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.
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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 internalize. 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.