As Shaheen Bagh protests are disbanded, there is much debate on what it achieved and whether it lost value by the abrupt end because of the coronavirus pandemic. The anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh have often been likened with satyagraha, a Gandhian form of non-violent protest. Now, it’s worth pondering how M.K. Gandhi’s famous satyagraha movement outcomes weighed against their direct and indirect goals.
Worth his salt
The Dandi March in 1930 was perhaps the most celebrated movement that Gandhi led during his lifetime: 385 km march from Ahmedabad to Dandi over 26 days against unjust imposition of salt tax.
But notice the difference between the material aim and outcome.
Just four days before the march, Gandhi declared, “I want to deprive the Government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the Salt Tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 43, Page 27)
Many leaders were not sure of the propriety of building national movement around an issue like salt tax. But in a letter to then-Viceroy Lord Irwin, Gandhi declared he would proceed with fellow Ashramites “to disregard the provisions of the salt laws”, which, according to Gandhi, were “most iniquitous of all (taxes) from the poor man’s standpoint”. (CWMG, Vol. 43, Page 7)
In March 1931, almost a year after the march and just days before Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed, Viceroy Irwin considered the issue of salt (tax) “(one of) the three matters of principle on which…accommodation was impossible”. (CWMG, Vol. 45, Page 237)
Gandhi issued a long statement to the press on the day the Pact was signed, but made no mention of the salt laws or salt tax in it.
A telegram to Provincial Congress Committees was sent the same day explaining the government order (presumably drafted by Gandhi, according to the book): “No organised disobedience of salt laws and no raids but villagers residing in the areas where salt collected or made are permitted to continue to collect or make salt for domestic consumption or sale in neighbourhood but no sale or trading outside.” (CWMG Vol. 45, Page 256)
Gandhi knew he didn’t achieve what he set out to do apparently, but he considered the Salt March successful in terms of the spirit it awakened in society and activated the masses for civil disobedience and sacrifices.
Gaining grounds in Bardoli
The result of the famous Bardoli satyagraha, two years before the Dandi March, was not very different either.
Led by Vallabhbhai Patel under Gandhi’s guidance, people of Bardoli taluka in south Gujarat fought against the new 22 per cent increase in land tax. Local leaders briefed Gandhi that people were willing to pay according to the old assessment.
But Gandhi’s demand was one step higher. He wanted the people to not pay any land tax at all unless and until the new tax assessment measure was cancelled by the government. He said, “Declare the enhancement cancelled and then take the old assessment which we are prepared to pay.” (The Story of Bardoli, Mahadev Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1929, Page 28).
Vallabhbhai Patel, who had no base at Bardoli at that time, went there and led the satyagraha. He warned the people to think twice before taking the plunge into the satyagraha: “You must bear clearly in mind that except your capacity for suffering and grim determination, you have nothing to fight Government’s brute strength with.” (The Story of Bardoli, Page 35)
The satyagraha began with a pledge, recitation from Quran, a Kabir bhajan and Ram dhun. There were many atrocities, ranging from confiscating of people’s cattle to attaching land. But people remained defiant.
In the end, Bardoli satyagraha came to an end after nearly six months without fulfilling the original demand of complete rollback of the increased land tax. The enhancements fixed for Bardoli and adjoining Choryasi talukas were reduced from Rs 1,87,492 to Rs 48,648. (The Story of Bardoli, Page 219).
On the face of it, the satyagraha did not achieve total cancellation of the enhancement as a precondition. But other important gains were made. A sleepy taluka attained nationwide fame and has been compared with Thermopylae, the famed battle in which outnumbered Greeks fought bravely against the Persian army, by famous Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt. Noted Hindi writer Munshi Premchand gave a touching tribute to the sacrifices made by the people of Bardoli, in his Hindi magazine ‘Hans’. Vallabhbhai Patel made a mark as brave, inspiring leader and came to national prominence as ‘Sardar’.
A successful Satyagraha
Gandhian method of satyagraha focuses more on the process, purity, sacrifice and cultivation of people’s power against the government’s brazen indifference.
Shaheen Bagh has been, by and large, a successful satyagraha. Gandhi might have approved.
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.