Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869-1948), Indian political and spiritual leader who was called the Mahatma, or Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader of India's struggle for independence from Britain—a goal that was realized in 1947, the year before his death. Instrumental in the achievement of independence was the technique of nonviolent action that he originated and called satyagraha, literally "holding onto truth."
Gandhi brought together the major strands in India's nationalist movement—the reform objectives of political moderates, an activist technique that proved more effective than revolutionary violence, and a mode of revitalizing traditional ideals that provided sanction for fundamental change. He exercised his influence through a set of principles emphasizing identification with the impoverished, through constructive work on behalf of the disadvantaged, and through creative, supportive effort in winning over opponents.
Foremost among Gandhi's objectives was swaraj, literally "self-rule." Psychologically this meant control of self and mastery of fear. On the political level swaraj stood for national independence with a high degree of economic self-sufficiency in all units from the village up. Gandhi held that social and political change begins with change in individuals. As he extended his leadership beyond direct action related to political issues, he influenced others to overcome their fear and to establish, both with colleagues and adversaries, relationships that allowed for the greatest individual self-fulfillment.
Gandhi transformed the Indian National Congress—the premier organization of the nationalist movement—into an instrument for dynamic change. He established a network of affiliated institutions dedicated to extensive welfare programs basic to the political objective of national independence. His presence is still felt in India, but his most far-reaching influence flows from his technique of nonviolent action.
Satyagraha, though poorly understood, has attracted the attention of leaders of protest movements throughout the world. It involves a continuous search for truth and includes nonviolence and self-suffering. Superficially it resembles passive resistance and may include civil disobedience, noncooperation, demonstration, and fasting as tools or stages in the conduct of a given conflict. It differs from passive resistance in its essential emphasis upon a constructive approach toward opponents and in the complex process required to apply the Gandhian premise that "means are ends-in-the-making."
Early Years. Gandhi was born Oct. 2, 1869, in Porbandar, the seaport capital of a Kathiawar principality now in the state of Gujarat. He was the youngest in a large family belonging to the Hindu Vaisya (merchant) caste. His father held an official post. His mother exemplified traditional ideals, and her spiritual qualities proved a lasting source of inspiration for Gandhi. As was the custom, Gandhi was betrothed in childhood. His marriage to Kasturba, when both were 13, endured until her death in 1944.
At the age of 19, Gandhi arrived in London to study law. Profoundly lonely, shy, and socially awkward, he determined to become an "English gentleman." After three months of lessons in elocution, dancing, and violin, he returned to an austere life. Making friends at a vegetarian restaurant, he discovered the ethical basis of vegetarianism and began experiments with diet that continued throughout his lifetime.
Gandhi was called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1889. He then returned to India an earnest young man, still shy, and with limited interests. His efforts to practice law met with almost no success. During his first appearance in court, he was so overwhelmed by self-consciousness that he could not speak. When offered a year's work in South Africa as counsel for a Muslim business firm, he eagerly accepted.
Civil Rights Leader in South Africa. Almost immediately upon his arrival in South Africa, Gandhi became the victim of racial discrimination. During his journey to Pretoria he was subjected to humiliation, ejected from a first-class train compartment, and beaten for refusing to relinquish his seat on a stagecoach. He found the courage to resist, however, and he later considered this ordeal the most crucial of his formative years.
Gandhi drafted the first of many petitions on behalf of the South African Indian community in June 1894. But the fundamental work for social justice lay in organizing and educating Indians themselves, to which ends he founded the Natal Indian Congress. He wrote to a prominent leader in India: "The responsibility undertaken is out of proportion to my ability [but] I am the only available person who can handle the question." After a visit to India in 1896 to publicize the Indian community's problems, Gandhi was attacked by a crowd on his return.
Instead of prosecuting his assailants Gandhi sought a fundamental reconsideration of official policy. He conducted his activity on several fronts: formal representation to South African authorities at the highest level; publicizing Indian grievances; fostering support from India, which he visited again in 1901–1902; and ceaselessly urging Indians to better their own condition and thereby strengthen their cause. A vitally important factor in Gandhi's successful leadership was the weekly Indian Opinion, established in 1903 at Gandhi's suggestion and taken over by him completely in 1904.
Gandhi's dedication to public service was given dramatic expression when he nursed plague-stricken patients shunned by others in Johannesburg. During the South African (Boer) War of 1899–1902 and again in 1906 during the Zulu rebellion, he organized and served in two volunteer medical corps. He was decorated by the British for his service under fire. During the trying marches as a stretcher-bearer, he concluded that devotion to community service required him to "relinquish the desire for children and wealth and live the life of one retired from household cares." By that time four sons had been born to him and Kasturba. He considered his vow of brahmacharya—control of the senses, especially of the sexual drive—to be an advance toward self-fulfillment by making available maximum energy for public work.
