Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a national icon who led the struggle for India’s independence from British colonial rule, empowered by tens of millions of common Indians. Throughout the struggle he opposed any form of terrorism or violence, instead using only the highest moral standards.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a Hindu family in Porbandar, Gujarat, India in 1869. He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan of Porbandar, and Putlibai, Karamchand’s fourth wife, a Hindu of the vaishnava sect. Growing up with a devout Vaishnava mother and surrounded by the Jain influences of Gujarat, Gandhi learned from an early age the tenets of non-injury to living beings, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and mutual tolerance between members of various creeds and sects. He was born into the vaishya, or business, caste. In May 1882, at the age of 13, Gandhi was married through arrangement to Kasturba Makharji, who was the same age as he. They had four sons: Harilal Gandhi, born in 1888; Manilal Gandhi, born in 1892; Ramdas Gandhi, born in 1897; and Devdas Gandhi, born in 1900.
Gandhi was a mediocre student in his youth at Porbandar and later Rajkot, barely passing the matriculation exam for the University of Bombay in 1887, and joining Samaldas College, Bhavnagar. He did not stay there long, however, as his family felt he must become a barrister if he were to continue the family tradition of holding high office in Gujarat. Unhappy at Samaldas College, he leapt at the opportunity to study in England, which he viewed as “a land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilization”.
At the age of 19, Gandhi went to University College London to train as a barrister. His time in London, the
Imperial capital, was influenced by a vow he had made to his mother upon leaving India to observe the Hindu precepts of abstinence from meat and alcohol. Although Gandhi experimented with becoming “English”, taking dancing lessons for example, he could not stomach his landlady’s mutton and cabbage. She pointed him towards one of London’s few vegetarian restaurants. Rather than simply go along with his mother’s wishes, he read about, and intellectually converted to vegetarianism. He joined the Vegetarian Society, was elected to its Executive Committee, and founded a local chapter. He later credited this with giving him valuable experience in organising and running institutions. Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society, which had been founded in 1875 by H. P. Blavatsky to further universal brotherhood. The Theosophists were devoted to the study of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmanistic literature. They encouraged Gandhi to read the Bhagavad Gita. Although he had not shown a particular interest in religion before, he began to read works of and about Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions.
He returned to India after being admitted to the British bar. Trying to establish a law practice in Bombay, he had limited success. By this time, the legal profession was overcrowded in India, and Gandhi was not a dynamic figure in a courtroom. He applied for a part-time job as a teacher at a Bombay high school but was turned down. He ended up returning to Rajkot to make a modest living drafting petitions for litigants but was forced to close down that business as well when he ran afoul of a British officer. In his autobiography, he describes this incident as a kind of unsuccessful lobbying attempt on behalf of his older brother. It was in this climate that he accepted a year-long contract from an Indian firm to a post in Natal, South Africa.
Civil rights movement in South Africa.
At this point in his life, Gandhi was a mild-mannered, diffident, politically indifferent individual. He had read his first newspaper at age 18 and was prone to horrible stage fright when speaking in court. South Africa changed him dramatically as he faced the humiliation and oppression that was commonly directed at Indians in that country. One day in court in the city of Durban, the magistrate asked him to remove his turban, which he refused to do, and Gandhi stormed out of the courtroom. A turning point in his life, often acknowledged in biographies, that would serve as the catalyst for his activism occurred several days later when he began a journey to Pretoria. He was literally thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from first class to a third class compartment, normally used by coloured peoples, while travelling on a valid first class ticket. Later, travelling further on by stagecoach, he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the footboard to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from many hotels on account of his race. This experience led him to more closely examine the hardships his people suffered in South Africa during his time in Pretoria.
It was in South Africa through witnessing racism, prejudice and injustice first-hand that he started to question his countrymens status and his own place in society. In fact Gandhi has been accused of racism himself through some of his remarks made in his early life against the native Africans. Addressing a public meeting in Bombay on September 26, 1896 , Gandhi said:
“Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.
