Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement

Mahatma Gandhi organized the noncooperation movement in India in 1920 to transform the freedom movement from an elitist to a mass-based one and to oppose British rule actively and vigorously.

Summary of Event

Many Indians supported the British during World War I. These included Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as Mahatma Gandhi, who organized an ambulance brigade and recruited soldiers for the Indian army. At that time also, many Indians, again including Gandhi, believed that they could work with the British toward the granting of Indian independence, which the British had promised in 1917 as a reward for Indian support during World War I. This feeling of goodwill on the part of Indians turned to distrust and outright hostility and opposition during the years 1918 to 1920. One reason was a 1919 massacre of Indian protesters in Amritsar. Amritsar Massacre (1919) The British had passed new regulations that restricted Indian freedom, replacing strict laws passed during World War I that had expired, and the Indians were protesting these new laws. Another source of hostility was the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire by the British and their allies, which upset India’s Muslims. A third was the enactment of a series of new laws just after the end of the war that reduced some of the civil liberties Indians had come to expect. Noncooperation movement (India)
India;noncooperation movement
[kw]Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement (1920-1922)
[kw]Noncooperation Movement, Gandhi Leads a (1920-1922)
Noncooperation movement (India)
India;noncooperation movement
[g]India;1920-1922: Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement[04980]
[g]South Asia;1920-1922: Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement[04980]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;1920-1922: Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement[04980]
[c]Human rights;1920-1922: Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement[04980]
[c]Independence movements;1920-1922: Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement[04980]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;1920-1922: Gandhi Leads a Noncooperation Movement[04980]
Gandhi, Mahatma
Das, Chittaranjan
Nehru, Motilal

Thus on one hand the British were making liberal constitutional changes, as in the Government of India Act of 1919, Government of India Act (1919) which gave more Indians the vote and allowed more of them to sit in regional and national legislatures, while on the other hand they were also strengthening their own position through restrictive laws, such as those passed to control demonstrations in the Punjab against British rule, and through violence. The result was that by July, 1920, Gandhi and many other Indian supporters of British rule had changed their minds about the British. They had come to believe that the British would never grant equality, dignity, and freedom to Indians. Gandhi began to talk and write about his disaffection, saying that it was now his moral duty to work for the end of British rule, because it had revealed itself to be evil.

Mahatma Gandhi in 1925, using a spinning wheel, as he urged other Indians to do to produce their own cloth.

(Library of Congress)

More and more Indians joined the movement for independence in the first two decades of the twentieth century and expressed their opposition to British rule, but this was not a mass movement. The Indian National Congress Indian National Congress party was run by an elite group of politicians who were mostly Western-trained lawyers. The main activity of the Indian National Congress was an annual conference that met in one of the major cities. It was not a well-funded organization, it did not have a mass following, and it did not have a local-level base. The British, on the whole, approved of the Congress, its members, and how they went about conducting political life. Gandhi was consciously and deliberately to change all this through the noncooperation movement he organized in 1920.

Gandhi’s aim for the movement was not only to change how the Indian National Congress operated and how the struggle for independence was being waged but also to transform the very style of Indian politics. He believed that Indians had become too Westernized and that they were cooperating too much with the British. He wanted to end British rule but wanted to achieve this peacefully, possibly with the collaboration of the British themselves.

At the same time, Gandhi wanted to turn India away from the material values of the West and back to the simpler values of traditional India. He believed that by returning to indigenous daily practices Indians could undermine the British economy and transform their society. He revived the use of the spinning wheel, and the wearing of clothes made of hand-spun and hand-woven cloth (khadi) became a symbol of Congressmen. Gandhi believed that the crafts of hand spinning and hand weaving could bring some relief from poverty and help to alleviate unemployment in the villages. This would result in a change in the way Indians saw themselves and how they acted, and it would also Indianize the nationalist movement. The Indianization of the movement was further evidenced by the increasing use of Hindustani and other Indian languages rather than English. The end result was that Indians began to have more pride in their Indian heritage and their traditional way of life, and they began to believe that by following Gandhi they could fight for independence on their own terms and in their own style.

