Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the main leaders that advocated for India’s independence from the British Empire. Gandhi desired a unified India where Hindus and Muslims, along with other minority religions, could live in harmony under their own rule. He worked his entire life to achieve this, but in the end, his attempts to attain an independent India and peace within that independent country ended up costing him his life.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in the town of Porbanda, India, which is now in the Indian state of Gujarat. At the time of Gandhi’s birth, Porbandar had a majority Hindu population and was ruled by an Indian Prince, but the British Empire kept a watchful eye over the leader. Gandhi’s family belonged to the merchant class, but had rose in political importance. His father was the chief administrator and member of the court in Porbandar.
Gandhi grew up in a very religious household. This upbringing would have a great effect upon him for the rest of his life. His parents were part of the Hindu sect of Vishnu, and his mother belonged to the Pranami sect which combined Hindu and Muslim beliefs. She gave equal honor to the books of the Vishnatives and the Koran and preached religious harmony. Her beliefs especially had a great impression on her son. Yet like many Hindu’s Gandhi had a variety of religious beliefs but no great knowledge of any one religious tradition growing up. He liked some aspects of his religion but also rebelled against some of the teachings, such as the idea of becoming polluted from touching a Muslim. Gandhi would continue to learn about different religions and create his own brand of Hinduism throughout his life. Gandhi’s region and the influence of other religions upon him helped him develop his ideas of social equality and his practice of nonviolence protests.
Gandhi believed in “the complete brotherhood” between Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis. He said that this belief took hold when he was only twelve years old. This idea if a brotherhood was reinforced when Gandhi attended Alfred High School, where Hindu, Muslim, and Parsi students learned together under Hindu and non-Hindu teachers. Here he was able to see people of all different religions come together and achieve the common goal of education without violence towards one another.
At the young age of thirteen, Gandhi married Kastur Makanji Kapadia. She was a fiercely independent woman. She refused to be taught English or mathematics by Gandhi. She also refused to ask Gandhi’s permission to go places. She would run freely to friends and relatives in the village. The more Gandhi tried to restrain and assert his authority, the more wild she became. He later admits that he should not have tried to restrict her and accepted her the way she was. Even though Gandhi was passionately found his bride, he was always bitter about his child marriage and became an opponent of them later in life.
In 1888, Gandhi traveled to England to study to become a lawyer. Before he left, he promised his mother that he would avoid wine, women, and meat. Once Gandhi got to England, he joined the vegetarian society and lived like a gentleman, but then got serious about his education. He focused on European law and politics. He also studied Christianity at this time. He enjoyed the New Testament, but not the Old Testament. Gandhi also learned more about his own faith, Hinduism. Gandhi enjoyed his time in England, but once he passed the bar in 1891, he left for India two days later.
Gandhi was not a good lawyer. He was too shy and reserved in the courtroom. He turned to drafting application to make ends-meat. Gandhi did not like this work and found it tiresome. So when a Muslim firm in South Africa offered him a job, he took it. He was to be a lawyer and correspondence clerk for them. Gandhi thought he may stay in South Africa a year or so, but when he left India in 1883, he didn’t return for twenty-one years.
South Africa was a turning point in Gandhi’s life. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was thrown off a train in the middle of the night for daring to travel first class and spent the night shivering in a train station. It was also in South Africa that a driver of a stage coach would not let him ride inside, but had him sit outside. Later the driver asked Gandhi to sit on the floor mat, but Gandhi reused and the driver began to beat him. The other passengers saved him. Gandhi was also kicked into a gutter for daring to walk past President’s Kruger’s house.
After these terrible incidents, Gandhi was about to leave South Africa, but then the law firm he was working for asked him to lead the fight against the Indian Franchise bill, which would have the voting rights of Indians taken away if passed. Gandhi agreed to lead the fight. He founded the National Indian Congress and was able to reduce the severity of the bill but not stop it entirely. Gandhi also led campaigns against immigration restrictions and dormitory licensing laws, but both of those campaigns were unsuccessful.
It was not until 1907 when Gandhi decided to use civil disobedience, or satyagraha as he called it, as a response to government action he found unjust. At this time a law had just been passed that required the fingerprinting of all Indians and gave the police power to enter the homes of Indian people to ensure that they were all registered. Gandhi would not stand for this. He arranged for the peaceful picketing of registration centers and the burning of registration cards.
Many sources were influential to Gandhi’s method of resistance, one was Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1847) and the other was The Kingdom of God is Within You, by Tolstory, (1893). These two sources helped him develop satyagraha. Satyagraha is the policy of passive resistance as a method of gaining political and social reforms. It is the combination of the Hindu words “sayta” which means truth and “agraha” which means strength or firmness.
