Gandhi Led a Mass Movement for India’s Freedom — But He Also Constricted It

The movement led by Gandhi is a touchstone for advocates of non-violent resistance today. But the conventional view overlooks the limitations of Gandhi’s political philosophy, and the importance of insurrectionary struggles that he opposed in the fight for Indian independence.

Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920s. Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, Dr Martin Luther King Jr travelled to India in order to pay homage to its founding father, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. King credited Gandhi with the ability to “mobilize and galvanize more people in his lifetime than any other person in the history of the world.”

This was a bold statement, but not an implausible one, especially when we consider the transnational dimensions of Gandhi’s civil disobedience strategy, which had clearly inspired King himself.

The initial test of Gandhi’s strategy had been in South Africa, where he lived for more than twenty years, leading struggles of Indians in Natal and the Orange Free State for civil and political rights. Nelson Mandela, who later received the International Gandhi Peace Prize, drew inspiration from Gandhi, seeing him as the “archetypal anticolonial revolutionary” who was “no ordinary leader — divinely inspired.”

Mandela rightly stressed the importance of Gandhi’s time in South Africa for his political development, once remarking to an Indian audience: “You gave us Mohandas, we returned him to you as Mahatma.”

When Gandhi came back to India, hundreds of thousands committed themselves to mass civil disobedience in the fight for independence under his leadership. The Non-Cooperation campaign of 1920–22 involved a mass boycott of British goods. In its wake, the value of foreign cloth imports almost halved between 1920–21 and 1921–22. There were 396 strikes by Indians in 1921 involving 600,000 workers and a loss of seven million workdays, and an exodus of students from schools and colleges.

In 1930, Gandhi launched the civil disobedience movement, and the British authorities threw over 60,000 people in jail for non-payment of the colonial salt tax. In 1942, colonial officials detained and imprisoned more than 100,000 Indians in response to the Quit India agitation.

Gandhi himself was imprisoned four times in South Africa, and a further five times in India, spending an estimated 2,338 days in jail over the course of his life. Yet each wave of his campaigning sparked off increasing mass mobilizations and sapped the will of the British to hold onto their most precious “jewel in the crown.”


Gandhi’s life was full of ironies: the apostle of non-violence mowed down by an assassin’s bullet in 1948; a deeply religious individual who fought passionately for Hindu-Muslim unity, only to see India free but partitioned; a man imprisoned nine times as a dangerous subversive by colonial governments, with whom every British viceroy from 1916 onwards nonetheless had to deal; a “saintly” figure who never held office and appeared to stand above the grubby business of political horse-trading, while also being a shrewd operator who weighed his every word and action in a calculated manner.

Gandhi referred to his political philosophy with the term satyagraha: satya meaning truth, and graha referring to insistence or force. Truth-force translates as non-violent resistance and is frequently glossed as “passive resistance.” However, there was nothing passive in Gandhi’s understanding of satyagraha, which for him meant active engagement to resist unjust laws, using non-violent tactics.

For Gandhi, satyagraha was not “meek submission to the will of the evildoer . . . it means the putting of one’s soul against the will of the tyrant.” The politics of non-violence represented moral force against an unjust order. This entailed a refusal to cooperate with authorities and a willingness to undergo suffering to attain one’s objectives.

The politics of extra-parliamentarianism combined with non-violence are the hallmark of satyagraha. A world scarred by a panoply of horrors — infectious disease, climate change, war and racism — is crying out for an effective political strategy. When the realm of conventional politics appears to have failed, people resort to extra-constitutional methods.

Gandhi referred to himself as a “non-violent revolutionary.” He still enjoys a global reputation as the great exponent of such a strategy, one that elevates non-violence to the level of a principle and an end in itself. But can that strategy be made to work in practice?

From Elite to Mass Politics

How could this little man from small-town India — a London-trained barrister with a penchant for elocution, dancing classes and French lessons — first come to dominate Indian politics in the first half of the twentieth century, and then inspire a variety of social movements and liberation struggles that have unfolded since?

Born in 1869, Gandhi hailed from a middle-caste, middle-class family. He was not an aristocratic, secular, English-speaking and Oxbridge-educated figure, like his future ally Jawaharlal Nehru or the Muslim League founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah, but his background was nonetheless comfortable.

