Civil Disobedience Movement - Causes, Spread and Limitations




Modern History

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Prelims: History of India and Indian National Movement.

Mains: Modern Indian History from about the middle of the eighteenth century until the present- significant events, personalities, issues.

Civil Disobedience Movement(1930) is regarded as the second major mass movement and a distinct advancement in widening the social reach of India's struggle for freedom after the Non-Cooperation Movement. Known also as Salt Satyagraha, it was also the first time when Congress put the objective of complete independence to the British authority as well as to the Indian masses.

The Civil Disobedience Movement was formally launched by Mahatma Gandhi on 6 April 1930 by breaking salt law after his historic Dandi March. It was followed by the widespread arrest of national leaders throughout the nation.

Background of the Civil Disobedience Movement

The primary factors that contributed to the conditions for the Civil Disobedience Movement included protests against the arrest of revolutionary leaders, India's pursuit of its own constitution, and a growing demand for complete independence following the rejection of Dominion status as proposed in the Nehru Report.

Calcutta Session of Congress (1928)

The session was presided over by Motilal Nehru, marked by the endorsement of the Nehru Report and the demand for Dominion status.

  • Demand for Dominion status:
    • Initially, it was proposed to have the Dominion status in two years. Still, the clash occurred between the old guard and the younger section of Congress (Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Bose, who proposed for complete independence).
    • As a consensus, the British were given a one-year grace period to grant dominion status to India by December 31, 1929, failing which Congress would start a Civil Disobedience Movement.

Irwin’s Declaration (October 1929)

To placate Indian nationalists, Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India, made a non-legal declaration to facilitate dominion status to India. The statement was regarding India's place in the British Empire.

  • Round Table Conference: A Round Table Conference was promised following the Simon Commission's report submission.
  • No Timeline: Non-mentioning of any timeline for the dominion status in the declarations frustrated the Congress, leading to the announcement of the Purna Swaraj resolution in the Lahore session. 

Delhi Manifesto (November 2, 1929)

A conference of prominent national leaders published the "Delhi Manifesto" on November 2, 1929, which outlined a number of prerequisites for attending the Round Table Conference. These demands included: 

  • Immediate adoption of the basic principle of dominion status.
  • Majority representation of the Congress at the conference.
  • An all-encompassing amnesty for political prisoners and a conciliation strategy.

Lahore Session (1929) and Purna Swaraj

The demands put forward in the Delhi Manifesto were rejected by Irwin. Subsequently, Jawaharlal Nehru was chosen as the president for the Lahore Session of the Congress, who had popularised the concept of Purna Swaraj. Major decisions taken during the Lahore Session included:

  • Purna Swaraj:
    • Complete independence was stated as the Congress's goal.
    • On 31 December 1929, the tricolour flag was hoisted at Lahore. 
    • The Round Table Conferences were to be boycotted by Congress. 
  • Independence Day pledge: It was decided to take the pledge on 26 January 1930, and it was decided that 26 January would be celebrated as Independence Day every year. 
  • Launch of Civil Disobedience Movement: It was announced that the movement would be started under the leadership of Gandhi.

Gandhi’s Eleven Demands

Looking for an effective formula, Gandhi proposed a minimum demand of 11 points to the British to accept or reject until January 31, 1930, which included:

  • Reduce rupee-sterling ratio to 1s 4d
  • Reduce Agricultural tax by 50% and make it a subject of legislative control
  • Eliminate the government's monopoly on salt and abolish the salt tax
  • Reduce military expenditure and salaries of highest-grade services
  • Release all political prisoners
  • Reform in the Criminal Investigation Department
  • Accept Postal Reservation Bill
  • Protect Indian Textiles 
  • Prohibition of intoxicants
  • Reserve coastal shipping for Indians
  • Allow popular control of the issue of firearm licences

Civil Disobedience Movement

With no response from the government regarding the 11 demands, Gandhi decided to launch the Civil Disobedience Movement. Among all the demands, he chose to violate the salt law because the British were inhumanely taxing this basic necessary item and had a near monopoly over it. It was a brilliant plan, though only a few could grasp its significance at the time of its announcement.

Dandi March

Gandhi announced the ‘Dandi March’ after informing Irwin in advance that he would break the salt laws.

  • Timeline:  Gandhi and his 78 supporters started the march from Ahmedabad to the Dandi coast on March 12, 1930, and reached it on April5, 1930.
    • He broke the salt regulations on April 6 and, thus, officially started the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • Form of protest:
  • Breaking of salt laws. 
  • Picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops.
  • Refusing to pay taxes
  • Giving up law practice.
  • Boycotting courts by refraining from litigation.
  • Resignation by government servants from their posts.
  • Adherence to the truth and non-violence as means to attain swaraj. 
  • Obedience of the local leaders after Gandhi’s arrest.

