Born and raised in a Hindu merchant caste family in coastal Gujarat, western India, and trained in law at the Inner Temple, London, Gandhi first employed nonviolent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, but above all for achieving Swaraj or self-rule.
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km (250 mi) Dandi Salt March in 1930, and later in calling for the British to Quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, upon many occasions, in both South Africa and India. Gandhi attempted to practise nonviolence and truth in all situations, and advocated that others do the same. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient residential community and wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn hand-spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as a means of both self-purification and social protest.
Gandhi’s vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism, however, was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, but the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan. As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to their new lands, religious violence broke out, especially in the Punjab and Bengal. Eschewing the official celebration of independence in Delhi, Gandhi visited the affected areas, attempting to provide solace. In the months following, he undertook several fasts unto death to promote religious harmony. The last of these, undertaken on 12 January 1948 at age 78, also had the indirect goal of pressuring India to pay out some cash assets owed to Pakistan.Some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest at point-blank range.
His birthday, 2 October, is commemorated as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday, and world-wide as the International Day of Nonviolence.
Early life and background
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 to a Hindu Modh Baniya famil in Porbandar (also known as Sudamapuri), a coastal town on the Kathiawar Peninsula and then part of the small princely state of Porbandar in the Kathiawar Agency of the Indian Empire. His father, Karamchand Uttamchand Gandhi (1822–1885), served as the diwan (chief minister) of Porbandar state.
The Gandhi family originated from the village of Kutiana in what was then Junagadh State. In the late 17th or early 18th century, one Lalji Gandhi moved to Porbandar and entered the service of its ruler, the Rana. Successive generations of the family served as civil servants in the state administration before Uttamchand, Mohandas’s grandfather, became diwan in the early 19th century under the then Rana of Porbandar, Khimojiraji. In 1831, Rana Khimojiraji died suddenly and was succeeded by his 12-year-old only son, Vikmatji. As a result, Rana Khimojirajji’s widow, Rani Rupaliba, became regent for her son. She soon fell out with Uttamchand and forced him to return to his ancestral village in Junagadh. While in Junagadh, Uttamchand appeared before its Nawab and saluted him with his left hand instead of his right, replying that his right hand was pledged to Porbandar’s service. In 1841, Vikmatji assumed the throne and reinstated Uttamchand as his diwan.
As the best-educated of his brothers, Gandhi was seen by his family as the best candidate to one day succeed his father and his uncle Tulsidas as diwan.Mavji Dave, a Brahmin priest and family friend, advised Gandhi and his family that he should qualify as a barrister in London, after which he would be certain to achieve the diwanship. Initially, Putlibai did not want her youngest son to leave India and travel across the “black waters”, thereby losing his caste. Gandhi’s uncle Tulsidas also tried to dissuade his nephew. Finally, Gandhi made a vow to his mother in the presence of a Jain monk to observe the precepts of sexual abstinence as well as abstinence from meat and alcohol, after which Putlibai gave her permission and blessing. In July, Kasturba gave birth to the couple’s first surviving son, Harilal.
Civil rights activist in South Africa (1893–1914)
Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in South Africa in 1893 to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based in the city of Pretoria. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics and political leadership skills.
Indians in South Africa included wealthy Muslims, who employed Gandhi as a lawyer, and impoverished Hindu indentured labourers with very limited rights. Gandhi considered them all to be Indians, taking a lifetime view that “Indianness” transcended religion and caste. He believed he could bridge historic differences, especially regarding religion, and he took that belief back to India where he tried to implement it. The South African experience exposed handicaps to Gandhi that he had not known about. He realised he was out of contact with the enormous complexities of religious and cultural life in India, and believed he understood India by getting to know and leading Indians in South Africa.
Gandhi and the Africans
Gandhi focused his attention on Indians while in South Africa and opposed the idea that Indians should be treated at the same level as native Africans while in South Africa. He also stated that he believed “that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race.”After several incidents with Whites in South Africa, Gandhi began to change his thinking and apparently increased his interest in politics.White rule enforced strict segregation among all races and generated conflict between these communities. Bhana and Vahed argue that Gandhi, at first, shared racial notions prevalent of the times and that his experiences in jail sensitised him to the plight of South Africa’s indigenous peoples.
