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Gandhi: A Biography
First Online: August 15, 1997
First See: Introduction to learn Who was Gandhi?
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), also known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born in Porbandar in the present day state of Gujarat in India on October 2, 1869. He was raised in a very conservative family that had affiliations with the ruling family of Kathiawad. He was educated in law at University College, London. In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, without much success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser in its office in Durban. Arriving in Durban, Gandhi found himself treated as a member of an inferior race. He was appalled at the widespread denial of civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants to South Africa. He threw himself into the struggle for elementary rights for Indians.
Resistance to Injustice
Gandhi remained in South Africa for twenty years, suffering imprisonment many times. In 1896, after being attacked and humiliated by white South Africans, Gandhi began to teach a policy of passive resistance to, and non-cooperation with, the South African authorities. Part of the inspiration for this policy came from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose influence on Gandhi was profound. Gandhi also acknowledged his debt to the teachings of Christ and to the 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau, especially to Thoreau's famous essay "Civil Disobedience." Gandhi considered the terms passive resistance and civil disobedience inadequate for his purposes, however, and coined another term, Satyagraha (from Sanskrit, "truth and firmness"). During the Boer War, Gandhi organized an ambulance corps for the British army and commanded a Red Cross unit. After the war he returned to his campaign for Indian rights. In 1910, he founded Tolstoy Farm, near Durban, a cooperative colony for Indians. In 1914 the government of the Union of South Africa made important concessions to Gandhi's demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them. His work in South Africa complete, he returned to India.
Campaign for Home Rule
Gandhi became a leader in a complex struggle, the
Indian campaign for home
rule. Following World War I, in which he played an active part in recruiting campaigns,
Gandhi, again advocating Satyagraha, launched his movement of
non-violent resistance to Great
Britain. When, in 1919, Parliament passed the Rowlatt Acts, giving the Indian colonial
authorities emergency powers to deal with so-called revolutionary activities, Satyagraha
spread throughout India, gaining millions of followers. A demonstration against the
Rowlatt Acts resulted in a massacre of Indians at Amritsar by British soldiers; in 1920, when the
British government failed to make amends, Gandhi proclaimed an organized campaign of
non-cooperation. Indians in public office resigned, government agencies such as courts of
law were boycotted, and Indian children were withdrawn from government schools. Throughout
India, streets were blocked by squatting Indians who refused to rise even when beaten by
police. Gandhi was arrested, but the British were soon forced to release him.
Gandhi takes on Domestic Problems
In 1932, Gandhi began new civil-disobedience campaigns
against the British. Arrested twice, the Mahatma fasted for long periods several times;
these fasts were effective measures against the British, because revolution might well
have broken out in India if he had died. In September 1932, while in jail, Gandhi
undertook a "fast unto death" to improve the status of the Hindu Untouchables.
The British, by permitting the Untouchables to be considered as a separate part of the
Indian electorate, were, according to Gandhi, countenancing an injustice. Although he was
himself a member of an upper caste, Gandhi was the great leader of the
movement in India dedicated to eradicating the unjust social and economic aspects of the
© K. L. Kamat
Independence for IndiaWhen World War II broke out, the Congress party and Gandhi demanded a declaration of war aims and their application to India. As a reaction to the unsatisfactory response from the British, the party decided not to support Britain in the war unless the country were granted complete and immediate independence. The British refused, offering compromises that were rejected. When Japan entered the war, Gandhi still refused to agree to Indian participation. He was interned in 1942 but was released two years later because of failing health.
Times of India/
By 1944 the Indian struggle for independence was in its final stages, the British
government having agreed to independence on condition that the two contending nationalist
groups, the Muslim League and the Congress party, should resolve their differences. Gandhi
stood steadfastly against the partition of India but ultimately had to agree, in the hope
that internal peace would be achieved after the Muslim demand for separation had been
satisfied. India and Pakistan became separate states when the British granted India its
independence in 1947 (see: Tryst with
Destiny -- the story of India's independence). During the riots that followed the partition of India, Gandhi
pleaded with Hindus and Muslims to live together peacefully. Riots engulfed Calcutta, one
of the largest cities in India, and the Mahatma fasted until disturbances ceased. On
January 13, 1948, he undertook another successful fast in New Delhi to bring about peace,
but on January 30, 12 days after the termination of that fast, as he was on his way to his
evening prayer meeting, he was assassinated by a fanatic Hindu.
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