Gandhi was able to gain incredible political experience and notoriety while in South Africa, so when he returned to India in 1915 he was already a well-known political figure. He reacquainted himself with his homeland once he returned, traveling around the county as a type of political guru. So, in 1919 when he entered back into the political area, he was well prepared.
The reason Gandhi returned to politics on a national level was the Rowlatt Act. An act that authorized the British authorities to imprison Indians suspected of sedition without trial. In response to this injustice, Gandhi called for a satyagraha campaign. He envisioned peaceful protests and strikes, but instead violence erupted. All of this violence culminated on April 13, 1919 with the massacre of Amritsar when British troops led by Brigadier General Reginald Dyer fired machine guns into a crow of unarmed demonstrators and killed nearly four hundred people.
This was the last straw, and Gandhi became a leading figure in the Indian home-rule movement. He called for mass boycotts. He urged government officials to stop working for the Crown. He asked students to stop attending government school and for soldiers to leave their posts. He wanted citizens to stop paying taxes and purchasing British goods. Instead Gandhi wanted the Indian people to make their own cloth. Gandhi began to use a portable spinning wheel to make his own homespun cloth. Soon the spinning wheel and Gandhi became a symbol of Indian independence and self-reliance.
Gandhi was arrested in 1922 for his work in the independence movement. He plead guilty to three counts of sedition and was sentenced to six year in prison. Only he was released in 1924 after he had appendix surgery. Gandhi was only gone from the political realm for two years, but in that time Hindu and Muslim relation shad devolved incredibly. Gandhi retreated from politics from the rest of the 1920’s.
It was not until 1930 when Gandhi made a comeback to the political area. Gandhi reappeared to fight the Salt Acts. This unjust legislation prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, which was a staple in the Indian diet. A heavy tax was also imposed on salt that hit the poor incredibly hard. To combat this act, Gandhi planned a new satyagraha campaign. He marched three hundred and ninety kilometers (two hundred and forty miles) to the Arabian Sea. There he collected salt in a symbolic act of defiance to the government. Gandhi’s acts sparked similar protests across India. In all sixty thousand Indians were jailed for breaking the Salt Acts, including Gandhi. He was in prison from May of 1930 to the January of 1931.Gandhi was named Times man of the year for 1930. Two months after his release, Gandhi made an agreement with Lord Irwin to end the Salt Satyagraha. The agreement between the two men came to largely kept the Salt Acts intact, but gave the right to harvest salt from the sea to the people who lived on the coast.
In 1934, Gandhi left the Indian National Congress. He passed leadership to Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi again retreated from politics. Instead he focused on education, poverty, and problems afflicting India’s rural areas. Gandhi returned to politics in 1942. When Great Britain was fully engaged in World War II, Gandhi launched the Quit India movement, calling for the immediate withdrawal of the British from India. In the August of 1942 Gandhi was arrested along with his wife and other leaders of the Indian National Congress for their involvement. They were imprisoned in Aga Khan Palace, where his wife died. Gandhi was released after nineteen months.
The Labor Party defeated Churchill and the Conservatives in the British general election of 1945 which meant the British government was now willing to negotiate independence with India. Negotiations between the Indian Nation Congress and Mohammad Ail Jinnah’s Muslim League began. Gandhi played a critical role in trying to negotiate between the British and these groups, who had very different ideas as to what an independent India would look like. Gandhi wanted a unified India, but he did not achieve negotiating one. Instead India was partitioned into a predominately Hindu India and a predominately Muslim Pakistan. This caused mass migration and even more violence between the Muslims and Hindus.
India became independent on August 15, 1947. Gandhi boycotted all celebrations demonstrate how distraught he was over the partition of India. He fasted for peace and pleased with the riot-torn areas to stop the bloodshed. Six months later, Gandhi who was weak from hunger strikes, clung to his two grandnieces as they led him from his living quarters in New Delhi’s Birla House to a prayer meeting. But he would never make it, for Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who thought Gandhi was sympathizing with Muslims and too tolerant toward them pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and shot Gandhi three times at point-blank range.
Gandhi left a legacy of social and political change that was achieved by a process of nonviolence and passive resistance. His ideas spread around the world and inspired Martin Luther King Junior as well as Nelson Mandela to be warriors of social justice in their respective countries. Today, Gandhi is an icon.
This paper was written for the class, World Civilization from 1500 at the University of Georgia.