Without prior consultation with the leaders of the Congress, Gandhi announced on August 1, 1920, that the noncooperation movement would begin the following day. He knew that the British ruled India’s millions on a day-to-day basis with only a small number of officials and soldiers, and that they did so with the cooperation of the Indians. If Indians withdrew their cooperation, then the British raj (rule) would fall. Gandhi called this technique of nonviolent resistance Nonviolent resistance
Satyagraha (soul force).

Gandhi began the movement by returning the medals he had received from the British government in thanks for his ambulance work during previous wars. He called for the boycott of schools, of law courts, and of the forthcoming legislative council elections. He asked Indians not to buy British-made goods, and he asked them to surrender any titles and honorary offices the British had given them. He called for the burning of British-made cloth and the wearing of hand-spun cloth, a call to which Indians responded in large numbers, so that the wearing of Indian-made clothes became a symbol of support for Gandhi and his followers.

At first, reaction to Gandhi’s call for noncooperation was mixed. He had made his call, mostly through the press, before the Congress had a chance to meet and discuss the issue. Many Indians were unsure how to respond. Many of them had made careers and livelihoods for themselves and their families in the service of the British. In particular, lawyers such as Congress leader Motilal Nehru, one of the highest-paid advocates in India, had a very strong interest in the legal system. They did not want to lose their privileged position in society and the special relationship they had built up with the British.

Indian politicians also had benefited from British rule, especially as the legislatures had just been reformed and they were to receive privileges that would enhance their status and their salaries. They had fought long and hard to get reforms from the British, and although they certainly wanted independence, many of them believed it would come slowly and only through cooperation with the British. They were also afraid that Gandhi’s program would lead to social chaos and violence. The politicians came under pressure to support noncooperation, and they did not want to appear timid in the fight for freedom. The result was that over the next several months Gandhi won many to his cause, even if he did compromise by agreeing to gradual rather than immediate boycotts of schools and courts.

Gandhi’s call for noncooperation was heard all over India. People who had not been involved in politics before mobilized, invoked Gandhi’s name, called for noncooperation, and even organized campaigns in the rural areas. The surprise was that the movement was most successful in those parts of India—Sind (now part of Pakistan), Gujarat, Bihar, the United Provinces, and the Punjab—that for the most part had not been politically active in the past.

In August, 1920, the Indian National Congress approved the principle of noncooperation. Gandhi had persuaded the regular politicians, including the Congress leaders Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das, to support his movement, however reluctantly. Gandhi, in fact, took over leadership of the Congress when his supporters were elected to all the important positions in the party.

The noncooperation movement continued until 1922, when protests got out of hand and twenty-two policemen were trapped inside a police station and burned to death when a mob set fire to the building. Nonviolence was one of Gandhi’s cardinal principles, and when he heard about the murder of the policemen he called off the nationwide movement, to the surprise and dismay of many of his supporters. Nevertheless, through the noncooperation movement the Indian National Congress and the nationalist movement had become Gandhian.


Indians responded to the call for noncooperation in many different ways, from wearing Gandhi caps and abstaining from alcohol to committing acts of violence such as murder and arson. In the end, not very many Indians resigned from their positions with the government, boycotted British schools, or gave up their legal careers, and the noncooperation movement petered out after a little more than a year. The psychological impact of the movement, however, was enormous. Indians realized they could oppose British rule on an everyday basis, by refusing to pay rent, by refusing to obey police orders, by demonstrating in the streets, and by refusing to buy Western goods. Even more important, Indians began to think and talk about the end of British rule in India. From that point onward, the British were on the defensive. When Gandhi started his movement again in 1930, the masses followed him in even larger numbers.

