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Rowlatt Act, 1919 : Mahatma Gandhi asked the Indians to die while opposing the repressive law

(Following is the text of the statement submitted by Mahatma Gandhi while explaining his call of satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act)

The term satyagraha was coined by me in South Africa to express the force that the Indians there used for full eight years, and it was coined in order to distinguish it from the movement, then going on in the United Kingdom and South Africa under the name of passive resistance.

Its root meaning is “holding on to truth’; hence, truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but one’s own self.

Satyagraha differs from passive resistance as the North Pole from the South. The latter has been conceived as a weapon of the weak and does not exclude the use of physical force or violence for the purpose of gaining one’s end; whereas the former has been conceived as a weapon of the strongest, and excludes the use of violence in any shape or form.

Mahatma Gandhi believed the Bihar earthquake was punishment for practising untouchability against Dalits

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha in its purest form. Socrates would not refrain from preaching what he knew to be the truth to the Athenian youth, and bravely suffered the punishment of death. He was, in this case, a satyagrahi. Prahlad disregarded the orders of his father, because he considered them to be repugnant to his conscience. He uncomplainingly and cheerfully bore the tortures to which he was subjected at the instance of his father.

Mirabai is said to have offended her husband by following her own conscience, was content to live in separation from him and bore with quiet dignity and resignation all the injuries that are said to have been done to her in order to bend her to husband’s will. Both Prahlad and Mirabai practised satyagraha. It must be remembered, that neither Daniel nor Socrates, neither Prahlad nor Mirabai had any ill will towards their persecutors. Daniel and Socrates are regarded as having been model citizens of the States to which they belonged, Prahalad a model son, Mirabai a model wife.

This doctrine of satyagraha is not new; it is merely an extension of the rule of domestic life to the political. Family disputes and differences are generally settled according to the law of love. The injured member has so much regard for the others that he suffers injury for the sake of his principles without retaliating and without being angry with those who differ from him. And as repression of anger and self-suffering are difficult processes, he does not dignify trifles into principles, but, in all non-essentials, readily agrees with the rest of the family, and thus contrives to gain the maximum of peace for himself without disturbing that of the others. Thus his action, whether he resists or resigns, is always calculated to promote the common welfare of the family. It is this law of love which, silently but surely, governs the family for the most part throughout the civilized world.

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Holi for Communal Harmony

I feel that nations cannot be one in reality, nor can their activities be conducive to the common good of the whole humanity, unless there is this definite recognition and acceptance of the law of the family in national and international affairs, in other words, on the political platform. Nations can be called civilized only to the extent that they obey this law.

This law of love is nothing but a law of truth. Without truth there is no love; without truth it may be affection, as for one’s country, to the injury of others; or infatuation, as of a young man for a girl; or love may be unreasoning and blind, as of ignorant parents for their children. Love transcends all animality and is never partial. Satyagraha has therefore been described as a coin, on whose face you read love and on the reverse you read truth. It is a coin current everywhere and has indefinable value.

Satyagraha is self-dependent. It does not require the assent of the opponent before it can be brought into play. Indeed, it shines out most when the opponent resists. It is therefore irresistible. A satyagrahi does not know what defeat is, for he fights for truth without being exhausted. Death in the fight is a deliverance, and prison a gateway to liberty.

Mahatma Gandhi’s message to the nation on the first Diwali of Independent India

It is called also soul-force, because a definite recognition of the soul within is a necessity if a satyagrahi is to believe that death does not mean cessation of the struggle but a culmination. The body is merely a vehicle for self-expression; and he gladly gives up the body, when its existence is an obstruction in the way of the opponent seeing the truth, for which the satyagrahi stands. He gives up the body in the certain faith if anything would change his opponent’s view, a willing sacrifice of his body must do so. And with the knowledge that the soul survives the body, he is not impatient to see the triumph of truth in the present body. Indeed, victory lies in the ability to die in the attempt to make the opponent see the truth, which the satyagrahi for the time being expresses.

And as a satyagrahi never injures his opponent and always appeals, either to his reason by gentle argument, or his heart by the sacrifice of self, satyagraha is twice blessed; it blesses him who practises it, and him against whom it is practised.

It has however been objected that satyagraha, as we conceive it, can be practised only by a select few. My experience proves the contrary. Once its simple principles—adherence to truth and insistence upon it by self-suffering—are understood, anybody can practise it. It is as difficult or as easy to practise as any other virtue. It is as little necessary for its practice that everyone should understand the whole philosophy of it, as it is for the practice of total abstinence.

After all, no one disputes the necessity of insisting on truth as one sees it. And it is easy enough to understand that it is vular to attempt to compel the opponent to its acceptance by using brute force; it is discreditable to submit to error, because argument has failed to convince, and that the only true and honourable course is not to submit to it even at the cost of one’s life. Then only can the world be purged of error, if it ever can be altogether. There can be no compromise with error where it hurts the vital being.

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But, on the political field, the struggle on behalf of the people mostly consists in opposing error in the shape of unjust laws. When you have failed to bring the error home to the lawgiver by way of petitions and the like, the only remedy open to you, if you do not wish to submit to it, is to compel him to retrace his steps by suffering in your own person, i.e., by inviting the penalty for the breach of the law. Hence, satyagraha largely appears to the public as civil disobedience or civil resistance. It is civil in the sense that it is not criminal.

The criminal, i.e., the ordinary law-breaker, breaks the law surreptitiously and tries to avoid the penalty; not so the civil resister. He ever obeys the laws of the state to which he belongs, not out of fear of the sanctions, but because he considers them to be good for the welfare of society. But there come occasions, generally rare, when he considers certain laws to be so unjust as to render obedience to them a dishonour; he then openly and civilly breaks them and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach. And in order to register his protest against the action of the lawgiver, it is open to him to withdraw his co-operation from the state by disobeying such other laws whose breach does not involve moral turpitude. In my opinion, the beauty and efficacy of satyagraha are so great and the doctrine [is] so simple that it can be preached even to children. It was preached by me to thousands of men, women and children, commonly called indentured Indians, with excellent results.

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When the Rowlatt Bills were published, I felt that they were so restrictive of human liberty that they must be resisted to the utmost. I observed, too, that the opposition to them was universal among Indians. I submit that no state, however despotic, has the right to enact laws which are repugnant to the whole body of the people, much less a government guided by constitutional usage and precedent, such as the Indian Government. I felt, too, that the oncoming agitation needed a definite direction, if it was neither to collapse nor to run into violent channels.

I ventured therefore to present satyagraha to the country, emphasizing its civil resistance aspect. And as it is purely an inward and purifying movement, I suggested the observance of fast, prayer and suspension of all work for one day—the 6th of April. There was a magnificent response throughout the length and breadth of India, even in little villages, although there was no organization and no great previous preparation. The idea was given to the public as soon as it was conceived. On the 6th April, there was no violence used by the people, and no collision with the police worth naming. The hartal was purely voluntary and spontaneous.

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at www.awazthevoice.in