The Non-cooperation movement was the first large-scale movement of the Indian masses against the British rule. This article traces the causes, result and significance of the movement.

Non-Cooperation Movement History: Causes, Result and Importance

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) entered the Indian political scene as a prominent figure only in 1916 but by 1919 he emerged as one of the most significant national leaders. His unique political thoughts, which arose from his spiritual beliefs, changed Indian politics and went on to play a significant role in awakening the political consciousness of the common masses. Many subsequent movements launched under his leadership centered on his main political ideologies of Satyagraha and Ahimsa, and played an important role in uniting people to fight for India’s independence. The Non-Cooperation Movement was the first of the three most important movements of India’s struggle for Independence – the other two being Civil Disobedience Movement and the Quit India Movement. The Non-cooperation movement or the Asahayaog Andolon was perhaps the biggest event in the history of India’s struggle for independence since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The movement was launched as a protest against the Rowlatt Act, the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre and the Khilafat movement.


Gandhi entered the Indian political arena around 1916 and initially his ideals were aligned towards the fairness of the British rule. Prior to entering the political scene whole-heartedly, he was involved in the quasi-political causes like demand for fair wages for cultivators of Champaran district of Bihar, peasants of the Kheda district in Gujarat and the textile workers of Ahmedabad. In his sense of sympathy towards the Government he even advocated to raise volunteers to be recruited as soldiers to fight on behalf of the English in the First World War. Like other contemporary political minds, he had assumed that, post war, the people of India would move towards self-governance rapidly. His assumptions proved wrong when the the Government promulgated the Rowlatt Act and disregarded the demands put forward by the Khilafat Movement. Closely spaced incidents like mobilization of the Martial Law in Punjab, the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, failure of the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms and the dismemberment of Turkey by the British following the Treaty of Severs in May 1920, incited widespread resentment among all sections of the people of India.
In the year 1919, the British Government passed a new rule called Rowlatt Act. Under this Act, the Government had the authority to arrest people and the power to keep them in prisons without any trial if they are suspected of anti-Raj activities. The Government also earned the power to refrain the newspapers from reporting and printing news.

Gandhi not only condemned the Bill out rightly, but also warned the British Government that the nation as such was not going to abide by any act which would deny civil rights. He stated,

“When the Rowlatt Bills were published, I felt that they were so restrictive of human liberty that they must be resisted to the utmost. I observed too that the opposition to them vas universal among Indians. I submit that no State, however despotic, has the right to enact laws which are repugnant to the whole body or the people, much less a Government guided by constitutional usage and precedent such as the Indian Government.”

As a protest against the Rowlatt Act, Gandhi urged the people to observe an All India Hartal on 6th April 1919. The unanimous success of this program led to many more demonstrations and agitations throughout the country. Punjab became the epicenter of violent upheavals with minor riots breaking out and Government taking tough measures to curb the growing unrest. It reached its climax when the British Indian Army troops under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, open fired on a crowd of non-violent protesters, along with Baishakhi pilgrims, who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, Punjab, as a consequence of imposition of Martial Law in Punjab. No other single incident in the history of modern India caused as much hostility towards the British Government as the Jallianwalla Bagh tragedy.

The Khilafat movement was another force behind the non-cooperation movement. Although not directly linked to Indian mainstream politics, the purpose of this movement put forward by Indian Muslim leaders was to pressurize the British to retain the Sultan of Turkey as the Khalifa of Islam post World War I, with appropriate dignity and territorial control. The twisted terms of the peace treaty that the British signed with Turkey were interpreted by many Indian Muslim leaders as a betrayal of the promise given by the British to them. The news of the Peace Treaty reached India on the same day as the Hunter Committee’s Report on cause and discourse of the government regarding the massacre in Punjab, was published. Both intensified widespread discontent against the British Government. In a letter to the Viceroy, Gandhi referred to the Khilafat and the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre, explaining how they have changed his outlook towards the Government’s intentions in India. He wrote,

“The attitude of the Imperial and Your Excellency’s Government on the Punjab question has given me additional cause for grave dissatisfaction……Your Excellency’s light-hearted treatment of the official crime, your exoneration of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Mr. Montagu’ s dispatch and, above all the shameful ignorance of the Punjab events and callous disregard for the feelings of Indians betrayed by the House of Lords, have filled me with the gravest misgivings regarding the future of the Empire, have estranged me completely from the present Government and have disabled me from tendering, as I have hitherto tendered my loyal Cooperation.”