Spread of the Civil Disobedience Movement

Induced by Gandhi's extraordinary endeavours at Dandi, defiance of the salt laws spread throughout the country.

RegionAssociated LeadersSignificant Activities
Tamil NaduC. Rajagopalachari

- Break of salt law on the Tanjore coast by a march from Tiruchirapalli to Vedaranniyam (Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha)

- Picketing of foreign cloth shops

- Anti-liquor campaign


K. Kelappan

P. Krishna Pillai

- Organised salt marches ( Calicut to Poyannur)
Bengal Subhas Chandra Bose and J.M. Sengupta

- Salt satyagraha, anti-chaukidari tax and anti-Union Board agitation

- Collective protests and assault on officers who attempted to seize the property of those refusing to pay the chowkidari tax

PeshawarKhan Abdul Gaffar Khan

- Organisation of a volunteer brigade, ‘Khudai Khidmatgars’ (Red-Shirts)

- Refusal by Garhwal Rifles soldiers to fire on an unarmed crowd

DharasanaSarojini Naidu, Imam Sahib, and Manilal- Raid on the Dharasana Salt Works. (Gandhi was to lead the satyagraha but was already arrested.)
Bardoli and Kheda Region Sardar Patel

- No tax movement and refusal to pay land revenue

- Exodus of a large number of people from British India into the neighbouring princely states

United ProvincesJawaharlal Nehru

- No-revenue campaign

- No-rent campaign

BiharAmbika Kant Sinha

- Breaking of the salt law in Patna

- Salt satyagraha in Champaran and Saran

- Replacement of salt satyagraha by non-payment of chowkidari tax

OrissaGopalbandhu Choudhuri- Satyagraha in the coastal regions of Balasore, Cuttack, and Puri districts

Participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement

  • Urban areas: In the urban areas, the support for Gandhian ideology was less than that during the NCM.
    • Only a few lawyers gave up their practice, and a few students joined ‘national schools’ instead of government-controlled institutions. 
    • This was due to perhaps the popularity of revolutionary nationalists (especially Bhagat Singh). 
  • Muslims: Muslim participation was nowhere near the NCM, and there was even communal discontent in some places.
  • Merchants: There was solidarity with the nationalist movement by the Calcutta Marwaris headed by G.D. Birla.
  • Business class and Merchants: Business groups showed considerable support during the initial phase that filled the gap of other sections, especially Gujarati business communities.
  • Women: Women were active in picketing outside liquor stores, opium dens, and shops selling foreign clothing. It was a liberating experience for them. 
  • Peasants: Peasants organised numerous protests against the policies of the British Government and took part in them in large numbers.
  • Tribal: During the Civil Disobedience movement, tribal people launched a nonviolent protest (or Satyagraha) against these imposed restrictions.
  • Students: The Civil Disobedience Movement was heavily influenced by students and youth. They organised protests, strikes, and boycotts, and they took an active role in the Salt Satyagraha.

Truce period

Tribal and Peasant militancy, Congress leaders being in jail, and decreasing support of Rich peasants as well as Business classes in the later months of 1930 compelled Gandhi and Congress to retreat from the Movement.

Gandhi-Irwin Pact

The absence of Congress at the first Round Table Conference forced the government to release Gandhi and other members of the Congress Working Committee. Discussion between the government and Congress started for the 2nd RTC. It resulted in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The key elements of this agreement were:

  • The First Round Table Conference's accord was to be further discussed at a subsequent Round Table Conference.
  • Congress was to terminate the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • The British products boycott was to be likewise immediately lifted.
  • The Government agreed to withdraw ordinances promulgated about the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • Political prisoners who had not been accused of violent behaviour were to be released.
  • Penalties that had not been paid were supposed to be waived.
  • Those who had suffered during the movement were to get indemnities. 
  • All lands not yet sold to third parties were to be returned. 
  • Those government servants who had resigned were to be treated leniently. 
  • The government was to permit the collection and manufacture of salt freely to the people living within a specified area of the seashore.
  • Right to peaceful and non-aggressive picketing
  • INC was to participate in the second RTC. However, the government rejected Gandhi's demand for an investigation of police excess and commutation of the death sentence of Bhagat Singh.

