Thinker, statesman and nationalist leader, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi not only led his own country to independence but also influenced political activists of many persuasions throughout the world with his methods and philosophy of nonviolent confrontation, or civil disobedience.
Born in Porbandar in Gujarat on October 2, 1869, his actions inspired the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore to call him “Mahatma” (“great soul”). For him, the universe was regulated by a Supreme Intelligence or Principle, which he preferred to call satya (Truth) and, as a concession to convention, God.
Since all human beings partook of the divine essence, they were “ultimately one”. They were not merely equal but “identical”. As such, love was the only proper form of relation between them; it was “the law of our being”, of “our species”. Positively, love implied care and concern for others and total dedication to the cause of “wiping away every tear from every eye.” Negatively it implied ahimsa or ‘non violence’. Gandhi’s entire social and political thought, including his theory of Satyagraha, was an attempt to work out the implications of the principle of love in all areas of life.
Gandhi himself felt that he was most influenced by his mother whose life was an “endless chain of fasts and vows” as a devout adherent of Jainism, a religion in which ideas of nonviolence and vegetarianism are paramount.
Married by arrangement at 13, Gandhi went to London to study law when he was 18. He was admitted to the bar in 1891 and for a while practiced law in Bombay. From 1893 to 1914 he worked for an Indian firm in South Africa. During these years Gandhi’s humiliating experiences of overt racial discrimination propelled him into agitation on behalf of the Indian community of South Africa. He assumed leadership of protest campaigns and gradually developed his techniques and tenets of nonviolent resistance known as Satyagraha (literally, “steadfastness in truth”).
Returning to India in January 1915, Gandhi soon became involved in labor organizing. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of Amritsar (1919), in which troops fired on and killed hundreds of nationalist demonstrators, turned him to direct political protest. Within a year he was the dominant figure in the Indian National Congress, which he launched on a policy of noncooperation with the British in 1920-22. Although total noncooperation was abandoned, Gandhi continued civil disobedience, organizing protest marches against unpopular British measures, such as the salt tax (1930), and boycotts of British goods.
Gandhi was repeatedly imprisoned by the British and resorted to hunger strikes as part of his civil disobedience. His final imprisonment came in 1942-44, after he had demanded total withdrawal of the British (the “Quit India” movement) during World War II.
Gandhi also fought to improve the status of the lowest classes of society, the ‘Untouchables’, whom he called harijans (“children of God”). He believed in manual labor and simple living; he spun thread and wove cloth for his own garments and insisted that his followers do so, too. He disagreed with those who wanted India to industrialize.
Gandhi was also tireless in trying to forge closer bonds between the Hindu majority and the numerous minorities of India, particularly the Muslims. His greatest failure, in fact, was his inability to dissuade Indian Muslims, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, from creating a separate state, Pakistan. When India gained independence in 1947, after negotiations in which he was a principal participant, Gandhi opposed the partition of the subcontinent with such intensity that he launched a mass movement against it. Ironically, he was assassinated in Delhi on January 30, 1948, by a Hindu fanatic who mistakenly thought Gandhi’s anti-partition sentiment were both pro-Muslim and pro-Pakistan.
Gandhi’s intellectual influence on Indians has been considerable. Some were attracted by his emphasis on political and economic decentralisation, others by his insistence on individual freedom, moral integrity, unity of means and ends, and social service; still others by his satyagraha and political activism. For some students of India, Gandhi’s influence is responsible for its failure to throw up any genuinely radical political movement. For others, it cultivated a spirit of non-violence, encouraged the habits of collective self-help, and helped lay the foundations of a stable, morally committed and democratic government. Gandhi’s ideas have also had a profound influence outside India, where they inspired non-violent activism and movements in favour of small-scale, self-sufficient communities living closer to nature and with greater sensitivity to their environment. Prominent among these are Martin Luther King in the United States and, more recently Nelson Mandela in South Africa.