Interview: David Hardiman, author, Noncooperation in India - Hindustan Times
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Interview: David Hardiman, author, Noncooperation in India

Oct 02, 2023 04:50 PM IST

On Gandhi Jayanti, one of the founding members of the Subaltern Studies Group talks about writing a history of the Noncooperation Movement

How did your work with the Subaltern Studies Group shape your approach to the study of the Asahyog Andolan or Noncooperation Movement of 1920-22? What were the gaps in academic literature that you were looking to fill?

My doctoral research was on the Indian nationalist movement in Gujarat, and I was in contact with Ranajit Guha from the start. He shaped the way I approached the topic. So you might say that I was being shaped by Ranajit Guha’s approach a decade before Subaltern Studies appeared in print. Subaltern Studies had several contributions on aspects of the 1920-22 movement, for example by Ranajit Guha on Gandhi’s leadership, by Gyan Pandey on the movement in Awadh, by Shahid Amin on Chauri Chaura, by David Arnold on the Gudem-Rampa risings that occurred at the same time, and by Sumit Sarkar on Bengal. These studies were, however, of discrete regions, and nobody had tried to use their insights to build a comprehensive picture along such lines of the movement as a whole.

MK Gandhi during the Dandi March in 1930. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
MK Gandhi during the Dandi March in 1930. (HT Photo)

How did your work with the Subaltern Studies Group shape your approach to the study of the Asahyog Andolan or Noncooperation Movement of 1920-22? What were the gaps in academic literature that you were looking to fill?

My doctoral research was on the Indian nationalist movement in Gujarat, and I was in contact with Ranajit Guha from the start. He shaped the way I approached the topic. So you might say that I was being shaped by Ranajit Guha’s approach a decade before Subaltern Studies appeared in print. Subaltern Studies had several contributions on aspects of the 1920-22 movement, for example by Ranajit Guha on Gandhi’s leadership, by Gyan Pandey on the movement in Awadh, by Shahid Amin on Chauri Chaura, by David Arnold on the Gudem-Rampa risings that occurred at the same time, and by Sumit Sarkar on Bengal. These studies were, however, of discrete regions, and nobody had tried to use their insights to build a comprehensive picture along such lines of the movement as a whole.

Could you give us a glimpse of your travels in India that enabled you to write this book?

The great French historian Marc Bloch said that a historian should imbibe the spirit of the places that he or she was writing about by travelling through them and getting to know them thoroughly. I have always tried to follow this advice. Accordingly, I travelled extensively in central Gujarat interviewing old freedom fighters for my doctoral dissertation and subsequent book on peasant activism during the period 1917-34 in Gujarat. Then, I lived in a village in the adivasi area of South Gujarat in the early 1980s, and from there travelled on my motorbike all over that area and adjoining tracts of Maharashtra conducting interviews. This gave me insights into the ways that more subaltern groups perceived and responded to Gandhian nationalism.

424pp, ₹699; Westland
424pp, ₹699; Westland

Later in that decade, while based at the Centre for Social Studies in Surat, I researched the relationship between peasants and usurers throughout Western India, and this entailed more travels in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. Again, I met and talked to people from a wide range of social groups, ranging from maharajas to dalits and adivasis. All of this gave me a good feel for the people of these three states and their history. During the 1990s and 2000s, now based in the UK, I continued my travels in Gujarat and Rajasthan to research adivasi history.

In addition to these research travels, I roamed all over India, visiting each and every state bar those in the north-east. I rode on my motorbike from Delhi to Mumbai in 1976, and from Allahabad to Surat in 1981. I went in planes, trains, buses, cars, motorbikes, or even horse-drawn carriages and bullock carts. I have also travelled in Pakistan from Lahore to the Northwest Frontier. All this has given me a good feel for the different regions of South Asia and the cultures and histories of its many peoples. This, I believe, stood me in good stead when it came to writing a history of the Noncooperation Movement that encompassed all regions of British India.

