The torch of nationalism was kept alive in the years following the end of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922 by Gandhian constructive workers who dug their roots deep into village soil, by Swarajists who kept the government on its toes in legislatures, and by the Koya tribals in Andhra who heroically fought the colonial state's armed might under the leadership of Ramachandra R.
The curve of the mass anti-imperialist upsurge, on the other hand, began to take a marked upward turn in the latter part of 1927. By announcing on November 8, 1927, an all-White commission to recommend whether India was ready for further constitutional progress and on what lines, the British Government provided a catalyst and rallying ground, similar to the Rowlatt Bills in 1919.
- For many years, Indian nationalists had criticised the 1919 constitutional reforms as inadequate and demanded an early reconsideration of the constitutional question, but the government was adamant that the ten-year period had to pass before new proposals could be considered.
- However, in 1927, the Conservative government of the United Kingdom, facing electoral defeat at the hands of the Labour Party, decided that it could not leave an issue concerning the future of the British Empire in the hands of an inexperienced Labour government, and the Indian Statutory Commission, popularly known as the Simon Commission after its chairman, was established.
- In India, the response was immediate and unanimity. No Indian of even the most moderate political opinion was willing to swallow the insult that no Indian should be considered fit to serve on a body that claimed the right to decide India's political future.
- The call for a boycott of the Commission was backed by the Liberal Federation, led by Tej Bahadur Sapru, the Indian Industrial and Commercial Congress, and the Hindu Mahasabha. The Muslim League was split on the issue, with Mohammed Ali Jinnah leading the boycott call.
- The Indian National Congress, on the other hand, was responsible for turning the boycott into a popular movement. The Congress had decided on the boycott at its annual session in Madras in December 1927, and in the ensuing frenzy, Jawaharlal Nehru even managed to get a snap resolution passed declaring complete independence as the Congress's goal.
- But, as Gandhiji made clear in the 12 January 1928 issue of Young India: ‘It is said that the Independence Resolution is a fitting answer. The act of appointment needs for an answer, not speeches, however heroic they may be, not declarations, however brave they may be, but corresponding action . . .’
Boycott Simon Commission:
- The action began on the 3rd of February 1928, when Simon and his friends arrived in Bombay. People were out in the streets participating in mass rallies, processions, and black-flag demonstrations on that day in all of the major cities and towns across the country.
- A major clash with the police in Madras resulted in gunfire and the death of one person. T. Prakasam embodied the defiant spirit of the occasion by baring his chest in front of armed police officers who tried in vain to prevent him from going to the crime scene.
- Simon was greeted by a sea of black flags carried by thousands of people everywhere he went: Kolkata, Lahore, Lucknow, Vijayawada, and Poona. And new ways of defiance were constantly being devised.
- Poona's youth, for example, took advantage of the fact that the road and the rail-track ran parallel for a long stretch between Lonavala and Poona. They climbed into a lorry and drove alongside the train carrying Simon and Company from Lonavala to Poona, waving black flags at them the entire way.
- In Lucknow, Khaliquzzaman executed the brilliant idea of floating kites and balloons imprinted with the popular slogan "Go Back Simon" over the taluqdars' reception for members of the Commission in Kaiserbagh.
- The use of lathi charges had become far too common, and even respected and senior leaders were not immune.
- Jawaharlal Nehru and Govind Ballabh Pant were beaten up by the police in Lucknow.
- The worst incident occurred in Lahore, where Lala Lajpat Rai, the most revered leader of Punjab at the time, was hit in the chest by lathis on 30 October 1928 and died as a result of his injuries on 17 November 1928. When Bhagat Singh and his comrades killed white police officer Saunders in December 1928, they were seeking vengeance for his death.
Youth participation in movement: A new generation of youth got their first taste of political action thanks to the Simon boycott movement. They were the ones who were most active in this protest, and they were the ones who gave it a militant flavour.
- Although a youth movement had formed by 1927, it was participation in the Simon agitation that gave a real boost to the formation of youth leagues and organisations across the country.
- Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose rose to prominence as the leaders of this new generation of students and youth, and they travelled from province to province, speaking at and presiding over countless youth conferences.
- The youth uprising also provided fertile ground for the germination and spread of the new radical socialist ideas that had begun to reach Indian shores.
- In 1927, Jawaharlal Nehru returned from Europe after representing the Indian National Congress at the League against Imperialism's Brussels Congress. He also travelled to the Soviet Union, where he was greatly influenced by socialist ideas. He shared his evolving perspective with the youth for the first time.
- Although Jawaharlal Nehru's role was undeniably the most important, other organisations and individuals also played an important role in popularising the socialist vision.
- Subhas Bose was one of these individuals, though his understanding of socialism was far less scientific and clear than Jawaharlal Nehru's.
- The Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Lahore and a small group of Communists who formed the Workers' and Peasants' Parties with the specific goal of organising workers and peasants and radicalising the Congress from within were the most important groups. As a result, young people who were drawn into the anti-imperialist movement became sympathetic to socialist ideas at the same time, and youth groups in some areas even developed links with workers' and peasants' struggles.
- Lord Birkenhead, the Conservative Secretary of State in charge of the Simon Commission's appointment, had harped on Indians' inability to come up with a concrete plan for constitutional reform that was supported by a broad spectrum of Indian political opinion.
- This challenge was also accepted, and meetings of the All-Parties Conference were held in February, May, and August 1928 to finalise a plan that became known as the Nehru Report after its principal author, Motilal Nehru.
