Geographies in Depth

Who was Mahatma Gandhi and what impact did he have on India?


Mahatma Ghandi is revered by many people all over the world as a symbol of unity and peace. Image: REUTERS/Lunae Parracho (BRAZIL - Tags: SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E92B0PS401

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This article is part of: India Economic Summit

He’s one of the most instantly recognizable figures of the 20th century – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known to many as Mahatma Gandhi or Great Soul.

The 2nd of October marks the anniversary of Gandhi’s birth and the start of a life of struggle in the fight for Indian independence from British colonial rule.

It’s an occasion being marked all over the world, particularly in India.

But who was Mahatma Gandhi and how did he end up championing Indian independence? Here’s a brief timeline of his life.

Mahatma Gandhi - Legal leanings

He was born in 1869 in the princely state of Porbandar, in modern-day Gujarat, where his father served as a government official. At the age of just 18, Gandhi sailed for London to study law, where he eventually passed the bar exam and qualified as a barrister.

But any hopes he may have had of a glorious legal career soon began to crumble. After losing his first case back home in India, he left India again, this time for South Africa. It was there he became so nervous advocating on behalf of a client in court that he couldn’t speak properly. He ended up reimbursing his client and fleeing the courthouse.


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But it was another incident in South Africa that set Mahatma Gandhi on a new path. While travelling first class on a train, he was ejected from his carriage after a white passenger complained. The experience would help to solidify some of the ideas he had already started to form around equality for all people.

There are statues to Mahatma Gandhi across the world: this one is at the Sabarmati Ashram.

A tax on your roots

Indian immigrants in South Africa were subject to punitive laws and restrictions on freedoms. There was even a tax levied on them simply because they were Indian immigrants. Mahatma Gandhi set about tackling segregation and founded the Indian Congress in the Natal region of South Africa. This was also the point at which he began dressing in the traditional white Indian dhoti, which became his trademark attire.

His first target was the £3 ($3.69) tax on people of Indian origin. Preaching a strategy of satyagraha, or nonviolent protest, Gandhi organized a strike and led a march of more than 2,000 people to call for the tax to be scrapped. He was arrested and sent to prison for nine months. But his actions brought about the end of the tax and catapulted him to international attention.

Back in India, in 1915, Mahatma Gandhi founded an ashram, or spiritual monastery, open to all castes of people. He wore just a simple loincloth and shawl, and dedicated himself to prayer and fasting.

In 1919, when the British implemented laws that allowed for the arrest and imprisonment of anyone suspected of sedition, Gandhi rose up calling for a wave of nonviolent disobedience. Tragedy followed.

A massacre and a wave of boycotts

In the city of Amritsar, British Indian Army soldiers were ordered to open fire on a crowd of 20,000 or so protestors that had begun to grow unruly. Around 400 people were killed, with more than 1,000 injured. From that point on, Mahatma Gandhi’s goal was clear – Indian independence. He soon became a leading figure in the home-rule movement.

The movement called for mass boycotts of British goods and institutions. Gandhi implored civil servants to stop working for the British, for students to quit government schools, for soldiers to abandon their posts and for the citizenry to withhold their taxes and avoid buying British goods.

In 1922, he was arrested by the British authorities and pleaded guilty to three counts of sedition, which resulted in a six-year prison sentence, although that was commuted after just two years.

Britain’s strong grip on India was also evident in the Salt Act, which made it illegal for Indians to collect, produce or sell salt. Official sales of salt were also subject to tax. It was legislation that hit the poorest hardest. And so, in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi took on the Salt Act. The most well-known part of his campaign was the 390 kilometre Salt March to the shores of the Arabian Sea, where he collected salt in symbolic and open defiance of the government monopoly.

Mahatma Gandhi, 1931 Image: Wikimedia Commons

He wrote to the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, saying: “My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

The Salt Act protests gathered momentum and around 60,000 were imprisoned, including Gandhi.

Time magazine named him Man of the Year in 1930.

Real change

The following year, Mahatma Gandhi was invited to London on behalf of the Indian National Congress. He met King George V, and visited mill workers in Lancashire, gaining publicity and sympathy for his cause in the UK. But there was little in the way of progress and relations with Britain remained strained.

At the height of World War II, Mahatma Gandhi stepped up his Quit India campaign, urging the British to get out of the country altogether, while arguing that the war was none of India’s concern. Once again, he was arrested and jailed - this time along with fellow leaders of the Indian National Congress and his wife.

A change of government in Britain after the end of the war saw more willingness to discuss independence for India. But the negotiations that followed led to the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. On August 15, 1947, India gained its independence, Pakistan was born and millions of people were displaced and relocated, leading to waves of violence and killings.

The following year, on 30 January, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was shot three times and killed by a Hindu extremist. Gandhi's dedication to nonviolent, anti-colonial protest has made him an inspirational figure for millions of people to this day.

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