Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most important figures in India’s history and played a vital role in both the Indian Independence Movement and Indian National Congress. Gandhi was born on October 2nd, 1869 in the city of Porbandar in western British India. His name at birth was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The name ‘Mahatma’ was given to him later in life and literally translates to ‘Great Soul’, which is a reference to the role he played in helping India gain its independence from Britain. As such, the life of Gandhi is very significant to the overall history of British imperialism in India.
GANDHI'S EARLY LIFE
Gandhi’s parents were Hindus, and his was mother was especially devout to her faith. Gandhi’s father worked as an administrative officer in the local region of British India. Gandhi first began school at the age of nine and is described as being an unremarkable student. However, in his autobiography, Gandhi expressed the impact that classic Indian stories had on him as a young man. In particular, he stated that these stories taught him the values of love and truth.
In 1883, at the age of thirteen, Gandhi was married to fourteen-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia in an arranged marriage, which was a common practise in India at the time. Together, they had several children. Their first was a girl born when Gandhi was just sixteen years old. However, the child only survived for a few days after birth. Gandhi and his wife went on to have four boys with the first being born in 1888. Despite, this he continued his studies in school and developed his understanding of the world. In fact, he graduated from high school in 1887 at the age of eighteen.
It was also at this time that Gandhi made the decision to leave behind his young wife and study law in London, England. While he came from a poor family, Gandhi was encouraged to go to England to study law by a family friend. In fact, Gandhi’s older Brother, Laxmidas, offered to help support him while he studied in England. Gandhi arrived in England in 1888 and began his law studies at University College in London. Gandhi had been a vegetarian since he was a young man and continued this practise in England. He even joined the London Vegetarian Society. He finished his law studies in 1892 and returned to India for a short time before making his way to South Africa in 1893.
GANDHI IN SOUTH AFRICA
Gandhi’s time in South Africa is vitally important to his development as a person, because his experience there eventually prepared him for his eventual return to India and participation in the Indian Independence Movement. As stated above, Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893. He did so at the request of a merchant who needed law services for his shipping business. From Gandhi’s perspective, it seemed like a perfect arrangement because South Africa was part of the British Empire, and he thought he could easily move there and make a living. However, his hopes for success and fair treatment in South Africa were challenged by the events he experienced while there.
Gandhi experienced several different examples of racism and discrimination during his time in South Africa. For example, while travelling on a train through South Africa, Gandhi was famously refused a first-class seat, which he had purchased. This was because in South Africa, the first-class seats were reserved for white passengers. As a result, Gandhi was removed from the train and left in a train station as the train continued on without him. He was shocked by the discrimination that Indians in South Africa experienced and quickly sought to protest the poor treatment.
One of the first protests that Gandhi helped organize while in South Africa was related to a law that would deny Indians the right to vote in South Africa. While his protest was ultimately unsuccessful, he helped to create an organized movement of Indian people in South Africa. For example, he helped with the creation of the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, which was a political organization designed to protest for Indian rights in South Africa.
It was during his time in South Africa when he began to develop his protest methods based on non-cooperation with unjust laws. In particular, Gandhi’s protests were based on ‘satyagraha’, which is best understood as a form of non-violent protest. Essentially, Gandhi advocated that Indians in South Africa should go against unjust laws in a peaceful manner as a form of protesting the law. This is important, because this is the same techniques that Gandhi later used during the Indian Independence Movement in India.
Meanwhile, in the early part of the 20th century, an Indian nationalist movement had begun to grow in India. This nationalist movement sought to end British imperial rule in India and allow India its independence. Gandhi’s reputation in South Africa, had gained him notoriety in India, and he was eventually asked to return to India to help the Indian Independence Movement. As such, Gandhi left South Africa in 1915 and made his way to India. He had spent nearly 22 years in South Africa.
