The Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who dominated the Indian political scene for three decades, became an internationally acclaimed person for his nonviolent path of struggle to achieve Indian independence from British colonial rule.
Through ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (true force, nonviolent protest), he led one of the largest mass movements in world history. Gandhi dedicated his life to the quest for truth and justice. He was called the mahatma (noble soul). In his varied career he led the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, conducted passive resistance against the British, and dedicated his life to the uplift of millions of Indians. Gandhi had been criticized and vilified but remained true to his convictions and led a life of austerity and simplicity. He was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, India, on October 2, 1869, to Karamchand and Putlibai. Gandhi was greatly influenced by the honesty and integrity of his father, who served as prime minister in the state of Rajkot. Putlibai’s religious nature created a lasting impression on Gandhi. He married at the age of 13 to Kasturbai, a noble lady of high moral character. Gandhi was also deeply moved by the saga of honesty, sacrifice, and dedication in Hindu mythology. After finishing his schooling he went to the Inner Temple in London in November 1888. He came back to India after three years and left for South Africa in 1893 to take up a legal career.
Gandhi’s 20-year stay in South Africa was instrumental in the blossoming of his philosophy and his course of action against injustice. Humiliating experiences and the racial arrogance of the whites there made him determined to fight against apartheid. The official discrimination against nonwhites caused him to help the minority community of Indians. His creed was one of peaceful coexistence of all communities, regardless of color or religion.
Gandhi charted out a course of action of passive resistance against the government by demonstrations. He was deeply influenced by the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, Jainism, the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the literature of U.S. author Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), English writer John Ruskin (1819–1900), and Russian Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). In a campaign of passive resistance, nonviolence was the driving force, and noncooperation was the action itself. Gandhi organized campaigns and demonstrations against humiliating laws applied to nonwhites. He set up the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 to redress the grievances of Indian immigrants. Gandhi became a prominent figure and was engaged in civil rights issues. He was in India twice for short visits and acquainted the editors of newspapers and Indian National Congress (INC) leaders with the conditions in South Africa. Gandhi journeyed on trains and was appalled by the condition of common Indians.
On his return to South Africa he changed his lifestyle to one of utter simplicity and also undertook to fast. Gandhi did not see the British as the enemy and was prepared to help them in case of need. At the time of the Boer War, he organized the Indian ambulance corps. Gandhi was a prolific writer, and he wrote Hind Sawraj (Self-government of India) and published a journal, Indian Opinion, in 1904. He began to experiment with many novel ideas in the community firm that he set up in Phoenix. In 1910 he established another cooperative colony (Tolstoy Farm) for Indians near Durban. Gandhi organized a satyagraha against the obnoxious laws of the Transvaal government, which required the registration of Indians. Gandhi was jailed several times during the agitation. General Jan Christiaan Smuts at last conceded to many of Gandhi’s demands and brought about reforms. Gandhi decided to return to India.
Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, two days before Gandhi reached London. He organized a medical corps in August 1914. After his return to India the next year, he urged the people to support the British in their time of crisis. The colonial government rewarded him with a medal, and he earned the sobriquet “recruiting agent of the government.” Gandhi traveled the length and breadth of India. He took up the cause of indigo cultivators in Champaran and workers in Ahmedabad mills. He was emerging as a mass leader and gave a new direction to the Indian freedom movement under the congress. It became an umbrella organization that drew support from all classes of the population. The Congress Party underwent a thorough revamping due to Gandhi’s organizational skill. Gandhian era in the Indian nationalist struggle began in 1919. After the draconian Rowlatt Act, which empowered the authorities to arrest and detain without trial, was passed, Gandhi called for a general strike in April 1919. The government suppressed the agitation, and the brutality of colonial masters was evident after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of April 13. A large number of Muslims joined the congress after Gandhi’s support of the Khilafat movement, which fought to preserve the authority of the Ottoman sultan.
With the noncooperation movement under Gandhi’s leadership, a new phase of struggle against the British Raj began. A special session of the AICC met in Calcutta in September 1920 to start the movement with a boycott of educational institutions, law courts, elections, and legislatures. There was to be the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity, along with use of homespun garments of khaddar. The goal was the attainment of swaraj, or self-government. The December annual session held in Nagpur endorsed the idea. A large number of students, women, peasants, and workers from different parts of the country participated. Demonstrations and strikes greeted the November 1921 visit of the prince of Wales. Noncooperation and Khilafat went hand in hand under Gandhi, who had renounced the title of kaiser-i-hind that had been conferred on him by the British. Following a policy of repression, the government banned the Khilafat and congress.
After police fired on demonstrations on February 5, 1922, at Chauri Chaura in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh, the police station was attacked, resulting in the death of 22 police personnel. Gandhi was stunned by this path of violence and suspended the noncooperation movement. He was steadfast in his commitment to nonviolent methods. Freedom through violence was not on his agenda. People in general and INC leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) and Subhas Chandra Bose (1897–1945) were annoyed by the decision, and some congressmen, like Motilal Nehru (1861–1931), launched a program of council entry through the newly formed Swaraj Party of 1923. Gandhi was arrested in March 1922 and given six years’ imprisonment for treason in an Ahmedabad court.
Gandhi was not only interested in swaraj, but also in the social and economic emancipation of the people. He was a crusader for economic and social reforms. His emphasis on swadeshi meant the use of hand-made goods from his home country rather than foreign machine-made goods. People were mobilized to boycott foreign goods. Handicraft was emphasized in education also. The hand weaving of dresses and the development of handicrafts, Gandhi hoped, would be a panacea for India’s poverty, economic backwardness, and unemployment. Gandhi’s economic philosophy
was also part of his strategy against colonial rule, as the boycott of foreign goods would adversely affect British industry. Gandhi was not opposed to industrial revolution per se, but he desired to create a framework, keeping in mind the economic condition of India under alien rule.
Gandhi was back on the political scene in 1930 with his movement of civil disobedience. He launched the salt satyagraha with his famous Dandi March in March 1930. He and his followers covered a distance of 241 miles to the Arabian Sea to make salt. These civil disobedience movements witnessed participation in large numbers by tribal people, peasants, and women. Gandhi was arrested in May, but the British government agreed to negotiations. The movement was suspended by the pact signed between Gandhi and Viceroy of India Lord Irwin (1881–1959) in March 1931. He also was the INC delegate to the Second Round Table held in London, but the British government refused to grant self-government to the Indians. Gandhi was jailed again, and the civil disobedience movement was withdrawn by him in May 1934.
Gandhi devoted himself to social and economic reconstruction work. Indian politics began to change at the time of World War II. Gandhi had a difference of opinion with Subhas Bose, who parted from the congress. The British were not in a mood to give independence, and Gandhi launched another movement. With the call of “Do or Die,” the Quit India Movement was launched on August 8, 1942, and spread throughout the country. The British could not hold to the empire after the war due to domestic difficulties and offered India independence. India experienced unprecedented communal violence, and Gandhi toured the riot-affected area in support of Hindu-Muslim unity. The demand for the creation of Pakistan had been raised, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) was relentless in his pursuit of the two-nation theory. Talks between Jinnah and Gandhi failed. Partition was inevitable. Gandhi’s insistence that Pakistan should get its due share of monetary assets angered Hindu fundamentalists. A fanatic named Nathuram Godse (1910–49) assassinated him on January 30, 1948, while he was on his way to evening prayers.
Patit Paban Mishra