(Due to) his experience in 1919, Gandhi did not trust the masses to be nonviolent when mobilised in support of a nationalist demand. This was not something that had concerned Aurobindo at all, so this represented another major difference in the agendas of these two nationalists. Gandhi, unlike Aurobindo, insisted that if there was widespread violence he would advise that the campaign be stopped.
Initially, he was particularly concerned about the Muslims of north-western India, whom he believed – stereotypically – to have a strongly martial and thus violent culture. He toured Sindh and Punjab in July 1920, preaching his creed. Speaking in Rawalpindi, he praised the courage of Muslims, but said that they tended to be headstrong. They knew how to wield ‘the sword’, but as mercenaries. In this, he was referring to the fact that many Muslims of these regions served the British as soldiers in the Indian Army. Instead, he told them: ‘I have found a way by which you can fight while keeping your swords sheathed’. Nonviolent noncooperation was ‘a strong form of jehad [sic]’. In this, they needed to learn to ‘fight with discipline, with intelligence and courage’. They should obey the orders of their leaders.
Going on to Sindh, he called for ‘soldiers with spiritual power; soldiers who stand their ground and do not run away’. They could not oppose the British with force of arms but would certainly be defeated, as ‘they have arms, aeroplanes and machine-guns’. He closed by emphasising that: ‘No force should be used’.
Gandhi was very concerned about the question of what he called ‘the mob’. In an article of 8 September 1920 titled Democracy “versus” Mobocracy, he argued that India was still at a ‘mob-law stage’. This, he said, had been all too apparent in the Rowlatt Satyagraha. ‘It represented undisciplined destruction and therefore it was thoughtless, profitless, wicked and harmful’. He had continued to witness such ‘mobocracy’ as he toured India during 1920. He reported how in place after place he was being met by unruly crowds who caused much injury to people and property when they pushed and jostled to see their ‘heroes’. The noise had been ‘unmusical and harsh’. Jostling crowds had wilfully ignored the commands of volunteers in charge of crowd-control and even treated them as their enemy.
In Madras, for example, [Gandhi said,]: …the crowd was large, the noises they made were so terrific that the directions given by the volunteers could not be heard at all. All was chaos. My poor toes were every moment in danger of being crushed to a pulp. I often very nearly lost my balance through the jostling of the very volunteers who were trying to protect me. And but for the very great care with which they guarded me and the assistance rendered to them by the stalwart Maulana Shaukat Ali, I would have fared much worse than I did. The atmosphere was suffocating. Thus struggling it took us nearly three quarters of an hour to reach the motor car, whereas ordinarily it need not have taken three minutes to walk out of the station to the porch. Having reached the car it was no easy job to get into it. I had to be shoved into it in the best manner possible. I certainly heaved a sigh of relief when I found myself in the car, and I thought that both the Maulana and I deserved the ovation we received from the crowd after the dangerous exercise we had gone through. With a little forethought this mobocracy, for such it was, could have been changed into a splendidly organised and educative demonstration.
Gandhi observed that so long as what he called the ‘mob’ was with you everything went well, but ‘immediately that cord is broken, there is horror’. He emphasised that his faith in the people was ‘boundless’, and that given proper leadership and guidance they could achieve wonders. He asserted: ‘We must then evolve order out of chaos.’ Rather than ‘mob-law’ they required ‘the people’s law’ – in other words a movement that served the interests of the masses in a controlled and ordered manner. This was to be achieved by training volunteers in crowd-control methods.
Ranajit Guha has argued that ‘mobocracy’ was ‘an ugly word greased with loathing, a sign of craving for control and its frustration’.If we go to the Oxford English Dictionary we find that ‘mobocracy’ was a word that dated back to the mid-eighteenth century, meaning (1) ‘Mob rule, government by a mob; an instance of this’, and (2) ‘The mob as a ruling body or political force; a ruling or politically powerful mob’.
During the French Revolution, some English commentators had contrasted ‘mobocracy’ with ‘democracy’. ‘Mob’ was an older English word that denoted a disorderly and riotous assembly of the common people. Guha argued that in using such a term Gandhi – for all his assertions to the contrary – revealed his profound distrust of the masses. Although he wanted to deploy their energy, he had learnt to be wary of them. He thus sought to mobilise them in a controlled and limited manner.
Guha acknowledges that Gandhi was not seeking to order the ‘mob’ through armed force, as the British did. His method differed in very important respects, for he wanted to inculcate a spirit of self-regulation. Guha goes on to argue that the crowd had its own discipline: one that emerged from the subaltern and not elite domain of politics. They followed ‘rules of association’ that were seen in the ways they conducted their work and spiritual life.
This latter point is hardly convincing. There was a world of difference between the order seen in peasant production and worship with that of the surging crowd of the modern metropolis with its sudden and unpredictable swings in mood. Crowds can become murderous in seconds, venting their anger on unfortunate people and groups who are suddenly labelled – often by provocateurs – as their ‘enemies’.
We need to recognise this as a force that is as liable to be unjust as just and acknowledge that Gandhi had good reason to demand order and discipline. It is in general a sound principle that resistance is more effective and fruitful if controlled, coordinated and guided than if not.
Extracted with permission from Noncooperation in India by David Hardiman, published by Context, an imprint of Westland Books.