Gandhi's Views On Satyagraha
The Mill-hands of Ahmedabad
IN TOUCH WITH LABOUR
Whilst I was yet winding up my work
on the Committee, I received a letter from Mohanlal Pandya and Shankarlal Parikh
telling me of the failure of crops in the Kheda district, and asking me to guide
the peasants, who were unable to pay the assessment. I had not the inclination,
the ability or the courage to advise without an inquiry on the spot.
At the same time there came a letter
from Shrimati Anasuyabai about the condition of labour in Ahmedabad, Wages were
low, the labourers had long been agitating for an increment, and I had a desire
to guide them if I could. But I had not the confidence to direct even this
comparatively small affair from that long distance. So I seized the first
opportunity to go to Ahmedabad. I had hoped that I should be able to finish both
these matters quickly and get back to Champaran to supervise the constructive
work that had been inaugurated there.
But things did not move as swiftly
as I had wished, and I was unable to return to Champaran, with the result that
the schools closed down one by one. My co-workers and I had built many castles
in the air, but they all vanished for the time being.
One of these was cow protection work
in Champaran, besides rural sanitation and education. I had seen, in the course
of my travels, that cow protection and Hindi propaganda had become the exclusive
concern of the Marwadis. A Marwadi friend had sheltered me in his #dharmashala#
whilst at Bettiah. Other Marwadis of the place had interested me in their #goshala#
(dairy). My ideas about cow protection had been definitely formed then, and my
conception of the work was the same as it is today. Cow protection, in my
opinion, included cattle-breeding, improvement of the stock, humane treatment of
bullocks, formation of model dairies, etc. The Marwadi friends had promised full
co-operation in this work, but as I could not fix myself up in Champaran, the
scheme could not be carried out.
The #goshala# in Bettiah is still
there, but it was not become a model dairy, the Champaran gullock is still made
to work beyond his capacity, and the so-called Hindu still cruelly belabours the
poor animal and disgraces his religion.
That this work should have remained
unrealized has been, to me, a continual regret, and whenever I go to Champaran
and hear the gentle reproaches of the Marwadi and Bihari friends, I recall with
a heavy sigh all those plans which I had to drop so abruptly.
The educational work in one way or
another is going on in many places. But the cow protection work had not taken
firm root, and has not, therefore, progressed in the direction intended.
Whilst the Kheda peasants' question
was still being discussed, I had already taken up the question of the mill-hands
I was in a most delicate situation.
The mill-hands' case was strong. Shrimati Anasuyabai had to battle against her
own brother, Sjt. Ambalal Sarabhai, who led the fray on behalf of the
mill-owners. My relations with them were friendly, and that made fighting with
them the more difficult. I held consultations with them, and requested them to
refer the dispute to arbitration.
I had therefore to advise the
labourers to go on strike. Before I did so, I came in very close contact with
them and their leaders, and explained to them the conditions of a successful
strike: 1. never o resort to violence, 2. never to molest blacklegs, 3. never to
depend upon alms, and 4. to remain firm, no matter how long the strike
continued, and to earn bread, during the strike, by any other honest labour.
The leaders of the strike understood
and accepted the conditions, and the labourers pledged themselves at a general
meeting not to resume work until either their terms were accepted or the
mill-owners agreed to refer the dispute to arbitration.
It was during this strike that I
came to know intimately Sjts. Vallabhbhai Patel and Shankarlal Banker. Shrimati
Anasuyabai I knew well before this.
We had daily meetings of the
strikers under the shade of a tree on the bank of the Sabarmati. They attended
the meeting in their thousands, and I reminded them in my speeches of their
pledge and of the duty to maintain peace and self-respect. They daily paraded
the streets of the city in peaceful procession, carrying their banner bearing
the inscription '#Ek Tek#' (keep the pledge).
The strike went on for twenty-one
days. During the continuance of the strike I consulted the mill-owners from time
to time and entreated them to do justice to the labourers. 'We have our pledge
too,' they used to say. 'Our relations with the labourers are those of parents
and children....How can we brook the interference of a third party? Where is the
room for arbitration?'.
For the first two weeks the
mill-hands exhibited great courage and self-restraint and daily held monster
meetings. On these occasions I used to remind them of their pledge, and they
would shout back to me the assurance that they would rather die than break their
But at last they began to show signs
of flagging. Just as physical weakness in men manifests itself in irascibility,
their attitude towards the blacklegs became more and more menacing as the strike
seemed to weaken, and I began to fear an outbreak of rowdyism on their part. The
attendance at their daily meetings also began to dwindle by degrees, and
despondency and despair were writ large on the faces of those who did attend.
Finally the information was brought to me that the strikers had begun to totter.
I felt deeply troubled and set to thinking furiously as to what my duty was in
the circumstances. I had had experience of a gigantic strike in South Africa,
but the situation that confronted me here was different. The mill-hands had
taken the pledge at me suggestion. They had repeated it before me day after day,
and the very idea that they might now go back upon it was to me inconceivable.
Was it pride or was it my love for the labourers and my passionate regard for
truth that was at the back of this feeling who can say?
One morning it was at a mill-hands'
meeting while I was still groping and unable to see my way clearly, the light
came to me. Unbidden and all by themselves the words came to my lips: 'Unless
the strikers rally,' I declared to the meeting, 'and continue the strike till a
settlement is reached, or till they leave the mills altogether, I will not touch
The labourers were thunderstruck.
