Dennis Dalton - Gandhi During Partition: A Case Study in the Nature of Satyagraha

The following article, which appeared 45 years ago, is a detailed account of the Calcutta satyagraha. Professor Dalton later published a full-length account of Gandhi's political activism: Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action; 1993, republished in 2000.

Dennis Dalton, Gandhi During Partition: A Case Study in the Nature of Satyagraha
in The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives 1935-1947; by C.H. Philips and M. D. Wainwright, (ed); 1970

The article begins thus:

An appreciation of Gandhi’s achievement at any given point in time requires, first, an examination of that point in time. His peculiar genius becomes evident not in terms of an abstract political philosophy, but rather within the historical context of a series of challenges and responses. The main concern of this paper is with one segment of this series. The challenge is seen here in the chronic communal violence and lawlessness that prevailed in Calcutta in the year preceding partition; that is ‘The Great Calcutta killing’ and its aftermath. The response occurs with Gandhi’s satyagraha in the city, beginning at the time of independence and culminating in his Calcutta fast of early September 1947. The paper is thus divided into two sections: the first attempts to reconstruct the atmosphere of India’s largest city in its year of unprecedented turmoil, and to convey the extent to which the processes of ordinary government had been undermined by forces of anarchy. The second section analyses Gandhi’s Calcutta satyagraha. It examines his response to the crisis there, and the manner in which the city responded to him. It concludes with an analysis of them main dynamics of Gandhi’s approach…

Calcutta, once the most lively if never the most comfortable city of India, is becoming almost unbearable to its inhabitants. Under the blight of communalism, it is from dusk onwards a city of the dead. Even by day, life is at a low ebb… Shadowed by past calamity, not daring to turn their eyes from a morbid present to a future without hope, [its citizens] drag out meaningless lives, thankful only from day to day that these are still safe from the goonda and the housebreaker. They ask themselves if such terrible conditions are to be permanent and find no answer. If Calcutta passes two ‘quiet’ days in succession, hope revives – to fall again as the third day brings news of fresh outrages.’

This is The Statesman, Calcutta’s leading newspaper, writing in May 1947, no longer with indignation, but in despair. In such an atmosphere of quiet agony all of Calcutta had acquiesced by mid 1947…

download the full essay here:



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