Apart from official records, archival sources and secondary materials, the book cites interviews with Roop Singh Bhil in Udaipur and Kunvarji Mehta in Bombay (now Mumbai). How did these two interviews deepen your understanding of the movement?

Carrying out most of my research in the 1970s and 1980s meant that I was able to interview people who had actively participated in the nationalist movement from the First World War period onwards. Kunvarji Mehta, for example, was in his nineties when I interviewed him in the early 1980s, and he had a very sharp memory despite his age. He could give me many details that augmented all that I had read in old records. Also, I was able to understand the spirit of the man – what inspired and moved him in his chosen path in life. Generally, I prepared myself well before conducting an interview, obtaining as much detail about the person and the history of his or her region so that I could get them to augment what was in the record, or give their take on it. Meeting people in their own localities was also important in situating them in their histories.

You say that the Noncooperation Movement united Hindus and Muslims in a way never again achieved by Indian nationalists. Was this unity the foundation of the movement, or an outcome?

It was foundational to the movement, as without the support of the Khilafatists, Gandhi would not have been able to obtain a resolution from the Congress in 1920 for noncooperation. Later, his control over the Congress was so great that he could win support for protests without the support of the major Muslim organisations, such as the Muslim League. As a result, the Muslim League went its own way, with disastrous results.

Why was such unity never again achieved by Indian nationalists? Did they fail to learn from the Noncooperation Movement?

Nationalist Muslims such as AK Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan always fought for Hindu-Muslim solidarity in the movement. They were, however, increasingly in a minority amongst Muslims. Unfortunately, many within the Congress were under the sway of communalist doctrines and this alienated many Muslims, who were able to depict the Congress as an anti-Muslim organisation. Gandhi always fought for inclusivity, but in doing so he accommodated many communalists, such as MM Malaviya and KM Munshi. Only in his final months – when he put his life at stake for the Muslims of Delhi – did it become clear to them that he was their staunchest ally.

Historian David Hardiman (Courtesy the publisher)
Historian David Hardiman (Courtesy the publisher)

You point out that Gandhi, despite all his denials, was widely regarded as an avatar throughout India. If he was averse to this myth-making and hero worship, who was encouraging it? What were their reasons?

Much of it came from the people themselves, as Shahid Amin shows so well for eastern UP in his article on Gandhi as Mahatma (Subaltern Studies, Vol. III). I have produced evidence in my book on this phenomenon from other parts of India. But, in some cases, leading and well-educated nationalists themselves believed Gandhi to be an avatar. In my book, I have described how Kunvarji Mehta had such a belief, and his dialogue with Gandhi on the subject, in which Gandhi stated that he was free to believe what he wanted, but he should not go around encouraging others to believe it.

How is Gandhi’s principled commitment to nonviolence, regardless of the cost, being analysed and assessed in some of the newer scholarship on nonviolent movements across the globe?

First, we may note that recent scholarship has shown that non-violence gets better results. The most influential and widely read intervention in this field in recent years has been by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2011). They argue that over the course of the past century, non-violent forms of resistance to oppressive regimes have been more likely to succeed than violent forms of insurrection and armed struggle. They put this proposition to the test by comparing 323 campaigns that occurred all over the world between 1900 and 2006, the majority of which were predominantly violent, with about one-third being predominantly non-violent. They evaluated each movement in terms of whether it was a success, a partial success, or a failure. They accepted that there is generally a mix of violent and non-violent elements in all resistance movements — what matters is the respective predominance of each method. The campaigns that they looked at could last for varying lengths of time, ranging from a few days, to years, and even decades. They found that of the violent movements, 25% succeeded, 13% partially succeeded, and 62% failed. Of the non-violent movements, 53% succeeded, 25% partially succeeded and 22% failed. In other words, over this period non-violent campaigns were more than twice as likely to succeed or partially succeed as violent ones. Thus, regardless of whether people have used non-violent methods through commitment or pragmatism, the method in general produces far better results. In my book on noncooperation, I have discussed how people of both persuasions are usually able to work together for the good of the cause, strengthening all such movements.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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