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The life and work of Gandhi - overview:

1

Gandhi's childhood and youth

2

Gandhi's way to South Africa

3

Discrimination in South Africa

4

Return to India

5

Back in South Africa

6

Registration forms, three pound tax etc.

7

Gandhi's return to India 

8

Champaran - indigo farmers

9

The general strike

10

Spinning wheel

11

Salt march

12

India's independence - Gandhi's death

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Gandhi's childhood and youth

Mohandas Karamchand was born on the 2nd October 1869 in Porbandar in the state of Gujarat, India. He was the son of a wealthy family from the caste of the traders, who again belonged to the group of the merchants (Vaishyas). His father held the office of Prime Minister in the principality of Rajkat. Both of his parents were pious Hindus. At the age of thirteen Gandhi was married to Kasturbai Nakanji, who was the same age. Being an Indian woman at the time meant Kasturbai was dependent on her husband. He could have turned her out onto the streets at any time, whereupon she would have been expelled from society. Aware of this Gandhi did not treat her well during the first years. Looking back he admitted that during that period of time his wife had a lot to suffer from him. The deaths of his father and of his first son were decisive experiences for Gandhi.

Gandhi intended to study law in Great Britain. After long hesitation the family accepted his request. The caste however, held the opinion that in a foreign country he would not be able to lead a "pure" life. Although he had vowed to live a chaste life and never touch meat or alcohol, the caste forbade him to travel abroad. When Gandhi refused to comply with this decision he was expelled.

In 1888 he commenced his studies in London. Apart from these studies, he occupied himself extensively with Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It was during this time that his Hindu belief grew ever more important to him. Nevertheless, he recognised other religions and was especially enthusiastic about the 'Sermon on the Mount' as it accorded with his own motto to confront evil only with good. Again and again he compared his concept of Satyagraha with the principles of the 'Sermon on the Mount' in order to explain it more easily.

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Gandhi's way to South Africa

When Gandhi returned to India with a degree, only part of the caste received him back. Officially he was still expelled and everyone who put him up risked the same. He soon came to realise that because of having studied abroad he did not have the necessary contacts at home. Without the help of the caste it was difficult to open and maintain a lawyers office. Furthermore, Gandhi was used to being regarded as a citizen of the British Empire. The British officials in India however, did not regard him to be one of them and for that reason it soon came to arguments between the officials and Gandhi.

On this basis he was not able to make a living. His elder brother had to pay for his keep and that of his family. When a wealthy merchant, a business friend of his brother's, offered him a job as legal advisor to his company in South Africa, he accepted immediately. In 1893 he travelled to South Africa without his family.

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Discrimination in South Africa

In South Africa Gandhi experienced for the first time what it meant to the ethnical minority of Indians to be discriminated against. To the whites all Indians were 'Sammies' or 'Kulies', simply not equal. There are plenty of examples discrimination against Gandhi. He was not served at the hairdresser, was not allowed to wear a turban in the courtroom or to leave the house after 9 p.m. without the approval of his employer and all just because he was an Indian. Simply because of his colour and religion, he was not able to enjoy the same rights as the white population.

The discrimination against Indians was massive, especially in public transport. The most well-known example of discrimination that Gandhi experienced happened on a business trip in a train. He needed to travel from Durban in Natal to Pretoria in the Transvaal. On the journey a white passenger boarded the train. He was not prepared to share the compartment with Gandhi. Despite a valid first class ticket the conductor wanted to send Gandhi into the luggage van. When he refused to comply he was thrown off the train.

After Gandhi had successfully established himself in business and maintained his position within the Indian community, he became more self-assured and tried to organise the Indians in South Africa. Regular meetings were established where Gandhi held his first speeches in front of an audience. His main goal was to put an end to the discrimination of Indians. For that reason he tried to persuade them to dress tidily and pay more attention to matters of hygiene. He was convinced that this could change the image that the British people held of the Indians, and consequently they would be treated as equals.

[You will find background information on the history of South Africa on the page entitled South Africa]

Gandhi explains the incident in his own words in his autobiography:
On the seventh or eighth day after my arrival, I left Durban. A first class seat was booked for me. It was usual there to pay five shillings extra, if one needed a bedding. Abdulla Sheth insisted that I should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy and pride and with a view to saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla Sheth warned me. 'Look, now,' said he, 'this is a different country from India. Thank God, we have enough and to spare. Please do not stint yourself in anything that you may need.'

I thanked him and asked him not to be anxious.

The train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. Beddings used to be provided at this station. A railway servant came and asked me if I wanted one. 'No,' said I, 'I have one with me.' He went away. But a passenger came next, and looked me up and down. He saw that I was a 'coloured' man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and said, 'Come along, you must go to the van compartment.'

