When the Great War broke out, the princes of India enthusiastically joined their fates to England’s in hopes of forever cementing their country’s place in the British Empire as an independent dominion like South Africa or Canada. Referring to the conflict as ‘the Empire War,’ they were generous with troops and money, but without coming any closer to their goals. While the war in Europe drags on, pulling the country down towards bankruptcy, the Kaiser’s machinations have stirred up threats on the Northwest Frontier, stretching the Army of India perilously thin and stoking a violent revolutionary conspiracy. Restive, increasingly resentful of imperial policy, the Indian National Congress political party grows bolder all the time in its agitation for true independence.
Two days ago, Imperial Viceroy Lord Henry Hardinge laid the cornerstone of a new university at Benares, opening a series of celebratory events and speeches. Today, it is the turn of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Speaking to a room filled with princes and notables dressed in sumptuous finery, he wears a simple traditional dhoti, cloak, and turban. Gandhi was born to a noble family and given every advantage of education; he returned to India a year ago from South Africa, where he had spent twenty-one years developing a resistance movement against the burgeoning, yet still unofficial system of racial oppression that will come to be known as Apartheid. Returning home at last, Gandhi intends to bring his theories of nonviolent civil disobedience to bear in the liberation of India from London’s imperial yoke.
Gandhi’s turn to address the assembled elites at Benares comes right after Annie Besant, a British social justice reformer and Indian National Congress member who has formed the Home Rule League to press for democracy and dominion status. Rather than contradict her middling approach directly, Gandhi expresses his resentment at being forced to speak in the language of the oppressor.
(D)o not believe that our University has become a finished product, and that all the young men who are to come to the University, that has yet to rise and come into existence, have also come and returned from it finished citizens of a great empire. Do not go away with any such impression, and if you, the student world to which my remarks are supposed to be addressed this evening, consider for one moment that the spiritual life, for which this country is noted and for which this country has no rival, can be transmitted through the lip, pray, believe me, you are wrong. You will never be able merely through the lip, to give the message that India, I hope, will one day deliver to the world. I myself have been fed up with speeches and lectures. I expect the lectures that have been delivered here during the last two days from this category, because they are necessary. But I do venture to suggest to you that we have now reached almost the end of our resources in speech-making…
[…] (I)t is a matter of deep humiliation and shame for us that I am compelled this evening under the shadow of this great college, in this sacred city, to address my countrymen in a language that is foreign to me. I know that if I was appointed an examiner, to examine all those who have been attending during these two days this series of lectures, most of those who might be examined upon these lectures would fail. And why? Because they have not been touched.
I was present at the sessions of the great Congress in the month of December. There was a much vaster audience, and will you believe me when I tell you that the only speeches that touched the huge audience in Bombay were the speeches that were delivered in Hindustani? In Bombay, mind you, not in Banares where everybody speaks Hindi. But between the vernaculars of the Bombay Presidency on the one hand and Hindi on the other, no such great dividing line exists as there does between English and the sister language of India; and the Congress audience was better able to follow the speakers in Hindi. I am hoping that this University will see to it that the youths who come to it will receive their instruction through the medium of their vernaculars. Our languages are the reflection of ourselves, and if you tell me that our languages are too poor to express the best thought, then say that the sooner we are wiped out of existence the better for us. Is there a man who dreams that English can ever become the national language of India? Why this handicap on the nation? Just consider for one moment what an equal race our lads have to run with every English lad.
I had the privilege of a close conversation with some Poona professors. They assured me that every Indian youth, because he reached his knowledge through the English language, lost at least six precious years of life. Multiply that by the numbers of students turned out by our schools and colleges, and find out for yourselves how many thousand years have been lost to the nation. The charge against us is that we have no initiative. How can we have any, if we are to devote the precious years of our life to the mastery of a foreign tongue?
[…] The only education we receive is English education. Surely we must show something for it. But suppose that we had been receiving during the past fifty years education through our vernaculars, what should we have today? We should have today a free India, we should have our educated men, not as if they were foreigners in their own land but speaking to the heart of the nation; they would be working amongst the poorest of the poor, and whatever they would have gained during these fifty years would be a heritage for the nation.