When Gandhi’s contract was up, he prepared to return to India. However, at a farewell party in his honor in Durban, he happened to glance at a newspaper and learned that a bill was being considered by the Natal Legislative Assembly to deny the vote to Indians. When he brought this up with his hosts, they lamented that they did not have the expertise necessary to oppose the bill and implored Gandhi to stay and help them. He circulated several petitions to both the Natal Legislature and the British government in opposition to the bill. Though unable to halt the bill’s passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. Supporters convinced him to remain in Durban to continue fighting against the injustices levied against Indians in South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 with himself as secretary. Through this organization, he formed the Indian community of South Africa into a heterogeneous political force, inundating government and press alike with statements of Indian grievances and evidence of British discrimination in South Africa. Gandhi returned briefly to India in 1896 to bring his wife and children to live with him in South Africa. When he returned in January 1897, a white mob attacked and tried to lynch him. In an early indication of the personal values that would shape his later campaigns, he refused to press charges on any member of the mob, stating it was one of his principles not to seek redress for a personal wrong in a court of law.
At the onset of the South African War, Gandhi argued that Indians must support the war effort in order to legitimize their claims to full citizenship, organising a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured laborers. At the conclusion of the war, however, the situation for the Indians did not improve, but continued to deteriorate. In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new act compelling registration of the colony’s Indian population. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg that September, Gandhi adopted his platform of satyagraha, or non-violent protest, for the first time, calling on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the punishments for doing so rather than resist through violent means. This plan was adopted, leading to a seven-year struggle in which thousands of Indians were jailed, flogged, or even shot, for striking, refusing to register, or engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance. While the government was successful in repressing the Indian protesters, the public outcry stemming from the harsh methods employed by the South African government in the face of peaceful Indian protesters finally forced South African General Jan Christian Smuts to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi.
During his years in South Africa, Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Leo Tolstoy, who in the 1880s had undergone a profound conversion to a personal form of Christian anarchism. Gandhi translated Tolstoy’s A Letter to a Hindu, written in 1908 in response to aggressive Indian nationalists. The two corresponded until Tolstoy’s death in 1910. The letter by Tolstoy applies Hindu philosophy from the Vedas and the sayings of Krishna to the growing Indian nationalism. Gandhi was also inspired by the American writer Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay Civil Disobedience. Gandhi’s years in South Africa as a socio-political activist were when the concepts and techniques of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance were developed. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Gandhi decided to return to India, bringing all that he had learned from his experiences in South Africa with him.
Movement for Indian Independence.
As he had done in the South African War, Gandhi urged support of the British War effort and was active in encouraging Indians to join the army. His rationale, opposed by many others, was that if he desired the full citizenship, freedoms and rights in the Empire, it would be wrong not to help in its defense. He spoke at the conventions of the Indian National Congress, but was primarily introduced to Indian issues, politics and the Indian people by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, at the time the most respected leader of the Congress Party.
Gandhi’s first major achievements came in 1918 with the Champaran agitation and Kheda Satyagraha, although in the latter he was involved at par with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who acted as his right-hand and leader of the rebels. In Champaran, a district in the state of Bihar, he organized civil resistance on the part of tens of thousands of landless farmers and serfs, and poor farmers with small lands, who were forced to grow indigo and other cash crops instead of the food crops necessary for their survival. Suppressed by the ruthless militias of the landlords, they were given measly compensation, leaving them mired in extreme poverty. The villages were kept extremely dirty and unhygienic, and alcoholism, untouchability and purdah were rampant. Now in the throes of a devastating famine, the British levied an oppressive tax which they insisted on increasing in rate. The situation was desperate. In Kheda in Gujarat, the problem was the same.
Gandhi established an ashrama there, organizing scores of his veteran supporters and fresh volunteers from the region. He organized a detailed study and survey of the villages, accounting the atrocities and terrible episodes of suffering, including the general state of degenerate living. Building on the confidence of villagers, he began leading the clean-up of villages, building of schools and hospitals and encouraging the village leadership to undo purdah, untouchability and the suppression of women.
