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READ: And Then Gandhi Came — Nationalism, Revolution, and Sovereignty

How did nationalism contribute to the Quit India movement? What about the idea of being a member of a community, and sovereignty? Historical sources help us understand the fight for Indian independence from British imperial rule.
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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What does historian Benedict Anderson mean when he describes the nation as an imagined community?
  2. Describe Gandhi’s vision of India as a new nation. What different classes of people would need to come together to realize this vision?
  3. How did the Amritsar massacre affect the anti-colonial movement in India?
  4. What is satyagraha and how was it an anti-colonial strategy for challenging and winning power?
  5. What role did community play in Indian protests and boycotts of colonial goods?

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At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How did Gandhi inspire Indians with his guiding philosophy, his imagined nation-state? Consider Gandhi’s vision in the context of historian Benedict Anderson’s definition of nationalism. How does the “imagined community” extend the communities frame narrative?
  2. Historian Benedict Anderson describes how millions of people have willingly died for the idea of a nation. An idea, he argues, that is constructed in their imaginations. What do you believe a nation is? What characteristics and shared beliefs and values set your nation apart and define it? What sacrifices would you be willing to make for your nation?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

And Then Gandhi Came: Nationalism, Revolution, and Sovereignty

By Anita Ravi
How did nationalism contribute to the Quit India movement? What about the idea of being a member of a community, and sovereignty? Historical sources help us understand the fight for Indian independence from British imperial rule.
Over the last 100 years, millions of people were led to action, rose up, and fought against foreign, colonial governments. They've started new, independent nations. Since 1945 alone, more than 50 newly independent states have formed. The twentieth century could be called the century of "power to the people." But how and why did these revolutions occur? What motivated so many people in so many different places to come together and insist on independence? What are the features of successful independence movements?

What is nationalism?

Benedict Anderson was a historian and political scientist who wrote about nations and the development of nation-states in the modern era. In his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, he talks about the features of nationalism and the idea of the nation. Anderson writes that the nation is something that is imagined. This is because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow- members, meet them, or even hear of them. It's only in their minds that they can see themselves coming together. In fact, Anderson writes, all communities larger than a small village are imagined. What distinguishes communities is not how false or genuine they are, but in which style they are imagined.
Anderson is saying that in order to feel part of a nation, you have to imagine that you are part of something that includes people you will never meet and never know. You must imagine that it is bigger than yourself, your city or your neighborhood. He's also saying that the "style" in which a nation is "imagined" is important. By "style," he means the features or characteristics of the nation. Will it be a democratic one where all people have a say? Will it be authoritarian where there is a ruling elite, but the rest of the people go along with it because the nation gives them a sense of importance or power? This is what the Nazis did in Germany.
Anderson goes on to explain that if a nation is imagined as independent and self-governing it's because it was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were spreading. It's at this time when the idea of a ruler being appointed by God or born into their role no longer seemed acceptable. Nations dreamed of being free. Even if they were ruled under God, they wanted to be directly so and not ruled by another land.
There may be a lot of inequality in any one nation. But it is still imagined as a community, Anderson explains. Ultimately it is this sense of brother and sisterhood that makes it possible for so many millions of people to willingly die for something they can really only imagine.
So he's saying that in the modern era, the imagined, new nations put the idea of independence at the center. The idea of freedom was tied to the idea of independence—you can't be free unless you are self-ruling. Lastly, he's saying that the idea of community is what unites everyone under a common vision. As a new, independent nation, citizens share a set of beliefs and ideas that they would die for. This sets them apart and defines them as a nation. This is nationalism. We can use Anderson's ideas of imagined, self-ruling, and community to look at one of the first modern revolutions for independence.