Through the noncooperation movement Gandhi became a national figure, and by 1922 his reputation had spread throughout the subcontinent. Many Indians did not understand Gandhi’s teachings, but they followed him. He came increasingly to be known as the Mahatma (Great Soul) and revered as a saint. Gandhi, therefore, had become both political leader to Congress followers and holy man to the illiterate peasants. Both Gandhi and the British were amazed at how popular and renowned he had become not only in the big cities but also in the deepest countryside, where national politics had never before penetrated.

On March 10, 1922, Gandhi was arrested and charged with inciting disaffection toward the government. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Released early, in 1924, because of ill health, he returned to his ashram (a spiritual retreat or commune) and did not take an active part in Indian politics again until 1930. As he went to jail in 1922, not for the first time or for the last, he left real changes behind him. India now had a national leader. Gandhi had increased the Indian sense of nationhood, and the Indian National Congress was increasingly a national political organization. Because of Gandhi, it was difficult for any politician to operate in politics outside the Indian National Congress. The party was seen by many as the only representative of the people of India; it came to be identified with India itself. In addition, Gandhi was a very successful fund-raiser. Money flowed in to the party, enabling it to fund a broad range of activities and to hire full-time workers. The party organization spread to the provincial level and was found in all areas of British India.

The most important impact of the noncooperation movement was a dramatic increase in the depth of political awareness among Indians. People of all classes were mobilized and willing to engage in political activities. Their depth of consciousness in 1922 was greater than it had been in 1920, and although their levels of political activity would rise and fall depending on national politics and on how strongly they felt about local conditions and local issues, India would never be the same again. The movement not only raised people’s consciousness about nationalism and the nationalist movement but also made them more aware of caste and community differences, especially the difference between Hindus and Muslims. As a result of the raising of political consciousness and the increase in passions, people became more willing to fight to redress wrongs. This would eventually lead the Muslims to demand a separate country for themselves, Pakistan. Noncooperation movement (India)
India;noncooperation movement

Further Reading

  • Brown, Judith M. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Judith Brown has dedicated her career to the study of the life and career of Gandhi. The early chapters of this work aid the reader in understanding how Gandhi transformed the Indian political scene through his new idea of a noncooperation movement against British rule.
  • _______. Gandhi’s Rise to Power: Indian Politics, 1915-1922. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Excellent study of Gandhi’s rise to prominence and political power in India as well as one of the most detailed studies available of the noncooperation movement of 1920. Provides background to the events of the noncooperation movement and gives almost a day-to-day account of the movement.
  • Copley, Antony. Gandhi: Against the Tide. 1987. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A good brief introduction to Gandhi’s life and career. Includes information on the noncooperation movement and Gandhi’s technique of nonviolent opposition.
  • Erikson, Erik H. Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. 1969. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Written by a psychoanalyst, this work examines the psychology behind Gandhi’s method of opposition to the British. Describes in detail the inner workings of Gandhi’s mind and how he wanted to change the way Indians saw themselves and the British.
  • Fox, Richard G. Gandhian Utopia: Experiments with Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Written by an anthropologist, this work shows how Gandhi used symbols based in traditional Indian culture, such as ahimsa (nonviolence), in his noncooperation movement of 1920.
  • Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. 1929. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Essential to an understanding of how Gandhi himself saw the issues of his times. Covers Gandhi’s life up to 1920, before the noncooperation movement. Describes campaigns he conducted in South Africa and expounds on the principles of nonviolence that were the backbone of the noncooperation movement of 1920.
  • _______. Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings. Edited by John Dear. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. Collection of Gandhi’s writings is organized thematically, with topics including nonviolent resistance, the search for God, and the pursuit of truth. Includes a chronology as well as a list of sources and recommended readings.
  • Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Biography of Gandhi and evaluation of his life’s work inspired in part by India’s seeming abandonment of his vision of nonviolence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Includes bibliography and index.

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