Gandhi’s Satyagraha’s in India and South Africa: Champaran Satyagraha, Satyagraha Against Mill Strike, Kheda Satyagraha and Rowaltt Satyagraha [1915-1920]



Influence of Gandhian Satyagraha on National Struggle for Independence
Influence of Gandhian Satyagraha on National Struggle for Independence

Politically struggling early 20th century India was digressing towards the radical mass agitation against the colonial British Government under the leadership of extremist national leaders Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal since the Congress constitutional policy of political mendicancy couldn’t bring any remarkable changes to the legislative and administrative structure of India.

Under the regressive viceroyalty of Lord Curzon, INC split into Extremists and Moderates in Surat Session 1907 due to ideological disparities regarding the mode of expression against the oppressive ruling party. But even the temporary radicalization of a major fraction of INC and the countrymen couldn’t exterminate such deeply-stabilized inglorious British Empire from India.

Thereafter, the pace of spontaneously erupting nationalism retarded or invisiblized by end of the first decade due to imprisonment of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the deportation of Lala Lajpat Rai and retirement of Aurobindo Ghosh and Bipin Chandra Pal and other extremist leaders. Persistence of excruciating oppression, racial discrimination and subjugation even after years of continuous and invariant struggle marked the beginning of 1910s.

The imperceptible nationalist emotions for gaining “SWARAJ” was revived through the Home-Rule Movement founded by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Irish scholar Annie Bessant in 1914. The British Government weakened its stronghold over the country during the movement due to ongoing FIRST WORLD-WAR. Amidst such painful socio-politico-economical conditions of India, Arrived a globally acclaimed barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the country who directed the National Struggle for Full Independence till it is finally achieved.


Gandhi defenstrated from train in South Africa
Gandhi defenstrated from train in South Africa

When the African Government was racially marginalizing and suppressing the indentured and ex-indentured labours of Asia sociopolitically, Gandhi, having studied law in England, reached South Africa in regard to a case of his client, Dada Abdullah in 1893. Unnerved of South African protocols, Gandhi casually entered the first-train compartment reserved for white people who defenestrated him from the chamber within a few seconds by asserting their racial superiority.

This blatant humiliating expression of White Supremacy internally triggered Gandhi who eventually founded Natal Indian Congress in 1894 for integrating the socially-downtrodden sections of Indians suffering continual racial injustices in South Africa. Like Indian National Congress, Gandhi primarily adopted the moderate strategies of the petition, request, prayers etc. for appealing to the government till 1906 but when the demands clearly went unheard, he drifted towards the methodology of PASSIVE RESISTANCE or CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE or in Gandhian terminology- SATYAGRAHA for campaigning against the system of governance.

Gandhi (at centre) pictured with other leaders in South Africa
Gandhi (at centre) pictured with other leaders in South Africa

Under Gandhian leadership, the social condition of indentured and ex-indentured labours, women in South Africa had undergone a massive positive change. The satyagrahas launched by Gandhi in South Africa for the upliftment of racially-discriminated Indians and Africans are underlined below:

Satyagraha against Registration Certificates 1906:

In August 1906, Transvaal legislators introduced an ordinance called Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance that mandated for Indians to possess with them their all-time personal registration certificates bearing their fingerprints. In case if someone is unable to produce such certificates, the respective Indians or Asians could be imprisoned/ deported or fined.

In response to this discriminatory and unconstitutional legislation, Gandhi formed the Passive Resistance Association and launched a full-fledged Satyagraha in September 1906 for reflecting public opposition against it. When the government retorted to repressive measures for crushing down the uprising, people courageously burnt their registration certificates for defying the racially-preferential bill. Gandhi referred to this act as “Black Act” and later he was arrested in 1908 for provoking outrage amongst countrymen.

Satyagraha against Restrictions on Indian Migration:

In 1907, Transvaal Immigration Act was passed that put subjects to constraints on Indian migration to Transvaal from other provinces.

This legislative decision caused severe discontent in India and Gopal Krishna Gokhle gained the support of Indian masses throughout the nation for their brothers in South Africa. The Satyagrahis protested the act by illegally migrating from Natal to Transvaal and by openly burning their registration certificates.

