The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was a political agreement signed by the legendary Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the then Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin. It was signed before the second Round Table Conference in London on March 5, 1931. The pact ended the nonviolent civil disobedience movement (satyagraha) started by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Gandhi with the Salt March leading to his arrest and imprisonment. In the face of such unrest, which eventually took the shape of a nationwide civil disobedience movement witnessing arrests of thousands of Indians, including Jawaharlal Nehru, drew worldwide attention, Gandhi was released from prison and Irwin made negotiations with him to come up with the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The terms of the pact, however, excluded many of the conditions proposed by Gandhi.
Circumstances Leading to Gandhi-Irwin Pact
The people of India used to produce salt from sea water till the time the colonial government levied heavy tax on production of salt, made such sea-salt recovery illegal, applied force to curb such activities and compelled people to purchase high priced salt. Gandhi initiated the nonviolent civil disobedience with the Salt March, also famous as the Dandi Satyagraha and the Dandi March, to protest against the salt tax imposed by the British rule and its monopoly on salt. He planned to produce salt without paying salt tax from seawater along Dandi, a coastal village at a small town called Navsari, presently in the state of Gujarat in India. He started the Salt March from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, with 78 of his trusted followers. The march lasted for 25 days starting from March 12, 1930, to April 6, 1930, and all along the march, the group was joined by a large number of Indians. The British salt laws were broken by him on April 6, 1930, at 6:30 am which triggered several other civil disobedience acts by thousands of Indians opposing the British salt tax in India. He then planned his next protest against the British rule by conducting a non-violent raid at the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat and while reaching Dharasana along the coast he made salt from sea water and addressed several meetings on the way. He was, however, arrested on the midnight of 4–5 May 1930, prior to the raid. Satyagrahis in hundreds were beaten by British soldiers at Dharasana. Both the incidents of Salt March and Dharasana Satyagraha was covered by huge publications in newspaper and newsreel coverage thus drawing worldwide attention to India’s struggle for freedom raising the question of the very legitimacy of the British rule in India.
The Indian independence movement gained momentum and the Salt Satyagraha continued for close to a year with more than 60,000 Indians being jailed, while the atrocities of the British government in curbing such movements were gradually getting attention posing concern for the British in India.
In the face of such adversities that witnessed perhaps the strictest repression by the British regime, the British civil service and the commercial community advocated for more severe measures. However, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Ramsay MacDonald and the Secretary of State for India William Benn wanted to sort out things peacefully without reducing the strength and position of the Labour Party Government. The two were aware that to make the Round Table Conference a success they needed to have Gandhi and the Congress in the body. During the closing session of the Round Table Conference held in January 1931, Ramsay MacDonald expressed that he expected that Congress representation would be there at the next session. Getting a hint from the Premier, the then Viceroy of India Lord Irwin soon ordered an unconditional release of Gandhi and also of all Congress Working Committee members.
Earlier in October 1929, Irwin declared an imprecise offer for a ‘dominion status’ for India sometime in the future as also a discussion for a future constitution in a Round Table Conference. The satyagraha ended after Gandhi and other Congress Working Committee members were released from jail on January 26, 1931. Irwin invited Gandhi for talks and negotiations.
Talks and negotiations between Irwin and Gandhi began from the second half of February 1931 and included eight meetings running up to 24 hours. These were the proposed conditions:
- The Indian National Congress should stop the civil disobedience movement
- Release of people arrested for taking part in the civil disobedience movement
- Removal of salt tax; allowing to produce, trade, and sell legally
- Participation in the Round Table Conference by the Indian National Congress
- Withdrawal of all ordinances by the British Government that restrained the activities of the Indian National Congress
- Withdrawal of prosecutions for offences except those involving violence
Although many conservative British officials both in India and England were furious with the very concept of making such an agreement with a party who clearly and openly challenged the British rule in India, the British Government went on to strike a pact in order to tide over the insurmountable deadlock developed due to the nationwide unrest in India complimented with increasing international media attention. British politician, army officer, and writer, Sir Winston Churchill who later became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, expressed his angst on the issue and called Gandhi a “one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir” who in his half-naked attire visits the palace of the Viceroy to discuss and negotiate on equal terms the conditions of the pact with the King Emperor’s representative.
Following the meetings, the British Government agreed on certain conditions. These included concluding prosecutions and removal of all ordinances; all political prisoners excluding the ones guilty of violence be released; permission to peacefully protest against liquor and foreign cloth shops; restoration of the confiscated properties of the satyagrahis; withdrawal of ban on Congress; and to allow free salt collection and production to people near the seashore.
Signing of the Gandhi–Irwin Pact & Aftermath
The political agreement, famously known as the Gandhi Irwin Pact, was signed by Mahatma Gandhi, on behalf of the Indian National Congress, and Lord Irwin, on behalf of the British Government, before the second Round Table Conference that was held on March 5, 1931 in London, UK. The pact, however, failed to garner major concessions from the British Raj as it was glaringly lacking many terms proposed by Gandhi as the minimum ones required for a peaceful accord. The Congress ratified the pact in their annual session held in March that year in Karachi. However, after Major Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon, became the viceroy and the governor general of India on April 18, 1931, he ignored several provisions of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Gandhi nevertheless went on to attend the Round Table Conference on August 29, 1931, in England. After returning to India Gandhi was shocked to find that the Government had come up with severe ordinances violating and dishonouring the pact while a new wave of the civil disobedience movement started that included stalwarts like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru defying the severe repressive actions of Willingdon.