Born into a modest Gujarati family, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the fifth child of Karamchand and Putliba. He was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, where his father was Dewan. As the youngest child, he was mischievous. As a youth, he was an average student who was very shy and unable to speak. He says he ran home from school to avoid befriending and talking to other students.
During his childhood, Mohan became a victim of peer pressure. He experimented with smoking with his older brother. Both would collect the stubs after their uncle had extinguished his cigarette, remove the tobacco from them and roll a cigarettes for themselves. This did not last long because Mohan found it discomforting and distasteful.
Then he experimented with meat-eating with a Muslim friend who convinced Mohan that the only reason why the English were so tall and powerful and able to rule over India was because they ate meat. Unless Indians became meat-eaters, India would never become free was his argument. For almost a year, meat-eating became a clandestine affair which entailed lies, deception and even stealing. He had to find the money to pay for the food-which meant stealing from home; he had to make excuses for not eating at home-which meant lying and deception. Soon, this became intolerable, and Mohan made a confession to his father.
Karamchand was unwell and, therefore, resting in bed. Mohan did not have the courage to tell him about his clandestine escapades, so he wrote a confession and handed it over to his father to read. Tears welled up in his father’s eyes; he embraced Mohan, and both of them cried. Mohan writes in his autobiography that it felt as though their tears washed away the sin of deception that he had committed. He decided never again to indulge in such acts.
Mohan was married at the age of 13, since child marriages were prevalent then. His bride was Kastur, the daughter of Gokuldas Makanji, the Mayor of Porbandar. She was also 13 years old, and she taught Mohan his first lesson in non-violence. Mohan had no idea what the role of a husband should be, so he bought some pamphlets, which were written by male chauvinists and suggested that an Indian husband must lay down the rules for the wife to follow. Thus, Mohan laid down the first rule when he told Kastur, “Henceforth, you will not go out of this house without my permission.”
Kastur heard him quietly. She did not retort or say anything. A few days later, Mohan realized that she still flouted his rule and went out of the house to the temple and to the market and sometimes visiting friends and relatives. He confronted her that evening.
“How dare you disobey my orders?” he barked at her.
Once again, very calmly and without loosing her cool, Kastur asked: “Who is senior in this house? Are you superior to your mother? Should I tell her that I will not go out with her until you give me permission? If that is what you want let me know.” She was so calm and collected that Gandhi had no answer. He never questioned her again. It is a lesson for all of us to learn.
When we face such situations we retort and react angrily making the situation worse and sometimes leading to the breaking of the relationship. But calmly, with common sense, one can achieve the same results.
Although a Dewan, his father was a very generous person, and his income was spent on helping the poor and the needy. The family lived reasonably well, but there were no savings. When his father died, the family found itself in financial difficulties. By then, the British had entrenched themselves in India and controlled the affairs of the states making it difficult for a person to inherit his father’s job. In the old days in India, a son usually took over when the father retired or died. The British, however, wanted people who were “qualified” for the job, so none of the sons could become Dewan of Porbandar after Karamchand’s death.
The family faced severe economic problems after Karamchand’s death in 1885. The brothers-Laxmidas and Karsandas-did not have jobs, and there was no hope of any of them inheriting the title of Dewan. The older brothers learned to write legal briefs and earned a little to sustain the large family. None of them were educated beyond elementary school, so the burden of resurrecting the family fortunes fell on Mohan. Although his mother and other family elders could not contemplate his going abroad for further studies, the advice of more liberal counselors was that Mohan must go to England and study law. With the British entrenched in India, they were going to demand academic qualifications for all jobs.
Reluctantly, and after many promises, Mohan was allowed to go to England. He not only studied law but came in close touch with many eminent philosophers and thinkers and spent many hours a day in discussions. He was able to absorb a great deal from them and it was this group which contained George Bernard Shaw and others who one day asked Mohan to read with them the Bhagwad Gita and explain it to them. Mohan was ashamed that he had never read the scripture himself and did not know Sanskrit to be able to read the original. Instead, he read with them Edwin Arnold’s English translation of the Gita-The Song Celestial-which revealed to him the richness of Hindu scriptures.
Mohan was impressed not only by the reading of the Gita but by the “friendly” study that this group of Englishmen were trying to make of other scriptures. Mohan’s motto in life, “A friendly study of all scriptures is the sacred duty of every individual.” was born in England during this educational tour. He studied all the religions of the world and found there was a great deal in each one of them for all of us to absorb in our own lives. His respect for different religions and willingness to study them with an open mind is what broadened his perspective and enriched his mind.
He returned from England in 1891 very much a “brown sahib.” He tried to introduce his western habits in his traditional home in Porbandar and, indeed, spent so much time and energy in this pursuit that he forgot that he had to set up a legal practice and start earning to support the family. Weeks passed and once again it was Kastur who opened his eyes to his responsibilities when she gently chided him for his futile attempts to westernize the family rather than earning money to support it.