In September, 1920, a special session of the Congress, presided by Lala Lajpat Rai, convened at Calcutta to address the course of action needed to be taken against such blatant malfeasance of human rights. The British government was criticized and condemned for their inability to protect innocent people in Punjab and for not keeping their promise on the Khilafat issue. Several resolutions were passed by the delegates, and the object of the Indian National Congress was now declared to be attainment of self-rule—Swaraj – by legitimate and peaceful means. Swaraj was taken to mean “self-rule within the Empire if possible, without, if necessary”.

Programs of the Non-cooperation Movement

Right after the commencement of the movement, Gandhi traveled the length and breadth of the country explaining the ideology and programs with an aim to reach people from all levels of the society. He organized rallies and spoke in public gatherings in a bid to gather public support and mobilize his ideals among the masses in favor of the movement. The programs of the movement are outlined as follows:

1. Surrender of all titles.

2. Renouncing honorary offices.

3. Withdrawing of students from government funded schools and colleges.

4. Boycott of British courts by lawyers and litigants.

5. Boycott of civil services, army and police.

6. Non–payment of taxes to the Government.

7. Boycott of council elections.

8. Boycott of foreign goods.

9. Resignation from government nominated seats in local bodies.

Phases of the Non-Cooperation Movement

The non-cooperation movement can be divided into four distinct phases from its beginning in January 1920 till its abrupt end in February 1922.

In the first phase (January–March 1920), Gandhi conducted a nationwide tour along with the Ali brothers to propagate his ideals and resolutions behind the movement. Thousands of students left government schools and colleges. Around 800 national schools and colleges were opened to accommodate the students. The academic boycott was most successful in Bengal. In Punjab, it was headed by Lala Lajpat Rai. Many renowned and established lawyers like Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Raja Gopalachari, Vallabhbhai Patel, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Asaf Ali, Rajendra Prasad and T. Prakasam gave up their practice. Students, intellectuals and other influential heads of the society were urged to take up the Charka (Spinning Wheel) program, to promote nationalist products.

During the second phase (April–July 1921), subscriptions were collected for the “Tilak Swaraj Fund” in order to finance the movement with a target of one Crore rupees. The common public was encouraged to become members of the Congress. The Fund was oversubscribed and one crore rupees collected, but the target of membership reached only 50 lakhs. The Charka (Spinning Wheel) was distributed among public. The Swadeshi concept became a household word. Khadi and Charka became a symbol of freedom.

In the third phase (July–November 1921), the movement became more radical. Foreign clothes were burnt publicly reducing their imports by half. People resorted to picketing shops selling foreign liquors and toddy shops. The All–India Khilafat conference was held at Karachi on 8 July 1921, where leaders called upon Muslim soldiers in the British Indian army to quit their jobs. Further, Gandhi and other Congress leaders also emphasized that it is the duty of every Indian citizen and soldier to break with the oppressive power. Gandhi called for volunteers to fill the jail. The Khilafat Conference in Malabar incited so much communal feelings among the Muslim peasants (The Moplahs) that it took an anti–Hindu turn in July 1921. This uprising of the Muslims peasants against the Hindu Landlords came to be known as the Moplah Rebellion. The tour of the Duke of Connaught to India was boycotted. In a similar way, in November 1921, mass demonstrations were held against the Prince of Wales during his tour of India. The British government resorted to strong measures of repression. Many leaders were arrested. The Congress and the Khilafat Committees were proclaimed illegal.

The fourth phase and final phase (November 1921–February 1922) of the movement saw citizens choosing not to pay taxes in several regions. In December 1921, the Congress in its annual session at Ahmedabad affirmed its resolve to intensify the movement. On 1 February 1922, in a letter to the Governor General, Gandhi spoke of non–payment of taxes. Gandhi threatened to launch civil disobedience from Bardoli, Gujarat, if the Government doesn’t release political prisoners and lift the press control imposed by the Rowlatt Act.

