When Mahatma Gandhi chose non-violence over freedom
Chauri Chaura is a familiar name to most schoolchildren. It is the twist in the tale, the interruption in the Independence movement. On February 4, 1922, a violent mob burned a police station with 23 policemen trapped inside, causing an anguished Mahatma Gandhi to call off a successful non-cooperation movement.
The event tested and clarified Gandhi’s principles of non-violent satyagraha. Was his aim to get India political independence alone, or was it a more radical moral transformation?
Chauri Chaura is a British administrative invention — the railway station combines the names of two villages Chauri and Chaura, in Gorakhpur district. Flanking it is the British-built police station, where a white colonial memorial marks the site of the 1922 carnage. Today, monkeys gambol amid the greenery. The names of the dead policemen are inscribed here, and a Jai Hind has been painted on the obelisk after Independence.
Across the railroad is a people’s memorial, dedicated to those who committed the violence. Deplored by Gandhi and written out of the nationalist story, these men are remembered here as revolutionaries. The
was constructed because of popular demand, its foundation laid by Indira Gandhi. Today, the memorial is being rebuilt and there are many commemorative stones, including one by UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
The atrocity might have remained one unsavoury event in the freedom struggle, had Gandhi not unilaterally called off the struggle because of it and disavowed the peasants who rose up in his name. It remained a terrible cautionary tale for him ever after: “The tragedy of Chauri Chaura is really the index finger. It shows the way India may easily go if drastic precautions be not taken.”
Gandhi held himself accountable, fasted in penance, asked for the highest penalty at his trial. For him, no future goal justified violence in the present; it could not be the means to any political end. Self-discipline was crucial to self-sovereignty, swaraj.
Few shared this stand. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad reluctantly went along, others like Chittaranjan Das and Motilal Nehru dissented. While they understood that it was a moral call for the Mahatma, they felt let down. Lala Lajpat Rai said ruefully: “Our defeat is in proportion to the greatness of our leader”.
Gandhi’s programme had been successfully fused with the Khilafat movement of Indian Muslims protesting British abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, uniting Indians in civil disobedience against the British. The Khilafat movement lost momentum soon, and communal unity frayed.
But in Chauri Chaura, memories persist at odd angles to official history, as subaltern studies historian Shahid Amin details in his book “Event, Memory, Metaphor”. People describe how the freedom-fighters hid in the jungle, came home furtively to see their families. They talk of the repression, the collaborators who are prospering, and of leaders like Nehru and Madan Mohan Malaviya who defended them at the trial, rather than of Gandhi. “In Chauri Chaura, they didn’t just accept police brutality like in Jallianwala Bagh,
It was the first and last event of its kind in the freedom movement,” says Ram Narain Tripathi, grandson of Meghu Tiwari, who was hanged.
“My great-grandfather Lal Mohammed was a Congress worker. He was offered many inducements by the police to become an informer, but he refused, and preferred to go to the gallows,” says 56-year-old Mohammed Mainuddin. He had heard these stirring stories from his grandfather, Suleiman. Mainuddin used to run a cosmetics shop, but now lives off a small remittance from his son who works as a driver in the Gulf. “These days, I feel lucky when I go to Gorakhpur and back unharmed. They tell Muslims to go to Pakistan these days, but if my great-grandfather had done with his we could have been very successful today. But he did the right thing,” he says.
Gandhi’s decision to call off the movement is seen by many in Chauri Chaura as one man’s whim, which set back India’s independence by decades. The idea of non-violent confrontation is almost inexplicable to those who have any link to the massacre — “if you are beaten, won’t you respond,” they ask.
Many here have a cynical attitude to violence; the Gorakhpur-Deoria region has been the site of much mafia crime. “Look at the way political leaders shoot and kill their rivals. It’s a “
says Tripathi, putting it down to the contaminating effect of urea. “Violence just happens. For instance, every time he sees anything about Pakistan on TV, my 8-year-old grandson does this (clasping and pointing his fingers in the shape of a gun)”.
The Chauri Chaura incident scene from Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’