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Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869–1948)

Indian spiritual leader and anticolonial activist famous for his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience that contributed to India's independence in 1947. Born on 2 October 1869 in Porpandar, India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the son of a local administrator. After his father's death in 1885, Gandhi's family provided him with the financial means to receive legal training in Great Britain. In 1888 he went to London, where he studied law at University College until 1891. Upon his return to India, however, he failed to find a viable law practice, and in 1893 he was forced to find employment in South Africa.

Gandhi's experiences with prejudice and racism in South Africa drove him to fight for the rights of the country's Indian minority. Initially, he believed that protesting against injustice through petitions and the press would induce the white government to end its discriminatory practices. By 1905, however, he had achieved few tangible results. Disillusioned with strictly legal means of protest, he developed satyagraha ("truth force"), a form of nonviolent civil disobedience intended to confront the government with the Indian population's grievances. In 1907, Gandhi launched his first nonviolent campaign to protest against discriminatory legislation aimed at South Africa's Indian population. A second satyagraha against discriminatory legislation in 1913 led to the arrest of thousands of protestors and compelled white authorities to repeal the discriminatory laws.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India to support the struggle against British colonial rule there. In less than two years, he became a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress (INC), a middle-class organization that called for increased Indian autonomy. Also championing the cause of the country's large peasant population, he helped to organize smaller civil disobedience campaigns between 1916 and 1918.

In 1919, Gandhi called for a large-scale satyagraha to protest newly passed repressive legislation. British authorities responded to the demonstrations with brutal force, resulting in the massacre of some 400 Indian protestors in April 1919 in Punjab Province. Although Gandhi canceled the protest shortly afterward, the carnage served only to boost the nationalist movement. By 1920, Gandhi had become a nearly divine figure in India and was frequently referred to as "Mahatma," or Great Soul.

In 1921, Gandhi and the INC launched another nonviolent protest campaign intended to further erode the legitimacy of British rule through boycotts and other noncooperation campaigns across the country. By early 1922, 17,000 Indians had been arrested for their anticolonialist activities. Frustrated with the seeming failure of satyagraha, some Indians abandoned nonviolence and began a guerrilla war against the British, which was quickly subdued by British colonial troops.

In March 1922, Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison but was released in 1924 because of deteriorating health. In prison, he completed his most important works on nonviolent protest, Satyagraha in South Africa and The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

In 1930 as British authorities continued to reject negotiations over India's independence, the INC asked Gandhi to organize yet another civil disobedience campaign. Focusing on an unjust tax code that forced Indians to buy British-produced salt, Gandhi and 78 followers set out on a 241-mile march to the western coast of India in March 1930 to rally supporters before deliberately breaking the so-called Salt Law. Inspired by the Salt March, tens of thousands followed Gandhi's example. By the end of the year, almost 60,000 Indians had been arrested for their defiance. But the movement had secured few concessions, and after the collapse of another round of protests in 1932, Gandhi withdrew from public life and began to champion the unpopular cause of India's caste of untouchables—a large hereditary group in India who, in traditional Hindu belief, are considered impure by birth and should not come in contact with members of higher castes.

During World War II, Gandhi organized his last satyagraha against colonial rule. His 1943 Quit India movement was largely ineffective, however, and it soon degenerated into a violent campaign of sabotage against government buildings. Nevertheless, the series of anticolonial protests begun in the 1920s had seriously eroded Britain's international prestige and indigenous support. By 1944, British authorities finally indicated their willingness to negotiate over India's independence. Three years later, on 14 August 1947, the former British colony was partitioned into the two independent states of India and Pakistan.

Independence brought near anarchy to India and Pakistan. Millions of people were uprooted and forced to move from one state to another. Religious hatred mingled with greed, and perhaps a quarter of a million people died in the violence. In volatile Calcutta, Gandhi kept the peace only by offering his own person as a hostage and beginning a fast unto death. He was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on 30 January 1948 in Delhi. Gandhi was, and continues to be, a powerful, almost mythical figure in civil and human rights circles. Indeed, the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s took many of its cues from his anticolonial movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. civil rights leader, was an ardent adherent of Gandhi's ideal of nonviolent social change.

Simon Wendt


Further Reading
Chadha, Yogesh. Rediscovering Gandhi. London: Century, 1997.; Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.; Gandhi, Mohandas. An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon, 1983.
 

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