Struggle for Indian Independence (1915–47)
At the request of Gokhale, conveyed to him by C.F. Andrews, Gandhi returned to India in 1915. He brought an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser. He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues, politics and the Indian people primarily by Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Gokhale was a key leader of the Congress Party best known for his restraint and moderation, and his insistence on working inside the system. Gandhi took Gokhale’s liberal approach based on British Whiggish traditions and transformed it to make it look wholly Indian.
Gandhi took leadership of the Congress in 1920 and began escalating demands until on 26 January 1930 the Indian National Congress declared the independence of India. The British did not recognise the declaration but negotiations ensued, with the Congress taking a role in provincial government in the late 1930s. Gandhi and the Congress withdrew their support of the Raj when the Viceroy declared war on Germany in September 1939 without consultation. Tensions escalated until Gandhi demanded immediate independence in 1942 and the British responded by imprisoning him and tens of thousands of Congress leaders. Meanwhile, the Muslim League did co-operate with Britain and moved, against Gandhi’s strong opposition, to demands for a totally separate Muslim state of Pakistan. In August 1947 the British partitioned the land with India and Pakistan each achieving independence on terms that Gandhi disapproved.
Role in World War I
In April 1918, during the latter part of World War I, the Viceroy invited Gandhi to a War Conference in Delhi. Perhaps to show his support for the Empire and help his case for India’s independence, Gandhi agreed to actively recruit Indians for the war effort. In contrast to the Zulu War of 1906 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when he recruited volunteers for the Ambulance Corps, this time Gandhi attempted to recruit combatants. In a June 1918 leaflet entitled “Appeal for Enlistment”, Gandhi wrote “To bring about such a state of things we should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them…If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible despatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.” He did, however, stipulate in a letter to the Viceroy’s private secretary that he “personally will not kill or injure anybody, friend or foe.”
Champaran and Kheda
Gandhi’s first major achievements came in 1918 with the Champaran and Kheda agitations of Bihar and Gujarat. The Champaran agitation pitted the local peasantry against their largely British landlords who were backed by the local administration. The peasantry was forced to grow Indigo, a cash crop whose demand had been declining over two decades, and were forced to sell their crops to the planters at a fixed price. Unhappy with this, the peasantry appealed to Gandhi at his ashram in Ahmedabad. Pursuing a strategy of nonviolent protest, Gandhi took the administration by surprise and won concessions from the authorities.
In 1919, Gandhi, with his weak position in Congress, decided to broaden his political base by increasing his appeal to Muslims. The opportunity came in the form of the Khilafat movement, a worldwide protest by Muslims against the collapsing status of the Caliph, the leader of their religion. The Ottoman Empire had lost the First World War and was dismembered, as Muslims feared for the safety of the holy places and the prestige of their religion. Although Gandhi did not originate the All-India Muslim Conference, which directed the movement in India, he soon became its most prominent spokesman and attracted a strong base of Muslim support with local chapters in all Muslim centres in India. As a mark of solidarity with Indian Muslims he returned the medals that had been bestowed on him by the British government for his work in the Boer and Zulu Wars. He believed that the British government was not being honest in its dealings with Muslims on the Khilafat issue. His success made him India’s first national leader with a multicultural base and facilitated his rise to power within Congress, which had previously been unable to influence many Indian Muslims. In 1920 Gandhi became a major leader in Congress. By the end of 1922 the Khilafat movement had collapsed.
In his famous book Hind Swaraj (1909) Gandhi declared that British rule was established in India with the co-operation of Indians and had survived only because of this co-operation. If Indians refused to co-operate, British rule would collapse and swaraj would come.