GANDHI RETURNS TO INDIA & CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
As stated above, the Indian Independence Movement expanded in 1915 when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India following his time in South Africa. Before arriving in India in 1915, Gandhi had helped lead an Indian nationalist movement in South Africa, in which he argued for more rights and better treatment of Indians there. He used this experience in South Africa to carry out similar actions in India. In fact, Gandhi became the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1920, and quickly began to organize and carry out protests calling for an end to British imperialism in India. Gandhi’s concept of independence is often referred to as ‘swaraj’. In general, the term swaraj means self-government or self-rule and refers to the idea that Gandhi (along with other members of the Indian Independence Movement) wanted India to gain its independence from British imperial rule. He did this through several different ways, but Gandhi is most famous for his non-cooperation movement based on civil disobedience. In general, civil disobedience is when individuals refuse to follow the orders or laws of a society that they feel are unjust or discriminatory. Gandhi believed that India could gain its independence and achieve swaraj if it stopped cooperating with British laws, thus forcing the British to adapt to the Indian people instead of the other way around. He argued that the best way for Indian to obtain self-government (swaraj) was through a non-cooperation movement in which the Indian people refused to follow British laws.
Gandhi’s non-cooperation campaign focused on protesting Britain’s economic and political control over India. He argued that in order for Indians to force Britain out of India, the people of India had to practise civil disobedience through non-violence. As such, he advocated techniques such as hunger strikes and other forms of protest that did not involve the Indian people responding with violence.
One of the ways that Gandhi promoted the idea of economic non-cooperation was through the concept of ‘swadeshi’. In general, it involved Indians producing their own goods (or consuming domestically made goods) and rejecting foreign goods. At the time, Britain benefitted economically by selling goods to India from their factories in England. This arrangement deprived India from developing its own economy and sent large amounts of wealth back to England. As a result, members of the Indian National Congress (including Gandhi) began to express the importance of swadeshi. In particular, Gandhi argued for the concept of ‘khadi’. In general, ‘khadi’ means homespun or handmade cloth. Gandhi advocated the idea that Indians should make their own clothing instead of purchasing British cloth or clothes. He viewed this as a way of protesting British control over India. In fact, Gandhi practised ‘khadi’ throughout the rest of his life and wore his own homemade clothes in symbolism of the fight against British imperialism in India.
GANDHI AND THE SALT MARCH
Another example of Gandhi’s economic non-cooperation was the famous Salt March. This event took place from March 12th to April 6th in 1930 and saw Gandhi lead a non-violent protest against British laws related to salt harvesting in India. More specifically, the British effectively had total control over the harvesting of salt in India due to the 1882 Salt Act. Because of this act, Indians were forced to pay taxes on salt and could face harsh criminal punishments if they didn’t follow the law. This law angered many in the Indian National Congress because salt had been freely available to Indians for centuries, especially for those who lived along the coastlines of India. As a result, Gandhi and other members of the Indian National Congress decided to carry out a non-violent protest of the law by carrying out a salt march. The goal of the salt march was to openly disobey the British law and gain momentum for the Indian Independence Movement that was being supported by both Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.
In total, the Salt March that Gandhi led, lasted for 24 days in the spring of 1930. It saw Gandhi, along with about 80 other volunteers, march approximately 240 miles (384 km) from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in western India. Many others joined Gandhi and the volunteers along the route until finally, when they arrived in Dandi on April 6th, there were thousands of participants in the Salt March. When the group arrived at the coast on April 6th, Gandhi broke the British laws by collecting salt.
Millions of Indians began to break the salt laws in the days and weeks after the Salt March. Some collected their own salt, while others purchased it illegally. The British responded harshly by imprisoning over 60,000 people in the month after Gandhi carried out the Salt March. Furthermore, the British arrested and imprisoned Gandhi on May 5th, 1930. They accused him of creating protests and revolt in the country. The British hoped that by arresting Gandhi they could slow or stop the ongoing protests, but it did not work, as Gandhi’s supporters carried on the mission.
Historically, the Salt March by Mahatma Gandhi was a significant event. Not only was it an important moment in India’s progress towards independence from British rule, but it also inspired other historical figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American activist and Christian minister that played a significant role in the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement essentially saw people in the United States protesting for equal rights for African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by the non-violent civil disobedience expressed by Gandhi in the Salt March and used similar methods in his own protests.
