During his 1920 train tours, Gandhi discovered India, and more importantly, understood the Indians. The country was in a state of ferment, people were highly expectant, keen to be led and express themselves socially and politically.
During and after his visits, Gandhi recorded his observations- “the Congress is a demonstration for the mob. Though organized by thoughtful men and women, our popular demonstrations are unquestionably mob-demonstrations. This nationalist manifestation was urgently in the need of a disciplinary solution.”
In September 1920, around the launch of the Non-Cooperation Movement, Gandhi put forward a 20-point programme for controlling this mobocracy of darshan-seeking crowds. To overcome this mobocratic stage of political development, it was obligatory for ‘everyone to obey the volunteers’ instructions without question.
“Before we can make real headway, we must train these masses of men who have hearts of gold, who feel for the country, who want to be taught and led. But a few intelligent, sincere, local workers are needed, and the whole nation can be organized to act intelligently, and democracy can be evolved out of mobocracy.”
Gandhi had borne the brunt of a White European mob in Durban in 1897 which did not want him to enter the Natal Province. He had already been working among the people of this country for five years by the time Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. He had seen how mobs had gone berserk in many places in Gujarat, Punjab and Bengal on and after the Rowlatt Satyagraha which began on April 6,1919. During the Non-cooperation Movement, even before Chauri-Chaura happened on February 4th, Gandhi had been mulling over the idea of a retreat, worried as he was with stray cases of violence and mob misbehaviour. During Prince of Wales’ visit, Mumbai had seen action between the mob and police forces. This horse was tricky to master, Gandhi knew as much. He wanted to be in control of the crowd behaviour, for he knew violence shall be met with state repression. Gandhi did not want violence, for it would not further the political objectives.
Mobocracy – ‘an ugly word greased with loathing, a sign of craving for control and its frustration” required Gandhian volunteers to purge it of its originary, subaltern impurities. If the masses were to be exposed to political action, they had to be trained, or organized. Volunteers, almost by definition, had to stand apart from demonstrators: they were to discipline nationalist exuberance by acting as the people’s policemen.
Pledge forms were supposed to be filled by the volunteers in triplicate- formidable three-part affidavits, one copy of which was to be retained in the village, and other two were to be lodged at the provincial and district HQ of the party. They pledged in the name of god to follow social and political programme launched by the Congress, maintain discipline and keep all sorts of violence at bay.
Despite such deep understanding and careful planning, Gandhi’s foreboding came to fruition on February the fourth, 1922. Shocked and dismayed, Bapu suspended the Non-cooperation Movement on February 12th. In the past three decades, the Congress has seen a massive erosion of its workers’ base. Even those who remain seem to have selfish motives, rather than having political mass action on their mind. There is no ideology to serve as guide, neither is there much experience and training to come to their aid, especially on how to run a mass movement, where to seize the initiative, and when to step back. Not just the Congress, but the whole Opposition (except the AAP), including the left, seems in disarray and is in no position to lead mass movements because of the erosion of their cadres.
India saw Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA protests last year,which culminated in the Delhi Riots. This year has seen Kisan demonstrations and dharnas. These rudderless movements seem to be leaderless, run by self-appointed volunteers and self-proclaimed activists. Even if the sources of their funds are not questioned, and international prodding is kept aside, it has to be asked as to who is in charge on ground zero? The puny kisan leaders, and myriads of farmers’ organizations, could not or did not keep their promises made to the law enforcement before January 26th. Delhi Police displayed remarkable restraint, else situation would have gone out of control. While the DP seems to be barricading Delhi with semi-permanent concrete and steel structures, the rabble is mobilizing its resources to once again storm the capital on February 6th. The Delhi Government has recalled its DTC buses which were being used by the DP. This has been done with the intent to hamper their operational capabilities.With no one particularly in charge of an agitation with unclear, undefined goals, and with plenty of hatred for the system and the police force floating around, it is high time we remember the ghosts of Chauri Chaura.
On February the fourth, 1922, a group of demonstrators, in retaliation against police fire, surrounded a police station and set it to fire. 22 policemen were burnt to death, and 3 civilians were killed. What is forgotten is that the crowd had assembled to picket a liquor store, and protest against price rise of food grains, and volunteers were present but situation went beyond their control. 99 years have passed by. Gandhi gradually managed to mould a democratic party having capable machinery to run mass movements, but that party now no longer exists. But his words of caution do, and the state and the opposition would do well to pay heed. Democracy must not be allowed to degenerate into a mobocracy again.
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