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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, India, on October 2, 1869, the youngest son in a family of four children. Due to his father’s position as a local politician, the family was subject to transfer within the province, and the Gandhis moved to Rajkot when Gandhi was seven years old. He completed his primary and secondary studies there, and at age thirteen, in keeping with Indian custom at that time, was married (to Kasturba Kapadia).
As a young husband, Gandhi exhibited intense jealousy and sexual voracity. However, his sexual appetite would become the source of great guilt throughout his adult life. This began after his father fell ill and Gandhi became his constant bedside companion. One evening, a trusted uncle arrived to temporarily relieve Gandhi of his responsibility. Gandhi jumped at the chance to be with his wife, and during his absence, his father died. Gandhi never forgave himself, and the vow of celibacy (known as Brachmacharya) that he took later in life may have involved atonement for this event.
Gandhi left for college in Bhavnagar, about ninety miles from Rajkot, soon after his father’s death, with the intention of replacing his father as provider for the extended family. Though he had always been an exemplary student, his college studies suffered because of his melancholy and his guilt intensified when he ultimately returned home defeated.
Not long after his return from Bhavnagar, a family advisor suggested that he travel to England to study law. Gandhi spent three years in England, and was “called to the Bar,” or made an official barrister, in 1891. He then returned to India to begin a legal practice.
However, Gandhi was afraid to speak out in court. In fact, his first trial ended so badly that he refunded his client’s money. He did have an aptitude for drawing up legal documents and briefs, however, and was offered a job with a Rajkot merchant who did business in South Africa. After much deliberation, Gandhi decided to accept the post in South Africa for one year.
In South Africa, Gandhi immediately encountered racial discrimination. Though also British subjects, Indians were not permitted first-class accommodations, always had to give way to British whites, and were treated very poorly in general. Gandhi objected to every indignity, but when his employer stepped in to solve the problem for him, Gandhi backed down and tried to ignore the insult; however, shortly before he was to return to India, the government sought to impose an annual £25 tax on indentured servants who had finished their tenure and continued to work in South Africa. The tax applied to each adult family member, and in many instances would have equaled almost as much as the family’s earnings for a full year. It was an obvious ploy to reduce farming competition for white farmers. Gandhi was outraged and met with Indian businessmen to explain the situation. At their behest, Gandhi remained in South Africa to campaign against the tax.
In 1894 Gandhi founded the Natal National Congress, patterned after the National Congress of India, and soon after returned to India to drum up support. The Green Pamphlet, Gandhi’s first political treatise on the plight of South African Indians, was widely distributed in India and roused greater support for the cause. After returning to South Africa in 1904, Gandhi bought and ran the Indian Opinion newspaper to spread the word among Indians living there. At the end of that same year, in order to run the paper more efficiently, Gandhi set up his first commune—the Phoenix Settlement—where he, his wife, and three of his four children lived. Harilal, his oldest son, had stayed in England to study.
Ultimately, the £25 Tax was reduced to a £3 tax, rather than being rescinded, by the South African Parliament, which only served to increase Indian resentment. A new battle arose over a government order to register all Asians, including longtime residents as well as new immigrants, and women and children. This order, commonly known as the “Black Act,” also required fingerprinting. The entire community was outraged. This sparked Gandhi’s first campaign based on Satyagraha, or political struggle through passive resistance and civil disobedience. Many were arrested for their failure to comply with the order, including Gandhi, who was imprisoned for the first time. Eventually, Gandhi reached an agreement with Cabinet Minister Jan Christen Smuts, whereby the amendment would be repealed once most of the Indian population had registered.
Even after a show of Indian compliance, the South African government reneged on the agreement and in 1908 the Indian community met to burn their registration certificates. Once again, many were arrested, including Gandhi, who was sentenced to prison. In 1913, when the Cape Supreme Court ruled that any marriage outside Christianity and/or not recorded by the Registrar of Marriages was invalid, Indian women became involved in the demonstrations.
To goad the British into revoking their harsh requirements, Gandhi organized a “Great March” of 2,000 Indians from Natal into the Transvaal. Indians were bound by law to present registration papers at the point of entry, though Europeans were not so restricted. The march was meant to overcrowd prisons and increase pressure on the government to repeal the law. This situation deteriorated into such harsh conditions for the Indians that even members of the British government began to support Gandhi’s movement. Embarrassed, the South African government rescinded its order and the Satyagraha campaign in South Africa ended. Soon after, Gandhi returned to India for the rest of his life.
