Monhandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in the small town of Porbandar, on the west coast of India, on October 2 1869. He
belonged by birth to the Vaishya, or trading caste. His father died when he was 15 years old, and apart from that time, his
mother became the greatest influence in his life. Her spiritual teacher was a Jain devotee. Among the Jains in India the
central doctrine is the "sanctity of all life," or Ahimsa, which is often translated as "non-violence." This teaching remained
paramount with Gandhi.
In South Africa
When 19, he came to London, qualified as a barrister (being "called" at the Inner Temple), and, returning to Bombay in 1892,
set up a practice.
In 1896 he went to the Transvaal to help a client in a legal suit. That visit changed the whole course of his life. Seeing
the social and political disabilities of his fellow-countrymen in South Africa, he decided to stay and help them and soon he
had become their political leader and adviser. Meanwhile a religious conflict was taking place in within him. He read Tolstoy
and corresponded with him: the result was an experiment in the simple communal life conducted by a small band of enthusiasts
whom he had gathered together. He became an ascetic of the most rigorous type, setting great store by fasting and every form
of self-denial. To the end of his life he remained a devout Hindu, but declared if ever "untouchability" were made part of
Hinduism he would cease to be a Hindu. Perhaps the greatest religious effort of his life was to break down "untouchability."
He went on steadily preparing his followers in South Africa for the struggle which was to end the indignities under which
they suffered. Three times he went to prison. Little by little, the Indians gained the respect of the Europeans in South
Africa by the faith with which they obeyed their leader in his campaigns of passive resistance. The summer of 1914 brought
victory for the cause, and in July of that year the Gandhi-Smuts Settlement was signed.
When the war of 1914-18 broke out he came to Britain to organise an Indian ambulance corps (he had done ambulance work in
both the Zulu campaign and the Boer War), but was taken so seriously ill the doctors sent him back to India. He founded a
religious retreat on Tolstoyan lines near Ahmedabad, the Viceroy conferred on him the Kalsar-Hind Gold Medal for distinguished
humanitarian work in South Africa, and, by general consent, he began to be called by the name Mahatma, which means literally
A series of events quickly following each other at the end of the war brought him back into political leadership. The
first was the passing of the Rowlatt Act, the second the tragedy of the Punjab and Amritsar, the third was what was regarded
in India as the betrayal of the Indian Moslems by the Treaty of Sevres. He launched a non-co-operation movement in September,
1920, but the non-violence which he demanded from his followers was broken. Congress revolted against his authority and the
government selected the moment for eliminating him from the political scene. He was arrested, brought to trial for promoting
disaffection, and sentenced to six years imprisonment.
On his return to politics he found himself a stranger in the existing atmosphere of disillusioned realism. He yielded
the leadership to C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru, and retired to hand-spinning and the editing of his weekly paper. He showed
no desire to resume his old position as dictator, and for that reason his moral supremacy was recognised even by his political
rivals. So when at the time of the Simon Commission the old Congress leaders found that the young men were heading for revolution
they decided that the only remedy was to call him back.
Round table conference
Gandhi, on his return, demanded from the government more than Lord Irwin's promise of future Dominion status or Ramsay
MacDonald's offer of a round-table Conference. Hence his illicit salt campaign and plans for mass non-violence, which resulted
in his second imprisonment in May, 1930. Britain had well recognised that she could not afford to allow the Round-table
Conference, then sitting, to be a fiasco, and the new idea of an All-India Federation and the principle of responsibility
at the centre was adopted.
There followed the historic negotiation between Lord Irwin and Gandhi in which - on March 4,1931- Gandhi agreed to urge
Congress to take part in the second Round-table Conference. But it soon became apparent at the conference that Gandhi's
idea of a settlement was radically different from those of the Moslems, the Princes, or the British Government, and the
only hope was that he might consent to stand aside. His attitude was still ambiguous when he returned to India from London
at the end of the conference, but the refusal of Lord Willingdon (who had succeeded Lord Irwin as Viceroy) to discuss
measures for restoring order decided for him his line of action. Terms of imprisonment in which he embarked upon "fasts"
followed. Political India had meanwhile begun to look to Jawaharial Nehru for a lead - and Gandhi left the centres of
political activity to go on a long tour on behalf of the untouchables' cause.
Thenceforward it seemed that his political influence was on the wane. But congress had to meet the situation created
by the Government's determination to give India a new Constitution. The realists maintained that civil disobedience had
failed, and that Congress must try the policy of capturing the Legislatures. Gandhi declared in favour of this; endeavouring
at the same time to avoid driving revolutionaries and idealists out of the Congress camp. All his old prestige and popularity
returned, and he achieved astonishing successes.
