in London.

The issue contained an article that began “The purpose of this page is to ventilate that moderate Indian opinion which, recognizing all the difficulties, yet believes in the continued association of Great Britain and India within the loose framework of the British Commonwealth of Nations” — which shows how far the goalposts had moved by that time. That article praised Gandhi as a moderate and even “a conservative by nature” and urged the government to get out in front of him by enacting some inevitable reforms by fiat.