Tears began to course down Anasuyabehn's cheeks. The labourers broke out, 'Not
you but we shall fast. It would be monstrous if you were to fast. Please forgive
us for our lapse, we will now remain faithful to our pledge to the end.'
'There is no need for you to fast,'
I replied. 'It would be enough if you could remain true to your pledge. As you
know we are without funds, and we do not want to continue our strike by living
on public charity. You should therefore try to eke out a bare existence by some
kind of labour, so that you may be able to remain unconcerned, no matter how
long the strike may continue. As for my fast, it will be broken only after the
strike is settled.'
In the meantime Vallabhbhai was
trying to find some employment for the strikers under the Municipality, but
there was not much hope of success there. Maganlal Gandhi suggested that, as we
needed sand for filling the foundation of our weaving school in the Ashram, a
number of them might be employed for that purpose. The labourers welcomed the
proposal. Anasuyabehn led the way with a basket on her head and soon an endless
stream of labourers carrying baskets of sand on their heads could be seen
issuing out of the hollow of the river-bed. It was a sight worth seeing. The
labourers felt themselves infused with a new strength, and it became difficult
to cope with the task of paying out wages to them.
My fast was not free from a grave
defect. For as I have already mentioned in a previous chapter. I enjoyed very
close and cordial relations with the mill-owners, and my fast could not but
affect their decision. As a Satyagrahi I knew that I might not fast against
them, but ought to leave them free to be influenced by the mill-hands' strike
alone. My fast was undertaken not on account of lapse of which, as their
representative, I felt I had a share. With the mill-owners, I could only plead;
to fast against them would amount to coercion. Yet in spite of my knowledge that
my fast was bound to put pressure upon them, as in fact it did, I felt I could
not help it. The duty to undertake it seemed to me to be clear.
I tried to set the mill-owners at
ease. 'There is not the slightest necessity for you to withdraw from your
position,' I said to them. But they received my words coldly and even flung
keen, delicate bits of sarcasm at me, as indeed they had a perfect right to do.
The principal man at the back of the
mill-owners' unbending attitude towards the strike was Sheth Ambalal. His
resolute will and transparent sincerity were wonderful and captured my heart. It
was a pleasure to be pitched against him. The strain produced by my fast upon
the opposition, of which he was the head, cut me, therefore, to the quick. And
then, Sarladevi, his wife, was attached to me with the affection of a
blood-sister, and I could not bear to see her anguish on account of my action.
Anasuyabhen and a number of other
friends and labourers shared the fast with me on the first day. But after some
difficulty I was able to dissuade them from continuing it further.
The net result of it was that an
atmosphere of goodwill was created all round. The hearts of the mill-owners were
touched, and they set about discovering some means for a settlement.
Anasuyabehn's house became the venue of their discussions. Sjt. Anandshankar
Dhruva intervened and was in the end appointed arbitrator, and the strike was
called off after I had fasted only for three days. The mill-owners commemorated
the event by distributing sweets among the labourers, and thus a settlement was
reached after 21 days' strike.
At the meeting held to celebrate the
settlement, both the mill-owners and the Commissioner were present. The advice
which the latter gave to the mill-hands on this occasion was: 'You should always
act as Mr. Gandhi advises you.' Almost immediately after these events I had to
engage in a tussle with this very gentleman. But circumstances were changed, and
he had changed with the circumstances. He then set about warning the Patidars of
Kheda against following my advice!
I must not close this chapter
without noting here an incident, as amusing as it was pathetic. It happened in
connection with the distribution of sweets. The mill-owners had ordered a very
large quantity, and it was a problem how to distribute it among the thousands of
labourers. It was decided that it would be the fittest thing to distribute it in
the open, beneath the very tree under which the pledge had been taken,
especially as it would have been extremely inconvenient to assemble them all
together in any other place.
I had taken it for granted that the
men who had observed strict discipline for full 21 days would without any
difficulty be able to remain standing in an orderly manner while the sweets were
being distributed, and not make an impatient scramble for them. But when it came
to the test, all the methods that were tried for making the distribution failed.
Again and again their ranks would break into confusion after distribution had
proceeded for a couple of minutes. The leaders of the mill-hands tried their
best to restore order, but in vain. The confusion, the crush and the scramble at
last became so great that quite an amount of the sweets was spoiled by being
trampled under foot, and the attempt to distribute them in the open had finally
to be given up. With difficulty we succeeded in taking away the remaining sweets
to Sheth Ambalal's bungalow in Mirzapur. Sweets were distributed comfortably the
next day within the compound of that bungalow.
The comic side of this incident is
obvious, but the pathetic side bears mention. Subsequent inquiry revealed the
fact that the beggar population of Ahmedabad, having got scent of the fact that
sweets were to be distributed under the #Ek-Tek# tree, had gone there in large
numbers, and it was their hungry scramble for the sweets that had created all
the confusion and disorder.
The grinding poverty and starvation
with which our country is afflicted is such that it drives more and more men
every year into the ranks of the beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread
renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect. And our
philanthropists, instead of providing work for them and insisting on their
working for bread, give them alms.
[Source: This article is taken from
the book "The selected works of Mahatma Gandhi"
Autobiography-Vol. II, Navneet Publications, Ahmedabad, India]