The social and economic factors during World War I led to the emergence of Gandhi as an undisputed leader of masses. Examine.
Nationalist movement in India before the arrival of Gandhi has been described as “a movement representing the classes” as opposed to the masses. This implies that nationalist politics until this time was participated only by a limited group of Western educated professionals. One of the reasons why Gandhi’s philosophy and political programme had a wide popular appeal and led to the Gandhi’s emergence as an undisputed leader of masses was the social and economic environment of India during World War One.
Economic and social environment during the World War One:
- The most immediate outcome of war was a phenomenal increase in defence expenditure.
- The result was a huge national debt. This meant heavy war loans and rising taxes and since land revenue had been settled and could not be immediately enhanced, there was more indirect taxation on trade and industry. There were higher customs duties, an income tax, super tax on companies and undivided Hindu business families, excess profit tax and so on. Ultimately the burden of this new taxation fell on the common people, as it resulted in a phenomenal price rise.
- According to official calculations, price index on an all-India level rose from 147 in 1914 to 281 in 1920.
- This unprecedented price rise was partly due to taxes, partly due to transport and other economic dislocations.
- There was underproduction of food crops during the war period, caused by two extraordinary crop failures in 1918-19 and 1920-21, affecting large areas of United Provinces, Punjab, Bombay, Central Provinces, Bihar and Orissa.
- When there was already serious shortage of food for home consumption, export of food to feed the army fighting abroad continued. This resulted in near famine condition.
- The miseries of the people were further compounded by the outbreak of an influenza epidemic.
- All the sections of rural society had already been affected by the economic impact of war.
- Between the years of 1914 and 1923 forced recruitment for the army was going on without interruptions, leading to a steady accumulation of popular resentment in the countryside.
- While prices of industrial and imported goods and food crops were rising, affecting poor peasantry, that of exported Indian agricultural raw materials did not increase at the same pace. The outcome was a decline in export, rising stockpiles and falling acreage for commercial crops, causing a crisis in the market in 1917-19. This adversely affected the richer peasantry.
- During this period, there was a marked increase in the number of peasant proprietors being dispossessed and turned into tenants-at-will, and land passing into the lands of the non-cultivating classes.
- In some areas the mounting economic distress of the peasantry found expression in organised peasant protests, such as the Kisan Sabha movement in UP which started in 1918.
- The other major economic development during World War One was the growth of industries.
- Due to fiscal requirements, economic necessities and nationalist pressure, there was a change in official policy towards industrialisation, leading to noticeable developments in the jute and textile industries.
- Big industrialists were loyal to British but the small and middle traders had a series of grievances against the war-time taxes and the fluctuating rupeesterling exchange rates.
- Working class: The other important result of industrialisation was an expansion of the working class. The wartime and the post-war periods witnessed super profits for businessmen, but declining real wages for the workers. The obvious result was what Chelmsford described as a “sort of epidemic strike fever” that affected all the industrial centres in India.
Disillusioned youth and unique politics of Gandhi:
- The war also brought disillusionment for the educated youth, long mesmerized by the glitter of the West; suddenly they discovered the ugly face of Western civilisation.
The World War One thus brought in social and economic dislocations for nearly all the classes of Indian population and a climate of despondency greeted Gandhi, arriving in India with his background of a successful encounter with the British in South Africa. This accomplished the necessary social mobilisation for an impending mass upsurge under the leadership of Gandhi. Gandhi’s novel political ideology appealed to few wholly, but to many partially”, as everyone could find in it something to identify with.