Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mohandas Gandhi: a life of the Mahatma

London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone has paid tribute last week to Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi on his six-day trip to India. In a silent ceremony, Livingstone tossed flowers onto an eternal flame at the Rajghat memorial in the capital New Delhi. Rajghat marks the spot where Gandhi was cremated. Livingstone, who is a long-term admirer of India and the Matahma, wants to put up a statue of Gandhi in London. Livingstone says the statue would be a huge tourist attraction and boost Britain's links with India.

Ken Livingstone is not alone in lionising the achievements of Gandhi, the Father of India. Called the “Mahatma” (Great Soul) by Bengali Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, he was one of the most renowned, controversial and influential world leaders of the 20th century. In his early years he devoted two decades to achieving civil rights for Indians in South Africa, before going on to his life’s major work, the leadership of the movement to end British colonial rule in India. Throughout his life, he promoted non-violent means of resistance to achieve social and political aims and his life ended tragically at the hands of a gunman who thought Gandhi was being too friendly to Muslims.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in the western coastal town of Porbandar. He was the youngest of four children in a family from the Vaisya (merchant) caste. His father Karamchand was a civil servant who rose to become prime minister of the tiny princedom of Rajkot. But this role was a front for the real rulers, the British Raj. Young Mohandas was closer to his mother Putlibai, whom he admired for her deep religious faith. She taught her son that actions meant far more than their professed beliefs.

School life was difficult for young Mohandas. The family spoke Gujarati, one of the country’s many languages. But the British-run school taught lessons in English and he had to learn the basics of the language before he could learn anything else. He was not a noted scholar and attended Rajkot secondary school without any notable scholastic achievements. In accordance with local tradition, Gandhi was obliged to get married early. Aged 13, he was wed to Kasturbai who was just 10. The very young couple lived at his parent’s house.

In 1888 the couple’s first son, Harilal, was born. That same year Gandhi decided to move to England where he would seek a law degree. Despite opposition from friends and family, he left his wife and son behind and moved to London. He enrolled at the Inner Temple law school. After initially struggling to make the cultural adaptation, he found friends in the local vegetarian community and was exposed to British intellectual thinking. Some of his new English friends introduced him to sacred Indian texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. This was a life changing experience for Gandhi and he was inspired by the saga’s hero Arjuna who vows not to physically fight against his enemies.

In 1891 Gandhi gained his law degree and returned to India. There he found his beloved mother had died. Gandhi struggled to re-adjust to Indian life. His friends were still unhappy with his decision to go to England and his knowledge of English law was little use to him in India and he couldn’t get a job. He left his wife and son behind once more and moved to Bombay to study Indian law. Gandhi’s financial difficulties were compounded by the reckless gambling of his elder brother and his pleading to colonial official Charles Ollivant only make an implacable enemy of him.

With little prospect of success in India, Gandhi accepted a job offer from Muslim Indian businessmen to work as a lawyer in the British colony of Natal. Once again he said goodbye to his wife and now two sons (Manilal was born in 1893), and set sail for South Africa. He settled in Durban where he learned the hard way about South Africa’s harsh racial laws. He was sitting in a first-class rail compartment when railway officials told him he had to move to the car restricted for third-class passengers. Gandhi protested he had a first-class ticket but was thrown off the train by a policeman.

Gandhi moved to Pretoria where he began to be troubled by the mistreatment of Indians. He addressed a meeting of leading Indians where he began “I want to present you with the facts of your condition. His lifelong career as social reformer had begun. He quickly earned a reputation as a fair-minded attorney, mediator and reform leader. He formed the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) which welcomed Indians of all creeds as members. In three years he turned the NIC into an influential political force that was feared by the whites. While away in India in 1896 to visit his family, Gandhi’s message was distorted by his opponents who saw him as a militant about to recruit an army to overthrow British rule.

When he returned, this time with his family, there were calls to hang the “troublemaker”. The furore died down and Gandhi made a brief peace with the British, supporting their cause in the Boer War. He established the Indian Ambulance Corps in 1899 whose thousand members proved heroic under fire. Gandhi was awarded the War Medal. He went back to India for another year to be secretary for the new Indian National Congress (INC) dedicated to the fight against British rule. But the NIC back in Natal asked him to return as the goodwill between British and Indians had dissipated after the end of the war.

Gandhi continued to practice law and ran a newspaper called “Indian Opinion”. He dedicated the paper to fighting the new Asiatic Registration Law (the Black Act) passed by Transvaal in 1907 which required all Indians to be fingerprinted. Gandhi proposed that Indians refuse to obey the law. Disliking the term ‘passive resistance’ Gandhi turned to the philosophies of Thoreau and coined the term ‘satyagraha’ to describe his actions. The word means ‘the force of truth and love’ in Hindi. The authorities weren’t amused and arrested Gandhi and his followers, several times over. Transvaal’s leader General Jan Smuts promised to repeal the law but reneged and used brutal methods to stamp down the rebellion. In 1914, with world opinion turning against the British, the Black Act was finally repealed. His work done, Gandhi returned to India for good.

