Mahatma Gandhi was without a doubt the most influential voice for peace and social justice in the twentieth century. For the people of India, he is regarded as the “Father of the Nation.” He was instrumental in securing freedom for the whole of India from the British Empire. He helped to accomplish this without the use or threat of violence. For him, it represented a thirty year campaign.
He was born on October 2, 1869 in Probandar, India, a country that had already been dominated by the British Empire for centuries. For one hundred years before his birth, the control of India was in the hands of the British East India Company that was licensed by the Crown. It was afforded a free hand to pursue its commercial fortune by any means including raising an army and waging war. By the year 1757, it had secured the control of the whole of Northern India. The control exerted by the British East India Company often operated furtively behind puppet regimes with the net consequence of draining the wealth of the country. This behavior is at the very heart of the colonialist mentality. Some historians claim that England’s Industrial Revolution was financed by the exploitation of India. As a consequence, Indian society showed the extremes of wealth and dire poverty. Calcutta was built by the East India Company while village life was severely impacted, especially since farmers were coerced into producing crops designated for export.
To give an idea of the extent of the consequence of British rule, the following table compares deaths by starvation over the course of 175 years.
By 1857, Northern Indians began to openly rebel. The strategy of the Empire was to keep India divided, for India was seen as the “Jewel in the Crown.” Shortly thereafter, India became an Imperial Colony, for it was too important to be left in the hands of the British East India Company. The psychological impact of centuries of occupation left its scars on the psyche of the Indian population. This was the social climate and the real politick into which Gandhi was born.
As a teenager, Gandhi was sent to London to study law. At that time, he was an anglophile and quickly took on the dress and customs of the British. After he passed his bar exams, he returned to India; by that time, he was married and had a four year old son. He did not fare well as a lawyer in his home country. He was offered a job by a group of Moslems from his home village of Porbandar. They wanted to send him to South Africa in regards to a law suit, and he arrived in Durban, Natal in May of 1893. It was here that a singular event transformed the man, his thinking, his attitudes, his personal future and ultimately the fate of his people.
At that time, there were a small number of successful Indian traders in South Africa and some one hundred thousand indentured Indian laborers working in the fields and in the mines. He boarded a train to Pretoria and was unaware of the severity of the laws establishing segregation based on national origin or color. In the midst of his journey, he was ordered off the whites-only section of the train that he happened to be on. He refused to do as he was told and was beaten in the process. He was so impacted by this singular event that upon his arrival in Pretoria, he summoned all the Indians in that city to a meeting. There he gave his first public address and urged his fellows to forget all distinctions between them and unite behind a common cause. Regular meetings were held thereafter, and thus began the beginning of his journey of a lifetime.
In three years, Gandhi had become a prosperous lawyer and a well known figure. He was seen as the spokesman for indentured laborers. He developed a considerable reputation. His success was in many ways due to the fact that he could appeal to the common sense and morality of his opponent. According to Gandhi, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.” In 1896, he went back home to fetch his wife and family and returned to South Africa. At home, he traveled to gather support for his work in South Africa. He was so successful in doing this that he took back 800 free Indians with him and sailed back to Pretoria. Word of his success reached the South African government. The government tried unsuccessfully to prevent the ship from landing. Gandhi was so feared by the white population that he was badly assaulted.
The secret of the essential Gandhi was his strategy of rebuilding, healing and unifying. In describing his strategy, Gandhi said, “If we get our house in order, dependency would fall like a ripe fruit as a natural consequence.” He also cautioned, “Begin at home, begin with yourself, correct underlying conditions and suffer the consequences. The rest will fall into place.” He was resolute and persistent. In regard to Gandhi’s beliefs, the centerpiece of his philosophy was the Bhagavad Gita
that he envisioned as the Song of God and represented to him an infallible creed of conduct. Out of all his works, he published one book while in South Africa – Satyagraha
. He defined Satyagraha as love in action and the technology of peace. An essential ingredient to this approach was respect for one’s adversary. Gandhi thought it was important to never attempt to diminish an opponent, for this would prove to be a real obstacle to peace. In his own words, “A Satyagrahi (those who live by Satyagraha) bids goodbye to fear. He is therefore never afraid of trusting the opponent. Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the Satyagrahi is ready to trust him for the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of the creed.”
An important part of Gandhi’s strategy in his opposition to the South African government’s discriminatory policies was the use of the press. Indian Opinion
, a weekly journal, was employed in this way. It was published in English and Gujarati. Gandhi was instrumental in the creation of this publication. In 1904, a few months after its founding, the publication was having difficulties. In response to this problem, Gandhi journeyed to Durban where it was published. There he happened to meet an Englishman, Henry S. L. Polak who gave him a copy of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last
. According to Gandhi, “That book marked the turning point in my life.” The contents of this book resonated with his own convictions. He understood the teachings in this book to be that:
“The good of the individual is contained in the good of all
That a lawyer’s work has the same value as a barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihoods from their work
That a life of labor - the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman - is the life worth living.”