Satyagraha against Poll Tax and Invalidation of Indian Marriages


Gaining worldwide popularity for his social activism in South Africa, Gandhi arrived in India on 9 January 1915 on the invitation of Gopal Krishna Gokhle who scrupulously guided him about the sociopolitical conditions of India. Instead of directly entering into political affairs, Gandhi realized the necessity to connect and identify with the local masses of the country and to critically understand their social and economical problems. Therefore, he established an ashram at Kochrab in May 1915 near Ahmedabad for promoting his notions of Satyagraha, Swadeshi and public education amongst countrymen; and to closely examine the social conditions of Indian masses. Eventually, Gandhi launched his first Civil Disobedience Satyagraha in 1917 in Champaran Bihar against the oppressive colonial plantation strategies which were followed by two more Satyagrahas, as underlined below:


On the polite request of a poor peasant Rajkumar Shukla, Gandhi transited to Bihar in 1917 for inspecting the socio-economical conditions of the state and he himself, investigated the social injustices experienced by the Champaran tenants due to the destructive colonial plantation system.

He examined how the plantation structure (called tinkathia system) designed by British agriculturalists intimidate the local peasants to grow indigo on 3/20th portion of their total land and how it physically exploits the cultivators involved in this mode of the plantation.

Due to the rising demand of indigo in European markets, the despicable English authorities were compelling Indians to cultivate it in their farms but when Germans manufactured synthetic derivative for indigo, the European landowners demanded massive rents and illegal dues for emancipating the peasants from such system so to grab more money out of Indians. Gandhi, associated with Rajendra Prasad, Mazhar-ul-Haq, J.B. Kriplani etc. launched a magnified Satyagraha against the detrimental colonial plantation measures and he was completely supported by the tenants.

The European administration that was steadily losing its stronghold over India due to ongoing global war attempted to look into the matter with concern and therefore on Gandhi’s persuasion, the British government abolished tinkathia system and agreed for compensation of 25% money taken.

Gandhian Satyagraha in Champaran, Bihar
Gandhi in Champaran, Bihar

This was the first Civil-Disobedience manifestation in India and it succeeded in accomplishing the desired goals of peasants.


In 1918, there was an enormous discord between the mill owners and its workers in Ahmedabad, Gujrat over the subject of the termination of plague bonus. While the mill owners wanted to revoke the bonus, the workers sought to demand 50% elevation in their salaries for sustenance and management in the disastrous global wartime inflation. Later, the mill owners agreed to raise the salaries by 20% but the workers went on strike. The inter-relationship between the owners and workers terribly worsened when the former decided to employ the weavers from Bombay rather than further negotiating with the latter.

Amidst such circumstances, the workers sought the help of Anusuya Sarabhai, the President of Ahmedabad Mill Owners Association to resolve the matter who eventually approached Gandhi for same. Ultimately, Gandhi looked into the matter and instead of 50% advancement, he stressed for a 35% hike in the wages.

He organised a Non-Violent Satyagraha for accomplishing the demands of the local workers in March 1918 but when the mill owners blatantly ignored the Satyagraha, he undertook his first fast unto death for pressurizing the tribunal to accept the requests of the workers. In the end, Gandhi succeeded in urging the mill owners to approve the simpler demands of mill workers.


In 1918, Gujrat Sabha- an organisation comprised of peasants, petitioned to the higher provincial authorities for remission /cancellation /relaxation of revenue for 1919 due to crop failure. But the obstinate parliament threatened the peasants about the seizure of their properties if the taxes were not paid timely.

Gandhi who was emerging as a political mass leader during that time asked the farmers not to pay the taxes. Under the proficient leadership of Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Narhari Parikh, the Satyagraha was launched that successfully led to the suspension of revenue for the year 1919 and its reduction from 1919 onward.


Gandhi, who had been functioning for the social welfare of downtrodden sections in India had now recognized that neither moderate politics nor the Home Rule Movement could liberate Indians from the strong clutches of imperialists, rather he suggested and adopted the procedure of “Non-Violent Satyagraha” for achieving national and political independence for India. After the heinous First World War, Gandhi along with other nationalists was predicting “SWARAJ” for India but conversely, the British Government betrayed the leaders and introduced two more ruthless acts: Rowaltt Act and Government of India Act 1919.

