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Friday, April 06, 2018

April Hartal

Let's begin with this scene from a movie:

PATEL: [I]t seems to me it's gone beyond remedies like passive resistance.

GANDHI: If I may – I, for one, have never advocated passive anything.

GANDHI: I am with Mr. Jinnah. We must never submit to such laws – ever. And I think our resistance must be active and provocative.
AZAD: And what "resistance" would you offer?

GANDHI: The law is due to take effect from April sixth. I want to call on the nation to make that a day of prayer and fasting.

JINNAH: You mean a general strike?

GANDHI: I mean a day of prayer and fasting. But of course no work could be done – no buses, no trains, no factories, no administration. The country would stop.

PATEL: My God, it would terrify them! 

Now, a little more backstory.  Gandhi used a tactic similar to the general strike quite effectively during India's struggle for independence.  His approach is called hartal:

"Hartal" is a Gujurati word. "Har" means "everything" or "always"; "Tal" or "tala" means "to close". The word "hartal" means a day of mourning or protest, on which all the shops are shut and no-one goes to work or does any shopping.

The first time we saw hartal employed was in 1919 to protest of the Rowlatt Act, which severely limited civil liberties in the Raj:

The idea came to me...in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal. Satyagraha is a process of self-purification, and ours is a sacred fight, and it seems to me to be in the fitness of things that it should be commenced with an act of self-purification. Let all the people of India therefore, suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer. The Musalmans may not fast for more than one day; so the duration of the fast should be twenty-four hours. It is very difficult to say whether all the provinces would respond to this appeal of ours or not, but I feel fairly sure of Bombay, Madras, Bihar and Sindh. I think we should have every reason to feel satisfied even if all these places observe the hartal fittingly.

...I drafted a brief appeal. The date of the hartal was first fixed on the 30th March, 1919, but was subsequently changed to 6th April. The people thus had only a short notice of the hartal. As the work had to be started at once, it was hardly possible to give longer notice.

But who knows how it all came about? The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete hartal on that day. It was a most wonderful spectacle.

What's interesting is that Gandhi soon came to believe this action was an error:

[W]hen I reached Nadiad and saw the actual state of things there and heard reports about a large number of people from Kheda district having been arrested, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had committed a grave error in calling upon the people in the Kheda district and elsewhere to launch upon civil disobedience prematurely, as it now seemed to me. I was addressing a public meeting.

My confession brought down upon me no small amount of ridicule. But I have never regretted having made that confession. For I have always held that it is only when one sees one's own mistakes with a convex lens, and does just the reverse in the case of others, that one is able to arrive at a just relative estimate of the two. I further believe that a scrupulous and conscientious observance of this rule is necessary for one who wants to be a Satyagrahi.

Let us now see what the Himalayan miscalculation was. Before one can be fit for the practice of civil disobedience one must have rendered a willing and respectful obedience to the state laws. For the most part we obey such laws out of fear of the penalty for their breach, and this holds good particularly in respect of such laws as do not involve a moral principal.

For instance, an honest, respectable man will not suddenly take to stealing, whether there is a law against stealing or not, but this very man will not feel any remorse for failure to observe the rule about carrying head-lights on bicycles after dark. Indeed it is doubtful whether he would even accept advice kindly about being more careful in this respect. But he would observe any obligatory rule of this kind, if only to escape the inconvenience of facing a prosecution for a breach of the rule. Such compliance is not, however, the willing and spontaneous obedience that is required of a Satyagrahi.

A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.

My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had thus qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seemed to me Himalayan magnitude.

Constant, courageous learning.  I'm not so sure he was wrong in the particular, but his principle was right: we endure, follow the law scrupulously, and then showing our virtue, make the calculated decision to break social norms in civil ways. 

That's what we've seen in Black Lives Matter, West Virginia, and now Oklahoma.  And we need more.


April 6, 2018 in Conscience, Pax Americana | Permalink


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