From this complaint, Gandhi segues into an acknowledgement that India remains unready for self-governance:
In every city there are two divisions, the cantonment and the city proper. The city mostly is a stinking den. But we are a people unused to city life. But if we want city life, we cannot reproduce the easy-going hamlet life. It is not comforting to think that people walk about the streets of Indian Bombay under the perpetual fear of dwellers in the storeyed building spitting upon them. I do a great deal of railway traveling. I observe the difficulty of third-class passengers. But the railway administration is by no means to blame for all their hard lot. We do not know the elementary laws of cleanliness. We spit anywhere on the carriage floor, irrespective of the thoughts that it is often used as sleeping space. We do not trouble ourselves as to how we use it; the result is indescribable filth in the compartment. The so-called better class passengers over we their less fortunate brethren. Among them I have seen the student world also; sometimes they behave no better. They can speak English and they have worn Norfolk jackets and, therefore, claim the right to force their way in and command seating accommodation.
Criticizing the bejeweled finery in the room, Gandhi deplores the extraordinary security measures which accompanied Hardinge’s visit as he begins to address a rising tide of anti-British violence in India. It is the key moment in his speech.
I honor the anarchist for his love of the country. I honor him for his bravery in being willing to die for his country; but I ask him-is killing honorable? Is the dagger of an assassin a fit precursor of an honorable death? I deny it. There is no warrant for such methods in any scriptures. If I found it necessary for the salvation of India that the English should retire, that they should be driven out, I would not hesitate to declare that they would have to go, and I hope I would be prepared to die in defense of that belief. That would, in my opinion, be an honorable death. The bomb-thrower creates secret plots, is afraid to come out into the open, and when caught pays the penalty of misdirected zeal.
Alarmed at what she fears is an endorsement of anarchist idealism before the impressionable students present, Annie Besant interrupts Gandhi, who turns to the Chairman. “If I am told to stop, I shall obey,” he says. “I await your orders. If you consider that by my speaking as I am, I am not serving the country and the empire, I shall certainly stop.” The room is divided; some want him to speak, others want him silenced. He continues:
My friends, please do not resent this interruption. If Mrs. Besant this evening suggests that I should stop, she does so because she loves India so well, and she considers that I am erring in thinking audibly before you young men. But even so, I simply say this, that I want to purge India of this atmosphere of suspicion on either side, if we are to reach our goal; we should have an empire which is to be based upon mutual love and mutual trust. Is it not better that we talk under the shadow of this college than that we should be talking irresponsibly in our homes? I consider that it is much better that we talk these things openly. I have done so with excellent results before now. I know that there is nothing that the students do not know. I am, therefore, turning the searchlight towards ourselves. I hold the name of my country so dear to me that I exchange these thoughts with you, and submit to you that there is no room for anarchism in India. Let us frankly and openly say whatever we want to say our rulers, and face the consequences if what we have to say does not please them. But let us not abuse.
Gandhi tries to keep speaking, but is once again interrupted in the middle of another passage about the barriers that Indian social backwardness places in the way of independence. Rather than stifling his message, however, the incident serves to enlarge his reputation as a courageous reformer while diminishing those who have intervened — an example of his nonviolence principles in action. “There are two ways of countering injustice,” he explains in the opening of his famous essay On Civil Disobedience, which is published later this June.
One way is to smash the head of the man who perpetrates injustice and to get your own head smashed in the process. All strong people in the world adopt this course. Everywhere wars are fought and millions of people are killed. The consequence is not the progress of a nation but its decline. Soldiers returning from the front have become so bereft of reason that they indulge in various anti-social activities. One does not have to go far for examples. Pride makes a victorious nation bad-tempered. It falls into luxurious ways of living. Then for a time, it may be conceded, peace prevails. But after a short while, it comes more and more to be realized that the seeds of war have not been destroyed but have become a thousand times more nourished and mighty. No country has ever become, or will ever become, happy through victory in war. A nation does not rise that way, it only falls further. In fact, what comes to it is defeat, not victory. And if, perchance, either our act or our purpose was ill-conceived, it brings disaster to both belligerents.
He could have no better example than the global conflagration which has embroiled India. By the end of the year, Gandhi will have embedded himself forever within the national independence movement, opposing both extremism and collaboration. Reflecting his strong desire to develop religious peace in an often-fractious country, he will become a key figure in efforts to bring the Muslim League into the Indian National Congress during November and December. War may rage everywhere else, but Gandhi is determined to see India free of both foreign oppression and the destructive communal violence which too often accompanies great political changes.