“The Montford Reforms….. was only a method of further draining India of her wealth and of prolonging her servitude.”{Mahatma Gandhi on GOI 1919}

Criticizing the exploitative policies, Gandhi along with INC launched ROWALTT SATYAGRAHA on 6 April 1919 against Rowlatt Act that provided the colonial government uncontrolled powers to break down the political activities throughout the country and authorized them to imprison people without judicial trial for two years on mere suspicion of ‘a crime.’ Gandhi demanded a Non-Violent Civil Disobedience on the magnified all-India scale against such seditious colonial politics.

The mode of resistance against the hostile government included National-wide strike accompanied by fasting, prayers and civil disobedience etc. that reiterated the dynamic change in the strategies for attainment of ‘Swaraj’. Gandhi was eventually, jailed on 8 April 1919 for preaching nationalist ideas amongst Indians and organizing satyagraha.

Jalliawallah Bagh Massacre in Amritsar

Jalliawallah Bagh Massacre
Jalliawallah Bagh Massacre

The year 1919 had witnessed the spontaneously upsurging nation-wide anti-British mass agitation and demonstrations against the malignant colonial measures, prominently in cities like Bombay, Punjab, Calcutta, Delhi, Ahmedabad etc.

The central reason for dissension in Amritsar, Punjab was the imprisonment of two nationalists on 10 April 1919- Dr Saifuddin Kitchew and Dr Satyapal on the pretext of addressing the protests. Amidst such conditions of social unrest, the people had gathered to celebrate” Baisakhi” on 13 April, 1919 in Jalliawallah Bagh, Amritsar but a peaceful demonstration had also gathered to express their resentment over Rowaltt Act and excruciating political annihilation. Frightened of articulation of expanding nationalism, British Government instructed Brigadier General O’Dyer for restoring order in the state by imposing martial law. While the modest discussions were going on in the venue, General O’Dyer brutally fired upon the peaceful demonstrators for terrorizing the nationalists throughout the country. This infamous and ruthless event in history is marked as “ Jalliawallah Bagh Massacre.

The insensitivity of British Empire was openly reprimanded by the nationalist leaders and Rabindranath Tagore captioned the insecurities of Indians after the scandalous massacre in Punjab in his letter to Viceroy, as quoted:

” The enormity of the measures taken by the government in Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subject in India.”[Rabindranath Tagore in a letter to Viceroy]

In response to out-bursting criticism of colonial rule in India due to the Jalliawallah Bagh Massacre, Secretary of State Edwin Montague drafted an inquiring body on 14 October 1919 called Disorder Inquiry Committee and Hunter Commission [Named after Lord William Hunter] for ‘investigating the chaotic  disruption in city of Punjab, Bombay and Goa and especially Jalliawallah Bagh Massacre. Fortunately, it included three Indian members- Sir Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad [Vice Chancellor of Bombay University], Pandit Jagat Narayan [Lawyer], and Sardar Sahibzada Sultan Ahmad Khan [Lawyer from Gwalior]. During the custodial investigation, Dyer confessed that he wished to terrorize Satyagrahis for expressing criticism of the British Empire in India. Though Hunter Commission recognized Dyer’s actions as blatantly ‘inhumane and un-British’ in its final report in March 1920, it didn’t impose any disciplinary action on Dyer because he was shielded by superior officers. 

Inherently pained by the innumerable deaths in Punjab, Gandhi gave up the British-conferred title of Kaiser-e-Hind back to the colonial government and withdrew the ongoing Rowaltt Satyagraha on 18 April 1919 due to colonial brutalities. He started to re-strategize the national movement for attaining Independence for India and therefore, he evolved and acquired the Policy of Non-Cooperation for fulfilling national aspirations and ambitions.

The above article helps us understand the significance of Gandhian political methodology in integrating the different scattered sects of Indian society like peasants, urban, mill workers, etc. for achieving synergy in the Nationalist Struggle for Independence. Pre-Gandhi arrival in India, only educated nationalists were crucially involved in exterminating the colonial regime from India but his arrival heralded the New Phase of National Awakening. Instead of bounding the movement to leading groups, Gandhi associated the Indian social organs actively in the national struggle.


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