The Power of Nonviolent Resistance
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, revered as Mahatma or “the great-souled one,” stands as a global symbol of nonviolent resistance. His activism, beginning in South Africa in the early 1900s, later became pivotal to India’s independence struggle against British rule.
Born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, now in modern-day Gujarat, India, Gandhi grew up in a household deeply influenced by Vaishnavism, a devotion to the Hindu god Vishnu, and Jainism, a rigorous Indian religion emphasizing nonviolence and the eternal nature of the universe. From a young age, Mohandas embraced ahimsa (non-injury to all living beings), vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and respect for diverse religious beliefs and practices.
At 19, Gandhi left home to study law at London’s Inner Temple, one of the city’s four prestigious law colleges. After completing his studies and returning to India, he established a law practice in Bombay. However, this venture did not thrive, leading him to accept a position with an Indian firm in South Africa. Gandhi, along with his wife Kasturbai and their children, spent nearly two decades there.
Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa,1909
Gandhi’s time in South Africa was marked by profound discrimination, which deeply influenced his future path as an activist. Notably, an incident where he was forcibly removed from a train compartment for refusing to give up his seat to a European passenger became a pivotal moment, leading him to develop Satyagraha (“holding onto truth”), his philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
Initially planning to return to India after a year-long contract, Gandhi’s plans changed when he learned about a bill that threatened to strip Indians of their voting rights in South Africa. He stayed to lead the opposition against this legislation and, while he couldn’t stop the law’s enactment, he garnered international attention to the injustice.
At the age of 37, Gandhi launched his first major civil disobedience campaign in response to the South African government’s restrictive policies on Indian rights. After prolonged protests and imprisonments of hundreds of Indian protesters, including Gandhi, a compromise was reached, recognizing Hindu marriages and abolishing a poll tax for Indians.
The saint has left our shores, I sincerely hope forever.
In 1919, as India remained tightly under British control, Gandhi experienced a political reawakening following the enactment of the Rowlatt Act, which allowed detention without trial for sedition suspects. Gandhi’s answer to this was a call for a Satyagraha campaign, advocating for peaceful protests and strikes. However, the situation escalated into violence, culminating in the Amritsar Massacre, where British troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing nearly 400.
Deeply affected by the brutality of the massacre, Gandhi emerged as a key figure in the Indian home-rule movement. As the leader of the Indian National Congress, he advocated for widespread boycotts, urging government officials to resign, students to withdraw from government schools, soldiers to abandon their posts, and citizens to cease paying taxes and buying British goods.
Mahatma Gandhi, 1931
At 53, Gandhi was arrested on sedition charges and sentenced to six years, but was released early due to health reasons. His release coincided with worsening Hindu-Muslim relations, prompting him to fast for three weeks, advocating for unity and harmony.
In his 60s, Gandhi re-engaged in active politics by opposing the British Salt Acts, which outlawed salt collection or sale by Indians and imposed heavy taxes, especially burdening the poor. He initiated the Salt March, a 240-mile (390-kilometer) journey to the Arabian Sea to protest the salt monopoly. Starting at his Sabarmati retreat with a few followers, Gandhi, dressed in a white shawl and sandals and armed with a walking stick, saw his group expand significantly over 24 days. At their destination, he defied the law by making salt from seawater.
Gandhi picking salt during Salt Satyagraha
This act sparked widespread protests and civil disobedience across India, leading to the arrest of about 60,000 people, including Gandhi. Despite the arrests, Gandhi’s efforts turned him into a global icon, culminating in his selection as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1930.
Seven months after the Salt March, Gandhi was released from imprisonment and reached an agreement with Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India. This pact concluded the Salt Satyagraha, leading to the release of numerous political prisoners and granting coastal Indians the right to harvest sea salt, marking a significant, albeit partial, victory.
In 1942, as Great Britain was deeply involved in World War II, Gandhi initiated the “Quit India” movement, demanding an immediate British withdrawal from India. In response, the British authorities arrested Gandhi, his wife, and other leaders of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi’s health deteriorated during his 19-month detention, leading to his eventual release.
Gandhi pictured in 1942, the same year he initiated the “Quit India” Movement
After the Labour Party’s victory over Churchill’s Conservatives in the 1945 British general election, discussions began for Indian independence, involving the Indian National Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. Gandhi was a key participant in these negotiations, although he was unable to realize his vision of a united India. The final agreement led to the subcontinent’s partition into two independent states based on religious lines: predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
Gandhi, a strong opponent of Partition, reluctantly accepted it, hoping it would pave the way for internal peace between Hindus and Muslims post-independence. However, widespread riots followed, and Gandhi went on a hunger strike, which he maintained until the violence subsided.
On January 30, 1948, while heading to an evening prayer meeting in Delhi, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who was infuriated by Gandhi’s efforts to negotiate with Muslims. His death evoked profound national grief, with about a million people attending his funeral procession. He was cremated along the Jumna River, marking the end of a remarkable life dedicated to peace and justice.
Words of wisdom
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.” —Mahatma Gandhi