Mahatma Gandhi was the primary leader of the Indian Independence movement from Britain during the 20th century. Gandhi’s adherence to peaceful protests to achieve social and political change has made him one of the most influential figures in history.
Born in Gujarat in 1869, Mahatma Gandhi was married at a very young age in an arranged marriage. After finishing high school, Gandhi went on to college, but dropped out before completing his degree. He returned to study at the age of 19 when he went to study law at the Inner Temple in London and was called to the Bar in 1891. When he returned to India, he set up his own law firm in Bombay, but soon left for South Africa where he remained for two decades. During his time in South Africa, Gandhi suffered racial discrimination and it was during this time that he developed his ideas on peaceful resistance and civil disobedience.
Gandhi returned to India in 1914 and was openly critical of the colonial British rulers. Following World War I, Gandhi organized a widespread campaign of peaceful resistance to British rule. Gandhi wanted to see an independent India, free from colonial rule, and his reputation as a political activist and organizer grew. In 1919 the British introduced the Rowlatt Act (officially called the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act) which extended emergency powers, enabling arbitrary and indiscriminate detention. Gandhi was one of many Indian leaders who was critical of the law, and in the face of widespread opposition to the legislation, the authorities imposed even more repressive policies.
A national strike followed, and discontent started to spread. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre took place in 1919, in which British troops killed at least 379 Indian men, women, and children (some figures put the death toll much higher). The event spurned on the independence movement further and in 1920 commenced the non-cooperation movement, urging Indians to refrain from taking government employment, refuse to pay their taxes and to peacefully but systematically boycott and disrupt colonial institutions. Gandhi was arrested and imprisoned for his activities but continued to push for independence, leading the famous Salt March in 1924, one of the most significant events in India’s path to independence.
In 1930 the INC declared that India was independent, a declaration that was swiftly rejected by the British, although it did prompt the start of negotiations. Progress was made in 1931 with the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact which resulted in the freeing of political prisoners. After difficult negotiations, the Government of India Act was passed in 1935 which finally started to transfer some autonomy to Indian provinces. However, in response to Gandhi’s demand for immediate independence in 1942, the authorities arrested and imprisoned him along with many of his party colleagues. During the independence struggle, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was extremely critical of Gandhi, openly ridiculing and demeaning him in speeches, describing him as ‘nauseating’ and ‘seditious’. Negotiations continued between Gandhi and the British and although Gandhi stepped down from the INC he continued to campaign for independence, urging Indians not to contribute to the British war effort during World War II, leading to his imprisonment during the war. During the ‘Quit India’ campaign, the British reaction to peaceful protests was brutal, with arrests and the use of excessive and fatal force.
In 1947 the British rulers finally agreed to Indian independence, although much to Gandhi’s disapproval, the terms of the agreement included the partition of India and Pakistan. The partition was implemented on June 3, 1947 and resulted in many casualties. India was finally declared independent at midnight on August 15th the same year.
Gandhi did not have the opportunity to see India’s subsequent transition. He was shot dead in January of 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a right-wing Hindu nationalist. Gandhi’s legacy continues to inspire civil rights activists today. In India, he is known as ‘Bapu’, a Gujarati term meaning ‘father’.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole word blind.”