Mahatma Gandhi

From ArticleWorld


Early Days

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, India, in 1869. His parents were Hindus (Modh), and his father, Karamchand Gandhi, was the diwan (Chief Minister) of Porbandar. His mother, Putlibai was Karamchand Gandhi’s fourth wife, a Hindu from the Vaishnawa sect.

Religion and Marriage

Gandhi grew up in an atmosphere where the influence of Jain religion was very strong. Even as a child Gandhi learnt of the need for harmony among various castes and communities. Gandhi also understood the need for fasting for self purification, vegetarianism and non- violence towards animals. Gandhiji who was from the vaishya or business caste married Kasturba, a girl chosen by his parents in May 1882. Gandhi and Kasturba, who was 13 and the same age as Gandhi when she got married, had four sons. Their sons were Harilal Gandhi, (b. 1888), Manilal Gandhi (b. 1892), Ramdas Gandhi (b.1897) and Devdas Gandhi (b.1900).

Education, India and England

Gandhi was not a good student during his early education in Porbandar and later in Rajkot. In 1887, he managed to pass his matriculation examination from the University of Bombay. He then joined the Samaldas College in Bhavnagar which he soon wanted to quit. His family wanted him to become a barrister and hold important positions in Gujarat as was the practice among the male members of his family. At the age of 19, he went to University College, London to become a barrister.Gandhi considered England as “a land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilisation”. Just before leaving India he had promised his mother, in the presence of the Jain monk Becharji that he would not eat meat or drink alchohol as he was a Hindu. Gandhi wanted to act “English” but could not stand the smell of mutton and cabbage served by his landlady to other boarders. His landlady helped him by directing him to a restaurant that served vegeterian food. Rather than just keep the promise made to his mother, Gandhi wanted to learn about vegeterianism and read a lot on the subject. He soon became a member of the Vegeterian Society and later founded a local chapter. Gandhi later admitted that the experience of being a member of the Executive Committee of the Vegeterian Society helped him later in organising and running institutions.

The Theosophist Influence

While in the Vegeterian Society, he had met some members who were also members of th Theosophical Society. This was a society founded by H.P.Blavatsky in 1875, to promote universal brotherhood. Gandhi was influenced by the Theosophists who were deep into Buddhist and Brahmanistic literature, to read the Bhagavad Gita. Until then, Gandhi had not displayed much interest in religion but later, he started reading books on Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and also other religions.

His Early Career

Gandhi was admitted to the British Bar and returned to India. He tried to establish a law practice in Bombay but was not quite successful. There were far too many lawyers in Bombay and Gandhi did not do well in the courtroom. His application for the post of a part time job as a teacher at a school Bombay was rejected and he went back to Rajkot where he tried to earn a living by drafting petitions for litigants. However, this career did not last long as a difference of opinion with a British Officer, forced him to stop drafting petitions. This particular incident is described in his autobiography as an usuccessful attempt to lobby on behalf of his brother. It was at this time (1893) that he was offered a post in an Indian firm in Natal, South Africa, which he accepted happily.

South Africa: The Civil Rights Movement (1893-1914)

Gandhi, when he landed in South Africa, was a simple man without any political aspirations or ideas. He was not a good speaker and suffered from acute stage fright. But the sojourn in South Africa led to a complete change in the character of Gandhi.

His political awakening

Once, a magistrate in Durban ordered him to remove his turban while arguing a case for a client. Gandhi refused to do it and left the court. Another major incident which affected him deeply was the occasion when he was thrown out of a train during a journey in Pretoria. As per the extant rules, only white men could travel by first class. Gandhi was traveling in the first class compartment with a valid ticket, when the conductor ordered him to get out. Gandhi refused to budge, but he was physically pushed out of the train. He also suffered the indignity of being thrown out of a stage coach to make room for a white man. Later, he was also refused accommodation in a hotel as he was not a white man. All these incidents helped Gandhi understand the difficulties faced by his fellowmen due to the policy of racism and apartheid in Africa. Gandhi was preparing to return to India on expiry of his contract in South Africa. It was then that he learnt that the Natal Legislative Assembly was planning to introduce a bill denying voting rights to Indians. His friends in South Africa wanted him to stay back and fight for the voting rights of Indians. Gandhi stayed back and petitioned the Natal Assembly and the British government not to introduce the bill. Gandhi could not stop them but his campaign drew widespread attention to the plight of Indians in South Africa.

The Natal Indian Congress

His supporters prevailed upon him to prolong his stay in South Africa. He formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and became the secretary of the organization. The racial discrimination shown by the British against Indians was highlighted and given publicity by this party. Gandhi went back to India for a short period in 1896 to bring his family. In 1897, a group of whites attacked him and he suffered grievous injuries. Gandhi however did not lodge a complaint against his assailants as it was against his principles to seek justice against personal wrongs in court. When the South African War broke out, Gandhi wanted Indians to support the war. He argued that their pleas for full citizenship could be further strengthened by their support. He formed an ambulance corps with free Indians and indentured laborers to take care of the sick and wounded. However, by the end of the war the conditions of Indians in South Africa went from bad to worse. The Transvaal government in 1906 brought out an act which forced registration of the Indians.

Satyagraha or non-violent protest

Gandhi introduced an unique form of protest being the satyagraha (adherence to truth) or non- violent protest, against the atrocities heaped upon Indians. The Indians, including Gandhi were beaten, shot and jailed during the seven year long non- violent struggle. Though the government managed to stifle the protestors, there was a public outcry against the violent means adopted to control the Indians. Finally, the African General Jan Christian Smuts had to agree to a compromise with Gandhi, which was a victory for his movement in South Africa.