During his time in South Africa, Gandhi began the gradual process of simplifying his existence. This kind of change reflected a spiritual transformation that was happening within. The changes Gandhi undertook operated on many levels. He exhibited remarkable patience, persistence and a gift for moral persuasion.
A significant test of his resolve came when the so-called Black Act or Asiatic Registration Law went into effect in March 1907. This act required all Indians to get fingerprinted and keep registration documents on them at all times. On the first of July, 1907, the permit offices were opened. Gandhi had organized mass meetings before this fateful date. The community decided to picket each day at every office. Many of the protesters were beaten and arrested. The certificates were burnt and thousands went to jail. After seven years of struggle, the Black Act was repealed in June 1914, demonstrating the effectiveness of Satygraha. He finally left South Africa on July 18, 1914, never to return.
He then began the long struggle on behalf of his own people at home. Within India, he demonstrated as a teacher that persistence, courage, determination in the face of repression and intimidation, non-violence, patience, self-reliance and respect for their British adversaries would ultimately produce a successful conclusion. Gandhi led by example; he showed his followers just how powerful and effective acting out of moral principle could be. This is the essence of Satyagraha.
The struggle he led lasted thirty years. Gandhi not only faced the British oppressors, but also took on injustice that stemmed from his own people, especially in regard to the issue of the so-called “untouchables.” Along with this radical departure from the conventional way of thinking, Gandhi made major changes in his outward appearance that made him more readily fit in with the dress of the overwhelming majority of Indians. With this change, the people became more receptive to his message. Gandhi gave the untouchables a new name – Harijans, literally meaning “Children of God.” Gandhi had made an unprecedented decision to accept an untouchable family in his Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmadabad. Following that decision, all monetary assistance to the Ashram stopped, but Gandhi persisted. The message was clear – the Ashram would not countenance untouchability.
During the protracted struggle, Gandhi applied continual pressure on the British authorities always insisting on non-violence. In Gandhi’s words, “If India attains what will be to me so-called freedom by violent means she will cease to be the country of my pride.” The most well known event that is so characteristic of Gandhi’s approach is the Salt March. On March 2, 1930, Gandhi wrote a fateful letter to the then British Viceroy, Lord Irwin. An excerpt of this letter follows, “Dear Friend. Before embarking on Civil Disobedience and taking the risk I have dreaded to take all these years, I would feign approach you and find a way out.
“My personal faith is absolutely clear. I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less human beings, even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine. Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India
“And why do I regard the British rule a curse?
“It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinous expensive military and civil administration which the country can never afford.
“It has reduced us politically to serfdom. It has sapped the foundations of our culture. And by the policy of cruel disarmament, it has degraded us spiritually…”
This letter went on to inform the British authorities that it was Gandhi’s intention to put pressure on the British to revise the revenue system. He would begin by defying the Salt Law that forbade Indians from making salt and taxing the salt they did purchase. In Gandhi’s words, “The tax shows itself still more burdensome on the poor and when it is remembered that salt is the one thing he must eat more than the rich man.” It was obvious that he felt compelled to oppose it.
Early on the morning of April 5, the ashramites accompanied Gandhi to the sea in the now famous Salt March. Thousands accompanied him. From that point, all of India began making salt illegally. In response, the British authorities arrested some sixty thousand offenders, and, finally, Gandhi was arrested as well.
This demonstration of Indian resolve made it clear that Indians were quite capable of making orderly British rule untenable. January 16, 1931 had been the date fixed by the Congress Party – the Congress Party was formed in 1885 and eventually assumed the leadership of the independence movement - as the official day of Independence, for on that date a Declaration of Independence had been issued. On the same day, Lord Irwin released Gandhi from prison. After this, Gandhi was invited to a series of discussions with the Viceroy in his palace. At the end of this parlay, the Irwin-Gandhi Pact was signed. This represented a significant victory for India and a turning point in regards to British rule.
In 1941, the Second World War took center stage. At the war’s end, it became clear to the British that they could no longer reasonably hold on to India. On July 26, 1945, the newly-elected British Labor Government announced that it was ready to expedite self-government in India. On August 12, 1946, Lord Wavell, the British Viceroy, commissioned Jawaharlal Nehru to form the new government. Nehru approached Mohamed Ali Jinnah, the President of the Moslem League, to join the government but Jinnah refused. On September 2, Nehru became the Prime Minister of India, and Jinnah proclaimed that day a day of mourning and instructed Moslems to display black flags. As a result of this schism between Hindus and Moslems, horrendous rioting ensued, especially in Calcutta.
Although Gandhi spent most of his adult life struggling for India’s independence from the British Empire, using non-violence as an essential part of his methodology, he was only one man and could not heal the growing rift between the highly polarized spiritual communities. As independence was coming close to a reality and fear and suspicion mounted among members of these two different communities, violence was inevitable. And sadly, Gandhi was assassinated on January 25, 1948 by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a thirty-five year old Hindu and a high-degree Brahman.
The impact that Gandhi had not only in India but throughout the world can best be summarized by the comment made by Albert Einstein, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”