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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian revolutionary religious leader who used his religious power for political and social reform. Although he held no governmental office, he was the prime mover in the struggle for independence of the world's second-largest nation.

Mohandas Gandhi was born on Oct. 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a seacoast town in the Kathiawar Peninsula north of Bombay. His wealthy family was of a Modh Bania subcaste of the Vaisya, or merchant, caste. He was the fourth child of Karamchand Gandhi, prime minister to the raja of three small city-states. Gandhi described his mother as a deeply religious woman who attended temple service daily. Mohandas was a small, quiet boy who disliked sports and was only an average student. At the age of 13 he was married without foreknowledge of the event to a girl of his own age, Kasturbai. The childhood ambition of Mohandas was to study medicine, but as this was considered defiling to his caste, his father prevailed on him to study law instead.

Gandhi went to England to study in September 1888. Before leaving India, he promised his mother he would abstain from eating meat, and he became a more zealous vegetarian abroad than he had been at home. In England he studied law but never became completely adjusted to the English way of life. He was called to the bar on June 10, 1891, and sailed for Bombay. He attempted unsuccessfully to practice law in Rajkot and Bombay, then for a brief period served as lawyer for the prince of Porbandar.

South Africa: The Beginning

In 1893 Gandhi accepted an offer from a firm of Moslems to represent them legally in Pretoria, capital of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa. While traveling in a first-class train compartment in Natal, Gandhi was asked by a white man to leave. He got off the train and spent the night in a train station meditating. He decided then to work to eradicate race prejudice. This cause kept him in South Africa not a year as he had anticipated but until 1914. Shortly after the train incident he called his first meeting of Indians in Pretoria and attacked racial discrimination by whites. This launched his campaign for improved legal status for Indians in South Africa, who at that time suffered the same discrimination as blacks.

In 1896 Gandhi returned to India to take his wife and sons to Africa. While in India he informed his countrymen of the plight of Indians in Africa. News of his speeches filtered back to Africa, and when Gandhi reached South Africa, an angry mob stoned and attempted to lynch him.

Spiritual Development

Gandhi began to do menial chores for unpaid boarders of the exterior castes and to encourage his wife to do the same. He decided to buy a farm in Natal and return to a simpler way of life. He began to fast. In 1906 he became celibate after having fathered four sons, and he extolled Brahmacharya (vow of celibacy) as a means of birth control and spiritual purity. He also began to live a life of voluntary poverty.

During this period Gandhi developed the concept of Satyagraha, or soul force. Gandhi wrote: "Satyagraha is not predominantly civil disobedience, but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of truth." Truth was throughout his life Gandhi's chief concern, as reflected in the subtitle of his Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Truth for Gandhi was not an abstract absolute but a principle which had to be discovered experimentally in each situation. Gandhi also developed a basic concern for the means used to achieve a goal, for he felt the means necessarily shaped the ends.

In 1907 Gandhi urged all Indians in South Africa to defy a law requiring registration and fingerprinting of all Indians. For this activity Gandhi was imprisoned for 2 months but released when he agreed to voluntary registration. During Gandhi's second stay in jail he read Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience," which left a deep impression on him. He was influenced also by his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy in 1909-1910 and by John Ruskin's Unto This Last.

Gandhi decided to create a cooperative commonwealth for civil resisters. He called it the Tolstoy Farm. By this time Gandhi had abandoned Western dress for Indian garb. Two of his final legal achievements in Africa were a law declaring Indian marriages (rather than only Christian) valid, and abolition of a tax on former indentured Indian labor. Gandhi regarded his work in South Africa as completed.

By the time Gandhi returned to India, in January 1915, he had become known as "Mahatmaji," a title given him by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi knew how to reach the masses and insisted on their resistance and spiritual regeneration. He spoke of a new, free Indian individual. He told Indians that India's shackles were self-made. In 1914 Gandhi raised an ambulance corps of Indian students to help the British army, as he had done during the Boer War.

Disobedience and Return to Old Values

The repressive Rowlatt Acts of 1919 caused Gandhi to call a general hartal, or strike, throughout the country, but he called it off when violence occurred against Englishmen. Following the Amritsar Massacre of some 400 Indians, Gandhi responded with noncooperation with British courts, stores, and schools. The government followed with the announcement of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.

Another issue for Gandhi was man versus machine. This was the principle behind the Khadi movement, behind Gandhi's urging that Indians spin their own clothing rather than buy British goods. Spinning would create employment during the many annual idle months for millions of Indian peasants. He cherished the ideal of economic independence for the village. He identified industrialization with materialism and felt it was a dehumanizing menace to man's growth. The individual, not economic productivity, was the central concern. Gandhi never lost his faith in the inherent goodness of human nature.

In 1921 the Congress party, a coalition of various nationalist groups, again voted for a nonviolent disobedience campaign. Gandhi had come "reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically." But freedom for India was not simply a political matter, for "the instant India is purified India becomes free, and not a moment earlier." In 1922 Gandhi was tried and sentenced to 6 years in prison, but he was released 2 years later for an emergency appendectomy. This was the last time the British government tried Gandhi.

