His campaign of civil disobedience against an imperial power not only united Indians but also inspired several other world leaders in their fight for justice
India kicked off widespread celebrations this week to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of one of its greatest sons in the modern era — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
One of the most iconic figures synonymous with non-violence and peace, Gandhi is revered at home as the Father of the Nation, and also endearingly called Bapu (father in Gujarati, his mother tongue) while the world knows him as Mahatma (Great Soul). His birthday is observed as the International Day of Non-Violence.
Indeed, it is an irony that the messiah of non-violence was a product of the 20th century — the most violent period in the history of mankind.
In hindsight, one can see destiny at work balancing these forces with the waves of freedom, and the unleashing of the human spirit in much of Asia and Africa that was under the yoke of colonial forces at that time.
In these testing times comes along a shy, tongue-tied man on whose slender shoulders falls the responsibility to challenge injustice, forge a sense of national unity amongst a divided people, lead the millions arrayed behind him to a new dawn and into freedom from British rule. Gandhi achieved it through satyagraha (fighting with truth and peace) and ahimsa (non-violence).
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had a very unremarkable childhood. He was born on October 2, 1869, as the youngest of four children to Karamchand Uttamchand Gandhi and Putlibai in Porbandar, the coastal Gujarat princely state in British India. His father belonged to the Hindu Modh Baniya (merchant class), while his mother was from a Pranami Vaishnava family. His father Karamchand had only an elementary education but because of his business acumen became the diwan (chief minister) of Porbandar.
He later moved to Rajkot as a counsellor and moved up to the position of diwan there too. It was in Rajkot that Mohandas began his schooling. He was clearly a bright student but was not particularly fond of studies or sports. His mother Putlibai’s unflinching religious devotion characterised by continuous fasting had a lasting impression on her youngest son.
Although he was not introduced to any religious texts at that early age, Hindu mythological stories about Shravan Kumar who carried his aged parents on his shoulders for a pilgrimage and that of King Harishchandra who gave up his kingdom and family in order to fulfill a solemn pledge, made a huge impression on young Mohandas.
One thing that he was not proud of was his early marriage at the age of 13 when he was still in school to the 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia. It was a marriage arranged by his family and the young Gandhi did not have any say in the matter.
Kasturba, as she came to be known, even though uneducated, was of an independent mind. Gandhi was besotted with his wife and at the same time was a jealous husband. There were long periods of separation as Kasturba used to spend time with her parents as was the custom in those days, and the early years of their married life were fraught.
His love and devotion for his parents and desire to uphold truth became steadfast at that young age itself. He did err time and again but every time he restrained himself at the very moment when he was at the precipice of grave moral misdemeanour — whether it was consuming meat, smoking, and theft or indulging in carnal pleasures.
In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote candidly about the lustful feelings he had for his wife while he was in his classroom. He was with his pregnant wife even on the night his father lay on his deathbed. The couple’s first child also died within a few days of being born. It was an agonising period for him and his wife.
The young man’s life took a turn when a respected family friend suggested to his mother Putlibai and older brother Laxmidas — who was a lawyer — to send Mohandas to London to study law. Gandhi, who had by then already dropped out of college, was keen on going. He had the support of his brother and managed to persuade his mother and wife, who by then had given birth to their first son, Harilal. Putlibai gave Gandhi her permission and blessings after he took a vow before his mother to abstain from meat and alcohol, remain celibate.
During the three years he spent studying law in London, he tried to fit into English society by taking dance and violin classes but soon found joy in adopting a simple lifestyle, as he realised that he could not further burden his brother who was financing his studies. He was also influenced by the Vegetarian Society and became active in running a local chapter — his first experience at running an organisation.
He believed that a vegetarian diet and bhramacharya (celibacy) which he adhered to strictly after his wife’s consent, allowed his personality to reach full fruition. He also met Theosophists and through them realised that all religions were equal and that they taught the same underlying principles of divine connection between Man and God.
He became aware of his own ignorance about Hinduism and learnt to appreciate the priceless worth of the message contained in The Bhagavad Gita.
In June 1891, Gandhi was 22 when he passed his law exams and was called to the bar. When he landed in India, he learnt that his mother had passed away. Gandhi’s law practice in Bombay (now Mumbai) was a non-starter because he could not handle the cross examination of witnesses. He returned to Rajkot and through the help of his brother engaged in drafting litigant petitions.
His life took another turn when Dada Abdullah, a Muslim merchant from Kathiawar who had a large shipping business in South Africa sought his services as a lawyer for his distant cousin in Johannesburg. Gandhi was needed to only brief the company’s lawyers and they wanted a Gujarati-speaking lawyer from Kathiawar for this one-year assignment.
