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A winning combination

An indefatigable Gandhi. A generous Bombay. Together, they created a synergy that changed the course of history, for it is here that the first nationwide Non Cooperation, and Quit India movements were launched.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2019 01:44 IST
Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta
Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta
Woman demonstrators during Quit India movement 1942
Woman demonstrators during Quit India movement 1942(Alamy Stock Photo)

Although Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi never liked big cities, the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) remained important for him throughout his life. It was here that Gandhi found firm support for his activities with a large number of his associates and followers assembled around him. If Gandhi’s leadership was appealing, the city’s response was spectacular. Gandhi’s important nationwide movements are intertwined with the life of this city and its people. Gandhi was full of energy and the city was filled with vibrancy. The blend resulted in a synergy that made history.

By the time of Gandhi’s arrival in India from South Africa in 1915, the city was already a centre of commerce, finance and textile industry as well as a hub of diverse intellectual and social reform activities. In 1919, Gandhi chose Bombay to launch his first nationwide satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act that curbed the freedom and rights of the people [it permitted certain political cases to be tried without juries, and imprisonment of suspects without a trial]. On April 6, 1919, a mass meeting was held at Chowpatty sea shore. Satyagrahi, the unregistered newspaper, was issued by Gandhi on April 7 from Mani Bhavan in defiance of the Indian Press Act.

Soon thereafter, on August 1, 1920, the day Lokmanya Tilak died, Gandhi led a hartal, and made a speech emphasising the need to renounce posts and titles, non violence in word and deed, and a “vigorous prosecution of swadeshi”, in effect, launching the Non Cooperation movement.

The same day, he also returned the three medals that the king-emperor had awarded him for his services rendered in the Boer, Zulu and World Wars. The city, as well as the nation, responded enthusiastically to the Mahatma’s statement that “it is the right recognised from time immemorial of the subject to refuse to assist a ruler who misrules”. People inspired by the spirit of non cooperation returned government titles, boycotted government institutions and propagated swadeshi. Gandhi had become an undisputed leader of the non violent struggle in India.

For Gandhi, swadeshi was the way to attain swaraj, or self-rule. Bombay became an important site for the propagation of khadi work. The first Khadi Bhandar in the country was opened by Gandhi in January 1920 in Moraraji Gokuldas Market.

To emphasise the boycott of foreign cloth, three bonfires were organised in the city at Elphinstone Mills Compound in Parel on July 31, October 9 and November 17, in 1921.

Gandhi’s Dandi march in 1930 evoked a spontaneous and enthusiastic response in Bombay, making places like Wadala and Vile Parle centres of protest.

The Quit India movement of 1942 was a mass movement with Bombay as the nerve centre, drawing people from all strata of society. At the historic session of Congress on August 7 and 8 at Gowalia Tank ground (now called August Kranti Maidan in memory of that historic event), Gandhi gave the slogan “Do or Die” which had an electrifying effect on the people.

Bombay was a witness to Gandhi as, not only a matchless leader, but also an exceptional fund raiser. An announcement by Gandhi to collect Rs 1 crore by the end of June 1921 for the Tilak Swaraj Fund stimulated people to contribute for nationalistic activities. Bombay was the single largest contributor.

Overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of Bombay, Gandhi said, “Bombay is beautiful, not for the big buildings, for most of them hide the squalid poverty and dirt, not for the wealth, for most of it is derived from the blood of the masses, but for its world renowned generosity.”

Later the city also contributed generously to Gandhi’s call for the Harijan Fund in 1933-34 and the fund for Kasturba Memorial Trust, 10 years later. Bombay had taken him as one of its own.

Gandhi had immense faith in the abilities of women and this was validated time and again. The women, people from all sections, particularly merchants and the shopkeepers in Bombay, supported him in his movements and constructive activities. People in Bombay were active in locations stretching from the centre to the suburbs, from residential areas like Bhuleshwar, Girgaum and Vile Parle to business places like Mandvi and Fort. More than 500,000 persons formed a procession on February 12, 1948, to immerse his ashes in the Arabian Sea at Chowpatty.

The association of this extraordinary leader and this equally extraordinary city presents an impressive saga of satyagraha and Swadeshi, through all its protests and processions, picketings and meetings.

(Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta are authors of the seminal work, Gandhi in Bombay: Towards Swaraj)

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