Karachi Session, 1931

It was a special session of the Congress, held in Karachi in March 1931, to endorse the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Resolutions taken during the Karachi Session included:

  • Endorsement of the Delhi Pact or Gandhi-Irwin Pact.
  • Reiteration of the goal of Purna Swaraj
  • Adoption of resolutions on Fundamental Rights and National Economic Programme. 

Second Phase of Civil Disobedience Movement and Withdrawal

The second RTC did not result in any conclusion. Hence, Gandhi decided to resume the Civil Disobedience Movement.

  • Gandhi was arrested on 4 January 1932 and a series of ordinances against civil disobedience were promulgated.
  • The Government severely repressed the movement.
    • The Congress funds were confiscated, and buildings were occupied. 
    • The movement started to decline gradually due to heavy repression.
  • Towards the close of 1932, the movement had started tapering off; however, in one form or another, it continued till 1934.
  • Gandhi, being in jail, temporarily suspended the Civil Disobedience Movement in May 1933 and formally withdrew the movement in April 1934.

Assessment of the Civil Disobedience Movement

Despite not achieving its goals of, Purna Swaraj, the Movement occupies a special place in the history of India’s quest for freedom.

  • Not a failure for Congress: Congress could mobilise great political support and got moral authority that was reflected in the massive victory in the 1937 election.
  • More radical forms of Congress:
    • The resolution of Purna Swaraj and its attributes, declared in the Karachi Resolution, shows the drifting of Congress towards greater radicalisation. Examples: Fundamental Rights, Socialist Economic Policy, abolishing Zamindari, etc.
    • Further, a separate party, but overall supervision of Congress, called the Congress Socialist Party, was founded in 1934. It was founded by ideologically fabian socialists Jai Prakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Deva and Ram Manohar Lohia.
  • Equal treatment to Indians: Although many Congress supporters were considerably disappointed, especially the youth and peasants whose lands were not restored, they were also jubilant that Indians were treated for the first time as equals in signing the pact and holding the RTCs.

PYQs on Civil Disobedience Movement

Question 1: Bring out the constructive programmes of Mahatma Gandhi during the Non-Cooperation Movement and Civil Disobedience Movement. (UPSC Mains 2021)

Question 2: The Gandhi-Irwin Pact included which of the following? (UPSC Prelims 2020)

  1. Invitation to Congress to participate in the Round Table Conference
  2. Withdrawal of Ordinances promulgated in connection with the Civil Disobedience Movement
  3. Acceptance of Gandhiji’s suggestion for enquiry into police excesses
  4. Release of only those prisoners who were not charged with violence.

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

  1. 1 only
  2. 1, 2 and 4 only
  3. 3 only
  4. 2, 3 and 4 only

Answer: (b)

Question 3: Who of the following organized a march on the Tanjore coast to break the Salt Law in April 1930? (UPSC Prelims 2015)

  1. V. O. Chidambaram Pillai
  2. C. Rajagopalachari
  3. K. Kamaraj
  4. Annie Besant

Answer: (c)

Question 4: The 1929 Session of the Indian National Congress is of significance in the history of the Freedom Movement because the (UPSC Prelims 2014)

  1. attainment of Self-Government was declared as the objective of the Congress
  2. attainment of Poorna Swaraj Was adopted as the goal of the Congress
  3. Non-Cooperation Movement was launched
  4. decision to participate in the Round Table Conference in London was taken

Answer: (b)

FAQs on the Civil Disobedience Movement

The demand for Purna Swaraj was adopted in which session of the Congress?

The Purna Swaraj resolution was approved by the Indian National Congress on December 26, 1929, in the Lahore Session of Congress. The resolution called for "Purna Swaraj," or total independence from the British.

Where did Gandhiji start the Civil Disobedience Movement?

Gandhi started the Civil Disobedience Movement by leading the famous Dandi Salt March from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, where he broke the British government's salt law.

Which session of Congress approved the Gandhi-Irwin pact?

Karachi Session of INC in 1931, headed by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, approved and endorsed the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.

Who is famously known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’?

Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan was known as Badshah Khan and Frontier Gandhi. He had started the first Pashto political monthly Pukhtoon and organised a volunteer brigade, ‘Khudai Khidmatgars’, popularly known as the ‘Red-Shirts’, who were pledged to the freedom struggle and non-violence.

Who led Salt Satyagraha at Vedaranyam?

The Vedaranyam March took place in 1930 as a part of C. Rajagopalachari's civil disobedience movement. He led the march as a continuation of the Dandi March to protest the salt tax levied by the British on Indians. He was a close follower of Mahatma Gandhi.