Individual Sathyagraha movement

gandhiNo quantity but quality please. And I assure victory” said Gandhi promoting his latest  method to needle the British empire.

The radicals in Congress wanted to launch a mass Civil Disobedience Movement and get everyone onto the streets, but Gandhi insisted on “Individual Satyagraha’.

The sathyagrahis had to be approved by Gandhi himself. After serving notice of his seditious ambition to the police he would proceed to a chosen spot and shout anti British and anti war slogans. His arrest and trial would ensure publicity on a persistent basis.

The  Satyagraha days were carefully chosen with no protests on court holidays. The locations selected were hugely crowded places. A satyagrahi was instructed to behave with decorum in court.“I repeat for the thousandth time that the present civil disobedience is not designed to embarrass authority”  reiterated its inventor.

The Congress announced that 27 sathyagrahis including 5 ladies for Madras city for the month of January 1941. Rukmani Lakshmipathy was one of them. The pongal holidays did not have any protests.

The British were initially alarmed and the movement was dealt with a firm hand. Arrest, prosecution and jailing happened overnight. (A few months RI to a year with a fine)

It was deliberate that Mrs. Balammal daughter of a retired superintendent of police and grand daughter of much knighted Judge was chosen first. At 9.30 she walked to the Teynampet Congress office  after  intimating the commisoner of police  of her intentions. The administration was well prepared.

As women garlanded her, Balammal stood on the pavement and shouted anti British slogans. The inspector of Mylapore, Mr. Syed stepped ahead from the crowd and informed her of her arrest. After a few hours in the chief presidency magistrate’s court which was crowded with Congress leaders Balammal pleaded guilty, even refusing to examine the crown witnesses. The court decided she had performed a prejudicial act and sentenced her to 3 months of jail and a 250 rs fine. When R Venkatappa shouted slogans standing opposite the IG office on beach road, it was noted that sathyagraha returned to beach road after 10 years when in Triplicane the salt march was enacted.unnamed

Mohanlal Mehta the Vice President of the Gujarati Mandal offered his satyagraha at the junction of the Mint street and China Bazaar and his trial was filled with the who’s who of the jeweller and yarn community of Madras. Incidentally many Gujarathi ladies too were in court.

Though the rules were common, everyone added their own style to the Sathyagraha. Some sang vandemataram, some spun the charkas before pronouncing the offending line. Most uttered their lines in Tamil or Telugu and some like Mehta in Hindi too. Some simply said they were guilty.

But others like Mehta said  “If I have commited an offence under the law enacted without the consent of my people, I plead guilty to the charge.”

However, it soon became apparent that persons offering sathyagraha did not garner as much public attention as major leaders. The British craftily stopped using the Defence of India Act and started using the Town Nuisance Act.

In a major move many Satyagrahis were ignored altogether. When Janaki Aravamudha Iyengar tried courting arrest, the police just refused to budge.  She moved around the town and made as many as nine repetitions of the same speech but finally went home. An embarrassing situation!

The decision to ignore Satyagrahis was taken at a very high level and it was fast becoming a joke. When Vinoba Bhave courted arrest again after his release from jail, Gandhi and Kasturba attended to shore up its importance. But still Vinoba wasn’t arrested. And the campaign lost its steam.

In retaliation, the British governement stepped up its collection drive for the Governor’s war fund and even announced in front page advertisements that 10 lakhs was collected every month in Madras presidency alone, thus implying support for the war effort against which the sathyagraha was for still existed.

Overall the movement was a failure. But not without some result. The anger at the fizzing out of the individual protest perhaps erupted as the quit India movement the subsequent year – the one single movement telling the British it was time to board their ships back home.

This article was published in DTNext on 10th September 2017

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