The significance of Chauri Chaura, 1922

As India approaches the centenary of the Chauri Chaura incident, there are abiding lessons it. The first is the significance of Gandhi’s principled commitment to non-violence.

Chauri Chaura violence had roots in local discontent; the violence was wrong; and Gandhi displayed tremendous moral conviction in pulling back. (ANI)

On February 4, 1921, in Chauri Chaura in the wider Gorakhpur region of the then United Provinces, the non-cooperation movement — Mahatma Gandhi’s first national agitation against British colonial rule — took a turn towards violence. A group of protesters, in the wake of tensions with local authorities which escalated into a police crackdown, burnt down the local police station. Three civilians, and 22 policemen, died. A week later, remorseful about the use of violence despite his avowed commitment to ahimsa, the Mahatma called off the non-cooperation movement, overruling many of his close associates who believed that one incident should not lead to a retreat from the wider struggle.

As India approaches the centenary of the Chauri Chaura incident, there are abiding lessons it. The first is the significance of Gandhi’s principled commitment to non-violence. This was tactically astute — Gandhi bet on the moral power of peaceful protests against the coercive machinery of the colonial empire — but it went beyond that to a recognition that violence undermines just causes. At a time when India is witnessing a spate of social movements, this is a principle that protest organisers must internalise. If Gandhi could pull back against a colonial power because violence was unacceptable, surely, non-violent methods should be sacrosanct when opposing the policies of a democratically-elected government.

At the same time, as subaltern historian Shahid Amin has shown in his seminal work on Chauri Chaura, the incident reflected the nationalist impulse of the local peasantry — and depicting it as criminal discounts the local roots of political discontent. But there is a way to reconcile the differing schools of thought, for all three things can be right at the same time: Chauri Chaura violence had roots in local discontent; the violence was wrong; and Gandhi displayed tremendous moral conviction in pulling back.