A personal religious quest moved Gandhi from interest in Christianity to theosophy and back to Hindu religious texts. He memorized the Bhagavad Gita, whose teachings of nonpossession, service without self, and action without attachment became his "infallible guide of conduct."
Growth of Satyagraha in South Africa. In 1906, Gandhi urged Indians to submit to imprisonment rather than accept restrictions imposed by discriminatory legislation. As he began to go beyond conventional channels, developing his technique of nonviolent action to effect change, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the term "passive resistance." He held that ethical principles and effective action require that civil resisters accept full responsibility for their acts, extend respect to adversaries, retain an open mind toward opposing positions, and seek creative solutions acceptable to all sides in conflict. To describe the new and evolving technique, he coined the word satyagraha,"grasping or holding to the truth."
Gandhi's ability to lead the Natal Indian Congress to the point of taking on the obdurate Gen. Jan C. Smuts, the minister responsible for dealing with Indian agitation, foreshadowed a political craftsmanship characteristic of Gandhi's later years in India. During 1908–1909, mass struggle was intensified. It was highlighted by picketing, burning of registration certificates, and illegal crossing into Transvaal. Indian women began to emerge from seclusion to participate in satyagraha, subjecting themselves to arrest.
Gandhi looked upon his earliest prison experience as a preparation for hardships to come. After repeated arrests he was assigned hard labor to the point of collapse, subjected to physical restraints, and exposed to ill treatment from both his jailers and African prisoners. Nevertheless he enjoined every satyagrahi to observe strictly and even cheerfully all prison rules except those that might be excessively degrading or offensive to religion.
In 1909, after a fruitless visit to England, Gandhi announced that satyagraha would be renewed with greater vigor. He viewed the struggle in South Africa as one of the greatest of modern times and wrote to a friend in India that "in fighting the battle, we are presenting the Indian Motherland with a disciplined army of the future.
To sustain the movement, Gandhi settled families of satyagrahi prisoners on a cooperative farm near Johannesburg, where, under his guidance, Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, and Christian settlers learned crafts and practiced principles of self-sufficiency and self-discipline. The final phase of the struggle was highlighted in November 1913 by the "Great March" of Indian miners into Transvaal. Smuts opened negotiations with Gandhi and in 1914 tentatively made substantial concessions.
Return to India. When Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, he had become a seasoned political leader committed to the development of a constructive, nonviolent technique for the conduct of conflict. After four months in England to raise an Indian ambulance corps for service during World War I, he returned to India in January 1915. With characteristic patience he undertook a "year of probation." During this period, in accordance with a promise he had made to his "political guru," G. K. Gokhale, he did not express himself on public issues. But near Ahmadabad, in Gujarat, he founded the Sabarmati ashram, or retreat, which provided a training ground for satyagraha.
Gandhi's first significant public campaign in India was on behalf of indigo workers in Bihar. He immersed himself in every aspect of the agrarian problem and succeeded in winning substantial redress of grievances. His first experiments with constructive work in India were undertaken in the surrounding countryside, where he established schools maintained by the villagers.
In 1918, Gandhi introduced satyagraha into a labor dispute. His leadership of striking mill workers in Ahmadabad included a program of constructive activities and the learning of alternative trades. Before a favorable settlement was won through arbitration, Gandhi had undertaken a 3-day fast. This satyagraha laid the foundation for the Ahmadabad Textile Labor Association, which became a model for Indian trade unions.
Nationwide Satyagraha. Gandhi had long criticized violent revolutionary activities on moral as well as practical grounds. But he could not accept the Rowlatt Bills of 1919, which provided drastic penalties for political violence. He launched satyagraha on April 6, 1919, calling for nationwide hartal, or closing of businesses.
The campaign brought unprecedented political activity. Gandhi's arrest as he left for the especially tense Punjab touched off violent demonstrations. On April 13, in Punjab, troops fired on an unarmed crowd within a walled compound (known as Jallianawalabagh) in Amritsar, killing hundreds of Indians and wounding over a thousand. This notorious massacre proved to be a turning point in the political history of India. The entire nation was aroused further by the severe penalties and indignities imposed in Punjab. When disorders broke out, Gandhi underwent a 72-hour fast to atone for some Indians' loss of self-control. On April 18 he temporarily called off civil disobedience. Convinced that efforts to educate people about true satyagraha must be intensified, he declared that his purpose in life was to demonstrate that "the strongest physical force bends before moral force when it is used in the defence of truth."
