(Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, born 2 October 1869, Porbandar, India—died 30 January 1948, Delhi)
Ghandi was an Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, activist, and writer who became the leader of the nationalist movement against the British rule of India. Gandhi is known world-wide for his belief and practice of nonviolent protest (satyagraha) to achieve political and social progress. In the eyes of millions of his fellow Indians, Gandhi was the Mahatma (“Great Soul”).
Gandhi was raised in a Hindu family where they practiced Vaishnavism—worship of the Hindu god Vishnu— and Jainism, principled in nonviolence and the belief that everything in the universe is eternal. In 1893 Gandhi accepted a job at a law firm in Natal, South Africa, where he would live for the next 21 years. It was in South Africa where Gandhi shaped principles in non-violent activism. Growing up, Ghandi was not a confident public speaker, nor did he regularly read a newspaper, but at 25 years of age he was deeply moved by racist treatment of Indians by the British in South Africa. Thus he began drafting petitions and campaigning on racial injustice. While Gandhi was able to mobilise South Asians in South Africa, his greatest achievements would unfold during his return to India in 1915.
In 1920 Gandhi became the most influential political leader in India. He reformed the 35-year-old Indian National Congress (Congress Party) into an instrument of Indian nationalism, decentralizing power from cities to small towns and villages. Gandhi wanted to break the fear of foreign rule by boycotting British institutions such as schools, courts, offices and legislatures. Gandhi once again called for nonviolent action and reform and his followers were moved by his beliefs. Thousands of satyagrahis (Gandhi’s followers) defied British laws and were arrested. Violent outbreaks followed and Gandhi called off mass civil unrest. On 10 March 1922, Gandhi was arrested for sedition and spent 6 years in prison.
By the time Gandhi was released from prison there were many changes to the political climate. The Congress Party had split into two factions and there was a huge division between Muslims and Hindus, which he hoped would be united for the freedom of his country. Despite the divisions, Gandhi tried to encourage people to follow the path of nonviolence.
In December 1924, he was named president of the Congress Party where he served for a year. In 1927, the British government appointed a constitutional reform commission that did not contain a single Indian. A boycott of the commission was underway and in 1928, under a nationwide nonviolent campaign for independence, Gandhi demanded dominion status from the British government within a year. In 1930, Gandhi launched the Salt March, a satyagraha against the British-imposed tax on salt, which affected the poorest section of the community. This was one of the most successful campaigns in Gandhi’s nonviolent movement against the British government, where over 60,000 people were imprisoned. A year later, Gandhi accepted a truce and called off mass civil disobedience. He agreed to attend the Round Table conference in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress.
There are two other spectacular triumphs: in September 1947 his fasting stopped the rioting in Calcutta, and in January 1948 he shamed the city of Dehli into a communal truce. A few days later, on 30 January, Gandhi was shot and died.
In his last years of his life he sought to heal the conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi’s mainspring of his life was in religion, not in politics. “What I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years,” he wrote in his autobiography, “is to see God face to face.” His deepest strivings were spiritual and this motivated him to spread the message of nonviolent action to unify and free his country.