His twenty years in South Africa had made Gandhi a national hero back home. He spent a year travelling the country to get the measure of his homeland. He adopted the simple dress of the peasant to express his growing belief India should not become completely westernised. For the next 16 years his home would be a simple ashram in Ahmadabad, near the Arabian Sea. When World War I ended, Gandhi began his serious push for home rule in India. In a booklet called Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) Gandhi wrote “if we act justly, India will be free sooner”.

But post-war imperial Britain was in no mood to compromise with the natives. In 1919 parliament passed the Rowlatt Act which gave colonial authorities emergency powers to deal with “revolutionary” activities. Gandhi organised a general strike in protest. In the city of Amritsar, the military commander Dyer ordered his troops to open fire without warning on a protest of 20,000 unarmed Indians. In ten minutes 379 Indians were dead and 1,137 were wounded.

Amritsar was a turning point in Anglo-Indian relations. The population united behind the resurgent INC. Gandhi called for a boycott of all English products and began his trademark use of a spinning wheel. He was pointing out how the old Indian industry of homespun cloth had been wiped out by English raw materials. Britain responded by jailing 30,000 protesters. In 1922 Gandhi himself was arrested and found guilty of sedition. He was sentenced to six years. Authorities released him after two years, fearing his martyrdom when he became ill with appendicitis.

Gandhi became a formal leader of the INC and protests grew through the 1920s. Several millions took his “independence pledge” which was a vow to carry out the instructions of the INC. Gandhi next took on the British salt laws which made it a crime for Indians to make their own salt. In 1930, accompanied by 78 followers he began the 320km walk to the coast at Dandi to collect salt. Along the way, the marchers’ numbers increased and were several thousand strong when they arrived at the salt marshes. As Gandhi picked up grains of salt he said “Watch, I am giving a signal to the nation”.

Back in Britain the tide was slowly turning against the imperialists. There were some standouts left like Churchill who called Gandhi’s methods “nauseating and humiliating” and a new viceroy Lord Willingdon used emergency powers to punish the INC. He declared it illegal and arrested its leaders including Gandhi. They then used traditional imperial methods of ‘divide and conquer’ setting up separate political parties for the Muslims and also the untouchables. Gandhi was incensed and went on hunger strike in prison. The Hindu castes negotiated with the untouchables to stave off the crisis but the Muslims continued to go their own way.

Once out of prison, the increasingly frail Gandhi “retired” and handed over leadership of the INC to the patrician Jawaharlal Nehru. World War II put independence hopes on hold although the INC called a “Quit India” campaign to keep the pressure up. Gandhi was jailed once more and released as independence negotiations entered their final stages. Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah insisted six Indian provinces become the separate state of Pakistan. The newly elected Labour government found the differences between Hindus and Muslims too great to compromise. They directed Nehru to accommodate a variety of views in his government. Jinnah refused to recognise the government. The country descended into a religious bloodbath.

Gandhi was deeply saddened by the violence. He toured the ravaged country. His presence brought some semblance of calm but the reality was that both sides were shaping up for civil war. In 1947 Britain announced it was quitting India regardless of the outcome. The last viceroy Lord Mountbatten brokered a deal between the INC and Jinnah to partition the country over Gandhi’s protests. Celebrations over independence were drowned out by inter-religious violence. Gandhi continued to tour the country in the cause of unification. On 30 January 1948, the 78 year old leader was in New Delhi on his nightly public walk. A young man pushed through the crowd and shot him three times in the abdomen. Gandhi gasped “oh God, oh God”, sank to the ground and died.

His assassin Nathuram Godse was a member of a radical Hindu group who did not want any peace with Muslims. In their eyes, Gandhi's non-violent campaign was a major obstacle to a re-unified India under Hindu control. But his death almost had the opposite effect. There was a temporary peace as Indians of all religions mourned his death. A million people attended his funeral procession. He attracted tributes from around the globe including Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Truman, George VI, and Chiang Kai-shek.

Gandhi’s legacy was immense. Though Pakistan did go its own way, his leadership was instrumental in undermining India’s deeply embedded caste system. India has a maturing democracy due in no small part to Gandhi’s record. Across the world Gandhi’s became the template for peaceful resistance. He inspired such movements as the Prague Spring and he was a major role model for Martin Luther King. In 1988 Billy Wiseman, president of Queens College in North Carolina, praised both Gandhi and King: “like reformers everywhere, these men were scorned for their beliefs…in the end they were destroyed by the passions they unleashed. But their efforts will not be in vain. The world as a whole will one day come around to their thinking”.

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