Defining the new nation: Indian independence

By 1900, Europe had colonized many places. But the Atlantic revolutions had happened by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They had already introduced the idea that people could indeed throw off their colonizers and become independent. India had been under British control for almost 200 years. In that time, the British had taken control of commerce and government in most of the region. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indians organized many uprisings against the British government's policies. This led the British to fear further resistance and to put in place harsher policies toward Indians. The turning point toward independence was an event called the Amritsar Massacre. It took place on 13 April 1919. The massacre was led by Reginald Dyer. He was appointed by the British government as a temporary brigadier general in the Punjab region of India. Here's a brief account of what led to the massacre from Vincent Sheehan, a historian of the period:
[General Dyer] ordered that all Indians passing through a certain street, where the English headmistress of a school had been beaten by a mob on April 10, must crawl on all fours. This applied to Indian families who had no other means of reaching their homes. Any Indian in a vehicle had to dismount and crawl; any Indian with a parasol had to furl it and crawl; any Indian was ordered to salute or salaam an English officer in these districts. A whipping post was installed at the spot where the school mistress had been beaten, and this was used for flogging such Indians as disobeyed any of the orders (Moore, 191).
From this account, it appears that an English headmistress of a school had been attacked. In response, General Dyer put in place really harsh punishments. Indians were forced to crawl down the street where she was beaten. They felt humiliated. Next, General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on a peaceful gathering in a park in the northern city of Amritsar. The park only had five exits: four of these were narrow pathways. Soldiers blocked the fifth, and largest, exit. Sheehan's account indicates that this gathering was a combination of two events. It was a rally for independence as well as a celebration of Baisakhi day, a national religious festival for Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists. General Dyer issued a statement prohibiting this meeting. Notices were posted throughout the city. However, Dyer's warning was not broadcast throughout the city or published in the newspaper. This meant that many people did not get the message, especially those who were traveling into the city of Amritsar from nearby villages. A British military committee investigated the Amritsar massacre. Here is part of General Dyer's testimony:
Q: When you got into the Bagh (clearing) what did you do?
Dyer: I opened fire.
Q: At once?
Dyer: Immediately. I had thought about the matter and don’t imagine it took me more than 30 seconds to make up my mind as to what my duty was.
Q: How many people were in the crowd?
Dyer: I then estimated them roughly at 5,000. I heard afterwards there were many more.
Q: On the assumption that there was that risk of people being in the crowd who were not aware of the proclamation, did it not occur to you that it was a proper measure to ask the crowd to (clear out) before you took that step of actually firing?
Dyer: No, at the time I did not. I merely felt that my orders had not been obeyed, that martial law was (ignored), and that it was my duty to immediately (clear them out) by rifle fire…
Q: Did the crowd at once start to (clear out) as soon as you fired?
Dyer: Immediately.
Q: Did you continue firing?
Dyer: Yes.
Q: What reason had you to suppose that if you ordered the assembly to leave the Bagh, they would not have done so without the necessity of your firing and continuing firing for any length of time?
Dyer: Yes, I think it quite possible that I could have (cleared them out) perhaps even without firing.
Q: Why did you not (turn) to that?
Dyer: They would have all come back and laughed at me, and I should have made what I considered a fool of myself… My idea from the military point of view was to make a wide impression (Saund, 151-153).
It appears that General Dyer ordered his troops to massacre hundreds, if not thousands, of Indians that day. He did this so that he would not make a "fool" of himself. The practices described above show how little regard he had for the Indians he supposedly ruled. By humiliating and then killing the local population, the colonial government itself helped bring about revolt. The policies and events described above pushed Indians further toward an imagined, independent nation. In their imagined nation, people would be treated with dignity.
Memorial plaque honoring the victims of the Amritsar Massacre, Jallianwala Bagh, India. In 1951 after India won its independence, the park became a national monument of remembrance for the victims. By Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0.
In order to learn a bit more about how India gained its independence, we must examine the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Here's what independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had to say about Gandhi's importance to India's independence in his book Discovery of India, which was first published in 1946:
We seemed to be helpless in the grip of some all-powerful monster; our limbs were paralyzed, our minds deadened. The peasantry were servile and fear-ridden; the industrial workers were no better. The middle classes, the intelligentsia, who might have been beacon-lights in the enveloping darkness, were themselves submerged in this all-pervading gloom…
What could we do? How could we pull India 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 the 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. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of these peasants and workers, he told us, all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery.
Political freedom took new shape and then acquired a new content. Much that he said we only partially accepted or sometimes did not accept at all. But all this was secondary. The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view. The greatest gift for an individual or a nation, so we had been told in our ancient books, was abhay (fearlessness), not merely bodily courage but the absence of fear from the mind… at the dawn of our history, [our leaders had said] that it was the function of the leaders of a people to make them fearless. But the dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear — pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; fear of the army, the police, the widespread secret service; fear of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress, and of prison; fear of the landlord's agent; fear of the moneylender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold. It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhi's quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid (Nehru, 391-393).
What Nehru is saying in this very powerful passage is that Gandhi brought fresh ideas about freedom, independence, and community. They weren't all new ideas. Some of these ideas came from Hinduism – the "ancient texts" Nehru refers to – such as abhay. Some of these ideas came from Indian history before the invasions of the Mughals and the British. These ideas came together in a single idea that was the basis of the Indian Independence movement. This idea was called satyagraha. Its three main ingredients were truth, nonviolence, and self-suffering. It was actually a plan for waging a revolution.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandi at a meeting of the All India Congress, Mumbai, 1946. By Max Desfor, public domain.
This central idea drove the Quit India movement, a nonviolent path toward a self-ruling India. Here are the strategies for nonviolent revolution as outlined by Gandhi:
  1. Make every effort to resolve the conflict or address wrongs through negotiation and mediation; when that fails,
  2. Prepare the group for direct action through exercises in self-discipline and, for Indian satyagrahis, purification fasting;
  3. Start an active propaganda campaign. Hold demonstrations, mass-meetings and parades, and chant slogans;
  4. Issue a final threat that offers a constructive solution to the problem. Make it such that offers the widest scope for agreement and face-saving;
  5. Organize an economic boycott (agreement to stop purchasing British products) and forms of strike (refuse to work for British producers and distributors of goods); noncooperation such as nonpayment of taxes, boycott of schools and other public institutions, ostracism, or even voluntary exile;
  6. Perform civil disobedience by breaking laws that are either central to the main complaint or symbolic; and finally,
  7. Take over the functions of the government by force and form a parallel government.
Each step above is a strategy for challenging and winning power. Step two comes from Hindu traditions. When he says "self-discipline," he's referring to the principles of satyagraha. Individuals need to reflect on truth, promote nonviolence, and get ready for self-suffering, which means not fighting back. He's asking people to be problem- solvers and to demonstrate openly. He's also advocating economic boycotts and legal resistance. In step six, he specifically asks people to target unjust British laws by breaking those laws. This is a recipe for revolution.


