Famous People

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Mohandas K. Gandhi
Gandhi, like Jinnah, was born in western India, in the small Princely State of Porbandar, where his father had served as dewan (minister) before moving on to another small state nearby. Also like Jinnah, Gandhi was educated first in India and then sent in 1887 by his family to study law in London, an experience that anglicized him, too. When Gandhi returned to India in 1890 he wore British-style frock coats and trousers, insisted that his wife and children wear shoes and socks, and wanted his family to eat oatmeal regularly. Unlike Jinnah, however, Gandhi did not succeed as a lawyer, either in Gujarat or Bombay. After several years of trying to establish himself in practice there, he accepted a legal assignment with an Indian Muslim business firm in Natal, South Africa.

Mohandas K. Gandhi in South Africa, 1903. Gandhi lived and worked as a lawyer in South Africa from 1893 until 1914, eventually (by 1907) developing his ideas on nonviolent protest and on religion. Here he is seated in front of his South African law office with several employees. The woman is Miss Schlesin, a Russian; to his right is his clerk, H. S. L. Polak. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

From 1893 to 1914 Gandhi lived and worked in South Africa. It was in South Africa that he discovered his avocation as a political organizer  and his religious faith as a modern Hindu. The diverse South African community was made up of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, and Christians who came from regions as different as Gujarat and south India. Gandhi led this multiethnic, multireligious community in a variety of protests against British laws that discriminated against Indians. He developed the nonviolent tactic of satyagraha (literally “truth-firmness” or “soul force”) that he would later use in India. “I had . . . then to choose,” he would later remember, “between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked” (Hay 1988, 266). He led nonviolent campaigns in 1907–08 and 1908 11 and a combined strike and cross-country march in 1913–14. It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed the religious and ethical ideas that merged the Western education of his youth with the beliefs and principles of his family’s Hindu religion. By the age of 37, Gandhi had simplified his diet according to strict vegetarian rules, had taken a Hindu vow of celibacy (brahmacharya), and had exchanged his Western dress for a simpler Indian costume, a dhoti (a long cloth wrapped around the lower body), shawl, and turban. In South Africa and later in India Gandhi’s political philosophy would rest equally on the Jaina principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) and on the conviction that the means by which a political goal was achieved was fully as important as its end result. In India Gandhi would undertake fasts to the death on several occasions, a form of personal satyagraha by which he hoped to win over the hearts of his opponents. In 1915, when Gandhi returned to India, he was already famous there. The diversity of the South African Indian community had given him a broader background and experience than that of most nationalist leaders with their more limited regional bases. Nevertheless, Gandhi was not an immediate success in India. His simple dress of dhoti, shawl, and turban made him seem idiosyncratic to Westernized audiences. He spoke too softly and tended to lecture his listeners on the need for Indian self-improvement. His initial speeches to Congress and the Home Rule League were not well received. After his return to India, Gandhi made his base in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, founding there an ashram and traveling by thirdclass railway coach throughout British India. In the first years of his return he organized a satyagraha against indigo planters in Champaran district in the foothills of the Himalayas, campaigned for a reduction of land revenues in Kheda district in Gujarat, and fasted to compel his  friends and financial supporters, the industrialist Sarabhai family, to pay their workers higher wages. These campaigns gained Gandhi visibility and sympathy within India. But to the more anglicized nationalists he may still have seemed as incomprehensible as he did to Edwin Montagu (1879–1924), the British secretary of state for India, who met Gandhi on a tour in 1917. He “dresses like a coolie,” Montagu wrote in his diary, “forswears all personal advancement, lives practically on the air, and is a pure visionary” (Wolpert 1989, 295).