Fasting and the Protest March

Another technique Gandhi used increasingly was the fast. He firmly believed that Hindu-Moslem unity was natural and undertook a 21-day fast to bring the two communities together. He also fasted in a strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi also developed the protest march. A British law taxed all salt used by Indians, a severe hardship on the peasant. In 1930 Gandhi began a famous 24-day "salt march" to the sea. Several thousand marchers walked 241 miles to the coast, where Gandhi picked up a handful of salt in defiance of the government. This signaled a nationwide movement in which peasants produced salt illegally and Congress volunteers sold contraband salt in the cities. Nationalists gained faith that they could shrug off foreign rule. The march also made the British more aware that they were subjugating India.

Gandhi was not opposed to compromise. In 1931 he negotiated with the viceroy, Lord Irwin, a pact whereby civil disobedience was to be canceled, prisoners released, salt manufacture permitted on the coast, and Congress would attend the Second Round Table Conference in London. Gandhi attended as the only Congress representative, but Churchill refused to see him, referring to Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir."

Another cause Gandhi espoused was improving the status of "untouchables," members of the exterior castes. Gandhi called them Harijans, or children of God. On Sept. 20, 1932, Gandhi began a fast to the death for the Harijans, opposing a British plan for a separate electorate for them. In this action Gandhi confronted Harijan leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who favored separate electorates as a political guarantee of improved status. As a result of Gandhi's fast, some temples were opened to exterior castes for the first time in history. Following the marriage of one of Gandhi's sons to a woman of another caste, Gandhi came to approve only intercaste marriages.

Gandhi devoted the years 1934 through 1939 to promotion of spinning, basic education, and Hindi as the national language. During these years Gandhi worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru in the Congress Working Committee, but there were also differences between the two. Nehru and others came to view the Mahatma's ideas on economics as anachronistic. Nevertheless, Gandhi designated Nehru his successor, saying, "I know this, that when I am gone he will speak my language."

England's entry into World War II brought India in without consultation. Because Britain had made no political concessions satisfactory to nationalist leaders, Gandhi in August 1942 proposed noncooperation, and Congress passed the "Quit India" resolution. Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress leaders were imprisoned, touching off violence throughout India. When the British attempted to place the blame on Gandhi, he fasted 3 weeks in jail. He contracted malaria in prison and was released on May 6, 1944. He had spent a total of nearly 6 years in jail.

When Gandhi emerged from prison, he sought to avert creation of a separate Moslem state of Pakistan which Muhammad Ali Jinnah was demanding. A British Cabinet mission to India in March 1946 advised against partition and proposed instead a united India with a federal parliament. In August, Viceroy Wavell authorized Nehru to form a Cabinet. Gandhi suggested that Jinnah be offered the post of prime minister or defense minister. Jinnah refused and instead declared August 16 "Direct Action Day." On that day and several days following, communal killings left 5,000 dead and 15,000 wounded in Calcutta alone. Violence spread through the country.

Aggrieved, Gandhi went to Bengal, saying, "I am not going to leave Bengal until the last embers of trouble are stamped out," but while he was in Calcutta 4,500 more were killed in Bihar. Gandhi, now 77, warned that he would fast to death unless Biharis reformed. He went to Noakhali, a heavily Moslem city in Bengal, where he said "Do or die" would be put to the test. Either Hindus and Moslems would learn to live together or he would die in the attempt. The situation there calmed, but rioting continued elsewhere.

Drive for Independence

In March 1947 the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, arrived in India charged with taking Britain out of India by June 1948. The Congress party by this time had agreed to partition, since the only alternative appeared to be continuation of British rule.

Gandhi, despairing because his nation was not responding to his plea for peace and brotherhood, refused to participate in the independence celebrations on Aug. 15, 1947. On Sept. 1, 1947, after an angry Hindu mob broke into the home where he was staying in Calcutta, Gandhi began to fast, "to end only if and when sanity returns to Calcutta." Both Hindu and Moslem leaders promised that there would be no more killings, and Gandhi ended his fast.

On Jan. 13, 1948, Gandhi began his last fast in Delhi, praying for Indian unity. On January 30, as he was attending prayers, he was shot and killed by Nathuram Godse, a 35-year old editor of a Hindu Mahasabha extremist weekly in Poona.

Further Reading

Gandhi's Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (2 vols., 1927-1929) covers the period to 1921. Of the numerous biographies, D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma (8 vols., 1951-1954; rev. ed. 1960-1963), is most voluminous and utilizes Gandhi's own writings. Other treatments include Romain Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi (trans. 1924); C. F. Andrews, ed., Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story and Mahatma Gandhi at Work (both 1931); Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950) and Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World (1954); G. D. Birla, In the Shadow of the Mahatma: A Personal Memoir (1953); Rajendra Prasad, At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi (1955); Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (2 vols., 1956-1958); and Martin Lewis, ed., Gandhi: Maker of Modern India (1965). Among the more provocative recent studies are Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (1958; rev. ed. 1965); Indira Rothermund, The Philosophy of Restraint: Mahatma Gandhi's Strategy and Indian Politics (1963); Erik H. Erikson, Gandhi's Truth: On the Origin of Militant Nonviolence (1969); and Penderel Moon, Gandhi and Modern India (1969).

 

 

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