TOWARDS INDIAN INDEPENDENCE
After being released from prison, Gandhi continued touring India and giving speeches in support of Indian independence. This continued pressure on the British resulted in the famous Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was an agreement between Gandhi and the British government, which was represented by British conservative politician (and then Viceroy of India) Lord Irwin. In general, the pact had Gandhi and the Indian National Congress agree to end the protests related to the Salt March, in exchange for Indian participation in a Round Table Conference related to India’s potential Independence. Gandhi agreed to the terms of the pact and soon made his way to England for the Round Table Conference.
There was actually a series of three Round Table Conference from the end of 1930 until 1932. Furthermore, Gandhi only attended the Second Round Table Conference, which occurred near the end of 1931. During these conferences, the representatives of the Indian National Congress (including Gandhi) argued in favor of Indian independence from British rule. However, for their part, the British tried to exploit the religious tensions in India (ex. Hindu vs. Muslim) and maintain their control over India. For example, the British had hoped to draft a constitution in relation to India, that it could use to protect its rights in the country. Gandhi opposed this as he saw it as a means of the British dividing Indians along religious lines. Gandhi returned to India and called for another round of non-violent protests against the British. In response, the British officials in India had him imprisoned. While in prison, Gandhi began a hunger strike in opposition to the British.
Gandhi resigned from the Indian National Congress in 1934 in hopes that it would help the political organization grow. He remained active in Indian politics and endorsed candidates for the Indian National Congress that promoted his belief in non-violent civil disobedience.
The outbreak of World War II in Europe had a significant impact on British imperialism in India. For instance, Gandhi argued against Indians participating in the conflict because he did not agree with Indians fighting and dying to protect British democratic rights, especially when the British did not respect India’s calls for self-rule. However, this did not stop over 2.5 million Indians from volunteering for service in the war. Gandhi did not relent, and as the war progressed into the 1940s, he called for more non-violent acts of civil disobedience against the British. In fact, this most recent movement was referred to as the ‘Quit India’ movement. Again, British officials had him arrested. However, they released him in 1944 due to his failing health and advanced age (Gandhi was 75 years old).
At this point in history, India was facing an internal crisis based on religious divisions. Many people were calling for India to be divided along religious lines. For instance, some wanted a part of India that was only for Hindus, while others wanted a section that was only for Muslims. Gandhi had battled against the division of India since his return in 1915, however, the political climate had shifted and the tensions between the different religious groups was high. As a result, with British approval, India was partitioned in 1947. In fact, the country was divided into Pakistan (for Muslims) and India (for Hindus and Sikhs). With this act, British imperial rule in India had ended and India had gained its independence.
Although India had gained the independence that Gandhi had long sought, he did not celebrate, as he was strongly opposed to the partitioning of the country along religious lines. In fact, the partitioning of India led to the deaths of many people in India. For example, the creation of Pakistan forced many Hindus and Sikhs to migrate out of the new state and towards India. While, on the other side, Muslims in India were forced to migrate out of Indian and into Pakistan. This migration process saw much violence, rioting and the deaths of thousands. At the time, Gandhi did his best to calm both sides and promote tolerance. As a Hindu himself, Gandhi tried to reach out to Muslim leaders in order to promote peace between the two sides.
DEATH OF GANDHI
Gandhi died on January 30th, 1948 in India. While walking to a prayer meeting, he was shot in the chest three times by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse. Godse criticized Gandhi for his handling of the partition, and for working with Muslim leaders. Godse was found guilty of the assassination and executed in 1949. The site where Gandhi was assassinated is now a memorial in his honor.
The Prime Minister of India, and member of the Indian Nation Congress stated the following in a radio-address to the citizens of India:
Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more… We will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.
Today, Gandhi is remembered for being one of the most influential figures in all of world history and in the Indian Independence Movement. He pioneered non-violent civil disobedience and inspired many other prominent historical figures including Martin Luther King Jr. Also, he was a central figure in India gaining its independence and bringing about an end to British imperial rule in India.
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