Reflections on the life and times of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) 1869-1948 By Tota C. Mangar
Guyana Chronicle
October 7, 2001

THIS October marks the 132nd birth anniversary of the late Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more popularly and affectionately known as Mahatma Gandhi or “great soul”.

This remarkable Indian political and spiritual leader, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a small seaside town in the Kathiawar Peninsula in western India.

Brought up in a religious environment that decreed sanctity of all things, Gandhi received a somewhat indifferent formal education. For example, in his autobiography, he himself acknowledged that while he was a conscientious student, he was very shy and lacked confidence.

Not long after completing his primary education, the family moved to Rajkot, and while he was at secondary school and at the tender age of 13, he was married to Kasturbia as part of the age long Indian custom of `child marriage’ and he lost no time in assuming the authority of being a husband.

Gandhi’s father died in 1885 after a prolonged illness, and family circles subsequently influenced the young Gandhi to pursue studies in law, since it obviously held good scope for future professional and political success. Gandhi sailed from Bombay to London, on September 4, 1888, and there he pursued law studies.

In England, he quickly adjusted to his new environment and he came into contact with several prominent social idealists of the time including H.P Blavatsky and Mrs Annie Besant. The frail-looking Gandhi became a barrister-at-law in 1891, and he returned to his homeland where he did some odd legal jobs for the local prince of his hometown, Porbandar. But Gandhi was far from satisfied. He abhorred pretty intrigue, palace pomp, subservience and snobbery, which pervaded local administrations at the time.

It was not surprising therefore, that Gandhi accepted an offer in 1893 to work in South Africa. By this time, several thousands of Indian indentured labourers had been imported into that country to work primarily on the British-owned sugar, tea and coffee plantations.

In addition, free Indian immigrants were earning a livelihood as hawkers, tradesmen, artisans and professionals within the country, and Gandhi quickly became an advocate of his fellow Indians.

As a representative of the Indian population in South Africa, he fought relentlessly for their basic rights. He was shocked at the level of racial discrimination that was in existence and the despicable apartheid system in general. He himself experienced physical abuse, eviction and humiliation as he confronted the South African government through a series of challenges and with the principle of `Satyagraha’ and civil disobedience. He was even jailed for his South African struggles, but this did not daunt his spirits since it was his view that justice and fairplay would eventually prevail.

Gandhi’s unorthodox campaign against white prejudices in defence of South African Indians and Negroes was of grave concern to the government. Their racists, leader, General Smutts were forced on the defensive time and time again as Gandhi sought to eradicate human sufferings. Writing about his confrontation with Gandhi in South Africa years later, General Smutts said, “his activities at the time were very trying to me….. Gandhi showed a new technique…his method (Satyagraha) was to break the law and to organise his followers into a mass movement. For him, everything went accordingly to plan. For me, the defender of law and order - there was the usual trying situation, the odium of carrying out a law which had not, strong popular support, and finally the discomfiture when the law was repealed”.

Following his successful stint in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India in January 1915.

By this time, his spiritual qualities, along with his valiants efforts overseas, were beginning to be acclaimed throughout his homeland. He came into contact with the world famous poet, Rabindranauth Tagore who had won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1913. It was Tagore who later conferred the title `Mahatma’ or `Great soul’ on him. Gandhi and Tagore complemented each other as Indian nationalists and internationalists in their own right. Both were concerned with the plight of the suffering millions and both saw the need for `Hind Swaraj’ or Indian Home Rule. Gandhi also became associated with G.K. Gokale, President of the Servants of India society.

After thorough soul searching, Gandhi was convinced he could make his contributions to society. He established his `Satyagraha Ashram’ and was concerned at the secret tribunals and imprisonment of prominent Indians by the British during the period of World War I. He was soon to enter politics and joined the Indian National Congress and worked hand in hand with leaders like Bal Gangadar Tilak and Mohamed Jinnah.

In 1919, he campaigned against the curtailment of civil liberties under the British imposed Rowlatt Acts by organising `hartal’ or the suspension of economic activity such as the closure of shops, factories and banks. It was his view that `hartal’ would effectively demonstrate Indian unity and discipline to those in authority.

Following the Amritsar massacre in 1919, during which several lives were lost, Gandhi initiated his policy of non-cooperation and the boycott of British imported goods. It was clear that from around the 1920’s, Gandhi had emerged as the undisputed leader of the Indian National Congress, the dominant political party at that time. As part of his strategy against the British, he advocated a policy of non-violence, non-cooperation in order to achieve India’s political independence. He wanted a new Indian society, not just a free India. To him, true freedom for India meant the emergence of a new, free Indian individual, free from the shackles of British rule.