Neither elite nor subaltern himself, Gandhi began to see the shortcomings of the early nationalists grouped around the Indian National Congress, which had been formed in 1885.  These upper-class leaders demanded representation for Indians like themselves but paid only lip service to the idea of empowering the rest of India’s population.

Gandhi was sceptical about constitutional politics, and in his own terms did not wish to see the British Raj merely replaced by brown faces at the top. Although he did not come from the Indian masses, he understood that for a movement to be successful, it would have to be socially broad, unleashing the power of mass mobilization from below.

Contradictions of Nonviolence

The nationalist movement built up around Gandhi’s campaigns was critical to the ultimate achievement of Indian independence in 1947. However, the rise of this movement regularly posed problems for his program of non-violence. In April 1919, British colonial troops opened fire on a demonstration in Amritsar, killing hundreds of civilians. Following the massacre, Gandhi called off his hartal or protest strike and fasted in penance.

He subsequently brought the Non-Cooperation movement to a halt in 1922 after a violent revolt erupted among the Muslim Mappilas of Kerala in August 1921. Gandhi’s directive was also motivated by an incident in the village of Chauri Chaura, now part of Uttar Pradesh, in February 1922.  An angry crowd had killed a number of police officers after the police shot three people dead.

In all of these cases, Gandhi blamed the Indian masses, claiming that they were not “ready” for non-violence. Although there was a huge disparity in the casualty figures from Kerala — 2,339 Mappilas deaths inflicted by British forces, compared with 43 government officials killed by the rebels — it was the rebels who Gandhi accused of having a “fiery temperament.” After the Chauri Chaura episode, the Congress leaders offered sympathy to the families of the policemen, acting in accordance with Gandhi’s instructions, but referred to their own people as a “mob.”

These examples underline some of the contradictions and complexities that lay between Gandhi’s original intentions and the practical outcomes of the movements that he initiated. His attitude also betrays a certain type of elitism that considers the masses to be uneducated, uncouth, and ruled by irrational passions, while depicting educated, middle-class people as natural leaders.


The starkest illustration of this came in February 1946 with the Indian naval mutiny, which had developed independently of Gandhi’s leadership. There was an all-out strike and then a mutiny by Indian sailors on ship and shore alike in Bombay. The mutiny spread from its starting-point throughout British-ruled India, from Karachi to Calcutta and Madras, raising the slogans “Strike for Bombay” and “Long Live India.” It came to involve 78 ships, 20 on-shore bases and 20,000 sailors.

This movement brought together Hindu and Muslim sailors around a set of grievances that included poor food rations, obstacles to career advancement, and the racism they experienced at the hands of British naval officers. In a symbolic display of national unity, the mutineers took down the Union Jack from their ships and hoisted the flags of the Congress, the Muslim League, and the Communist Party of India. Thousands of people brought food for the rebels and fraternized with them. Workers in Bombay launched a general strike in solidarity that mobilized 300,000 people, while protests also spread to Karachi.

However, on March 3, 1946, Gandhi criticized the mutineers, accusing them of being “thoughtless and ignorant” and lacking the necessary “guidance and intervention” of qualified “political leaders.” He declared that “swaraj [home rule] is not to be obtained by what is going on now in Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi,” shedding clear light on his understanding of freedom.

Gandhi’s ideological leadership thus often acted as a brake on popular initiative and militancy from below. He would champion the demands of peasants and organize them so long as they were peaceful, respectful towards landowners, and accepting of his tactics. If, on the other hand, they had the temerity to demand the confiscation of private property, Gandhi deemed them to be unruly, ungrateful, and unworthy of his support.


Gandhi’s philosophy was riddled with paradoxes. He was opposed to industrialization, writing in Hind Swaraj that it would be “folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American Rockefeller.” However, he formed alliances with Indian capitalists and relied upon their backing. These were the very same people who aspired to become “Indian Rockefellers” — a new, post-colonial ruling elite that would have no qualms about embracing industrial techniques or exploiting workers.

