Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi was born in Gujarat on the western coast of India to the north of Bombay in 1867. India was ruled by the British as part of their empire. He came from an extended family that ranked them as third in the caste system. His education led him to appreciate different cultures and religions. He was a Hindu but was not particularly knowledgeable or experienced in his faith. As a young man he was sent to London to become a lawyer. He would discover new creeds such as various Christian codes. He learnt a great deal from Christs teaching, but as a Hindu could not accept the concept of him being both God and man. Love, forgiveness, truth and self-sacrifice were Christian principles he discovered in London which were to stand him in good stead in the future. He also made friends of the British and learnt to respect their sense of fair play.

He would grow into a General who fought tirelessly for the freedom of India, for self-rule apart from the British Empire. He fought with love, demonstrating that his victory would leave India still friends with the British. He would inspire many people the world over to peacefully struggle to overthrow the yoke of Imperialism and Colonialism. His rule of love came out of a strict self-discipline. He was a strict vegetarian and after his four sons were born he took a vow of chastity that was designed to promote his non-violent methods. One of his main weapons was to fast and pray. His fasts were effective as they brought suffering on himself and not on his enemy who was then free to act in sympathy and mercy rather than anger or submission.

His journey started in South Africa where he took a job as a lawyer soon after qualifying in Britain. He was to serve the South Asian immigrants who he discovered were discriminated against by the ruling white South-Africans. He travelled in style in fancy clothes befitting an English Gentleman, but was treated as a sub-human purely because of his race. This infuriated Gandhi and was to inspire him to fight. He took a stand against inequalities that Indians suffered. They were expected to apply for permits to return to their homes after the Boer war. He started Satyagraha, a non-violent but unyielding opposition to the system that was oppressing his people. This technique filled the jails and led to negotiation with General Smuts a rising political star and future leader of his country. Smuts, a fellow lawyer was someone Gandhi could deal with and he won his victory with some concessions. News of this reached India where excitement grew as people heard about a simple Indian lawyer making a stand against the establishment and winning.

Having learnt from South Africa, Gandhi returned to India in 1915. He decided that India needed to rule itself, but not with another class of Indian establishment rulers who would effectively be the same as the British they had replaced. He travelled the country to discover what it was really like. He travelled third class, adopted simple dress and chose to become like the poor. He found a lot of poverty and was deeply moved by it.

Personally, he set up an Ashram where he could surround himself with his family, supportive staff and admirers. He practiced non-caste living where everybody was equal and nobody was exempt from raking the latrines. He was very serious about practicing what he preached.

In his travels he discovered that rural tenants suffered under a punitive system, imposed by the British, which forced them to grow crops they could not sell, while still paying the same rents. This was an injustice that was causing a lot of poverty and Gandhi determined to oppose it. His understanding of the poor, who championed him and of the ruling classes allowed him to manoeuvre himself around the authorities and change the status quo. He was writing the rules for political activism.

In 1919 the Rowlatt bills were proposed to fight sedition by imprisonment without trial. Gandhi’s opposition to this took the form of non-cooperation. But when violence flared up in the Punjab, he called off the protests and prepared a different strategy. Not content to condemn violence he would always act to curtail it, to the determent of his own health by fasting or suspending his protests. He knew that fighting for a cause based on a principle meant that you had to stick to those principles and that a quicker victory based on compromise was no victory at all. As the British sought to restore control in the Punjab, Colonel Dyer took it on himself to ban all meetings in Amritsar, a message that did not get through to the people. When he found a gathering in a square, he ordered his fifty soldiers to fire into the crowd without warning. The official death toll was 379, but some put that at over a thousand. There were shock waves throughout India, and Britain was split with supporters of the Raj actually condoning him. The dye was cast now as the intentions of some of the British were clearly not honourable. Mass strikes brought the country to a halt and the power of the people was amply demonstrated.

Gandhi discovered that much cotton was grown in India but sent to Lancashire mills for manufacture before being sold to Indians in a monopolised market. He opposed this by learning how to spin his own cotton garments and taught India to do the same. He would spend much time in prison on principle, but was released with determination undiminished. He found that people who made salt were charged by the Crown for the privilege. In a hot country where salt was a vital preservative, this again had to be challenged. A march to the sea which gathered many followers ended in a symbolic harvesting of salt in defiance of the government.

His opposition to the Second World War led to him being imprisoned again, but the British eventually accepted that there would be home rule and he and leaders of the Indian Congress were tasked with negotiating the process. This was complicated by the Muslim league who wanted an independent Pakistan in the west and in Bengal. Despite Gandhi’s attempts to placate the Muslim leader Jinnah with generous offers of leadership of a united India, the country faced partition. Now with serious interracial violence erupting and mass migrations as people tried to end up in the right country, Gandhi set up in Calcutta and Delhi in poor quarters and fasted. He was prepared to die to prevent violence and the father of the country, in his 70’s, succeeded in bringing it to a complete halt. He met many people Hindu and Muslim and gave words of wisdom that would bring reconciliation to the local people. Violence continued in the Punjab, divided into two and even he was powerless to stop it. His dream of a non-violent, classless India free from religious animosity could not finally be realised. He was in fact assassinated by extreme Hindus who resented his compromise with Muslims.

But India was free and the rest of the colonised world would follow because of his example. He was prepared to stand up for his principles and stubbornly refuse to yield taking much suffering on himself. His success was in part due to an incredible ascetic self-discipline that denied basic needs for human living to demonstrate his determination for justice and freedom. His apparent purity allowed people to accept his mission, as there was little ammunition to use against him to question his sincerity or commitment.

With an iron will he took on all-comers with a conflict strategy born of love. He was called Mahatma or Great Soul by the people, a name he did not like. But there was no false humility, he accepted the role he had been given and at no stage did he back down from it. There was never any end to his fight. He proved that with right on your side and a determination to sacrifice all, ultimately you win.

Conway-Laird (2016)

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