One of the greatest Indians of the 20th century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — known as the ‘Mahatma’ to the rest of the world and ‘Bapu’ to millions of his followers and admirers — was born on 2 October 1869 at Porbandar in coastal Gujarat.
For someone who led India to freedom on the principles of truth and non-violence, Gandhi, born into a Hindu Baniya family, had an unremarkable childhood. His father, Karamchand, held the position of a diwan (chief minister) at Porbander state. When he was barely into his teens, Gandhi was married to Kasturba, a child like him.
After his father’s death Gandhi sailed to England to study law. Shy and socially withdrawn, the young Gandhi found it extremely hard to adjust to life in London.
Returning to India after the stint in England, he then went to South Africa to practice law, and it was during his long stay here that his moral and political philosophies slowly took shape. His introduction to the brutal reality of racism in South Africa came when he was thrown off a train for travelling in the first-class compartment, which was reserved for white people. Finding his voice and overcoming his shyness, Gandhi became a leader of the Indian community. Deeply influenced by the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings on the importance of transcending material desires and the works of writers such as Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, Gandhi’s spiritual awakening accelerated and he plunged into the struggle for justice for Indians who faced severe discrimination in South Africa. His theory of satyagraha — resisting oppression in all its forms but never at the cost of truth and non-violence — became a practical instrument in the Indian freedom struggle after he returned home to a hero’s welcome in 1915. For him, non-violence was a weapon for the brave, and not the weak and cowardly. But he also took a more nuanced view. He famously wrote in an article in 1920, “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence…”
Heeding his political mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s advice, Gandhi travelled across the length and breadth of India to get a first-hand sense of the country he had left in 1893.
In 1918, tasting his first major success in public campaigning in India, Gandhi intervened in a wage dispute between workers and mill owners in Ahmedabad. Undertaking a fast unto death — one of many in his life — he ultimately convinced the mill owners to increase the workers’ wages by 35 per cent. Besides his initiative in Ahmedabad, Gandhi participated in a farmers’ protest concerning taxes in Kheda, Gujarat, in the same year. He was now all set to play a bigger, national role.
In 1919 most Indian nationalist leaders rallied against the Rowlatt Act — which was essentially the continuation of tough measures such as press censorship and detention without trial that the Indian government had initially introduced on the pretext of World War 1. Gandhi and his followers took a vow to disobey the Act and actively faced prosecution and imprisonment — satyagraha at work. He also asked activists to go to villages, the ‘real India’. For India’s freedom, not just from the British but the social, economic and spiritual morass the country found itself in, it was vital for the masses to wake up and become political, Gandhi believed.
The people responded to Gandhi’s call in large numbers. The government struck back with force. The repression was particularly brutal in Punjab, and on 13 April 1919 there was a whole-scale massacre at Amritsar’s Jalliawala Bagh.
In 1919-20, seizing an opportunity to seal Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi actively supported the Khilafat Movement, which was started by a section of Indian Muslims to express solidarity with the Turkish Caliphate after the disintegration of the Ottoman empire. In a politically astute step, Gandhi attempted to couple the Khilafat agitation with the Non-Cooperation Movement. The latter shook the foundations of the British Raj. An anguished Gandhi, however, called off the movement when a group of agitators torched a police station in Chauri Chaura, killing several constables. “No provocation can possible justify (the) brutal murder of men who had been rendered defenceless and who had virtually thrown themselves on the mercy of the mob,” he said.
Always clad in a dhoti, Gandhi — the “half-naked fakir” as Winston Churchill contemptuously called him — in some ways shared the great actor-director Charlie Chaplin’s scepticism of ‘modern times’. The charkha or spinning wheel became for him an antidote to the “craze of machinery”.
Besides, he waged unrelenting campaigns against social evils such as the treatment meted out to untouchables and child marriage.
On 12 March 1930, Gandhi began his famous Dandi March, seeking to break the monopoly the government had over the manufacture and sale of salt. As a result of this, he and thousands of other activists were put behind bars.
As the 1930s progressed it became evident that India could not be denied freedom for long. But what kind of freedom? Gandhi insisted that Hindu-Muslim unity had to be a defining feature of an independent India, something he fought for — often unsuccessfully — till the last days of his life.
The final mass movement launched by Gandhi to nudge the British out of India was the ‘Quit India Movement’. After his release in June 1944 from another prison term, Gandhi tried to persuade the Muslim League’s Mohammad Ali Jinnah to retrace his steps on the road that would lead to Pakistan. But Jinnah had made up his mind. Freedom finally came at a bloody price — a nation split and communal violence of unprecedented savagery. When India celebrated its freedom on 15 August 1947, Gandhi fasted to try and bring about religious harmony.
On 30 January 1948, a little after 5pm, when Gandhi was going to his daily prayer meeting in Delhi, Nathuram Godse, a young man from Pune, fired thrice at Gandhi at point-blank range, killing him on the spot. Godse’s reason for silencing one of the greatest voices of peace in modern history? Gandhi, he claimed, was “an appeaser of Muslims”.
All of India mourned the passing away of this great soul. October 2nd is observed as a public holiday and a day of prayer and remembrance across India. Mahatma Gandhi's ideas of non-violent political resistance continue to inspire Indians and people all over the world. Some international leaders who have acknowledged the influence of Mahatma Gandhi in their lives include the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King and US President Barack Obama.
Also on this day:
1904: Lal Bahadur Shastri, 2nd Prime Minister of India, was born.
1975: K. Kamaraj, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and Member of Parliament, passed away.