Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)
was the pre- eminent leader of Indian nationalism in
British-ruled India. Employing nonviolent civil disobedience,
Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for
civil rights and freedom across the world. The honorific
Mahatma applied to him first in 1914 in South Africa, is now
used worldwide. He is also called Bapu in India.
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 emigrant 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 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 means of both self-purification and
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed
salt tax with the 400 km 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's vision of a free India based on religious
pluralism,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 Indiaand
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 support. 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 helpful. Among them was
Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, who assassinated Gandhi
on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest at
Gandhi is commonly considered the Father of the Nation in
India. His birthday, 2 October, is celebrated in India as
Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday, and world-wide as the
International Day of Nonviolence.
Early life and background of Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or "Mohan", on 2
October 1869 to Karamchand Gandhi and his wife Putlibai in a
many-roomed, three-story house in Porbandar which is the present
day Kirti Mandir – a temple of peace. Gandhi’s birthplace is in
Kathiawar Peninsula, a region today part of Gujarat state in
India, but then within the Bombay Presidency of British India.
Described by Gandhi as "a lover of his clan, truthful, brave and
generous", his father was the Diwan (chief minister) of
Porbandar at the time of Gandhi’s birth, but later became the
Diwan of Rajkot in 1876. Gandhi's grandfather Uttamchand Gandhi
was also the Diwan of Porbandar. His mother, Putlibai, who was
from a Pranami Vaishnava family, was Karamchand's fourth wife,
the first three wives having apparently died in childbirth.
The Indian classics, especially the stories of Shravana and king
Harishchandra, had a great impact on Gandhi in his childhood. In
his autobiography, he admits that they left an indelible
impression on his mind. In May 1883, the 13-year-old Mohandas
was married to 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji in an arranged
child marriage, according to the custom of the region. In the
process, he lost a year at school.
In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple's first child was born,
but survived only a few days. Gandhi's father, Karamchand
Gandhi, had also died earlier that year.Mohandas and Kasturba
had four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal,
born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900.
At his middle school in Porbandar and high school in Rajkot,
Gandhi remained a mediocre student. He shone neither in the
classroom nor on the playing field. One of the terminal reports
rated him as "good at English, fair in Arithmetic and weak in
Geography; conduct very good, bad handwriting." He passed the
matriculation exam at Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, Gujarat,
with some difficulty. Gandhi's family wanted him to be a
barrister, as it would increase the prospects of succeeding to
his father's post.
1888, Gandhi travelled to London, England, to study law at
University College London, where he studied Indian law and
jurisprudence and trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple.
His time in London was influenced by a vow he had made to his
mother upon leaving India, in the presence of a Jain monk, to
observe the principles of abstinence from meat and alcohol as
well as of promiscuity. Gandhi tried to adopt "English" customs,
including taking dancing lessons. However, he could not
appreciate the bland vegetarian food offered by his landlady and
was frequently hungry until he found one of London's few
Gandhi was called to the bar in June 1891 and then left London
for India, where he learned that his mother had died while he
was in London and that his family had kept the news from him.
His attempts at establishing a law practice in Bombay failed
because he was too shy to speak up in court. He returned to
Rajkot to make a modest living drafting petitions for litigants,
but he was forced to close it when he ran foul of a British
officer. In 1893, he accepted a year-long contract from Dada
Abdulla & Co., an Indian firm, to a post in the Colony of Natal,
South Africa, then part of the British Empire.
Civil rights movement in South Africa (1893–1914)
Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in South Africa 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. Guha argues that when he
returned to India in 1914 he was proficient at public
speaking, fund-raising, negotiations, media relations, and
Indians in South Africa were led by wealthy Muslims, who
employed Gandhi as a lawyer, and by deprived Hindu
indentured labourers with very limited rights.
In South Africa, Gandhi faced the discrimination directed
at all coloured people. He was thrown off a train at
Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from the
first-class. He protested and was allowed on first class
the next day. Travelling farther on by stagecoach, he was
beaten by a driver for refusing to move to make room for a
European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the
journey as well, including being barred from several
hotels. In another incident, the magistrate of a Durban
court ordered Gandhi to remove his turban, which he
refused to do.
These events were a turning point in Gandhi's life and
shaped his social activism and awakened him to social
injustice. After witnessing racism, prejudice and
injustice against Indians in South Africa, Gandhi began to
question his place in society and his people's standing in
the British Empire.
Gandhi extended his original period of stay in South
Africa to assist Indians in opposing a bill to deny them
the right to vote. Gandhi's ideas took shape, and the
concept of Satyagraha matured during this struggle.
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 treatments he received
from Whites in South Africa, Gandhi began to change his thinking
and apparently increased his interest in politics.
During the Boer war Gandhi volunteered in 1900 to form a group
of ambulance drivers. He wanted to disprove the British idea
that Hindus were not fit for "manly" activities involving danger
and exertion. Gandhi raised eleven hundred Indian volunteers.
They were trained and medically certified to serve on the front
In 1906, when the British declared war against the Zulu Kingdom
in Natal, Gandhi encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He
argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimize
their claims to full citizenship. The British accepted Gandhi's
offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a
stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers.
After the black majority came to power in South Africa, Gandhi
was proclaimed a national hero with numerous monuments.
Gandhi's Struggle for Indian Independence (1915–47)
1915, Gandhi returned to India permanently. 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 Congress in 1920 and began a steady
growth of demands until on 26 January 1930 the Indian National
Congress declared the independence of India. The British did not
recognize that and more negotiations followed, with Congress
taking a role in provincial government in the late 1930s. Gandhi
and Congress withdrew their support of the Raj when the Viceroy
declared war on Germany in September 1939 without consulting
anyone. Tensions escalated until Gandhi demanded immediate
independence in 1942 and the British responded by imprisoning
him and tens of thousands of Congress leaders for the duration.
Meanwhile the Muslim League did cooperate 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.
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 re-embodiment 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.