Mohandas Gandhi Leads India’s Independence Movement

Until World War I, most Indians had little interest in nationalism. The situation changed as over a million Indians enlisted in the British army. In return for their service, the British government promised reforms that would eventually lead to self-government.

In 1918, Indian troops returned home from the war and expected Britain to fulfill its promise. Instead, they were once again treated as second-class citizens. Radical nationalists carried out acts of violence to show their hatred of British rule. To curb dissent, the British passed the Rowlatt Acts. These laws allowed the government to jail protesters without trial for as long as two years. To Western-educated Indians, denial of a trial by jury violated their individual rights. To protest the Rowlatt Acts, around 10,000 Hindus and Muslims flocked to Amritsar, a major city in the Punjab, in the spring of 1919. They intended to pray and to listen to political speeches.

The demonstration, especially the alliance of Hindus and Muslims, alarmed the British. The British commander at Amritsar ordered his troops to fire on the crowd without warning. Unable to escape from the enclosed courtyard, nearly 400 Indians died and about 1,200 were wounded.

The massacre at Amritsar set the stage for Mohandas Gandhi to emerge as the leader of the independence movement. Gandhi’s strategy for battling injustice evolved from his deeply religious approach to political activity. His teachings blended ideas from all the major world religions. Gandhi attracted millions of followers. Soon they began calling him the Mahatma, meaning “great soul.”.

Gandhi urged the Indian National Congress to follow a policy of noncooperation with the British government. In 1920, the Congress Party endorsed civil disobedience, the deliberate and public refusal to obey an unjust law, and non-violence as the means to achieve independence. Gandhi then launched his campaign of civil disobedience to weaken the British government’s authority and economic power over India.

Gandhi called on Indians to refuse to buy British goods, attend government schools, pay British taxes, or vote in elections. Gandhi staged a successful boycott of British cloth, a source of wealth for the British. He urged all Indians to weave their own cloth. Gandhi himself devoted two hours each day to spinning his own yarn on a simple handwheel. Because of the boycott, the sale of British cloth in India dropped sharply. Civil disobedience took an economic toll on the British. They struggled to keep trains running, factories operating, and overcrowded jails from bursting. Throughout 1920, the British arrested thousands of Indians who had participated in strikes and demonstrations.

In 1930, Gandhi organized a demonstration to defy the hated Salt Acts. According to these British laws, Indians could buy salt from no other source but the government. They also had to pay sales tax on salt. To show their opposition, Gandhi and his followers walked about 240 miles to the seacoast. There they began to make their own salt by collecting seawater and letting it evaporate.

This peaceful protest was called the Salt March. Some demonstrators planned a march to a site where the British government processed salt to shut this saltworks down. Police officers attacked the demonstrators with clubs. Still the people continued to march peacefully, refusing to defend themselves against their attackers. Newspapers across the globe carried the story, which won worldwide support for Gandhi’s independence movement. Gandhi and his followers gradually reaped the rewards of their civil disobedience campaigns and gained greater political power for the Indian people. In 1935, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act. It provided local self-government and limited democratic elections, but not total independence.