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How successful was Gandhi’s leadership of the Non-Co-operation and Khilafat movements


The non-cooperation movement was envisaged by Gandhi, not just as a political movement, but as a moral crusade against the British government and it involved as an ascending scale of actions, which would signify the non-cooperation by the Indians towards their British colonial rulers. The objective behind the movement was to paralyse the British government in India. The movement was envisaged to run in phases, with the initial stage being that of boycott. The boycott was to be of British goods, British bestowed honours and rank, and government schools and colleges. People were being asked to refrain from going to British established law courts for the resolution of their disputes, even boycott elections to the newly created legislatures under the Government of India Act 1919. The next stage in the non-cooperation movement was to ask the government servants to resign from their posts. The stage after that would ask Indians to leave the Army and the Police. The final stage of the non-cooperation movement would see people revolt against the British law and a refusal to pay taxes and revenue to the British government.

This essay studies the role played by Gandhi in synthesising the efforts of these two movements and how successful he really was in his leadership of these movements. The essay finds that Gandhi was a moving force behind the mass mobilisation that was witnessed for non-cooperation across India and cutting across religious lines. However, Gandhi was unable to control social boycotts against those who did not support the movement, rising communalism between Hindus and Muslims, and even violence at the Chauri Chaura police station, which led to the end of the non-cooperation movement. Therefore, while he was successful in bringing Muslim leadership close to the Hindu, he was unsuccessful in some of the areas as mentioned already.


Gandhi’s objectives in raising the call for non-cooperation were related to ensuring that the British government would fail to make a continued impact on people when people themselves would pose such impediments in the work of the government. In the initial days of the non-cooperation movement, when the movement was in the nascent stage, Gandhi toured the length and breadth of the nation to convey the message of non-cooperation to the masses. He also wrote articles for Navjivan and Young India. Surprisingly, Gandhi managed to strike a cord with the people in the most distant and remote areas of India, such as small villages in Assam. Although, the results were slow in coming, they were felt most powerfully in the education sector with tens of thousands of students leaving government colleges for the national colleges. By mid 1921, the non-cooperation movement has achieved more momentum, with the principal weapon being ‘jail going’, by those who courted imprisonment in public jails and by early 1922, there had already been 17000 convictions for offences in relation to non-cooperation and the Khilafat movement.

The evolution of the Indian National Congress from an organisation of few people steeped in British liberal education, to a national party demanding complete freedom from the British empire, may have something to do with Gandhi. The initial period of the Indian National Congress sees it as an organisation that was driven by the “new educated, professional and commercial classes” of India and its early demands of the British government included representation in the newly created legislative councils, a greater share for Indians in the civil service, protection for Indian industries and reduction in unproductive public expenditure. At this time, the organisation had little public appeal but the post First World War period, saw the Indian National Congress emerging as a stronger organisation in terms of its public

appeal and influence. The period between I9I8 and I923
saw political and organisational transformation of the Indian National Congress. The Working Committee of the Indian National Congress, which was organised by Gandhi, became a powerful body within the larger organisation. In Gandhi’s own words:

“The Working Committee is to the Congress what a Cabinet is to Parliament.Its decisions must command respect . . . its members must be those who command the greatest respect of the All-India Congress Committee and the nation. It dare not take any hasty decisions, and it must be homogeneous body. It cannot have two policies or two or three parties within itself. Its decisions have largely to be unanimous.”

This was important because the nationalist movement was largely fragmented and Gandhi’s objective was to centralise the most influential members of the movement in order to streamline the movement and make the committee itself more compact and disciplined. The Muslims of India, who had been unified under the Khilafat movement verged towards the Indian National Congress after the end of the First World War and the imminent threat to the Khilafat movement. Until this period, the Indian National Congress had been largely unsuccessful in bringing the Muslims towards it, despite its efforts. The 1906 formation of the Muslim League under the leadership of the Aga Khan also had attracted Muslims towards that separatist Islamic organisation. Therefore, bringing the Muslim leaders closer to the predominantly Hindu leadership of the Indian National Congress was an important step in making the non-cooperation movement Pan India in its appeal and impact.