In 1915 Gandhi established the Satyagraha Ashram near Ahmedabad. At that time, Indian society was divided into a social hierarchy of four castes, with the Dalits or “untouchables” considered the lowest of the four. Those of higher castes were even bound not to touch them. Gandhi, who was adamant that all men were created equal and that the caste system should be abolished, was eager to admit an “untouchable” or Dalit family to his ashram. Despite such efforts, however, his continuing push to end the caste system had little result.
Gandhi practiced law in Bombay for a time, but was drawn into renewed Satyagraha for Indian social causes by people who had learned of his success in South Africa. At Champaran, he campaigned for the indigo workers and at Kheda, he pursued justice for factory workers who were being mistreated. When the British passed the Rowlett Act (1919), which gave them full authority to squelch “terrorist” demonstrations, Gandhi launched a series of marches and fasts known as hartals (“strikes”).
Violence marred the hartal in Delhi and an outright massacre took place at Jallianwala Bagh, leading Gandhi to call a halt to the strikes. Many of Gandhi’s followers were unhappy with this decision, which some saw as a sign of weakness. Muslims began to pull further away from the predominantly Hindu Indian population and to consider alternatives for themselves, such as an independent Pakistan. Gandhi could not sway them. Even his staunch supporters began to question his ability to lead the people.
But when the activist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak died in 1920, Gandhi was called on to fill the void in the Home Rule movement, even as his health was failing. He called for a complete boycott of the legislature and proclaimed January 26, 1930, to be Purna Swaraj Day (“Total Independence Day”).
On March 2 Gandhi wrote to the viceroy, Lord Irwin, warning him that he intended to lead followers on a civil disobedience march to protest the prohibition against collecting salt naturally. Actions contrary to this law were harshly dealt with, but when Gandhi had no reply to his ultimatum, the 200-mile march to the sea began on the morning of March 11. As the group traveled along, they stopped in villages and small towns, encouraging residents to burn all European cloth in their possession. Gandhi urged them to spin their own thread and to wear garments made only with Khadi, the homespun Indian material. When the throng reached the salt mines, Gandhi encouraged them to take up salt from the salt beds. Many people were assaulted by police and arrested. Gandhi was among those taken and imprisoned without trial.
In the ensuing months, more than 100,000 were arrested, and the upheaval continued until a pact aimed at ending the civil disobedience was made between Gandhi and Irwin. During the last four months of 1931, Gandhi attended a Round-Table Conference in London to discuss Indian issues with representatives of the British government. At the conference, the British offered to reserve a block of seats in a proposed bicameral legislature for Muslims, Sikhs, and Dalits. Gandhi was vehemently against this proposal because he thought that all Indians should be treated equally, and should not be divided into separate blocks. Though B. R. Ambedkar, the leading Dalit politician, tried to make Gandhi see that this was the Dalits’ only chance of representation, Gandhi continued to oppose the proposal and began a “fast to the death” to stop it.
Gandhi would endure several fasts, more imprisonment, and the deaths of his wife and personal secretary before a final agreement—the Indian Independence Act of 1947—was reached, granting full independence to India. This agreement also called for the creation of an independent Pakistan, a provision that upset many Muslims. Not all Muslims lived in northern India, where Pakistan was formed, and many were displeased that relatives would be living in another country. They felt that Gandhi had failed them. While holding a prayer meeting at Birla House in Delhi on January 20, 1948, Gandhi was murdered by an angry Muslim.
Gandhi, know as the “Mahatma” or the “Great Soul,” was at various times underestimated by the British and by Indian politicians. Though the latter had set him aside as an incompetent old man, they soon came to realize how much they needed him as a source of inspiration, because only Gandhi had been able to hold sway over the hearts and minds of the Indian people.
- Gandhi, Mohandas K. [1927–1929] 1993. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans. Mahadev Desai. 2 vols. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Gandhi, Mohandas K. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Online. Vols. 1–98. http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/ cwmg.html.
- Arnold, David. 2001. Gandhi: Profiles in Power. London: Pearson Education.
- Ashe, Geoffrey. 1968. Gandhi: A Biography. New York: Stein & Day, 1968. Reprint, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
- Gandhi, Arun, and Sunanda Gandhi. 1998. The Forgotten Woman: The Untold Story of Kastur, Wife of Mahatma Gandhi. Huntsville, AR: Ozark Mountain Publishers.
- Shirer, William L. 1979. Gandhi: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Wolpert, Stanley. 2001. Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press.
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