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On Noncooperation and Constructive Programme

Three extracts from Bob Overy’s recent book ‘Gandhi the Organiser: How he shaped a nonviolent rebellion: India 1915-1922’ (Irene Publishing, 2019; 436pp; £18).


Between 1920 – 22, Mohandas Gandhi led an unsuccessful attempt (the ‘noncooperation movement’) to induce the British government of India to grant self-government, or swaraj, to India, which was then under British rule. It was one of Gandhi’s first organized acts of large-scale civil disobedience (satyagraha).

Bob Overy believes that Gandhi’s design and leadership of nonviolent campaigns 100 years ago still have more to give Western activists than we have taken, revealing a much larger framework for nonviolent campaigning than we are familiar with.  
Here, in extracts from his book “Gandhi the Organiser”, Bob describes how this remarkably inventive and practical nonviolent leader first formulated two key campaigning strategies in support of mass nonviolent civil disobedience.

1. Boycott vs Noncooperation:

It was out of his opposition to a nonviolent tactic like economic boycott that Gandhi formulated his concept and plan of Noncooperation, first launched in 1920. For Gandhi, Noncooperation was positive – where economic boycott was negative – because those who supported the campaign withdrew their support not into bitterness, but into a movement to build alternative institutions.

Gandhi is often described as a philosophical anarchist because he favoured fundamental decentralisation of society and wished political workers to abandon representative democracy at the centre and go to work in the villages. The focus of political drive should be to develop in the political workers and in the ‘masses’ themselves a daily discipline, a notion of ‘good housekeeping’, and a capacity to make sacrifices.

Thus the constructive programme – building a new social order directly by working among the people – was not only a long-term goal for Gandhi. It was also an immediate requirement. In particular, it was a precondition for a mass nonviolent civil disobedience campaign where tens of thousands of people, in no way answerable to military discipline, might be expected to maintain nonviolent discipline under conditions of severe repression or provocation.

‘Gandhi is often described as a philosophical anarchist’

In practical terms, there are broadly two ways of looking at the constructive programme. The first is as a moral imperative on individuals and groups who are concerned to live a way of life consistent with the values of nonviolence.

A second use of the term refers to a specific set of campaigns launched in India by Gandhi. The ‘constructive programme’ comprised a list of initiatives devised to meet important social problems.

In the 1920s, the chief emphasis was on production of Indian hand-made cloth, on Hindu-Muslim unity and on abolition of untouchability, but prohibition of liquor selling and the uplift of women were soon added. (By the 1940s, the programme consisted of 18 items.)  During this early period of intensive struggle, Gandhi began to integrate a programme of social and economic transformation into his nonviolent civil resistance campaigns against the Raj.

2. Gandhi the realist:

During 1919 Gandhi decided that it was totally impractical to substitute across the board Indian goods for British goods.  It had been tried in the Bengal swadeshi campaign more than a decade earlier.  But he insisted people who took a vow not to use British goods of any sort would find this vow impossible to keep and the movement would break down. Gandhi wrote:

‘The leaders… embarked upon the task of spreading swadeshi far and wide among the people, and gave it up, for in the attempt to take too big a step, they lost everything...  If we think of using everything swadeshi, all at once, the result will be that we shall succeed in using none. I am placing before the people a programme which they can assimilate and carry out.’

Gandhi, typically, was reluctant to advocate ‘too big a step’. Too often political and social movements overreached themselves and collapsed because they went beyond the capacity for sacrifice of their supporters.

‘The constructive programme – building a new social order directly by working among the people – was not only a long-term goal for Gandhi. It was also an immediate requirement’

However, Gandhi was also strongly opposed to the boycott of British goods. Such a boycott was impractical; it was also negative and might encourage dependence on non-British goods imported as substitutes.

It was preferable to promote swadeshi without boycott, because this was a positive programme to develop Indian skills and resources. Boycott in Gandhi’s view was a short-term movement, solely geared to a political objective: whereas _swadeshi_ was a lifelong principle for building a new social order.

With this conception, Gandhi sought to construct a campaign focused ultimately on mass civil disobedience and geared realistically to the practical capacities of the Indian people and to their needs.

3. Broadening Noncooperation:

During 1919, as the second world war came to an end, a large section of Muslim opinion in India was outraged by the British imperial power’s failure to stand up for their interests in the peace settlement being developed for the Middle East. Gandhi felt it important to stand up for the Muslim cause as part of his mission for Hindu-Muslim unity.

‘Too often political and social movements overreached themselves and collapsed because they went beyond the capacity for sacrifice of their supporters’

As the likelihood of a Muslim struggle short of violence to challenge the Raj became clear, several Muslim political leaders began to call for a boycott of British goods. Gandhi, as we have seen, had already given this matter a great deal of thought and was strongly opposed to boycott. He aligned himself with Muslim leaders and offered to lead them in nonviolent struggle if they agreed to remain nonviolent.

His evolving position now focused primarily on two elements: first, the importance of sustaining a sacred vow once made, alongside the impossibility of sustaining a generalised boycott of British goods; and second, the negative feelings aroused by a boycott campaign.  His approach was:

•    to be positive by promoting Indian manufactures;
•    to be selective by choosing a particular vital area for Indian peasant economic life: clothing;
•    and to avoid specific hostility against the British by promoting a general boycott of all foreign cloth.

However in private meetings some Muslim leaders were still willing to challenge Gandhi. Hasrat Mohani, Gandhi’s most stringent critic, pointed out that ‘mere boycott of foreign cloth’ could not have the immediate impact on the British that was needed.

At this point, Gandhi, struggling for a mode of action that would bring significant pressure to bear on the British government, hit upon the concept of withdrawing cooperation in India from its rulers. The conventional boycott would punish the far away British people for the actions of their government in India.  Whereas withdrawal of cooperation from the British Raj in India by individual Indians, who propped up their rulers by numerous actions in their daily lives, was a quite different proposition. The one was remote and crude; the other was direct and precise as a means of resistance.

Preparation of a workable programme of Noncooperation became a preoccupation for Gandhi in the months that followed.

'Noncooperation was at first a vision, a largely theoretical notion: the subject withdraws his or her support from the government in India, thus compelling its submission.'

As a champion and ally of the Muslim cause Gandhi concentrated on four basic problems. First, to devise an effective programme of noncooperation (including civil disobedience), capable of bringing decisive pressure to bear on the Raj. Second, to win the support of the majority Hindu population for the Muslim struggle. Third, to develop in the nation as a whole, the necessary discipline to sustain a major nonviolent struggle. Fourth, to improve his direct links with the Raj, the British government and British public opinion, so that they would take up the Muslim case.

It was in tackling the fourth problem, the intransigence of the British, that he was least successful – and this led him to re-conceive and broaden substantially theprogramme of Noncooperation later in 1920. A more fundamental set of actions was emerging under the pressure of events.

Noncooperation was at first a vision, a largely theoretical notion: the subject withdraws his or her support from the government in India, thus compelling its submission.

The actual form it was to take involved an assessment of the specific forms by which Indians cooperated in their own subjection. It took months to prepare a programme for how they could withdraw their support. Not until August 1920, eight months after the initial proposal, was a detailed programme of Noncooperation launched by Indian Muslims under Gandhi’s leadership.  Soon after, the Indian National Congress endorsed Noncooperation and India’s Hindu politicians with their followers took up the campaign too.