The organisation of the Provincial Congree Committees on a linguistic basis also allowed the Indian National Congress to reach out to a larger number of people. It was believed that a linguistic basis would give greater cohesiveness to the provincial units and it would enable the Provincial Congress Committees to conduct their deliberations in their local language and this would make it possible for the mass of the people to be drawn into Congress work. Congress work was soon organised from the village level itself and by 1920, Indian National Congress had become a highly organised party with a pan India presence. Another important factor here for the rising prominence of the Indian National Congress, was the ability of Gandhi to make people contribute financially towards their causes. The affluent Indian middle classes and upper classes, represented by the government servants and businessmen, predominantly, rich Marwari and Parsi businessmen, who had till now refrained from nationalist causes, contributed generously to the coffers of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi has often been held to be the chief motivator in bringing large contributions and funds to the Indian National Congress. Thus, the Indian National Congress’s rise in influence was significant at this time. The non-cooperation movement had therefore considerable outreach and people from across the country and religions were able to relate to Gandhi’s message through the considerable resources of the Indian National Congress. What is truly phenomenal is the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood message that Gandhi was able to convey, bringing the Khilafat and Indian National Congress leaders close together on a nationalist agenda. But the important question is, did Gandhi really succeed in making a success out of these movements?

First, it is important to understand how Gandhi was able to bring Hindus and Muslims to participate in the redressal of the Khilafat wrongs (when Khilafat was an issue alien to Hindus) and the non-cooperation movement (which was an Indian National Congress initiation, a party that Muslims had by and large avoided). Gandhi himself was aware of the importance of getting the leaders from Indian National Congress and the Khilafat movement together and also the impediments to that synthesis. But he managed to bring the leaders together by his astute understanding of the importance of the Khilafat to the Muslims (therefore, to be respected by the Hindus) and his firm arguments against mixing up the question of the Hindu support for the Khilafat movement with the Muslim avowal of refraining from cow slaughter. He realised that such positions were only counter-productive to a possible Hindu-Muslim unity on a matter of national importance. The other issues, such as cow slaughter, were definitely important to the Hindus, but Gandhi was against a quid pro quo between the Hindus and Muslims, such as Hindus would support the Khilafat movement if Muslims would stop cow slaughter. Gandhi felt that these questions should be decided on their own merits and not confused together. As it happened Gandhi’s position on these issues appealed to all parties and Gandhi was able to act as a catalyst for bringing together the leaders of the Indian National Congress and the Khilafat movement for the common cause of fighting the British rulers. Some writers have pointed out that Gandhi was interested in making many friends, but did not want to use brotherhood to define such relations as that would lead to the destruction of choice.

The common cause, that is, the fight against the British colonial rule, was what Gandhi employed chiefly to bring the Hindus and Muslims together. Gandhi made regular references to the question of prestige as common to all Indians, throughout the period of 1920-22

An important strategy adopted for mobilising the masses for the non-cooperation movement was to distinguish social from political boycott and to avoid the former. Sanctions which led to the denial of medical care, of access to wells, and denial of customary services, such as barbers, were all forms of social boycott, which Gandhi understood could not be ruled out, but must be censured. However, the practice of such social boycott prevailed in some situations throughout the non-cooperation campaign. This can be seen to be as one of the failures of Gandhi that he was unable to exert his influence to prevent such social boycott from happening. This points to the fact that Gandhi’s larger than life persona may have helped bring together Hindu and Muslim leaders for the benefit of the same cause, and mobilised the masses with respect to the non-cooperation movement, but there were certain areas of social life that even Gandhi could not penetrate. Social boycott continued despite Gandhi’s staunch opposition. Hindu-Muslim enmity did not end just by the leaders of the two prominent parties coming together, and even the movement of non-cooperation was ultimately not free from violence as the tragic events of Chauri Chaura police station massacre proved. The last brought the non-cooperation movement to a sudden and abrupt end.

Gandhi’s popularity with the masses was written about and made a stuff of legends by the Press of the day. Undoubtedly, Gandhi was behind the mass mobilisation for non-cooperation movement. However, the achievements of this mobilisation were short lived as Gandhi failed to exercise his leadership over people who ultimately chose to interpret his teachings in their own way, leading to a divergence from his actual teachings, and events such as Chauri Chaura.


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    2. Dixon, M., ‘Combatting the Mortgagee’s Right to Possession: New Hope for the Mortgagor in Chains?’ [1998] 18 LS 279 Dixon, M. (2014) Modern Contract Law, Oxford : Routledge.
    3. Devji, F. “A Practice of Prejudice: Gandhi’s Politics of Friendship”, Subaltern Studies, XI. C Hurst, 2012
    4. Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. The Story of my Experiments with Truth. London: Penguin, 1927
    5. Guha, Ranaji. Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997
    6. Guha, Ranaji. Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997
    7. Krishna, Gopal. “The Development of the Indian National Congress as a Mass Organization: 1918-1923”. The Journal of Asian Studies 25 (1966): 413

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