But his main assault came as he was arrested by police on the charge of creating unrest and was ordered to leave the province. Hundreds of thousands of people protested and rallied outside the jail, police stations and courts demanding his release, which the court unwillingly did. Gandhi led organized protests and strike against the landlords, who with the guidance of the British government, signed an agreement granting more compensation and control over farming for the poor farmers of the region, and cancellation of revenue hikes and collection until the famine ended. It was during this agitation, that Gandhi was addressed by the people as Bapu and Mahatma. In Kheda, Patel represented the farmers in negotiations with the British, who suspended revenue collection and granted relief. All prisoners were released. Gandhi’s resulting fame spread like fire all over the nation. He had become a defining influence on Indian Nationalism.
In February 1919, when the Rowlatt Act, empowering the government to imprison those accused of sedition without trial, was passed. Gandhi and the Congress Party organized major protests and strikes, all of a non-violent character around the nation. All major Indian cities and towns shut down, and the government machinery had to be taken over by the Army. Thousands of people were arrested, and martial law was imposed in many parts of the country. In Punjab, the Amritsar Massacre of 379 civilians by British and Indian troops caused deep trauma to the nation, and increased public anger and acts of violence.
Gandhi criticized both the actions of the British, and the retaliatory violence of Indians. He famously authored the resolution offering condolences to British civilian victims and condemning the riots, which after initial opposition in the party, was accepted after Gandhi made an emotional speech pushing forth his principle that all violence was evil and could not be justified. Indians should not become guilty of the racial hate carried by the British, and should not punish innocent British civilians.
But it was after the massacre and violence, that Gandhi realized that not only Indians were unprepared for mass scale resistance, but also that the British rule in India was evil and inherently oppressive. Gandhi’s mind focused upon obtaining complete self-government and control of all Indian government institutions, maturing soon into Swaraj or complete individual, spiritual, political independence.
In April 1920, Gandhi was elected president of the All-India Home Rule League. He was invested with executive authority on behalf of the Indian National Congress in December 1921. Under Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, with the goal of swaraj. Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee. A hierarchy of committees was set up to improve discipline and control over a hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement, transforming the party from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal. Gandhi expanded his non-violence platform to include the swadeshi policy – the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially British goods. Linked to this was his advocacy that khadi be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles. Gandhi exhorted Indian men and women, rich or poor, to spend time each day spinning khadi in support of the independence movement. This was a strategy to inculcate discipline and dedication to weed out the unwilling and ambitious, and include women in the movement at a time when many thought that such activities were not ‘respectable’ for women. In addition to boycotting British products, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British educational institutions and law courts, to resign from government employment, to refuse to pay taxes, and to forsake British titles and honours. This new program enjoyed wide-spread appeal and success, empowering the Indian people as never before, yet just as the movement reached its apex, it ended abruptly as a result of a violent clash in the town of Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, in February 1922. Fearing that the movement was about to take a turn towards violence, and convinced that this would be the undoing of all his work, Gandhi called off the campaign of mass civil disobedience. Now vulnerable, Gandhi was arrested on March 10, 1922, tried for sedition, and sentenced to six years. This was not the first time he had been jailed, but it was to be his longest term of imprisonment. Beginning on March 18, 1922, he only served about two years of the sentence, being released in February 1924 after an operation for appendicitis.
Without Gandhi’s forceful personality to keep his colleagues in check, the Indian National Congress began to splinter during his years in prison, splitting into two factions, one led by Chitta Ranjan Das and Motilal Nehru favoring party participation in the legislatures, and the other led by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, opposing this move. Furthermore, cooperation among Hindus and Muslims, which had been strong at the height of the nonviolence campaign, was breaking down. Gandhi attempted to bridge these differences through many means, including a three-week fast in the autumn of 1924, but with limited success.