With Congress now behind him in 1920, Gandhi had the base to employ non-cooperation, nonviolence and peaceful resistance as his “weapons” in the struggle against the British Raj. His wide popularity among both Hindus and Muslims made his leadership possible; he even convinced the extreme faction of Muslims to support peaceful non-cooperation. The spark that ignited a national protest was overwhelming anger at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (or Amritsar massacre) of hundreds of peaceful civilians by British troops in Punjab. Many Britons celebrated the action as needed to prevent another violent uprising similar to the Rebellion of 1857, an attitude that caused many Indian leaders to decide the Raj was controlled by their enemies. Gandhi criticised both the actions of the British Raj and the retaliatory violence of Indians. He authored the resolution offering condolences to British civilian victims and condemning the riots which, after initial opposition in the party, was accepted following Gandhi’s emotional speech advocating his principle that all violence was evil and could not be justified.
Salt Satyagraha (Salt March)
Gandhi stayed out of active politics and, as such, the limelight for most of the 1920s. He focused instead on resolving 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. In the preceding year, the British government had appointed a new constitutional reform commission under Sir John Simon, which did not include any Indian as its member. 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 or face a new campaign of non-cooperation with complete independence for the country as its goal. Gandhi had not only moderated the views of younger men like Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, who sought a demand for immediate independence, but also reduced his own call to a one-year wait, instead of two.
Gandhi strongly favoured the emancipation of women, and he went so far as to say that “the women have come to look upon me as one of themselves.” He opposed purdah, child marriage, untouchability, and the extreme oppression of Hindu widows, up to and including sati. He especially recruited women to participate in the salt tax campaigns and the boycott of foreign products. Sarma concludes that Gandhi’s success in enlisting women in his campaigns, including the salt tax campaign, the anti-untouchability campaign and the peasant movement, gave many women a new self-confidence and dignity in the mainstream of Indian public life.
Gandhi as folk hero
Congress in the 1920s appealed to peasants by portraying Gandhi as a sort of messiah, a strategy that succeeded in incorporating radical forces within the peasantry into the nonviolent resistance movement. In thousands of villages plays were performed that presented Gandhi as the reincarnation of earlier Indian nationalist leaders, or even as a demigod. The plays built support among illiterate peasants steeped in traditional Hindu culture. Similar messianic imagery appeared in popular songs and poems, and in Congress-sponsored religious pageants and celebrations. The result was that Gandhi became not only a folk hero but the Congress was widely seen in the villages as his sacred instrument.
The government, represented by Lord Edward Irwin, decided to negotiate with Gandhi. The Gandhi–Irwin Pact was signed in March 1931. The British Government agreed to free all political prisoners, in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement. Also as a result of the pact, 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, because it focused on the Indian princes and Indian minorities rather than on a transfer of power. Lord Irwin’s successor, Lord Willingdon, taking a hard line against nationalism, began a new campaign of controlling and subduing the nationalist movement. Gandhi was again arrested, and the government tried and failed to negate his influence by completely isolating him from his followers.
World War II and Quit India
Gandhi initially favoured offering “nonviolent moral support” to the British effort when World War II broke out in 1939, but the Congressional leaders were offended by the unilateral inclusion of India in the war without consultation of the people’s representatives. All Congressmen resigned from office. After long deliberations, Gandhi declared that India could not be party to a war ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom while that freedom was denied to India itself. As the war progressed, Gandhi intensified his demand for independence, calling for the British to Quit India in a speech at Gowalia Tank Maidan. This was Gandhi’s and the Congress Party’s most definitive revolt aimed at securing the British exit from India.
Principles, practices and beliefs
Gandhism designates the ideas and principles Gandhi promoted. Of central importance is nonviolent resistance. A Gandhian can mean either an individual who follows, or a specific philosophy which is attributed to, Gandhism. M. M. Sankhdher argues that Gandhism is not a systematic position in metaphysics or in political philosophy. Rather, it is a political creed, an economic doctrine, a religious outlook, a moral precept, and especially, a humanitarian world view. It is an effort not to systematise wisdom but to transform society and is based on an undying faith in the goodness of human nature. However Gandhi himself did not approve of the notion of “Gandhism”, as he explained in 1936:
Although Gandhi was not the originator of the principle of nonviolence, he was the first to apply it in the political field on a large scale. The concept of nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonresistance has a long history in Indian religious thought. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi realised later that this level of nonviolence required incredible faith and courage, which he believed everyone did not possess. He therefore advised that everyone need not keep to nonviolence, especially if it were used as a cover for cowardice, saying, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”