Gandhi arrived in Durban at the tender age of 24 and became aware of the extent of racial discrimination against Indians living there. A series of shocking incidents when he personally encountered the savage face of British racism in South Africa led to the beginning of his journey to political awakening. Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa securing legal concessions for the local Indian population there under the Natal Indian Congress. He developed the strategy known as satyagraha to protest against unjust laws by organising peaceful marches wherein the protestors courted arrest.
This became one of the biggest tools of political action of the 20th century. By the time he left South Africa in 1914, he had earned the title of Mahatma (Great Soul). Gandhi writes of that period: “…thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.”
He was already 46 years old when he came back to India from South Africa in 1815 and he spent that next year travelling all over the country to observe, study and experience India up close.
Gandhi had his first hand experience of the level of poverty faced by India’s farmers. Writer and historian Bipan Chandra in his book Modern India (2007) notes that Gandhi was the only Indian leader who moulded his life and lifestyle in sync with the common man, the poor farmers that made up India.
When asked how he would resist a colonial power, Gandhi had replied: “With the strength of millions of voiceless people.”
In 1917, he set up the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. This was the laboratory for his associates and followers to study, test and put the concepts of truth and ahimsa (non-violence) into practice.
The nationalist movement which began with the revolt of 1857 had already laid the foundation for the movement to end the British occupation of India. They succeeded in exposing the exploitative economic and political stranglehold of the East India Company rule (1757-1857) and the British Indian Empire (1857-1947).
The British grip on India tightened after the First World War (1914-19) with competitive world powers vying for colonies across the world. Indians found that even after supporting the British war effort, freedom was a distant prospect.
Gandhi took over the leadership of the Indian National Congress and began engaging with the British on constitutional reforms.
The Rowlatt Act passed by the Imperial Council in Delhi on March 10, 1919, giving extensive powers to the police to deal with agitators and jail term up to two years without trial angered Gandhi and the entire Indian leadership. On April 6, a peaceful protest was organised where people could fast, pray and hold public meetings. The call for Rowlatt satyagraha received a massive response in cities and towns and was met with a brutal response from the authorities.
On April 13, British forces under General Dyer opened fire on a peaceful gathering of people at Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab who were protesting the arrest and deportation of two of their national leaders. The massacre which resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths and 1,500 injured, according to the Congress, sent shock waves across the country.
The non-cooperation movement was launched by Gandhi from 1920 to 1922 in support of Khilafat and for Swaraj or self-rule. The leaders of the Khilafat movement sought British support to protect the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and Gandhi supported its leaders.
People from all walks of life joined the movement. British educational institutions and courts were boycotted, many resigned from government posts, refused to pay taxes and surrendered British titles. Foreign goods were boycotted with people publicly burning British imported cloth. Khadi was promoted as an alternative.
Hindus and Muslims were united in seeking self-rule and the public disorder posed a serious challenge to the British. But Gandhi called off the agitation when he realised that it would lead to large-scale violence.
The Congress party at this time attracted mass participation and a younger team of dynamic leaders came to the forefront — Vallabhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, C. Rajagopalachari, among others. Many new moderate and radical political parties became active on the political scene. In December 1929, under the Presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress decided to fight for Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule) and celebrated Independence Day on January 26, 1930.
On March 12, 1930, Gandhi marched to Dandi, 241 miles from his Sabarmati Ashram to protest against the Salt Law. This turned into mass civil disobedience and resulted in the jailing of 60,000 freedom fighters. The desire for freedom spurred across India, among the rich and poor alike.
The Government of India Act 1935 negotiated with the British resulted in provincial elections in February 1937 with Congress leading provincial governments.
In 1939, without consulting the provincial governments, then Viceroy Linlithgow declared India’s entrance into the Second World War. Gandhi and the Congress withdrew their support to the British. Congress legislators resigned from the government.
Meanwhile, the Muslim League under Muhammad Ali Jinnah demanded a totally separate Muslim state of Pakistan.
With tensions escalating, on August 1942, Gandhi launched the Quit India movement from Bombay. His speech reverberated throughout India, resulting in mass protests against the British at a time when they were preoccupied with the Second World War. Gandhi and other top Indian leaders were arrested.
In August 1947, the British partitioned the land with India and Pakistan achieving independence after the Congress and Muslim League could not agree to a power-sharing deal under a united single state.
In spite of rallying Hindus and Muslims behind the Independence movement and towards the cause of nationalism, Gandhi could not prevent the partition of India which led to large-scale violence, bloodshed and chaotic flow of millions of refugees across the borders. He eventually paid the price with his life when a Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse pumped three bullets at close range into his chest on January 30, 1948, on the steps of Birla House in New Delhi, where he was staying.
Hindu-Muslim unity, fight against untouchability and the upliftment of women were the three issues that were close to Gandhi’s heart. He made considerable efforts and made progress to achieve these goals.
Addressing the nation after Gandhi’s assassination, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, said: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it… The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illuminated this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate past, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.”
N. P. Krishna Kumar is a writer based in Dubai.