'But I have a first class ticket,' said I.

'That doesn't matter,' rejoined the other. 'I tell you, you must go to the van compartment.'

'I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it.'

'No, you won't,' said the official. 'You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out.'

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Return to India

In 1896 he returned to India. He wrote reports about the situation of the Indians in South Africa and these gained international attention. Among other things he criticised the "three pound tax" that bound Indian indentured servants to their employers. He travelled through his home country and met with the political leaders of India. Gokhale, a member of the Indian National Congress (INC) became one of his most important friends and supporters. At the end of the year when he was asked to return to South Africa, he and his family left immediately.

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Back in South Africa

In South Africa the reports that Gandhi had published concerning the situation of the Indians in the country were understood to be incitement. The flames of fear of a revolution and infiltration of society by the Indians were fanned. When Gandhi and many other Indian passengers arrived by ship in Durban they were denied entry. The ship was put under quarantine for 23 days because of an alleged outbreak of the plague aboard. Finally, when Gandhi was allowed to leave the ship, he was nearly lynched by an outraged mob of whites. Only the intervention of the chief constable and his wife could save Gandhi from death. Nevertheless, he did not prosecute the culprits. Here for the first time his resolution to hate none and suffer all was applied.

He established himself as an attorney and fought for the rights of the Indians. Even outside the court he committed himself to his fellowmen. He gave the Indians in South Africa a voice by founding the magazine 'Indian Option' in 1904, further the Phoenix Farm in Natal and later the Tolstoi Farm in the Transvaal. Serving his people, his fellowmen, became his principle, just like his total abstinence. When the bubonic plague broke out among Indian workers he helped selflessly.

During the Boer War in 1899 and the Zulu Revolt in 1906 he persuaded the Indians to join the war on the side of the British, however medical duty was the only thing they were allowed to do. Gandhi himself served in the army medical service. He believed it to be his civic duty. He who demands his rights must also be prepared to fulfil his duties. That way he hoped to gain the goodwill of the British and consequently an improvement in the situation of the Indians in South Africa.

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Burning the registration forms, struggle against the 'three pound tax' and for recognition of Indian marriages

This proved to be a false hope. As early as 1907 a registration bill was decided upon. All Indians were to be registered with their fingerprints, whereupon they were supposed to receive a number and a registration form that they were to carry with them at all times. Without a registration form entry into the Transvaal, that had its own government controlled by Boers, was no longer be granted.

Gandhi did not register and most Indians followed his example. He was sentenced to two months in detention. He turned to General Smuts and made a request not to pass the bill. In return the Indians would volunteer to register. Again Gandhi set an example and let himself be registered, despite some fellow countrymen trying to hinder him violently. Here again the majority of the Indians followed his example. Nevertheless the bill was passed, and consequently the first large-scale Satyagraha campaign was started and more than 2,000 registration forms burned.

Neither did General Smuts keep to the agreement with Gokhale to abolish the 'three-pound-tax' for the indentured servants.

When finally in 1913 all non-Christian marriages that had not been concluded before a registrar in South Africa where ruled invalid, the situation for the Indians worsened dramatically. No Indian marriages were recognised and this meant a great offence to the honour of the Indians, for now their wives only had the status of a mistress. On top of that their children were no longer entitled to inherit. For these reasons the women and the indentured servants joined Gandhi. The miners went on strike. Once again Gandhi started a Satyagraha campaign. His Satyagrahis from the Tolstoi Farm, among them Kasturbai, were to cross the border between Natal and the Transvaal without identity papers and allow themselves to be arrested. As predicted, they were taken into custody and some of them were sentenced to forced labour. For a number of the Satyagrahis the bad conditions of their imprisonment resulted in death. Soon the prisons were full. In Newcastle in Natal Gandhi formed a 'peace army' of roughly 5,000 striking miners and their families. He informed the government that he also intended to cross the border with this 'peace army'. The destination of the march was supposed to be the Tolstoi Farm in the Transvaal. On the way there Gandhi and his closest aides were arrested. Still the march could not be stopped and mass arrests were the consequence. The prisons were filled to bursting point, the costs for the imprisoned were enormous and closing down the mines caused a loss of profit.

More and more workers from other regions joined the strike. India sent financial and moral support. The British and the Boers reacted with violence. Appointments to an investigation committee that was supposed to assess the incidents were at first very 'pro British'. Initially the situation of the Indians did not change. Gandhi intended to expand the strike to further sections of the Indian population, but desisted when the government came under pressure by a railway strike. He could have severely damaged the government by expanding the strike. However, that was not his goal. Under no circumstances did he want to damage his opponent, but instead to fight for his own rights.

