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Mahatma Gandhi

leader of India's non-violent struggle for independence

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi [mO han' dus kuh' rahm chund gahn' dE] was born into the merchant caste in Porbandar, India, on October 2, 1869. He was married at the age of thirteen to a girl chosen by his parents; the couple remained married until her death in 1944, and had four children before he took a vow of abstinence in the late 1910's.

As a young man Mohandas had aspirations of becoming a doctor, but his family felt that medicine was beneath his class and he studied law instead. He received his law degree in England in 1889, and returned to India in 1891.

In 1893, Gandhi was hired to do legal work for a Moslem firm in South Africa. Almost immediately upon his arrival in the British colony, he was subjected to abuse and discrimination for being an Indian. Although his assignment was only scheduled to last a year, Gandhi ended up spending 21 years working for Indian rights in South Africa. It was in South Africa that Gandhi began his campaign of civil disobedience (satyagraha) that was to become his trademark. In 1907, he called upon all Indians in South Africa to defy a law requiring them to be registered and fingerprinted. He was imprisoned for his actions, but was released after two months when he agreed to voluntary registration. But Gandhi was also willing to work for the British when he felt justice was on their side, and was decorated for his work in the Boer War (18992-1902) and the Zulu Rebellion (1906). In 1914, the South African government promised to end discrimination against Indians.

By the time Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he had become internationally known for his peaceful protests against injustice. He had by then adopted his characteristic simple garb and vegetarian diet, and had been given the title Mahatma ("great soul"). Within five years after his return to India, Gandhi had become the leader of the Indian Nationalist Movement.

Gandhi actively supported the British during World War I in the hopes that Indian cooperation would lead to independence, but his hopes proved unfounded. In 1919, the British government introduced the Rowlatt Acts which, among other things, made it illegal to organize any opposition to the government. Gandhi led a campaign that succeeded in preventing passage of one of the bills, but called off the campaign when riots broke out. He then undertook one of what would be many fasts in order to impress his "followers" with the need for nonviolent protests against the British. His call for peaceful protests was again seriously challenged in April 1919, after a British general ordered his men to fire on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar. Rather than call for revenge, however, Gandhi became even more determined to develop nonviolence into a workable strategy.

About 1920, Gandhi began his program of hand-spinning wool into yarn and weaving the yarn into cloth. He had three principal reasons for doing this: (1) to aid economic freedom by making India self-sufficient in cloth; (2) to promote social freedom through the dignity of labor; and, (3) to advance political freedom by challenging the British textile industry and preparing Indians for self-government. He also began espousing his desires for a united and independent India, a revival of cottage industries, and the abolition of untouchability. Over a period of about ten years he built the Indian National Congress into a major political and social force in India, and used that force to bring increasing international pressure upon Great Britain to grant independence to India.

Gandhi spinning wool into yarn
Gandhi spinning wool into yarn

In 1930, Gandhi led hundreds of Indians on a 200-mile march to the sea, where they then made salt from seawater, an act that was in direct violation of a British law outlawing possession of salt not purchased from the government. Gandhi was imprisoned for his actions, but was released in 1931 in order to attend the London Round Table Conference on India, as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. Although the conference brought even more international attention to Gandhi, it failed to end the conflict between Great Britain and India.

Gandhi withdrew from the Indian National Congress in 1934 after it refused to embrace his program in its entirety. His influence was high enough, however, that his protége, Jawaharlal Nehru, was named its new leader. Gandhi spent the next several years working to improve relations between Hindus and Muslims, trying to end discrimination against untouchables, and on his program of making Indians more self-sufficient. By 1939 his fasting and nonviolent protests had led several Indian princely states to grant democratic reforms, but had failed to bring peace between India's various religious factions.

In 1942, after the British rejected Gandhi's offer of support in World War II in return for independence, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution formally launching the Quit India Movement. Gandhi and other Congress leaders were jailed in 1942, but he was released in 1944 after contracting malaria. By the time India achieved independence in 1947, Gandhi had spent a total of seven years in prison.

After the war, Gandhi was a major figure in the conferences between the Indian Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and the leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that ultimately led to India being partitioned into two states -- a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

After a 40-year struggle, Gandhi and his "followers" had finally achieved independence for India, but Gandhi was not satisfied. He had spent most of those forty years working for an independent nation in which Hindus, Muslims, and other religions could work together, but had only achieved part of his goal. Violent rioting between Hindus and Muslims hurt him deeply, and on January 13, 1948, he vowed to fast until the bloodshed ended. On January 18, leaders of both groups pledged to stop fighting, and Gandhi ended his fast.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was on his way to a prayer meeting in New Delhi when he was shot by a high-ranking Brahman who feared his program of tolerance for all creeds and religions; he died instantly.

Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, was published in 1927.


Louis Fischer. The Essential Gandhi: His Life, Work and Ideas. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
George Woodcock. Mohandas Gandhi. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

See Also

World War I
Jawaharlal Nehru
World War II
Great Britain

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This page was last updated on October 01, 2018.