Let's return to Benedict Anderson's description of nationalism. Remember, it comprises three qualities: imagined, self-ruling, and community. How do these three qualities apply to India?
Imagined: The features of an imagined independent India are really defined by Gandhi's philosophy of satyagraha. This includes a plan that he developed to carry out revolution. In other words, there needs to be a guiding philosophy that produces the imagined nation-state.
Self-ruling: The Amritsar Massacre helped to solidify that Indians truly needed, and wanted, independence. Under British rule, they would remain unfree and afraid, as Nehru states so eloquently in the source above. This key event married the idea of self-rule to the idea of freedom. The massacre is the turning point or triggering event toward commitment to self-rule.
Community: Community was necessary for the success of the independence movement. Protests and boycotts against unjust laws would only succeed if everyone was united. Take, for example, the boycott of English cloth. Indians had to trust that if they boycotted in the northern city of Delhi, their countrymen in the southern city of Bangalore would do the same. A shared commitment to a protest plan is a main ingredient of successful revolution.
Author bio
Anita Ravi is the founder and Executive Director of We the People High School in Long Beach, California, a public charter high school which opened in 2020. Anita is a history teacher and school district leader with over 20 years working in urban public education. She holds an Ed.M in curriculum design from Teachers College at Columbia University and an M.A. in History from New York University. Anita has designed curriculum for the Big History Project, Pearson’s ELA Common Core Curriculum, and AP U.S. History teachers with the College Board.

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