The industrialists Sir Ratan Tata and Ghanshyam Das Birla bankrolled Gandhi’s political work. In November 1909, Tata gave Rs. 25,000 to Gandhi to support his Non-Cooperation movement in South Africa — the first of three substantial donations to Gandhi’s work. For his part, G. D. Birla proved to be the Mahatma’s most generous financial supporter.

Although some writers have presented Birla as a devotee of Gandhi, the relationship between the two men could more accurately be described as one of collaboration rather than one-sided devotion. Birla’s vast financial resources made Gandhi’s campaigns possible. Birla benefited in return from the social and religious prestige that his association with Gandhi bestowed upon him, and strengthened his economic position as well.

Gandhi gave his blessing to Birla’s abundant wealth with his teaching on “trusteeship.” This concept asserted that rich people had the right to accumulate wealth, so long as they used some of that wealth for the benefit of society.

“Every Means Available”

Gandhi particularly abhorred violence if it was resorted to by ordinary people as part of a class struggle against exploitation and oppression, whether foreign or domestic. This pattern held true from his time in South Africa, to the episodes in Chauri Chaura and Mappilla, all the way to the Quit India movement and the naval mutinies in the last years of Gandhi’s life. On each occasion, Gandhi berated ordinary people — the subalterns — for not having grasped the principles of his satyagraha strategy, tacitly absolving those who exercised state power and wielded the monopoly of violence of responsibility for their own actions.

By treating the idea of non-violence as an abstract moral precept, Gandhi in effect left the Indian masses defenceless in the face of colonial brutality. There was no room in his thought for the insights of a figure like Frantz Fanon, who rejected the idea that the violence of the oppressed could be morally or politically equated with the violence of the oppressor.

While Gandhi preached the virtues of class and caste conciliation, stressing the need for personal salvation through moral and social reform, Fanon had a very different view of the fundamental issues at stake:

The underprivileged and starving peasant is the exploited who very soon discovers that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possibility of concession. Colonization or decolonization: it is simply a power struggle. The exploited realize that their liberation implies using every means available, and force is the first.

When the African National Congress (ANC) attempted to follow a non-violent strategy against apartheid, the resulting tensions eventually came to a head. Despite his admiration for Gandhi, Nelson Mandela admitted that the South African liberation struggle had reached a stage where that approach was no longer viable:

I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone. We founded Umkhonto we Sizwe [MK, the ANC’s armed wing] and added a military dimension to our struggle. Even then, we chose sabotage because it did not involve the loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Militant action became part of the African agenda officially supported by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) following my address to the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in 1962, in which I stated: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence.”

The ANC formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) in 1961 after the Sharpeville massacre of the previous year, when the apartheid regime’s police force gunned down 69 unarmed protestors. The ANC and its allies had previously relied upon strikes, boycotts, and mass defiance. Sharpeville changed the whole dynamic, prompting activists like Mandela to consider the need for militant self-defence.

The Mattress Against the Bullet

Gandhi had a limited understanding that colonial liberation was above all a “power struggle,” in the words of Fanon. A generous reading of his life and work as being that of a contradictory revolutionary would have some merit. But in the last analysis, Gandhi’s objective was not to dismantle the system but to make its functioning kinder.

In that sense, Gandhi comes from a long line of reformers. His own variety of reformism had its roots in a social conservatism that sought to tame capitalism rather than to overthrow it. He endeared himself to some sections of Britain’s imperial ruling class with his emphasis on negotiations that would require concessions from both sides and his advocacy of turning the other cheek in the face of state violence. They preferred dealing with Gandhi’s non-violent satyagraha instead of a mass, militant strategy.

Yet it was popular movements from below such as the Mappila rebellion of 1921 and the naval mutiny of 1946 that helped bring an end to British rule over India by making large parts of the country sporadically ungovernable. The British did not abandon India merely because of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigning, without the additional pressure of these insurrectionary upheavals.

The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci encapsulated the limitations of Gandhism when he criticized the elevation of “spiritualism” over “materialism” in political thought. For Gramsci, this would lead to “exaltation of purely spiritual values, etc., to passivity, to non-resistance, and to non-cooperation — but in reality, it is a debilitating and diluted form of resistance, the mattress against the bullet.”