On his own authority in April, 1934, he called off the civil disobedience campaign, and thus made it possible for the
Indian Government again to recognise the Congress as a legal and constitutional organisation. At the same time he gave public
approval the drift towards Parliamentarianism and, finally, in October, he succeeded in remodelling the constitution of
Congress and directing its activities on more promising lines, creating on one side an organisation for the development
of village life and industries, and on the other a Parliamentary board designed to organise electioneering and to control
the action of Congress members in the Legislatures.
Attitude to war
When war broke out in 1939 he was still the most influential man in India, and the mass of Hindus looked to him for
leadership. His attitude during the war years was difficult to define. He could not be described as having opposed the basic
cause for which Great Britain stood - popular government, the rights of the individual man, national independence. Yet he
could not bring himself to support the British in war. For one thing, he would never compromise over pacifism. War, for
whatever cause, was in his view a bad thing. Though evil must be resisted, it could never be fought effectively by violence,
for violence was the root of all evil. Resistance to Germany and Japan must therefore be by the same means of non-violence
which he had himself used in India against the British.
But Gandhi was not content with withholding support for the British war effort. The war cut across his own struggle
with the British for Indian independence. He could not help using the war in order to aid what he conceived to be India's
cause. If in doing so he increased the chances of a German or Japanese victory, which would in the long run have been fatal
for Indian independence itself, that was an incidental effect of his actions and was never his intention. Moreover, when he
was reproached that by his actions he was weakening Great Britain, the main champion of the causes for which he stood, he
replied that Great Britain, by its imperialist rule in India, was weakening itself morally. If this rule was liquidated,
Great Britain's moral stature would grow. In opposing Great Britain he was really working for its welfare. At times he
seemed maddeningly incapable of realising that, as the world then stood, a morally purified Great Britain would have
been of little use to the cause of righteousness if it was also militarily weakened.
The Cripps Mission
The crisis in the war-time relations between Mr Gandhi and the British Government came during the Cripps mission in the
spring of 1942. Sir Stafford Cripps took with him proposals for establishing in India immediately after the war Dominion
status of full self-government, with the right to declare independence, the minimum provision being made to render the
scheme acceptable to Moslems. During the war the ultimate control of India's war effort, and all that implied, was to
rest with the British Government, Indian politicians being invited to form the Government of India, subject only to that
ultimate control. These proposals were rejected by the Congress Working Committee with Gandhi's approval and, it seems,
chiefly at his instigation. The crucial issue was "immediate independence," on which Congress insisted. The manner in
which British control was to be withdrawn and a provisional Government substituted was set out - along with a threat of
mass civil disobedience, under Gandhi's direction - in a remarkable resolution of the Congress Working Committee which
formally summoned the British Government to act on Gandhi's formula. "Leave India to God or anarchy."
The Indian Government retaliated by publishing the original draft of a resolution drawn up by Gandhi for the Congress
Working Committee on April 27, which showed that he expected India to use her independence to negotiate for peace with
Japan. The effect on opinion was such that Gandhi felt impelled to explain away much that appeared on the face of the
draft before the resolution of July 14 came before the All-India Congress Committee at Bombay in August. A few hours
after the resolution had been carried he was interned, as he must have expected to be.
The last phase
His internment ended in April, 1945. He was then 76 and though his hold over the country was unshaken, he allowed the
leadership in policies to pass increasingly into the hands of Mr. Patel and Mr. Nehru. After the election of the Labour
Government, Great Britain made absolutely clear that it would lay down its power in India, and the principal question was
whether it should transfer power to a unitary India or to two separate Governments of Hindu and Moslem India. Mr. Gandhi
was known to believe that the division of India would be a calamity. At one time in the negotiations between Congress
and the British he seemed to acquiesce in division, as the price of freedom, but later he reverted to unqualified
opposition. Opinion in the Congress Working Committee was, however, for division as the only solution, and Mr. Gandhi
therefore stood aside and left the decision to the younger men, believing that they were taking a disastrous course,
but believing too that the leadership must now be in their hands.
His last few months he spent in continuous and not unsuccessful attempts to restore peace in one area after another
as communal hostility flared up into massacre and calamity after the withdrawal of the British power. With a number
of disciples he made a progress through the disturbed parts of Bengal, awing the excited masses into peace by the
prestige of his name and his asceticism. His reply to a renewal of violence in Calcutta in September was a complete
fast from everything but water. After three days peace was restored and his fast was broken. Again early this month
he met communal disturbances in Delhi with another fast - of five days - which had great moral effect and led to
solemn assurances of consideration for the Moslem minority. Less than a fortnight later he was to meet his death
while engaged in religious observances.
Thus at the end of his career he appeared more than ever before in his life a being strayed out of the Middle Ages.
And these last few months of his life, a kind of coda, may have touched the Indian imagination more creatively than
any previous actions and have larger consequences.
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