- Dominion Status was defined in this report as India's preferred form of government. It also rejected the principle of separate communal electorates, which had been the foundation of previous constitutional reforms.
- Muslims would be given priority at the Centre and in provinces where they were a numerical minority, but not in provinces where they were the majority.
- The report also advocated for universal adult suffrage, women's equality, the right to form unions, and the separation of the state from religion in any form.
- In any case, a section of the Muslim League had disassociated itself from these discussions, but by the end of the year, it was clear that even the section led by Jinnah would not abandon the demand for Muslim seats, particularly in Muslim majority provinces.
Motilal Nehru and other secular leaders were caught in a difficult situation: if they gave in more to Muslim communal opinion, Hindu communalists would withdraw their support, and if they satisfied the latter, Muslim leaders would become estranged.
- After receiving no further concessions, Jinnah withdrew his support for the report and proposed his famous "Fourteen Points," which were essentially a reiteration of his objections to the Nehru Report.
Objection to Nehru report: Jawaharlal Nehru's young and radical nationalists had their own, very different objections to the Nehru Report. They were unhappy with the declaration of Dominion Status on the model of self-governing dominions as the foundation for India's future constitution. Complete Independence was their slogan.
Purna Swaraj: The battle was finally joined in December 1928, at the Congress's annual session in Calcutta. With the support of a large number of delegates, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Bose, and Satyamurthi pushed for the acceptance of ‘Purna Swaraj,' or complete independence, as the Congress's goal.
- Gandhiji, Motilal Nehru, and many other older leaders believed that the national consensus on Dominion Status, which had been achieved with such difficulty, should not be abandoned so quickly, and that the Government should be given two years to accept it.
- Under duress, the Government's grace period was shortened to a year, and the Congress decided that if the Government did not accept a constitution based on Dominion Status by the end of the year, the Congress would not only declare complete independence as its goal, but would also launch a civil disobedience movement to achieve it.
- A resolution containing this proposal was passed by a majority of the delegates, and amendments calling for immediate adoption of complete independence were defeated.
Gandhiji planning for direct action:
Gandhiji had been preparing the people for the future struggle in a variety of ways. For one thing, since his medical release from prison in 1924, he had been travelling nonstop across the country. He had already toured Kathiawad, Central Provinces, Bengal, Malabar, Travancore, Bihar, United Provinces, Kutch, Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Orissa by the beginning of 1929, many of them twice.
In his sixties, he embarked on a tour of Sind, then travelled to Delhi, Calcutta, Burma, and then back to Calcutta. He started a six-week tour of Andhra Pradesh in April, visiting 319 villages.
He was in Almora, in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, in June, and the plains of Uttar Pradesh in September.
He was in Lahore for the annual Congress session at the end of the year. He also wanted to go to Kohat in the North-West Frontier Province, but the government denied him permission.
Gandhiji summed up the significance of these mass contact tours when he said: ‘I travel because I fancy that the masses want to meet me. I certainly want to meet them. I deliver my simple message to them in few words and they and I are satisfied. It penetrates the mass mind slowly but surely.’
While Gandhiji had emphasised the constructive programme — khadi, Hindu-Muslim unity, and the abolition of untouchability — during his pre-1929 tours, he now began to prepare the people for direct political action.
In Sind, for example, he warned the youth to prepare for "the fiery ordeal," and the Congress Working Committee formed a Foreign Cloth Boycott Committee at his request to promote an aggressive boycott and public burning of foreign cloth.
In Calcutta, on March 4, 1929, Gandhiji led the charge in launching the campaign of public burning of foreign cloth by lighting a bonfire. His arrest warrants were issued by the government, but he was allowed to travel to Burma for his scheduled tour and face trial when he returned. His arrest sparked a nationwide bonfire of foreign clothing. When he returned to stand trial, a new wave of bonfires erupted in defiance of the government.
While the people must continue to make all kinds of preparations for civil disobedience, Gandhiji reminded them that civil disobedience had not yet begun, and that they must, for the time being, stay as close to the law as possible.
Apart from the preparations that the Congress was making at various levels, a number of other events kept political excitement at a fever pitch in 1929. On March 20, 1929, the government arrested thirty-one labour leaders, the majority of whom were Communists, and marched them to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, for trial. All sections of the national movement, including Gandhiji and the Congress, condemned their arrest. Protests were organised by youth organisations.
Other political incident in country:
Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt of HSRA were arrested on April 8, 1929, after throwing harmless bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly. Members of the HSRA went on a long hunger strike in prison, demanding better treatment for political prisoners and the death of one of them in September. On the 64th day of his hunger strike, Jatin Das sparked some of the country's most massive demonstrations.
In May 1929, a Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald was elected in the United Kingdom, and Viceroy Lord Irwin was summoned to London for consultations. The next step was an announcement of dominion status on October 15. He also stated that a Round Table Conference would be held as soon as the Simon Commission's report was completed.
Two days later, a meeting of major national leaders issued what became known as the Delhi manifesto, in which they demanded that it be made clear that the Round Table Conference's purpose was not to debate when Dominion Status should be granted, but to formulate a plan for its implementation.
On the 5th of November, 1929, a debate in the House of Lords raised serious doubts about British intentions, and on the 23rd of December, Irwin himself told Gandhiji and the others that he was unable to provide the assurance they demanded. Negotiations had come to an end, and the stage of confrontation was about to begin.