Gandhi stayed out of the limelight for most of the 1920s, preferring to resolve the wedge between the Swaraj Party and the Indian National Congress, and expanding initiatives against untouchability, alcoholism, ignorance and poverty. He returned to the fore in 1928. The year before, the British government appointed a new constitutional reform commission under Sir John Simon numbering not a single Indian in its ranks. The result was a boycott of the commission by Indian political parties. Gandhi pushed through a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in December 1928 calling on the British government to grant India dominion status within a year or face a new campaign of non-violence with complete independence for the country as its goal.
January 26, 1930 was celebrated by the Indian National Congress, meeting in Lahore as India’s Independence Day. This day was commemorated by almost every other Indian political organization which strived for the country’s independence or the socio-political empowerment of different peoples.
Making good on his word in March 1930, he launched a new satyagraha against the tax on salt, highlighted by the famous Salt March to Dandi from March 21 to April 6, 1930, marching 400 kilometres from Ahmedabad to Dandi to make his own salt. Thousands of Indians joined him on this march to the sea. This campaign was one of his most successful, resulting in the imprisonment of over 60,000 people. The government, represented by Lord Irwin, decided to negotiate with Gandhi.
The Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed in March 1931. In it, the British Government agreed to set all political prisoners free in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement. Furthermore, Gandhi was invited to attend the Round Table Conference in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. The conference was a disappointment to Gandhi and the nationalists as it focused on the Indian princes and Indian minorities rather than the transfer of power. Furthermore, Lord Irwin’s successor, Lord Willingdon, embarked on a new campaign of repression against the nationalists.
Gandhi was again arrested, and the government attempted to destroy his influence by completely isolating him from his followers. This tactic was not successful. In 1932, through the campaigning of the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar, the government granted untouchables separate electorates under the new constitution. In protest, Gandhi embarked on a six-day fast in September 1932, successfully forcing the government to adopt a more equitable arrangement via negotiations mediated by the Dalit cricketer turned political leader Palwankar Baloo. This began a new campaign by Gandhi to improve the lives of the untouchables, whom he named Harijans, the children of God. On May 8, 1933 Gandhi began a 21-day fast to protest British oppression in India. In the summer of 1934, three unsuccessful attempts were made on his life.
When the Congress Party chose to contest elections and accept power under the Federation scheme, Gandhi decided to resign from party membership. He did not at all disagree with the party’s move, but felt that if he resigned, his iconic status to common Indians would cease to stifle the party’s membership, that actually varied from communists, socialists, trade unionists, students, religious conservatives, pro-business and property rights. Gandhi also did not want to prove a target for Raj propaganda by leading a party that had temporarily accepted political accomodation with the Raj.
Gandhi returned to the head in 1936, with the Nehru presidency and the Lucknow session of the Congress. Although Gandhi desired a total focus on the task of winning independence and not speculation about India’s future government, Gandhi did not restrain the Congress from adopting socialism as its goal.
Gandhi also criticized Subhas Chandra Bose and his rise to the presidency in 1938. While some historians suggest this was a power struggle between two iconic leaders, Gandhi basically objected to Bose’s lack of commitment to non-violence and democracy, which Gandhi felt were fundamental to the struggle. Bose’s desire to launch a widespread revolt against the British did not include the provision that all rebels use non-violent means, and Bose focused his first year of presidency on bringing in close supporters into leadership.
Bose won his second term despite Gandhi’s criticism, but left the Congress when the All-India leaders resigned en masse in protest of his abandonment of principles introduced by Gandhi in the early 1920s. In 1938-1939, all elected Congressmen resigned their offices as the Congress protested the unilateral inclusion of India into World War II without consultation of elected representatives.
He continued his fight against untouchability, promoted handspinning and other cottage industries, and attempted to create a new system of education suited to the rural areas. He lived a simple life during these years at a village in central India called Sevagram. He underwent another fast at the end of the decade in Bombay on March 3, 1939.