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Individual Satyagraha: The Power of One

Individual Satyagraha: The Power of One

“Not a pie, not a man for the war effort.” This pithy but powerful slogan played a part in an important but largely forgotten civil disobedience movement during India’s march to freedom. It was the crux of the ‘Individual Satyagraha’, a non-violent protest movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1940, when Britain dragged India into the Second World War (1939-45) without her consent.

Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru publicly stated that while they opposed the forces of fascism and aggression in the war and supported Britain in her fight to uphold democracy and freedom, they could not condone Britain’s unilateral decision to declare that India was also at war. With the full weight of the Indian National Congress behind them, they said India had no problem associating with other nations which supported democracy – on the condition that India was declared an independent nation.

The leaders pointed out the irony, rather hypocrisy, in Britain’s decision – to support democratic forces in the war while still keeping India an enslaved nation under their rule.

| Wikimedia Commons

Britain summarily ignored the demand for independence. Instead, it offered sops.

Viceroy Lord Linlithgow said Britain was prepared to offer India dominion status; amend the laws to include more Indians in governance; and take the interests of minorities into account. 

But, for the Indian leadership, democracy was non-negotiable. As a mark of protest, the Congress asked all its provincial ministries to resign, and they did. The Congress then stepped up pressure on the British and, at its meeting in March 1940, the party repeated its demand for complete independence or Purna Swaraj.

Then, in June 1940, the war took a dramatic turn. France surrendered to Germany and England feared a similar fate. The Congress responded by merely repeating its commitment to supporting Britain in the war in return for complete independence and the setting up of a provisional government at the Centre.

A hugely vulnerable Britain returned to the negotiating table with the ‘August Offer’. But it was a non-starter.

In August 1940, Britain said that after the war, it would give Indians a greater role in governance and the right to frame their own Constitution. It repeated its assurance to minorities, that no system of governance would be set up without their consent.

It was clear to the Congress that Britain was not willing to let go of the reins and was cleverly playing the communal card, knowing it would cause an impasse.

The Congress rejected the August Offer. There was only one thing left to do – launch a civil disobedience movement under the leadership of Gandhi. 

While the leftists and the radicals in the Congress demanded a mass movement, Gandhi urged restraint, saying that a free India should not rest on the ruins of Britain, which was now more vulnerable than ever.

The answer, he felt, was to launch the Individual Satyagraha movement. 

In this form of protest, individuals would stand in a public place and state: “I claim the liberty of going through the streets and saying that I shall have nothing to do with this war because I do not believe in this war and in the fratricide that is going on in Europe.” This was later shortened into, “Not a pie, not a man for the war effort.” 

It was a clever move. The aim was not to explicitly demand freedom for India but to express India’s opposition to fascist forces in the war and to assert every Indian’s right to freedom of speech. The message was subtle but clear – that the democracy and freedom that Britain was fighting for in the war should apply equally to all, including India. Gandhi also wanted to counter British propaganda that India was supporting the war of her own free will. 

Vinoba Bhave

The Individual Satyagraha campaign was launched on 17th October 1940, with Vinoba Bhave as the first satyagrahi. He was arrested as he began making anti-war speeches in the village of Paunar in Wardha, Maharashtra. 

Jawaharlal Nehru was the second satyagrahi and he was arrested at Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh, even before he began his campaign. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for allegedly making ‘seditious’ speeches earlier in the year.

Nehru’s arrest shocked the nation and sparked protest meetings all over India. This audacious act on the part of the British forced Gandhi to expand the scope of his Individual Satyagraha, and he urged senior Congress leaders, party office-bearers and members of the central and provincial legislatures to join the movement.

Soon, Indians all over the country were courting arrest and, on their release from jail, re-arrest. Prisons across the country were brimming and the police could barely keep up. By January 1941, around 20,000 Indians had been arrested and released from jail. 

Gandhi then called off the Individual Satyagraha movement. It did not achieve any tangible results but it fuelled the nationalist spirit of the Indian people and showed, in no uncertain terms, that India would not settle for anything but Purna Swaraj.

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