Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, was the fourth child of the prime minister of the tiny city-state of Porbandar, a city between Bombay and Karachi. After the death of Gandhi’s father in 1885, the family sent Mohandas to Great Britain and study law, with the hope that he might enter the civil service of local Indian princes.
Gandhi returned to India in 1891 to open a legal practice. For a variety of reasons, especially Gandhi’s own shyness and diffidence, the practice was a failure, first in his native region and then in Bombay. In 1893, a case required him to go to South Africa.
On the train from the port to Pretoria that first evening, Gandhi was literally kicked off for trying to sit in the first-class compartment when a white passenger objected to his presence. This event helped Gandhi overcoming his shyness and he began speaking and organizing meetings. At first, his goal was to protect Indian workers and traders in South Africa and then to expand their rights.
When Gandhi returned to India in 1914, where he became one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement. From the 1920s through the early 1930s, he was the movement’s leading planner, and throughout the interwar period he served as a bridge between rival religious factions, the various Hindu castes, the growing Westernized upper-middle class, and the masses working in the fields.
In India, he implemented his philosophy of nonviolent protest, which he called satyagraha (soul force). At times he might organize a section of the country to hold a general work stoppage or bring the entire Indian Empire to a halt as he fasted for an end to the terrible conditions of the so-called untouchables, rioting, or other problems besetting the country as a whole.
It was Gandhi’s belief that satyagraha was the only way to win independence from Britain honorably, for if a free India was born in violence, it might never recover. Therefore, Gandhi had to spend almost as much time establishing, and then maintaining, as strict a control over his own people as was possible as he did in winning independence from the British. The first was harder than the second, since the British could use the internal quarrels of the various Indian groups as an excuse to keep ultimate power in their own hands, no matter what reforms they might offer. Therefore, as the 1930s ended, the independence movement had not really come much closer to its goal after two decades of struggle. Gandhi had staged impressive demonstrations such as the march to protest the Salt Tax in March and April of 1930, started numerous publications, written scores of articles, unified the various factions, and won concessions from the British after some bloody riots and reprisals, but India was not independent.
World War II would prove decisive for the fate of India. While Gandhi and his followers preferred the British and the Americans to the Nazis and Japanese, for the most part they refused to cooperate with the Allies unless India was given its independence. Gandhi and many of his closest followers spent most of the war in custody. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and a former follower of Gandhi, used the war to make the Muslim League independent of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (the umbrella organization for most of the pro-independence organizations). By backing the Allies when most Indian groups refused, Jinnah was setting the stage to proclaim a separate Muslim state whenever India was granted independence.
When World War II was over, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee came to power in Great Britain. One of their goals was to establish the Indian Empire as an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth. The divisions that Gandhi had managed to unite within the Indian independence movement now came forward as the probability of independence came closer. Gandhi was committed to a united India, but the Muslims, the rulers of most of northern India before the British came but an overall minority, were inspired by Jinnah to seek a separate country for those areas with a Muslim majority. Although the British offered a plan for a confederated India that might have satisfied Muslim demands while maintaining a united Indian government, few of the Indian leaders of either side, including Gandhi, were willing to trust the British plan in 1946. The result was an India divided on religious lines, India and Pakistan becoming independent dominions in 1947.
When a divided India became inevitable, Gandhi basically kept silent on the plan, devoting the rest of his life to quelling the religious unrest that welled up in 1947 and 1948, as Muslims and non-Muslims (many of them unwillingly) left their homes and made their way to areas where they would be in the majority. Hundreds of thousands of people died from violence, disease, and malnutrition during the riots and forced marches and in the relocation camps. Gandhi made his way to some of the worst scenes of conflict, pleading, arguing, and fasting to bring the violence to an end. Although he nearly died from the fasting and was often threatened by mobs, he was finally able to bring the worst of the violence to an end by the beginning of 1948. Religious and ethnic tensions remained, but there was, in general, peace among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and the other groups.
On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, a thirty-five-year-old high-caste Hindu newspaper editor and a refugee from Muslim violence, bowed in respect before Gandhi, who was on his way to a prayer meeting in New Delhi, when he shot Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi three times, killing him almost instantly.
Lewis, Terrance L. “Mahatma Gandhi.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013.