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Ahmedabad Satyagraha

Ahmedabad Satyagraha Sharon Mail Kanichy History 470 March 31, 1998 DEFINITIONS Ahimsa Usually translated as non-violence. ‘Action based on the refusal to do harm.’ Himsa means to wish to kill. A in front of himsa negates the word, therefore making it the renunciation of the will to kill or damage. Tapasya Self-suffering. Suffering injury in one’s own person. Satya Truth which implies love and firmness. Combined with Agraha is the title of the Indian movement Satyagraha, a force that is born of Truth and Love or non-violence. Sarvodaya Uplift of all. The ideal society in which Gandhi worked towards. This was the primary objective of the satyagraha and the Gandhian movement. *** The above-defined concepts were evident in the Ahmedabad Satyagraha. The Ahmedabad Satyagraha began in the winter of 1917 in India. To give a brief overview of the dispute that led to the satyagraha, this occurred between Ahmedabad millowners and workers. In 1917, the plague struck Ahmedabad, and the millowners were fearful of decreased production. The millowners gave those workers, who worked during the plague a bonus, however, once the plague ended, the millowners withdrew the bonus. As soon as the crisis passed, wages returned to the pre-plague bonus level. The workers believed that the wages were too low to begin with and wanted the increase in wages to be permanent. The workers stated that the increase was needed because of the increase in the cost of living. The millowners disagreed and the workers went on strike. The satyagraha was carefully planned. The demonstration was based on the concept of ahimsa, which means non-violence or the refusal to do harm. This was important because in order for the workers to get their demands met, they needed the millowners to understand their circumstances, and to not reluctantly give into the workers’ demands. The employers are afraid that if the workers are given what they demand they would become insolent… The employers feel that conceding the workers’ demand would enhance the influence of their advisors on them…After all what will they get by defeating the workers? The reply is that they will get nothing but the workers’ discontent. The employers will always look with suspicion on the suppressed workers. In order for the satyagraha to remain non-violent, it was important to keep the ten thousand millworkers busy. If they remained idle, they might have got into mischief. The workers were not allowed to gamble, sleep during the day, talk about the employers and the lockout, frequent teashops, or go to the mills during the lockout. They could not go to teashops because it was feared that they would spend their time gossiping and eating unnecessarily. This was not the image that the workers needed to portray to the millowners. Arbitrators for the workers, Mahatma Gandhi, Shri Shankerlal Banker and Shri Vallabhbhai Patel stated to the workers what they must do during satyagraha. If work needed to be done on their dwellings, they must do it. Those who are literate should spend their time reading books and expanding their knowledge. Those who have a different skill should find work, and those who do not have another skill should learn one. These recommendations were made to the workers for the sake of keeping the movement non-violent. The workers also had to agree to the satyagraha voluntarily. No workers must be coerced into the movement. Rumours are afloat that many workers are willing to resume work, but that others prevent them by coercion and by threats of physical assault… In this struggle he alone will succeed who [sic] keeps to his pledge voluntarily. No one can be forced to keep his honour inviolate. It is essentially a voluntary matter. Tapasya was demonstrated through the workers’ self-sacrifice and suffering during the satyagraha. The workers knew that they could starve to death or lose their homes or other belongings during the satyagraha. It is hardly a fortnight since the lockout commenced, and yet some say they have no food, others that they cannot pay even house rent. The condition of the houses of most workmen is very bad; there is not sufficient light or ventilation in them. The workers’ arbitrators explained that they must suffer hardship in order to make the satyagraha pure. In order to demonstrate this to the workers, the arbitrators gave examples of other people who suffered for their cause. Some paid with their lives; others endured jail sentences or impoverishment. As long as the Ahmedabad Satyagraha remained non-violent, jail time was not a threat. The arbitrators hoped that such extreme hardships would not have to be suffered during the Ahmedabad Satyagraha, but the workers had to be prepared for anything. Part of self-sacrifice was to overcome temptation. The millowners announced they would give a twenty-percent increase to those who wished to come back to work, therefore, ending the lockout. The workers decided that they would not accept anything below a thirty-five percent increase. Due to the millowners refusal to give a thirty-five percent increase, and the refusal of the workers to accept the temptation of the millowners twenty-percent increase, the situation changed from a lockout to an official strike. To add to temptation, the millowners stated that those workers who bring back with him five other workers would receive a reward. The workers took an oath not to accept anything less than 35 percent and they would encourage other workers to keep to their pledge, short of coercion. Under these circumstances, a worker cannot go back without compromising his pledge, his honor, and his manliness. In order to help the workers keep to their oath and resist the temptations of the employers, a meeting was held at the time of the mill re-opening. The workers were encouraged to bring with them workers who had not attended previous meeting, voluntarily of course, in order to help the workers keep their resolve. Satya is combined with graha to make the word satyagraha which is the title of the Gandhian non-violent movement. Satya means love and firmness, and this was demonstrated in the Ahmedabad Satyagraha by the workers keeping to their oath. It is, therefore, our hope that every worker will work to maintain himself and keep to his oath and remain firm. If the struggle lengthens it will be due to our weakness… When however, they feel certain that the workers will not give up their resolve under any circumstance, then they are sure to become compassionate and to welcome back the workers. Today the employers believe that the workers are not going to do any work, and so are bound to succumb very shortly. Gandhi began a fast during the satyagraha. This may be categorized under tapasya, but he took this action because he saw that some workers were ready to give up their oath. He wanted them to keep firm to their oath. ‘Starve but keep your vow’ was Gandhi’s message to them. In order to show the workers that he sympathized with them, and in order to express his oath to them, he fasted. This was seen as a type of coercion on Gandhi’s part to force the employers to give in, because they did not want to be responsible for Gandhi’s death. However, Gandhi explained that he did not fast for those reasons, and even though the fast could have had those consequences, it could not be helped. Sarvodaya is a Gandhian concept that describes the ideal society that is worked toward. Sarvodaya is the overall and ultimate objective. Even though the strike had resulted in the workers receiving their 35 percent increase, sarvodaya was not yet achieved. Contemporary Gandhian followers in Indian are still working towards this. The Ahmedabad satyagraha’s major strengths were that the workers kept their pledge and followed the rules that their arbitrators set for them. The workers stayed unified and kept firm throughout. The workers arbitrators were concise about their expectations of the workers, the millowners, and themselves throughout the satyagraha. They carefully calculated the 35 percent increase that the workers were requesting. They had documentation to back up the need for a 35 percent increase in wages and made sure that it was a just amount. The weaknesses of this movement was that it could not be settled directly between the millowners and the workers, the assistance of a third party arbitrator was needed. One of the goals of the satyagraha was to make the millowners understand the needs of the workers, regardless of how long it took through firmness and persistence. The millowners did not get to the point to where they had compassion for the workers plight. Therefore this objective was not reached. Another weakness of the satyagraha was the misunderstanding of the reason for Gandhi’s fast. He needed to keep the workers strong and to keep to their vow. He felt the only way to do this was to show that he was suffering right along with them. The millowners understandably took this as a move on Gandhi’s part to coerce them into giving the workers the increase, which goes against the objective of a non-violent movement. Gandhi explained that this was a consequence that could not be helped but was necessary to regain the workers faith in him.

Bibliography

Bondurant, Joan V., Conquest of Violence (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988) Desai, Mahadev Haribhai. Translated by Somnath P. Dave. Edited by Bharatan Kumarappa. A Righteous Struggle. (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1951),

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