Indian Independence Movement

The Indian Independence Movement began with the Rebellion of 1857 and culminated on August 15 1947, when the British handed over the country to the people of India. One of the prominent features of the movement was Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement. This was the first and largest non violent civil resistance movement the world had ever seen, involving more than 50 million people of the country. The formation of the Indian National Army by Subhash Chandra Bose and its invasion of British India during the World War II was another noteworthy feature of the Indian freedom struggle. This army was made up of Indian POW’s and laborers. Its leadership consisted of a motley team of orthodox, rich, poor and westernized Indians.

Features of the Struggle

The struggle for Indian independence was characterized by the emergence of several groups with the single motive of achieving freedom from the British rule. The Indian National Congress was in the forefront for the fight for independence. This group was led by men like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who adopted the non violent route for the freedom struggle. Subhash Chandra Bose chose the armed path for independence with his Indian National Army. The movement finally saw the birth of two independent nations, India and Pakistan during August 1947.

Aftermath of the Movement

The Indian Independence Movement marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire, and many of its colonies began their own battles for freedom. The British Empire was soon replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations. The Civil Rights Movement in U.S.A (1955-1968) led by Martin Luther King, Jr, and the fight for democracy in Myanmar by Aung San Suu Kyi, were inspired by Gandhi’s successful nonviolent movement. Nelson Mandela, who led the African National Congress, also followed the path of nonviolence and nonresistance adopted by Gandhi, in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

European Rule

The first European trader to arrive in India was Vasco da Gama from Portugal. He came to the port town of Calicut in 1498 for trading in spices. The East India Company established itself in India after Robert Clive with his British army defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This is considered to be the start of the British Raj in India.

Consolidation by the British

After the Battle of Buxar, in 1765, the East India Company obtained administrative rights over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The British Parliament set about enacting a series of acts to administer its provinces in India. The main acts were the Regulating Act of 1773, the India Act of 1784, and the Charter Act of 1813. The year 1835 saw the introduction of English as the medium of instruction in India. Western educated Indians started debating societies in Bombay and Madras. The much criticized aspects of Hinduism like sati, child marriage and the caste system were discussed during these meetings which led to reforms in the practice of Hindu religion. These changes were brought about without compromising basic values or religious practices.

However, British rule in India was becoming unbearable for Indians due to the high handed behavior of the British. Indian servants were thrashed for minor reasons and whips were used freely. The British started paying scant regard for local sentiments and had parties in mosques and even on the terrace of the Taj Mahal. There were several sepoy uprisings after Punjab was brought under British rule in 1849. These were stopped by the sheer use of brute force.

1857: The First War of Independence

The First War of Independence was a revolt against the British in northern and central India in 1857-1858. This was referred to by the British as the Indian Mutiny (Sepoy Mutiny). This was the first united revolt in India but a rebellion on a smaller scale had taken place earlier in Goa. The ethnic revolt which took place in Goa in 1787 was known as the Conspiracy of the Pintos.


There had been long standing differences between the British and Indian troops because of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. However, the immediate provocation for the rebellion was the use of pig and cow fat for coating cartridges. The use of beef and pork was against the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims. The soldiers usually had to bite the cartridge before loading them into their rifles and tasting of animal fat was considered to be wrong as per their religion. In February 1857, the Indian solders refused to use the cartridges although the British said that the animal fats had been replaced by vegetable oil and bee wax. However, rumors about use of animal fat on cartridges spread fast fuelling the fires of revolt.

Mangal Pandey and the Rani of Jhansi

Mangal Pandey was a soldier in the 34th Native Infantry who in March 1857 attacked his sergeant and adjutant apparently without any provocation. The orders of General Hearsay to arrest Mangal Pandey was not carried out by his Jemadar. Both Mangal Pandey and the Jemadar were hanged and the regiment disbanded. The Indian soldiers felt that the hanging of Mangal and the Jemadar was too harsh a punishment. The 11th and the 12th Cavalry were the first units to rebel. They attacked their officers on May 10th and then along with the 3rd Regiment, reached Delhi on the 11th May. They attacked and captured the Red Fort with the help of the locals. They then forced a reluctant Bahadur Shah Zaffar the last Mughal emperor, to become their leader and reclaim his throne.

Action by the British

In 1858, the British marched to Jhansi to quell the rebellion in which the Indian soldiers had killed British officers. Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi faced the Biritsh with an army of 14000 volunteers. The British won the battle which lasted for two weeks and the Rani of Jhansi escaped to the fortress of Kalpi. The Rani Jhansi rallied some of the local rulers around her and the Indian forces captured Gwalior. The British diverted some of its regiments from the Crimean front and China to India to quell the rebellion. In the meanwhile, British troops from Simla and Meerut were also move to fight the rebels. The British drove back the rebels into Delhi and laid siege to Delhi which almost lasted for two months. The British then entered the city and defeated the rebels. On 20 June 1858, the British recaptured Gwalior and Rani Laxmi Bai was killed during the battle.

After the War

The East India Company was abolished after the mutiny and India was brought under the direct rule of the British crown. A Viceroy was appointed to rule India on behalf of the crown. The British Queen Victoria assured all Indians equal treatment under British law. However, the Indians had grown to mistrust the British as a result of the events leading to the rebellion.The British tried to woo the Indians by bringing in members from the higher castes and erstwhile royal families into the government. Indians were also inducted into the civil service but as subordinates. They increased the number of British soldiers in the army and only British soldiers were allowed to handle the artillery guns. Bahadur Shah was sent to Rangoon, Burma in exile where he died in 1862. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India in 1877.