Following a short stopover in Great Britain, where Gandhi called upon the Indians there to join in the First World War at the side of the British, he returned home to India in 1914.

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Gandhi's return to India

On his return to India in 1914 Gandhi was accompanied by his family and the inhabitants of his farms. In order to continue the community life of the farms Gandhi and his entourage built an Ashram. To this community he welcomed Untouchables just like anybody else.

In the meantime Gandhi had risen to fame in India. The people called him Mahatma - great soul. The country he returned to was occupied by the British. There was no unity between Hindu and Muslim sections of the community. The different social strata had just as few points of contact. The country and its population were exploited by the British.

[Background information on India's history is available on the page entitled India]

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Camparan - Indigo farmers

His first actions took Gandhi to Camparan in North Bihar at the foot of the Himalayas in 1917. Farmers there had asked for his help. According to the Tinkathia system the tenants were compelled to plant indigo on 3/20th of their fields for the benefit of their feudal landlords. They did not have the right to decide for themselves what to plant on the land that they had leased. Gandhi was to see for himself under how much agony they planted and processed indigo. An intended one-day visit ended up stretching over months. Gandhi lead an investigation the result of which was that the tenants had a part of their contributions repaid and the system was abolished. However, his work had even more far-reaching effects. He committed himself to fight for educational measures as well as improved healthcare for the farmers, for this was the only way to improve their situation. Just as before in South Africa, Gandhi was hindered in his work, yet even imprisonment could not stop him. On intentionally breaking a law he would plead guilty according to the spirit of the law (not according to his own spirit) and accept his punishment. That way he gave the British a lot of trouble. Had Gandhi used violence or been fugitive, the British could have been more harsh. As it was, the (international) public sided with Gandhi and the British treated him more leniently.

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The general strike

Known for their political commitment, the way in which Indians were treated soon changed. In 1918 as a part of the Montford policy of reforms, the Indians were to be granted participation in governing the provinces. However, the implementation of these reforms was delayed. The population became restless. The British feared that they would lose control over more than three million Indians. Following unrest in Bengal the Rowlett Bills, named after their author Judge Rowlett, were discussed. They envisaged the introduction of martial law. These laws also included measures to detain suspects without trial. The rule of law would no longer have been in force. This Bill would have meant Indians being exposed to complete despotism of the British. In 1919 Gandhi opposed the Bill in a Satyagraha campaign.

During a peaceful meeting of 2,000 Indians on a square in Amritsar on the 13th April 1919, the British Army blocked the only way out and fired into the crowd randomly. 400 people were killed and many more wounded. During the subsequent investigation into the massacre the general commanding the troops concerned testified that he had intended to kill all the people in the square. He was asked to leave the services, which he finally did. Apart from that no further punishment was imposed. All of India was shattered by the massacre in Amritsar.

Despite of all of this, the Bill was passed. The slogan now was 'non-cooperation' with the British. Gandhi intended a general strike and even carried it out in some cities, such as Delhi on the 6th April 1919, for 24 hours. A number of different campaigns were conducted before his eventual arrest in 1922. Gandhi considered refusing the payment of taxes but decided against this because of the gathering unrest in the country. The violence did not only originate from the British side. The Indians, too, carried out acts of violence. Gandhi stopped all action immediately. He realised that the Indian people were not yet ready for non-violent resistance, for Satyagraha.

In his autobiography, Gandhi explains the Satyagraha:
Before a person may dedicate himself to peaceful disobedience, he must first agree to and respect state law. We usually obey to laws out of fear of punishment; ...A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of the land out of the strength of his vision and because he regards it as being his spiritual responsibility.

The population rebelled violently against everything British and did not strive for single justified aims. The population made no distinction between good and bad laws. Gandhi believed the violence to be his own miscalculation as enormous as the Himalayas. He fasted as a sign of repentance. After he was discharged from imprisonment in 1924 he regarded the education of the people to be his paramount task. He toured the country for six years, only interrupted by one year in which he wrote his autobiography "The Story of my Experiments with the Truth".

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The spinning-wheel campaign

The education of the people was closely tied to leading them out of poverty. On his tours throughout the country Gandhi called upon the people to use spinning-wheels at home in order to fabricate cloth themselves. English cloth was to be boycotted. Gandhi himself set an example. He, who in his younger years had worn the clothes of the British, now wore nothing but a dohti. He spent every free minute at the spinning-wheel, although his wife always claimed that he was born with two left hands.

The spinning-wheel campaign was directed against the importation of English cloth, but it also provided the poorest of the Indians with a source of income. When visiting England, Gandhi met workers from English cloth-making factories. Although they suffered from the campaign, they understand the situation the Indians were in and the action they were taking. Gandhi raised the spinning-wheel to be the symbol of Indian independence. With this campaign he had succeeded in leading the Indian people on a peaceful path of resistance. The spinning-wheel is still represented on the Indian flag.