For someone as shy and timid as Mohan, setting up a legal practice was not easy. He was not successful in Porbandar, so he went to Bombay and met with no success there either. He tried to get a job as a school teacher to teach English but was astounded to learn that he did not have the requisite qualifications to teach English, only to practice law in English. After struggling for several months, he decided to go back to Porbandar and do what his brothers were doing- write legal briefs. His brothers were very disappointed, especially since the family had taken enormous loans to send Mohan to England to study. How would they repay the loans if Mohan was going to end up writing briefs?
Laxmidas had a Muslim friend, Dada Abdullah, who had gone to South Africa and made a lot of money as a trader. He now had a legal case with another Muslim trader which had been going on for a long time without resolution. Both traders had white, English-speaking lawyers, and since neither of them could speak English, communication was very poor. Dada Abdullah heard about Mohan through his brother and invited Mohan to come to South Africa on a one-year contract to work as an interpreter for him.
Mohan once again left India in 1893 to go to another new part of the world to try his luck. The urgency of finding a job and making money was impressed upon him, and he was conscious of his responsibilities, but he was also conscious of his “status” in life as an England-trained Barrister-at-Law. Consequently, a week after his arrival, when it was time for Mohan to go to Pretoria to attend the case in the Supreme Court, Mohan decided he must travel by first class. Anything lower than that would be undignified. He ordered his ticket by mail.
There were so many coincidences in Mohan’s life that seemed to nudge him towards a transformation from a mere Mohan to Gandhiji. Had he not gone to England, had he not been exposed to English intellectuals, had he not studied law, had he not been a failure in India, had he become a school teacher, had he not accepted the invitation to South Africa, had he not had that false sense of dignity and, above all, and had South African whites not had aggravating racial prejudices, we would not be writing or reading about Gandhi today. It was the cumulative effect of all these and many other little coincidences that conspired to give us the “Apostle of Peace”.
The transformative experience was when he encountered a white co-passenger who boarded the train in Pietermaritzburg, who seeing a “black” Mohan sitting in a first class compartment, reacted with a total lack of dignity. Mohan was picked up and thrown off the train for refusing to vacate the first class compartment. This humiliation, Gandhi wrote later, first caused him to react in anger with a desire to respond violently. He saw the futility of such action and rejected it.
The next thought was to leave South Africa and go back to India where he felt he could live in greater dignity and honor but rejected that also because he felt that it was not appropriate to run away from a problem. Besides, I feel that at the back of his mind was the overriding question, “What will I tell my wife and family? That I have failed once again?”
The third thought, which occurred to him as the dawn was breaking over Pietermaritzburg on that fateful day, was to seek justice through non-violent action. This is the point at which “satyagraha” was born. He used it effectively in South Africa for 22 years and won many concessions for his fellow Indians. The government, however, reneged on these concessions after Mohan left South Africa in 1915. There are those who wonder why Mohan did not fight the cause of the African natives of South Africa. Some historians have uncharitably labeled Gandhiji as a “racist”, but I think they miss a very important point.
Gandhi’s passport issued on August 28, 1931 for his travel to attend Round Table Conference.
Gandhiji was unfamiliar with South Africa and the conditions and the language of the native Africans. He was also equally unfamiliar with the philosophy of non-violence which was being evolved one campaign at a time. It was hard enough for him to convince his own people about this philosophy without having to translate it for the native Africans who were known for their militancy.
Much later, in 1939, when he was much wiser and more confident about his philosophy of satyagraha, he told a delegation of African American leaders led by Dr. Howard Thurman that he had to prove the success of his philosophy to his own people in India before bringing it to the United States. This was in response to Dr. Thurman’s invitation to Gandhiji to lead the civil rights movement in the United States.
If he was so reluctant to enlarge the scope of his philosophy in 1939, how could he consider getting the native Africans involved thirty years earlier? I think it was more his sense of prudence than his prejudice that kept him away from dealing with the native African problems.
In 1906 he witnessed the “Zulu War” closely as a Red Cross volunteer caring for the injured and the dead, mostly Zulus. He writes about this experience with total disgust. He had witnessed what was conventional war at the time and knew that there were certain rules that the soldiers observed. In the Zulu war he saw the British flouting all decency and decorum and massacring the Zulus mercilessly.
