Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 - January 30, 1948) 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.
Early life (1869 - 1893).
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born
into a Hindu family in Porbandar, Gujarat, India in 1869. He was the
son of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan (Chief Minister) 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 (in 1893) he accepted
a year-long contract from an Indian firm to a post in Natal, South
Civil rights movement in South Africa (1893 - 1914).
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
(Collected Works Volume II, page 74), 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 (devotion to the truth), 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 (including Gandhi
himself on many occasions), 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
During his years in South Africa, Gandhi drew inspiration from the
Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Leo Tolstoy (especially The Kingdom
of God is Within You ), 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 (available at wikisource), 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 (1914 - 1947).
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
(mostly British), 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
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 (Father) and Mahatma (Great Soul). 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 (independence). 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 (homespun cloth) 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
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 (248 miles)
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.