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Salt March

In the meantime the INC had further committed itself to Indian self-administration, but had achieved nothing. Now Gandhi was thinking about another Satyagraha campaign. To the astonishment of the British government, who had expected a campaign for independence, Gandhi announced a campaign against a trivial matter: the tax on salt. A tax was raised on Indian salt, originally because ships that transported spices, tea and other luxury goods from India to Great Britain did not sail back empty, but loaded with English salt. In order to sell this salt, a tax was raised that made Indian salt more expensive. When Gandhi announced his salt march, imports of English salt were extremely low, yet the tax had not been abolished. It had proven to be very profitable. To the Indians, however, it was fatal. Gandhi tried to explain to the government just how much the population suffered from the tax. A worker had to work for three days just to pay the tax on salt. The British could have made a concession and abolished the tax without loosing face. The loss of income to the British would have been relatively insignificant. Gandhi wrote to the government and declared action, should the salt tax not be abolished. The reaction of the government was a negative one.

Thereupon Gandhi commenced his salt march on the 11th March 1930 in Ahmedabad. Accompanied by friends and followers, and watched by the international press, Gandhi covered 385 kilometres in 24 days. Crowds of people cheered him on the way. He reached his destination, the town of Dandi on the coast of the Arabian Sea, on the 15th April 1930. The next day he bathed in the ocean before explaining the real aim of the action to the crowd that had gathered around him at the beach. He picked up some salt that had been deposited on the beach and explained that this might be the way of getting free salt. The following days saw the rapid development of an illegal trade of salt at the beach. English salt was boycotted. Soon the boycott spread to other goods. Subsequently Gandhi and many of his followers were arrested. The movement, however, could not be stopped. On the 29th May 1930 a human chain of Satyagrahis marched to the salt-mine of Dharasana in order to occupy it peacefully. The mine was protected by police. The group took up formation in a number rows consisting of a few men each. The first row walked slowly towards the police. The police did not know how to stop the Satyagrahis and beat them with their truncheons - the Satyagrahis offered no resistance. The men were badly injured, some even killed. The women dragged them aside and nursed their wounds. Thereupon the next row of men started to move forward. The whole scene repeated itself - row for row. Observers from the international press were shocked and appalled by the behaviour of the police, who were beating and bludgeoning unarmed people. World-wide reports caused world-wide dismay. International pressure was so great that finally Gandhi was released from prison in January 1931. Beginning in March of the same year Indian salt could be sold legally.

[This Satyagraha campaign is explained in more detail on a special page: Salt March]

Once more Gandhi traveled to Great Britain. He was highly respected by the people. He was a famous and popular personality and met other famous men like Charlie Chaplain. However, he had come to Britain to negotiate with politicians and their response to him was altogether different. He came no closer to achieving independence for India. Back in India he intensified his efforts for the Untouchables, who he called God's children - Harijan. The British decided to introduce a separate electoral register for Untouchables and Gandhi commenced a 'fast until death'. He also founded a new magazine called 'Harijan'. Many Indians welcomed this action, but Gandhi did create himself some foes among the orthodox Hindus. He was often arrested and discharged again.

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India's Independence and Gandhi's Death

Gandhi publicly announced that he was against the Second World War as it broke out in 1939. Whereas he had asked for support for Britain in South Africa and during the First World War, he now called for a boycott. The Indians should not support Britain in this war. In 1942 the cry of "Quit India" emerged. The Indians would withhold their support to the War, unless they were granted independence. For this campaign Gandhi was arrested once again. He was isolated from the other Satyagrahis and imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace. Kasturbai died during this detention.

Because of the looming threat of an invasion of India by the Japanese in 1942, the British needed Indian support and were prepared to make concessions. Independence for India, however, was never what the British Prime Minister Churchill really had in mind. Gandhi was released in 1944. Independence was only granted in 1947 after the war was over and by the new British Labour government, but only in form of two separate states: Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Although Gandhi devoted all his strength to it, he was not able to move either Muslims or Hindus, nor the British to agree on founding one common state. The religious groups started migrations of peoples into the new states. Violent unrest ensued. Gandhi tried to restore peace. In 1947/48 he moved to Calcutta and other embattled cities and tried to mediate. Peace seemed impossible. Once again he decided to fast until death. His health seemed to be at serious risk. Neither religious group wanted to be responsible for Gandhi's death and concluded peace (for a short period of time). In taking this action he focused the hatred of fanatics on both sides toward himself.

Gandhi was murdered on the 30th January 1948 by a fanatical Hindu. He died with the word of God crossing his lips.

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