They were hunted down like animals and butchered by the British. Until this event he was an admirer of western civilization. Now a crack had been formed, and this widened into a gulf after his visit to England in 1909 to plead the case of the Indians in South Africa. When he found the British politicians dismissing everything he had to say with contempt, he was filled with a total revulsion for western civilization
On his journey back from London to Cape Town-about 15 days by ship–he was overcome by a desire to write his first book “Hind Swaraj” formulating a plan for independent India. The obsession was so great that he began writing on the ship stationary with a pencil. The thoughts were coming so furiously that he could not stop writing. When his right hand began to ache, he switched to writing with his left. The book was completed before he reached Cape Town and became distinguished for its anti-western civilization message. He asked India to reject western civilization completely because it had nothing worthwhile to offer. He entered a period of exclusivism.
In 1915, Gandhiji decided he would gain nothing for Indians outside India as long as Indians within India remained subjects of British Imperialism. They must be liberated first for Indians elsewhere to gain any respect or equality. Thus, he decided to move to India and explore ways in which he could participate in the freedom struggle.
He entrusted his work in South Africa and the Phoenix Settlement Ashram that he started in 1903 to the care of Mr. Albert West and Mr. Henry Polak, two British friends who had worked with him closely in South Africa. The whole family left South Africa in 1914 with Gandhiji, Kasturba and Hermann Kallenbach, and another Jewish South African friend going to England and the rest of the family sailing for India.
Gandhiji wanted to help with the war effort in England, but soon after his arrival, he was struck by pneumonia and almost bed-ridden. For a while Kasturba nursed him and participated in sewing uniforms for English soldiers, but when the doctors realized the British winter was not going to help Gandhiji overcome his ailment, they suggested he leave for India
Kallenbach wanted to accompany them to India, but as a German Jew he was not given a visa by the British and so he had to return to South Africa. Gandhiji and Kasturba arrived in India and were given a welcome they had not anticipated. Gandhiji was not aware that his reputation had preceded him. He became a national leader on arrival. Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Gandhiji’s political mentor in India, advised Gandhiji to spend a year traveling around India learning about the problems and making contact with the people.
After his travels, he started an ashram at Bochraj in Gujarat and later was induced to visit Champaran in Bihar. The emissary of the poor and exploited peasants of Champaran was so persistent that Gandhiji could not refuse him. When Gandhiji went there and saw the conditions, he was shocked beyond belief and launched a legal campaign that forced the British farmers to abandon their exploitation and give relief to the peasants. It was his first significant and major victory in India achieved through non-violence. This incidence catapulted Gandhiji to the national scene.
In 1919 he launched a national campaign against the Rowlatt Act which was designed by the British to oppress and suppress the Indians and their desire for independence. The movement generated some violence in parts of the country, especially in the north. In Punjab some misguided youth attacked a British school teacher and pushed her around. The British government appointed General Dyer as the military governor of the State of Punjab with the authority to ruthlessly curb all defiance of authority. He imposed martial law, prohibiting the assembly of more than five people and suspending all civil liberties in the state.
On April 13, 1919, more than ten thousand men, women and children assembled in the Jallianwala bagh in the heart of the city of Amritsar to non-violently protest against the martial law. General Dyer was unwilling to tolerate such an act of defiance. He brought in his troops, blocked off the only exit from the walled ground and ordered the troops to shoot into the crowd. Within an hour 386 men, women and children lay dead and 1605 were critically injured.
These were the British figures of casualties while the India figures are very different. The Indians place the number of dead beyond 1,000. However, General Dyer followed with more draconian laws like commanding all Indians to crawl on their bellies when passing the street where the English school teacher was assaulted. Anyone who refused would be flogged to death. He also ordered that the injured in the firing should not be attended to by anyone for the next 72 hours, even if they died. This incident raised so much anger in India that a violent revolution could very easily have resulted, but Gandhiji stepped in to calm the people. He said we can not be to the British as they have been to us.
It will not make us any different from them. The civilized thing to do is not to ever stoop down to the level of the oppressor, but to try at all times to raise the oppressors to new heights of awareness. This is the point at which Gandhiji reverted back to inclusivity. He urged Indians to remember that we must not only liberate ourselves politically but also liberate ourselves spiritually.
Swaraj, he said, is not just external freedom; it is also internal freedom. Aldous Huxley, the eminent British historian, is perhaps the only one who has recognized the fact that in liberating India non-violently, Gandhiji also liberated the British from their own imperialism. In other words, the non-violent campaign in India elevated the British to a new awareness of themselves.
However, after the 1919 campaign, the next major campaign was the Salt March in 1930. There were many smaller campaigns in between. The Salt March once again focused the attention of the world on India’s struggle for freedom. Instead of arousing derision or indifference as most violent freedom struggles around the world do, the Indian struggle evoked world sympathy. Suffering has a tendency to do that. The British were lacksadasical about this campaign. They did not think that the defiance of the tax on salt would arouse such emotions all over India and the world.
They were not prepared for the consequences. The whole nation stood up in defiance of the British, and as some historians put it, another nail was hammered into the British coffin. Again what followed was smaller campaigns at regional levels until 1942, when the Congress passed the “Quit India” resolution.