Barely a few days after this correspondence, the Chauri Chaura incident took place on 5 February 1922. An agitated mob of peasants attacked the police station of Chaura, near Gorakhpur in UP and burnt the establishment killing nearly 22 policemen. This violent event disturbed Gandhi and he ordered for the immediate suspension of the movement. Leaders were unhappy about Gandhi’s sudden decision to adjourn the movement, but accepted it out of respect.

Result of the Non-Cooperation Movement

The Non-Cooperation movement saw definite success despite its abrupt end. The movement and unified the nation in an unprecedented feat of protest against the Government. In the first few weeks of the movements, around 9 thousand students had left government-backed schools and colleges. About 800 national institutions were established across the country to accommodate students under the leadership of Acharya Narendra Dev, C.R. Das, Zakir Hussain, Lala LajpatRai, and Subhash Bose. Renowned institutions like Jamia Millia at Aligarh, Kashi Vidyapeeth, Gujarat Vidyapeeth and Bihar Vidyapeeth were established during this period. The educational boycott was most successful in Bengal followed by the Punjab. Areas of Bihar, Bombay, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Assam also saw active participation in the programs. The impact of the movement was also seen in Madras. The boycott of educational institutes was more successful than the boycott of law courts by the lawyers. Many prominent lawyers like, C.R. Das, Motilal Nehru, M.R. Jayakar, V. Patel, A. Khan, Saifuddin Kitchlew and many others gave up their flourishing law practices, which inspired many more to follow suit. Once again, Bengal led by example and that inspired other states like Uttar Pradesh, Andhra, Punjab and Karnataka. The boycott of law courts and educational institutes fared well but the most successful program of the Non-Cooperation was the boycott of foreign clothes. It reduced the value of import of the foreign clothes from 102 crore rupees in 1920-21 to 57 crore rupees in 1921-22.

The Government proclaimed Sections 108 and 144 of the code of criminal procedure at various centers of agitation. The Congress Volunteer Corpse was declared illegal. By December 1921 more than thirty thousand people were arrested from all over India. Except Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi, most of the prominent leaders were inside jail. In mid-December, Madan Mohan Malaviya initiated a negotiation with the British but that proved futile. The terms and conditions put forward by the British meant sacrificing the Khilafat leaders, which was unacceptable to Gandhi.

Gandhi’s sudden decision to stop the movement was met with discontent by leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Neheru who openly voiced their disappointments. They argued that the movement which had garnered enough enthusiastic participation from the masses against the British government should have been allowed to continue to reach its culmination. They feared that discontentment and protest might shape into violent protests leading to widespread riots in the country. Although their opinion that Gandhi’s decision will push back the freedom movement by several years was justified, one cannot ignore the arguments that Gandhi put forward in lines of morality of the same. He sincerely believed that violence like the Cauri Chaura incident marks a deviation from the ideals behind the whole movement which if allowed would take the movement out of control and would be rendered useless against the powerful military strength the British Government would resort to in order to crush it.

After the movement was suspended, the Government decided to deal with Gandhi strongly. He was immediately arrested on 10th March, 1922. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment and sent to Yaravada Central Jail at Poona.

The Non-Cooperation resolution garnered mixed responses from national leaders. While the likes of Motilal Nehru and Ali Brothers supported Gandhi’s resolution, it received opposition from prominent figures like Annie Besant, Pt. Malaviya and C.R. Das. They feared that large scale mass action against the British government would lead to violence on a wide scale, as occurred during the protest against the Rowlatt Act.

Significance of the Non-Cooperation Movement

Even though the Non-Cooperation movement did not achieve its stated aims but the strategic and leadership role of Mahatma Gandhi gave India’s freedom struggle new dimensions. The biggest gain of the movement was that it gave a new confidence to the common people and taught them to be fearless in their political pursuit. Mahatma Gandhi made the idea and need for Swarajya a more popular notion, which, in turn; created a new wave of patriotic enthusiasm. Satyagraha or protesting through passive resistance became the primary tool of the Indian freedom movement. Promotion of Charkha and Khadi as the symbol of Indian nationalism helped Indian handloom products gain recognition. Native weavers found renewed employment. The most significant contribution of Non-cooperation movement and Gandhi to Indian National movement was the unanimous unification of the entire nation behind a single cause.