Gandhi toured the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent urging non-cooperation and clamouring for internal self-government and political independence. He also initiated a systematic civil disobedience campaign for which he was arrested, charged and imprisoned several times. He countered with fasts as a means of touching men’s heart and minds.

In 1930, Gandhi was in the forefront of the great salt march in defence of the poverty stricken sections of the Indian community during which British brutality was highly evident as it sought to suppress the resistance and stifle public opinion.

As the years progressed, Mahatma Gandhi continued his struggle to end British rule. He participated actively in several Independence conferences (Round Table Conferences). He asserted the unity of all the people of India under one God. He led the fight to end the caste system in India and he defended the rights of the `Hirijans’ or `untouchables’. In 1942, the British jailed him after he refused to cooperate during World War II. On his release from prison in 1944, he became a major figure in the post-war negotiations that resulted in India’s independence in 1947.

At the same time, he was deeply distressed by the subsequent religious partition of the country into India and Pakistan and the eventual violence that broke out between Hindus and Muslims. At great inconvenience and personal sacrifice, he resorted to fasts and visits to the troubled areas in his valiant efforts to end the religious violence.

Gandhi was on one such prayer vigil on that fateful day in January 1948 - 51 years ago - when he was fatally shot to death by a Hindu fanatic. His death sent shock waves throughout India and the wider world and it was a tremendous blow to humanity. Close to a million people wept and wailed as the funeral procession advanced to the cremation site where the Mahatma was cremated on January 31, 1948.

World leaders, including the British King, the American and French President, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other world dignitaries, paid glowing tribute to this remarkable man. Even the Security Council of the United Nations interrupted its deliberations to laud Gandhi as “the friend of the poorest, the loneliest, and the lost”.

Perhaps at this stage, it is appropriate to have a closer and brief analysis of those special qualities which were associated with Gandhi during his lifetime. It was clear that Gandhi took his desire for truth and justice to extremes in his daily life. In his own words, he saw `Satyagraha’ as the strength which is born out of a love of truth and non-violence.

Clearly, he must have influenced people like the Late Martin Luther King, and our own Dr Cheddi Jagan and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, in his unique philosophy.

One of his most outstanding characteristics was his fearlessness. Neither physical violence, verbal attacks, arrests and imprisonment, nor any threat to his personal welfare could deflect him from his chosen path. Once he had plotted a course, he stuck assiduously to it with remarkable calm, irrespective of the consequence.

He was supremely self-confident and had a tendency for self-sacrifice and simplicity. This was evidenced in his numerous fasts in pursuit of his objectives. He was convinced that it was possible to force and opponent to a change of heart and to evoke compassion by patiently enduring suffering himself.

On his `independence visits’ to England, neither the excessive cold nor pouring rain could make him change his Indian grab. It was his scanty and simple mode of dress, which caused War Hero and one time English Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, to refer disapprovingly to him as “that half naked fakir”.

Gandhi intuitively knew what response his actions could evoke and by which simple non-violent means he could confuse and create panic to the British authorities in India.

His intuition told him that the creation of an independent Pakistan would not solve the conflict between Hindus and Muslims but would be giving in to the evils of separateness and religious fanaticism. Thousands of deaths, the acute migration of peoples, border problems and hostile neighbourly relations between today’s India and Pakistan are the consequences of the partitioning of pre-independence India.

That is why he relentless pursued Hindu-Muslim unity and religious toleration. Religion to him should be intellectually satisfying, ethically uplifting and spiritually comforting. The Mahatma rightly believed that good character and noble service are important elements of life. That is why he spoke simply, he dressed simply, he lived simply, he reduced complex issues to bare essentials, he used simple but very effective methods of political pressure and in so doing, he touched the hearts of the humblest of people - the suffering millions in India and around the world.

It is little wonder that the great 20th century physicist and philosophe, Albert Einstein wrote, and I quote “we are fortunate and grateful that fate has bestowed upon us so luminious a contemporary, a beacon to generations to come.”

Mahatma Gandhi was essential a man of religion. For him, politics was religion in action. His religion was broad, non-sectarian and non-dogmatic. Indeed, a purer, nobler, a braver and a more exalted spirit has never moved on the face of the earth in modern times. He was a man among men, a hero among heroes, a patriot among patriots. His legacy is courage, honesty, humility, non-violence; his lesson truth; his weapon love.

In deed he is rightly revered as Bapuji (father of the Indian Nation). The Name Gandhi lives on!