Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Last Update : 09:38 AM IST

  India   All India  05 Aug 2019  Gandhi’s lesson for the Congress: How he took the party to masses

Gandhi’s lesson for the Congress: How he took the party to masses

Published : Aug 5, 2019, 1:23 am IST
Updated : Aug 5, 2019, 1:23 am IST

The Non-cooperation Movement opened a new chapter in the history of the Congress.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
 Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Ninety nine years ago, Lokmanya Tilak, the greatest leader of the pre-Gandhi period of India’s Freedom Struggle, passed away on August 1, 1920. His death at the age of 64 years marked the end of the Lal-Bal-Pal era of the Independence Movement and the beginning of the Gandhi era which ultimately led to India’s freedom from the foreign yoke.

The gigantic contribution of Tilak was best summed up by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when he spoke after unveiling a portrait of the Lokmanya in the Central Hall of Parliament on July 28, 1956: “Standing here and looking at the face of this indomitable warrior and scholar, I feel moved and I think of the century of struggle that his country has passed through, of the giants of old who laid the foundations of the freedom of India, and above all, the Lokmanya.” Prime Minister Nehru went on to say: “We early on grew up under that influence and were moulded by it. In a sense, India to the youth of that time was what had been presented by Tilak through what he said and what he wrote, and above all, what he suffered. That was the inheritance that Gandhiji had to start his vast movements with. If there had not been that moulding of the Indian people and India’s imagination and the Indian youth by Lokmanya, it would not have been easy for the next step to be taken.”

The next step — the launching of the Non-cooperation Movement — was taken by Mahatma Gandhi. But by a strange coincidence, the Lokmanya died the day it was to be launched — August 1, 1920. This literally marked the end of the Tilak era and the beginning of the Gandhi era.

The phased programme of non-cooperation was put before a special session of the Congress which met in Calcutta (now Kolkata) from September 4 to September 9, 1920. Mahatma Gandhi, who had only till a few months earlier stood for responsive cooperation, himself moved a resolution calling upon to approve and adopt the policy of progressive non-violent non-cooperation. The movement was to continue till the Khilafat wrongs (which the Mahatma identified as a cause to win over the Muslims and promote Hindu-Muslim unity) were righted and Swaraj was established. The resolution met with stiff opposition from veterans like Bipin Chandra Pal, Annie Besant, and C.R. Das, with Lala Lajpat Rai, the president of the special session, remaining neutral. Initially, Motilal Nehru, who was president of the Indian National Congress (INC) the previous year at Amritsar, was also opposed to the resolution of non-cooperation, but during the session, he was influenced by his son, Jawaharlal Nehru — who had by now become a staunch and faithful supporter of the Mahatma — Motilal’s support to Gandhi, in a sharply divided subjects committee, was to prove decisive.

Three months after the special session, the Congress met in its annual session at Nagpur in December 1920. The programme of non-cooperation in a constructive session was finalised and approved at Nagpur. The veteran leaders who had opposed the resolution did a turn around, largely at the instance of Motilal Nehru, and supported the programme at the annual session. The resolution on non-cooperation was moved by C.R. Das and seconded by Lala Lajpat Rai. With this session, Gandhiji emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Congress and the country. He remained so till his assassination, though in his later years, his authority declined due to circumstances leading to the country’s Partition, which he resisted till the last.

The Non-cooperation Movement opened a new chapter in the history of the Congress. Acharya Kripalani, Congress president in 1947-48, writes in his biography of the Mahatma: “The days of ‘prayer, petition and protest were over. The people looked forward eagerly to positive and collective fearless collective direct action against the foreign government — the programme of non-cooperation was to be backed up by constructive activity which, among other things, meant work for communal amity, khadi, swadeshi, village industries, rural development, national education, prohibition, the organisation of village panchayats and the removal of untouchability.”

Mahatma Gandhi completely transformed the Congress from an ‘intellectual platform’ to a mass-based organisation with a presence in every village and hamlet of India. Before 1920, the Congress was an annual gathering of political leaders, social activists, lawyers and educationists. Though the Home Rule Leagues of Tilak and Annie Besant did achieve some success in creating public awareness at the grassroots level, it was only after the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as the prime mover of the Freedom Movement that the Congress underwent a metamorphosis.

Gandhi gave the Congress a new constitution which defined the creed of the Congress: “The object of the Indian National Congress is the attainment of Swarajya by the people of India by all legitimate and peaceful means.” At the apex was the annual session and the All India Congress Committee (AICC). Then came the Provincial Congress Committees. The whole of British India was divided into 21 Provincial Committees. Below the Provincial Committees were the District, Taluk/Tehsil Firka and local Congress Committees. The Congress’ message was to be carried to the remotest village. The most important change was Article XXIV, which provided for the appointment by the AICC of a Congress Working Committee (CWC). The CWC addressed itself to all executive matters and assumed enormous powers. Its position and prestige came to be similar to that of a Cabinet enjoying the confidence of an overwhelming majority in a directly elected House of Parliament.

With these changes, the Congress became a powerful mass movement. It effectively carried on the struggle for freedom and ultimately received power by progressively establishing its hold over the popular imagination.

Wrote Subhas Bose in his autobiography: “The year 1921 undoubtedly gave the country a highly organised party organisation. Before that, the Congress was a constitutional party and mainly a talking body. The Mahatma not only gave it a new constitution and a nationwide base — but, what is more important, converted it into a revolutionary organisation.” Gandhiji was determined to foster a new type of politics. He wanted party workers to be whole timers who will not divide their time between leisure and politics.

Though Mahatma Gandhi became the Congress president only once (at Belgaum, 1924) he “called the shots” virtually till his death. This has a lesson for the present day Congress, which can solve its present crisis by emulating the Mahatma and his technique of “management”. Whoever becomes the president, it will be the Gandhi family that will remain supreme for the grand old party. So a delay in choosing a new president, interim or otherwise, is not justified. The onus is on the CWC, and not on the Gandhi family.

The writer, an ex-Army officer and a former member of the National Commission for Minorities, is a political activist based in New Delhi

Tags: lokmanya tilak, jawaharlal nehru, mahatma gandhi