Gandhi now set before the country his program of swadeshi ("one's own country"), aimed at making every village productive enough to meet its own needs. Through two weekly newspapers, Young India and Navajivan, he informed readers about political matters and promoted regeneration of national life.
Noncooperation. Gandhi had sought effective representatives to serve in the legislatures established under the provisions of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1918. His decision to launch the noncooperation movement (1920–1922), which included boycott of courts and councils, signaled a profound Indian reassessment of British rule. Three issues combined to precipitate his calling upon all Indians to unite to "mend or end" the empire: the government's failure to redress grievances in Punjab; Britain's role in abolishing the caliphate and dismembering Turkey, a cause that agitated Indian Muslims; and his own disappointment with India's progress toward self-rule. Gandhi inaugurated the noncooperation movement with a letter to the Viceroy returning his medals and decorations. A boycott of foreign cloth was intensified, and khadi, hand-spun cloth, became the "livery of freedom." Gandhi took a vow to spin half an hour every day and another vow to fast every Monday, his day of silence. The temper of the people was dramatically demonstrated through the boycott of the Prince of Wales' visit.
Arrest of nationalist leaders and suppression of newspapers precipitated further disturbances, which reached a climax when demonstrators set fire to a police station at Chauri Chaura (now in Uttar Pradesh), killing a score of policemen. Gandhi, asserting he would not lead a movement that was "half violent and half nonviolent," persuaded the Congress to suspend all civil disobedience and to concentrate on constructive work. However, he readily accepted responsibility for his role in civil disobedience and declared at his trial in 1922 that the only course open to the judge was to resign or "inflict on me the severest penalty. He was sentenced to 6 years' imprisonment but released after two on grounds of ill health.
Constructive Work. By the mid-1920s, Gandhi had come to be recognized as a mahatma, a title that embarrassed rather than pleased him. He came to measure India's progress in terms of relieving the plight of the most desperate, and through the khadi program he brought new hope to the villages. He believed that spinning provided an avenue through which a popular movement could be organized, for Indians from all walks of life could unite in identifying with the poor. Other things essential to the revival of village economy and social change included sanitation, literacy, cattle-breeding, and papermaking. Sevagram ashram—at Wardha, in Maharashtra—to which he moved his headquarters from Sabarmati, became in the 1930s a laboratory for experiments in village self-sufficiency and basic education centered upon learning a craft.
The problem of untouchability weighed heavily on Gandhi. In 1924 he supported a satyagraha movement at Vaikam (now in Kerala) to give untouchables the right to use a road passing a temple. This satyagraha is noteworthy not only because it was initiated and carried through to success without Gandhi's direct leadership, but because it was directed against entrenched Hindu orthodoxy in a princely state.
In 1932–1933, Gandhi undertook four fasts in the anti-untouchability cause. He succeeded in securing for untouchables a more favorable method of representation than that originally provided by the "Communal Award," which would have established separate electorates for them. Gandhi foresaw that this device would perpetuate segregation. His trying 21-day fast in the summer of 1933 was directed towards orthodox Hindus to persuade them to wipe out the "blight of untouchability." Gandhi gave untouchables the name harijan, or "children of God," and initiated the publication of a weekly paper, Harijan. He turned the Sabarmati ashram over to the Harijan Sevak Sangh, a Congress-affiliated organization for harijan welfare.
Gandhi's steadfast efforts for Indian unity were directed especially toward healing breaches between Hindus and Muslims. Upon the outbreak of communal riots on India's northwest frontier in 1924, Gandhi had undertaken a 21-day purificatory fast, which led to the drafting of a plan for protection of minority rights.
Gandhi never lost sight of the intimate relationship between the welfare of the people and political progress. In the face of vigorous protest from friends and colleagues, even to the point of rifts in the Congress, he continued from time to time to withdraw from exclusively political activity to build his constructive program, so essential to the emergence of a strong and independent nation.
Although Gandhi had served only one term as president of the Congress (elected in 1925), he was, in Nehru's words, virtually a "permanent super-president," constantly consulted and looked to for guidance.
Civil Disobedience Renewed. In 1930, Gandhi took up the Congress-issued call for full independence and chose to violate the Salt Acts, which bore heavily upon the poor. He led satyagrahis some 200 miles (300 km) on foot from Sabarmati ashram to the sea at Dandi, to make salt illegally from sea water. Tens of thousands of Indians demonstrating throughout the country were arrested. Gandhi and members of the Congress Working Committee were released from prison in January 1931. In an agreement between Gandhi and the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, restrictions on the manufacture of salt were relaxed.