This campaign again roused national consciousness and the jails were filled to the brim. Gandhiji and his party were imprisoned in Aga Khan Palace near Pune. It was not a palace in the accepted sense, and only a part of it was cordoned off and used as a jail. Kasturba died in prison in 1944. This was a great blow for Gandhiji.
Throughout his campaign for freedom, Gandhiji was concerned about the divisions in India which were exacerbated by the British who followed the “Divide and Rule” policy. There was the serious division between Hindus and Muslims and within the Hindus between the various castes. Short of leading a major revolution to bring about unity, Gandhiji did everything he could to break down the barriers and build bridges.
He realized that political freedom from the British would be meaningless so long as we hated each other and were willing to kill because of our prejudices. Through fasts, through education, through example, through preaching he tried his best to teach the people to respect and appreciate each other
In 1935, Gandhiji realized the Indian National Congress had no intentions of pursuing his policy of non-violence after independence. He resigned his membership. The Congress, however, was unwilling to let go of his leadership of the freedom struggle. In the forties when independence became a possibility, the British opposed partition of the country to create Pakistan. Gandhiji was against this, but the Congress was inclined to accept it. When Gandhiji proposed allowing the Muslim League to form the interim government to placate its fears of Hindu domination, the Congress Party leadership threatened a civil war.
The Congress leadership claimed the people would not accept this plan and there would be civil war. The question is were the leaders right in presuming how the people would react or could they have supported Gandhi in explaining to the people the wisdom of remaining one country and giving the plan a fair opportunity to prove its efficacy? There is the underlying feeling that the leadership was not willing to accept the plan so why take it to the people at all.
At this point Gandhi gave up discussing the partition of the country and left it to the leaders and the British to do what they felt was right. The rest is history. The country was partitioned; there was a civil war which left both countries with a legacy of hate that will take centuries to heal. Was the price worth it? Could we have paid the same price for a unified country? Would the long-term results have been different? These are questions that can not be answered.
Bapu lost his desire to live. Until this point whenever anyone asked him how long he would like to live, he would say with a smile: I would like to live for 125 years because there is so much I need to accomplish. He had a zest for life and a mission that he wanted to see fulfilled. By 1946, this came to a sad end and he began speaking of death. Yet, he never showed outwardly the despondency that he must have felt within.
He still continued to work, and he continued to guide people in their work for social and economic resurgence of India. He even went to Noakhali in Bengal that became East Pakistan, where rioting was at its worst on the eve of partition. Hindus and Muslims were literally butchering each other and some of the worst acts of inhumanity took place in this area. He went with a handful of helpers and brought about peace and sanity in the area. An accomplishment that was recognized by Lord Mountbatten when he wrote his biography was that Gandhi brought peace all by himself in East Pakistan while the Indian Army had to kill and crush many thousands in West Pakistan before peace was accomplished.
The assassination of Gandhiji was ironically engineered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) because it felt Gandhiji had agreed to the creation of Pakistan. It had made an avowed and ambitious program to reunite its country. Yet, had it not been for its militancy during the 1946/47 negotiations, India may have been one country. The RSS is to shoulder the entire blame for creating an atmosphere of violence and revenge in the country that made it impossible for sanity to prevail.
Having accepted partition, the Congress leadership tacitly accepted the consequences of partition. The bloodshed, the loss of lives and property on both sides were to be expected. No one was going to be uprooted from places where he/she had lived for generations with a smile and move to another place. For the Congress leadership to then succumb to militant Hindu demand that the cash assets due to Pakistan be confiscated to compensate the Hindus who lost their lives and property was unethical to say the least. They were playing populist politics without considering the long term consequences of their action.
Gandhiji said if my country is to embark on its new and independent life on a blatantly immoral act then I would prefer death. He fasted and forced the government to release the money to Pakistan. Had the government kept the money as the RSS demanded, there would have been a worse civil war than the country had witnessed and India would have had no moral grounds to stand on when the international community judged the situation. We had lost our senses then but had we held onto the money, we would have lost our souls also.
Within the country, in the bureaucracy and in the government, there was not much enthusiasm for Gandhiji’s life. Secretly, everyone was interested in making him a martyr. A martyred Gandhi was more beneficial to the rulers than a living Gandhi. The bureaucracy had already experienced and enjoyed a princely lifestyle under the British which they were unwilling to give up. The politicians were eager to be participants in such a life.
Gandhiji opposed this wholeheartedly, and had he lived long enough, he would most certainly have pressured the government to adopt a more simple lifestyle. He often said the government of independent India must reflect the poverty of the nation. The politicians and the bureaucrats, on the other hand, were eager to replace the British and maintain the oppressive and opulent structure created by the British.
Gandhi ji was assasinated on January 30, 1948 at Delhi, India.