Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarat on October 2, 1869. He received his education in law at University College in London. In 1891, after being admitted to the British Bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. He was appalled at the widespread denial of civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants to South Africa. He threw himself into the struggle for elementary rights for Indians and remained in South Africa for 20 years. He suffered imprisonment many times.
During the Boer War, Gandhi organized an ambulance corps for the British army and commanded a Red Cross unit. After the war, he returned to his campaign for Indian rights. In 1914, the government of the Union of South Africa made important concessions to Gandhi’s demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them. His work in South Africa complete, he returned to India.
Following World War I, in which he played an active part in advocating Salyagraha, Gandhi launched his movement of passive resistance against Great Britain. A demonstration against the Roulette Acts resulted in a massacre of Indians at Amritsar by British soldiers. In 1920, when the British government failed to make amends, Gandhi proclaimed an organized campaign of noncooperation. Indians in public office resigned, government agencies were boycotted, and Indian children were withdrawn from government schools. Throughout India, Indians were squatting on the streets, blocking them. Those who refused to leave were beaten by the police.
Gandhi was arrested, but the British were soon forced to release him. India completely boycotted British goods. The exploitation of Indian villagers by British industrialists had resulted in poverty in the country and the virtual destruction of Indian home industries. To remedy the poverty, Gandhi advocated the revival of cottage industries.
He began to use a spinning wheel as a token of the return to the simple village life he preached. Gandhi became the international symbol of free India. He lived a spiritual life, fasting and meditating. He refused earthly possessions, wore the loincloth and shawl of the lowliest Indian, and lived on vegetables, fruit juices, and goat’s milk. Indians thought of him as a saint and began to call him Mahatma, meaning great soul. Gandhi was imprisoned off and on over the next several years.
In 1930, he proclaimed a new campaign of civil disobedience, asking the Indian population to refuse to pay taxes, particularly the tax on salt. He led a march to the sea, in which thousands of Indians followed him from Ahmadabad to the Arabian Sea. Once again, he was arrested. Gandhi fasted for long periods several times. His fasts were effective against the British because revolution might well have broken out in India if he had died. In September 1932, while in jail, Gandhi started a fast unto death to improve the status of the India Untouchables.
In 1934, Gandhi formally resigned from politics. A few years later, he returned and once again became the most important political figure in India. By 1944, the Indian struggle for independence was in its final stages.
The British government had agreed to independence on the condition that the two contending nationalist groups, the Muslim League and the Congress Party, should resolve their differences. India and Pakistan became separate states when the British granted India its independence in 1947. During the riots that followed the partition of India, Gandhi pleaded with Hindus and Muslims to live together peacefully. On January 13, 1948, 12 days after his last fast, he was on his way to his evening prayer meeting when he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic. Gandhi’s death was regarded as an international catastrophe. His place in humanity was measured in terms of history.
A period of mourning was set aside in the United Nations General Assembly, and condolences to India were expressed by all countries. Religious violence soon waned in India and Pakistan, and the teachings of Gandhi came to inspire nonviolent movements elsewhere.