In September 1931, Gandhi attended the second Roundtable Conference in London, which prepared the way for further exploration of constitutional reform. Unimpressed with the progress of the conference, he spent much of his time in London's poor East End where, he said, he was "doing the real roundtable work." In Lancashire he was received with affection although it was hard hit by the Indian boycott of British cloth. His transparent sincerity, ready humor, and keenness of mind also won over prominent leaders in politics, religion, and science.
Within a week of Gandhi's return to India, civil disobedience was resumed and he was again imprisoned. The Congress was declared illegal, and its libraries and clinics were even closed. Action was also taken to restrain the press.
Against strong opposition from the proponents of direct action, Gandhi suspended civil disobedience in the summer of 1933, and the next year he gave up formal membership in the Congress so as to guide the All-India Village Industries Association. During his 21/2 years of concentration on nation-building, constitutional reform progressed, and in 1937 Congress party ministries were formed in several of the largest provinces.
In an effort to resolve continuing communal problems, Gandhi met in 1938 with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, to work toward Hindu-Muslim accord. The problem of Hindu-Muslim disunity came to dominate the history of the subcontinent and to command much of Gandhi's attention during his remaining years.
World War II. In 1939 the Viceroy declared India to be at war, but his failure to consult first with Indian leaders ended an uneasy partnership in the provinces between the Congress and the British. When Gandhi and the Congress failed to secure a British pledge to grant India independence, Gandhi sought to press forward India's political objectives without launching a mass movement. The method decided upon was individual satyagraha, restricting civil disobedience to selected individuals. Through this "representative satyagraha," hundreds of Congress leaders were imprisoned. Some 10,000 other Indians were arrested.
With the advance of the Japanese to India's borders, the demand that India should be given a stake in all-out resistance to the Axis powers acquired new urgency. The proposals brought to India by Sir Stafford Cripps were disappointing to Gandhi, who concluded that there was little prospect of a political settlement. To meet the two perils of Japanese invasion and internal disunity he again sought an immediate declaration of Indian independence and supported the Congress "Quit India" resolution. On Aug. 8, 1942, the All-India Congress Committee sanctioned mass satyagraha, to be led by Gandhi. Early the next day, Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress leaders were arrested. The responsibility for the violence that ensued during the next several months became the focus of lengthy correspondence between Gandhi and the Viceroy. On Feb. 10, 1943, at the age of 73, Gandhi began another fast, concluded 21 days later.
Gandhi's health deteriorated so seriously during the spring of 1944 that he was released from custody. Failing to secure an interview with the Viceroy to discuss the formation of a nationalist government, Gandhi again sought agreement with Jinnah. He accepted the Muslim League claim for cultural and economic autonomy but could not agree to Jinnah's demand for the partition of India into two nations on the basis of religion. Gandhi continued to insist on generosity towards minority claims and urged minorities to stand firm against emotional appeals for partition.
Independence. Gandhi left Delhi late in 1946, moving from one province to another to help assuage communal fear and hatred. In February of 1947, Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced that the British would leave India by June 1948. One of the first acts of Lord Mountbatten, the new viceroy, was to invite Gandhi for extended talks. Gandhi's opposition to partition was well known. But, not wanting to block a settlement that had been accepted by the Congress, the Muslim League, and the British, he prevented a split in the Congress by throwing his weight in favor of accepting the Mountbatten Plan, on the basis of which the two new nations—India and Pakistan—were formed.
Gandhi then turned his efforts to reducing the risks that he believed partition held. He traveled throughout the areas that were most seriously disturbed by communal rioting attendant upon the transfer of power. The London Times reported that his fast in Calcutta in September 1947 did what several divisions of troops could not have done to restore peace. On his way to the partitioned Punjab, where millions had been violently uprooted, he found Delhi almost paralyzed by rioting.
On Jan. 13, 1948, Gandhi began what was to be his last fast, broken on its sixth day when he received a pledge of peace from leaders of conflicting communal groups. Unconcerned about his own safety, even after a bombing attempt upon his life, he refused to allow police to search those who attended his daily prayer gatherings. A young Brahman extremist, Nathuram Godse, who believed that Gandhi had weakened India by befriending Muslims, approached him in New Delhi as he arrived for prayers on the evening of January 30. Godse fired three shots point-blank, and Gandhi fell, dying as he had wished, in the service of brotherhood and unity for India, with the name of God on his lips.
Joan V. Bondurant
Author of Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict
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