The Amritsar Massacre
The end of World War I brought with it a new offer of constitutional reforms from the British government, but the reforms themselves were broadly disappointing to almost all factions of Indian nationalists. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms (or the “Montford reforms,” as they are sometime abbreviated) were promised as a move toward responsible government. They were announced in 1917 and implemented two years later in the Government of India Act of 1919. The Montford reforms offered Indians “dyarchy,” a plan under which the government would turn over responsibility for some areas of government—for example, health and education—to provincial legislatures and Indian ministers, while reserving other departments—for instance, police, revenue, and law—for the British central government. Indian legislative members would continue to be elected into these provincial governments through the various constituencies established in earlier reforms. From the British perspective the Montford reforms had the advantage of bringing elected Indian officials into collaboration with the existing British Indian government, even as they cut off those same officials from the more extreme wing of the nationalist movement. From the nationalist perspective, the reforms ceded little if any real power to Indians. They gave Indian ministers the responsibility for traditionally underfunded departments, while giving them no control over or access to the revenues through which the departments were funded. Congress leaders split over how to respond. Jinnah proposed rejecting Montford outright. Tilak and Besant feuded over the wording and extent of their rejections. The remnants of the old moderate faction considered founding a separate party to allow them to accept the reforms. But the unity that factions in the Indian National Congress could not find among themselves, British officials created for them. During World War I the Defense of India Act (1915) had created temporary sedition laws under which, in certain circumstances, political cases could be  tried without juries and suspects interned without trials. In 1918 when the Rowlatt Committee recommended that these laws become permanent, the Indian government immediately passed the Rowlatt Acts, ignoring the unanimous objections of all Indians on the Imperial Legislative Council. Jinnah resigned his council seat in 1919 when the acts became law. Gandhi called for a nationwide hartal (strike) to protest them. When the strikes in Delhi and north India turned into riots and shooting, Gandhi immediately ended the hartal, calling it a “Himalayan miscalculation” (Fischer 1983, 179). But in Amritsar, the sacred city of the Sikhs in the Punjab, the government responded to the city’s hartal by deporting Congress leaders and prohibiting all public meetings. On April 13, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer (1864–1927), the commander in charge of the city, heard that a gathering was to take place at Jallianwalla Bagh (Jallianwalla Garden). Dyer posted his troops at the entrance to the walled garden where some 10,000–20,000 people had already gathered. Without warning, he ordered his troops to fire. A later parliamentary report estimated that 1,650 rounds of ammunition were fired, killing 379 people and wounding another 1,200. In the months following the Amritsar massacre, Dyer maintained rigid martial law. At one site where a British woman had been attacked, he ordered Indians who passed to crawl. Those who refused were to be publicly flogged. Dyer was subsequently forced to resign from the military, and the Indian Hunter Commission condemned his actions. But in Great Britain he was a martyr. The pro-imperial House of Lords refused to censure Dyer, and on his return to England a British newspaper raised £26,000 for his retirement. In India, public outrage brought Indians together in opposition to the British. Rabindranath Tagore, who had been knighted after receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, renounced his knighthood. The 1919 session of Congress was moved to Amritsar. The 38,000 people attending demonstrated that Congress was united as never before. In the 1920s Gandhi would move nationalism to a new level. By building up the Congress organization in Indian villages, Gandhi would make the Congress Party a mass movement.

Gandhi and the Nationalist Movement 

Even a handful of true satyagrahis [followers of soul force], well organized
and disciplined through selfless service of the masses, can win independence
for India, because behind them will be the power of the silent millions.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Satyagraha:Transforming Unjust Relationships Through the Power of the Soul” (Hay 1988, 269 270) Mohandas K. Gandhi led India’s nationalist movement from the 1920s to his death in 1948. Gandhi made nationalism a mass movement in India bringing rural Indians into the Congress Party through his unique combination of Hindu religiosity, political acumen, and practical organizing skills. Between 1920 and 1948 Gandhi led a series of campaigns against the British—the 1920–22 noncooperation movement, the 1930 Salt March, the 1942 Quit India movement—successfully mobilizing masses of urban and rural Indians in opposition to British rule. Gandhi’s 1920 campaign was a coalition of Hindus and Muslims, but in the late ’20s and ’30s communal violence, conservative Hindu intransigence, and Congress’s own misjudgments split Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League from the Congress movement. In the end, it was as much the expense of World War II as Gandhi’s nationalist campaigns that ended British rule in India. But neither the British nor Congress or the Muslim League was able to devise a government scheme for a free India that would maintain a strong central government (an essential Congress demand) and yet provide protection within a majoritarian democratic system for India’s Muslim minority (the Muslim League demand). This failure meant that with independence in 1947 also came partition. The division of British India into India and Pakistan caused 1 million deaths and made 10 million Indians refugees. Even as other Indian leaders participated in the detailed negotiations of Britain’s 1947 transfer of power, Gandhi worked tirelessly to stop Hindu-Muslim violence. He was assassinated in 1948 by a right wing extremist who believed Gandhi to be too pro-Muslim.

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One thought on “Mohandas K. Gandhi

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