During this time the war had entered a critical phase. Britain and France were in a difficult position. In the spring of 1917 Germany had inflicted crushing defeats on both the British and French troops in France. Russia’s war effort had broken down and the Revolution was threatening its Government. Though America had entered the war, no American troops had yet reached the battle front.
The Viceroy of India Lord Chelmsford, invited various Indian leaders to attend a War conference. Gandhi was also invited. He accepted the invitation and went to Delhi Gandhi was not happy that leaders like Tilak or the Ali brothers had not been invited to the conference, so he felt unwilling to attend. After meeting the Viceroy, however, he attended the conference.
The Viceroy was very keen that Gandhi should support the resolution on recruiting.
Gandhi spoke only one sentence: ‘With a full sense of my responsibility I beg to support the resolution.’
Gandhi had supported the government’s resolution on recruiting! Many of his friends were taken aback.
Some said, ‘You are a votary of ahimsa, how can you ask us to take up arms?’
Others said, ‘What good has the Government done to India to deserve our co-operation?’
Even some of his best friends could not understand how he could reconcile his war effort with his campaign for ahimsa.
But Gandhi stuck to the belief he held at that time that ‘absolutely unconditional and whole-hearted co-operation with the government on the part of educated India will bring us within sight of our goal of Swaraj as nothing else will’.
Gandhi had made his decision and he now set out to implement it.
The response to recruitment was not in any way encouraging, but Gandhi was determined to carry out his mission. He held meetings. He issued leaflets asking people to enlist in the forces. His steady work began to bear fruit. Many men were recruited and he hoped to get a bigger response as soon as the first batch had been sent.
Gandhi nearly ruined his health during the recruiting campaign. He worked very hard. He could not take his food at regular times, nor could he take enough nourishment to keep up his energy.
He had an attack of dysentery. He refused to take medicine and his condition became worse and worse. Friends tried their best to advise him but he was beyond all advice. He passed restless days and nights and he himself felt at times that he was near death’s door.
It took him a long time to regain his health, but before then the news came that the war was over. Germany had been completely defeated.
There was now no need for any further recruitment.
Friends and doctors advised him to go away for a change and recover his health. He went to Matheran, but the place did not suit him.
He went to Poona, where a doctor as consulted. He advises him to take milk to rebuild his body, and he also advised him to have a few injections. Gandhi agreed to have the injections but he would not agree to take milk, for he had given up milk years before. But Kasturbai said,” Your objection was to cow’s milk and buffalo’s milk. You cannot object to taking goat’s milk.
If you will take goat’s milk it will be good enough,” said the doctor.
Gandhi returned to Ahmadabad. He was recouping his health there when he read in the papers the Rowlett Committee’s report which had just been published.
This report recommended the introduction of amendments to the criminal law. These recommendations startled Gandhi. He described them as” unjust, subversive of the principles of liberty and justice, and destructive of the elementary of individuals.’ Friends approached Gandhi for guidance.
“Something must be done,” he said to them. “If the proposed measured are passed into law, we ought to offer Satyagraha.”
Gandhi was sorry he was in poor health; otherwise he would have given battle against the amendments alone. From his sick-bed he wrote articles for the Indian papers explaining that the proposed bill was an act of tyranny. No self-respecting people could submit to it.
Gandhi thought that the only possible step against the Government’s proposal would be to start the Satyagraha movement in right earnest. A meeting of some of the leaders was called at the ashram and a Satyagraha pledge was drafted. It was signed by all those present there.
Gandhi did not believe that the existing institutions could handle such a noble weapon, so a separate institution named Satyagraha Sabha was formed. Its headquarters were in Bombay.
There were agitations everywhere against Rowlett Committee’ report. But the Government was determined to give effect to its recommendations, and in 1919 the Rowlatt bill was introduced. When the bill was debated in India’s Legislative Chamber Gandhi attended as a visitor.
In spite of all opposition from national-mined people the bill was passed and it became law.
Gandhi was still in a weak physical condition when he received an invitation to go to Madras. He took the risk and went to Madras with Mahadev Desai.
It was there that he first met C. Rajagopalachari, who impressed him very much.
A small conference of leaders was held and Gandhi explained to them the implications of the Rowlatt bill. While these discussions were being held news was received that the Rowlatt Bill had been published as an act.
It was also in Madras that Gandhi first conceived the idea of an all-India hartal as the beginning of the Satyagraha movement. The leaders at once took up the suggestion and gave much publicity to the forthcoming hartal. The date was first fixed for March 30, 1919, but was subsequently changed to April 6. The people had received only short notice for the hartal, but it turned out to be most successful.
That was the great awakening of India in her struggle towards independence.
Gandhi left Madras went to Bombay to join in the hartal there on April 6.
Meanwhile in Delhi, Lahore, and Amritsar, the Hartal had been observed on March 30. In Delhi the police did not allow free movement to the demonstrators and there was firing, causing a number of casualties. Gandhi was requested to go to Delhi and he replied that he would do so after the hartal in Bombay on April 6.
In Bombay the hartal was a great success. Not a wheel turned in any factory. Not a shop was kept open.
All over India the hartal was observed. Gandhi had asked the people again and again to be peaceful and not to be provoked to violence by the Government’s actions. In spite of this, violence broke out in many places. There were disturbances in Ahmedabad and also in the Punjab and he decided to go to these places to propagate non- violence.
On the way to the Punjab he was arrested at a wayside station called Palwal and sent back to Bombay. The news of his arrest inflamed the entire population of Bombay. There was an enormous crowd awaiting his arrival there. When he reached Bombay he was set free. The crowd was getting important.
‘Only you can control the crowd,’ said a friend to Gandhi. ‘Come, I shall take you to the spot.’
The crowd greeted Gandhi with frenzied joy. A huge procession started but the police barred its progress. A troop of mounted police was ordered to charge. Piercing screams and cries from women and children filled the air as the horse men plunged forward with lowered lances. People ran to escape the fury of the police.
Gandhi was shocked. He went and met the Commissioner. He found him boiling with rage.
‘We, the police, know better than you the effect of your preaching on the people. If we had not taken drastic measures the situation would have passed out of our hands. I have no doubt about your intentions, but the people do not understand them. They only follow their natural instincts.’
‘The people are not by nature violent, but peaceful,’ said Gandhi.
‘You wanted to go to the Punjab,’ said the Commissioner. ‘Do you know what is happening in Ahmedabad, the Punjab, and Delhi? You are responsible for all these disturbances.’
Gandhi was pained to hear of the disturbance and said that he would certainly take the responsibility upon himself if he was convinced that it was his.
Gandhi went to Ahmedabad. On the way he learnt in detail about the happenings there. Ahmedabad was under martial law.
A police officer was waiting for him at the railway station to escort him to the Commissioner. This Commissioner too was in a rage. Gandhi expressed his regret for the disturbances and promised complete co-operation in restoring peace.
Gandhi then asked for permission to hold a public meeting in the grounds of Sabarmati Ashrams. The proposal appealed to the officer.
At the meeting Gandhi announced with great sorrow the suspension of civil disobedience. He said he would fast for three days as a penance and he appealed to all the people to fast for one day. He asked those who were guilty of violence to confess their guilt. He expressed his regret at having started civil disobedience too early without giving sufficient training to the people.
‘I have made a Himalayan miscalculation,’ he said.
Many people a jeered at Gandhi for saying that. Many of his friends and followers were furious at his stopping Satyagraha.
Gandhi then started teaching people the true meaning of Satyagraha and how it should be conducted. Through writing and speeches he wanted to drive home to the people the essence of his new creed.