Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, born on 2 October 1869 and passing away on 30 January 1948, was a prominent figure in India’s struggle for independence against British rule. He was not just an Indian lawyer but also an anti-colonial nationalist and political ethicist. Gandhi’s approach to the fight for freedom was unique – he advocated for nonviolent resistance, a method that proved highly successful and inspired similar movements for civil rights and freedom worldwide. The title “Mahātmā,” meaning ‘great-souled’ or ‘venerable’ in Sanskrit, was first bestowed upon him in South Africa in 1914 and has since become a universal term of reverence for him.
Gandhi was born and raised in a devout Hindu family in coastal Gujarat. He pursued his legal education at the Inner Temple in London, where he was called to the bar at the young age of 22 in June 1891. Upon his return to India, he faced initial struggles in establishing a law practice. Faced with adversity, he ventured to South Africa in 1893 to represent an Indian merchant in a legal case. This move marked the beginning of a 21-year period in South Africa, where he not only raised a family but also pioneered the use of nonviolent resistance in campaigns for civil rights.
Upon his return to India in 1915 at the age of 45, Gandhi actively organized peasants, farmers, and urban laborers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. In 1921, he assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress and spearheaded nationwide campaigns aimed at alleviating poverty, expanding women’s rights, promoting religious and ethnic harmony, eradicating untouchability, and, most importantly, achieving self-rule or swaraj. Gandhi’s personal lifestyle mirrored his principles – he adopted the humble attire of a short dhoti woven with hand-spun yarn as a symbol of solidarity with India’s rural poor. He lived in a self-sufficient community, consumed simple food, and utilized hunger strikes not only as a form of political protest but also as a means of self-reflection.
Gandhi’s leadership brought the fight against colonialism to the common Indian people. His most notable actions included the 400 km (250 mi) Dandi Salt March in 1930, challenging the British-imposed salt tax, and the 1942 Quit India movement, demanding an end to British rule. Throughout his activism, he was arrested multiple times, both in South Africa and India, enduring imprisonment for several years.
In the early 1940s, Gandhi’s vision of an independent and religiously pluralistic India faced challenges from Muslim nationalism, which advocated for a separate homeland for Muslims within British India. Despite these tensions, India was granted independence by Britain in August 1947. However, the country was partitioned into two dominions – a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. This partition led to widespread religious violence, especially in Punjab and Bengal. Gandhi, although abstaining from the official celebrations, worked tirelessly to ease the distress caused by the displacement of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. He undertook numerous hunger strikes in the months following independence, the last of which began on 12 January 1948 in Delhi, aimed at stopping the religious violence.
Tragically, Gandhi’s life was cut short when he was assassinated on 30 January 1948, at the age of 78, during an interfaith prayer meeting in Delhi. His assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a militant Hindu nationalist who disagreed with Gandhi’s stance on defending both Pakistan and Indian Muslims. Despite his death, Gandhi’s legacy endures. His birthday, 2 October, is commemorated in India as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday, and globally as the International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi is revered as the Father of the Nation in post-colonial India and was affectionately called Bapu, a Gujarati term akin to “father,” during India’s nationalist movement and the immediate decades after.