In February 1916, Gandhi was invited to speak at the laying of the foundation stone of the Banaras Hindu University. The Viceroy and many of the most important people of India were there.
Gandhi clad in a Kathiawadi long coat and turban, rose to speak. The police arrangements, and also the pomp and luxury around him, hurt him deeply. Turning to the audience he said, ‘I want to think audibly and speak without reserve.’
His first words froze the audience.
‘It is a matter of deep humiliation and shame for us,’ he said, ‘that I am compelled this evening under the shadow of this great college, in the sacred city, to address the shadow of this great college, in the sacred city, to address my countrymen in language that is foreign to me.’
It was a bomb-shell. Nobody had ever dared to speak against the English language. The British officers, their friends, and the important Indians who had gathered there were breathing heavily in anger.
But Gandhi went on, “His highness the Maharaja who presided yesterday over our deliberations spoke about the poverty of India. But what did we witness? A most gorgeous show an exhibition of jewellery. There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your country men in India.’
Gandhi gave a long speech, covering many topics. His speech was full of outspoken criticism.
Mrs. Annie Besant, who was one of the organizers of the function, was horrified and urged Gandhi to sit down. But Gandhi went on. Some people went red with rage, but others listened to Gandhi with the greatest interest.
‘Here at last is a man telling the truth,’ they thought, ‘he is the man to raise India from the mire.’
They applauded him and shouted joyfully.
Gandhi turned to them and said, ‘No amount of speeches will ever make us fit for self-government.
Finally Gandhi, the man who three times had supported the British in their war efforts, said,’ If I found it necessary for the salvation of India that the English should retire, that they should have to go, and I would not hesitate to declare that they would have to go, and I hope I would be prepared to die in defense of that belief.
The people were amazed at Gandhi’s frankness. It was Gandhi’s first great political speech in India.
Years later Jawaharlal described what the coming of Gandhi meant to the Indian people.
He said, ‘We seemed to be helpless in the grip of some all-powerful monster; our limbs were paralysed, our minds deadened what could we do? How could we pull Indio out of this quagmire of poverty and defeatism which sucked her in?
‘And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths, like a beam of light that pierced that darkness and removed the scales from our eyes, like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds.’
Several conferences demanding Home Rule were held in India during the latter half of 1916. They marked a new wave of political life under the leadership of Tilak, Mrs. Besant, and Jinnah.
The annual meeting of the Congress was held in December year in Lucknow. The Congress was divided. There were the moderates and there were the extremists, but at Lucknow the congress met without tension between the two wings.
The presidents Ambika Charan Mazumdar, spoke in terms of Swaraj, which previous leaders had demanded. A resolution was passed appealing to His Majesty’s Government and demanding that a definite step should be taken towards Indian self-Government by granting the reforms contained in the scheme prepared by the All India Congress Committee and adopted by the All-India Muslim League. In Lucknow the Congress and the Muslim league came to a agreement. This was afterwards known as the Lucknow Pact. For the sake of the unity of India the Congress conceded many points demanded by the Muslims.
For two years Gandhi had traveled extensively and had talked at different places. He now wanted to start some work connected with labour. He now wanted to start some work connected with labour. His interest first centered in the problem of indentured labour, the system under which poor, ignorant labourers were enticed away India to work in the British colonies. He had fought this system in South Africa and he wanted to see it abolished. The Viceroy Lord Hardinge that His Majesty’s Government had agreed to abolish the system ‘in due course’.
Gandhi however wanted a definite date before which the system would go.
So now Gandhi started a great agitation on this issue. He went to Bombay and consulted all the Indian leaders there. They fixed May 31, 1917 as the last date for the abolition of indentured labour. He then went round the country to get support for this view.
Meetings were held in all important places. Everywhere there was a great response. Even Gandhi said that he had not expected so much public support.
As a result of the agitation, the Government announced that the system of indentured labour would be stopped before July 31, 1917.