Freedom-fighter, civil-rights activist, anti-colonial nationalist, political ethicist and Father of the Nation are just some of the many epithets that accompany the name of Indian leader and global icon of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi.
This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of the charismatic leader whose principled stance and practice of nonviolent resistance to oppression and brute force, brought the then mighty British Empire to its knees and obliged them in 1947 to grant India its freedom and independence.
Peaceful protests, which came to be known as the Gandhian Approach, became the clarion call and guiding force to people and nations striving for their own freedom and independence from powerful colonial rule, against autocratic rulers, and in opposition to the forces of racism, apartheid and prejudice around the world.
Gandhi’s birthday on 2 October, is commemorated in India as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday, and since 2007 worldwide as the United Nations International Day of Nonviolence.
Born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on 2 October1869, as the fourth child of Karamchand Uttamchand Gandhi and Putlibai in Porbandar a coastal town in India’s western state of Gujarat, Gandhi would go on to become one of the most respected and followed leaders the world has ever known.The honorific ‘Mahatma’, which translates to ‘venerable’ in Sanskrit, was first appended to his name in 1914 while leading protests in South Africa.
In May 1883, the 13-year-old Mohandas married 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia in an arranged marriage, according to the then prevailing regional custom. In late 1885, the then 16-year-old Gandhi and his wife of age 17 had their first baby. The couple had four more children, all sons. In November 1887, Gandhi graduated from high school in Ahmedabad and enrolled in college, only to drop out a few months later. The next year, Gandhi set sail for London to pursue law studies there.
Following his training in law at the Inner Temple in London, Gandhi returned to India and then moved to South Africa in 1893 to take up employment there as a lawyer. He would spend the next 21 years in South Africa, working with the Indian community and participating in their struggles against discrimination. It was in South Africa that Gandhi first launched a peaceful civil disobedience movement against the apartheid regime there, demanding civil rights for resident Indian workers.
On his return to India in 1915, Gandhi began organizing similar peaceful regional protests against British rule, leading peasants, farmers, and urban laborers against oppressive taxes and rampant discrimination. In 1921, on assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi took his nonviolent resistance across India, initially calling for Swaraj, or self-rule, and eventually for the complete freedom of the country with his Quit India slogan against the British.
Gandhi envisioned an independent India based on religious pluralism, but even before Indian gained its independence, this notion was challenged by both Hindu and Muslim nationalists. In August 1947, when Britain finally granted independence, it was to a truncated nation partitioned into two dominions — a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Ironically, the independence that was won by shunning violence culminated in unprecedented violence. As the mass exodus of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in both directions across the newly drawn borders began to take place, religious violence broke out. Tens of thousands on both sides of the border were brutally slain in the name of religion. Gandhi visited the affected areas and personally appealed for ending the violence and restoring calm, but to no avail.
In the months following the outbreak of violence, Gandhi undertook several fasts unto death to pressure people to eschew religious violence. Scathingly, the life of this global icon of peace and nonviolence came to an end not through any peaceful fasts unto death, but through violence from the muzzle of an assassin’s gun. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who took offense at Gandhi’s peace moves, assassinated the Mahatma on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest.
Gandhi and his path of nonviolence is believed to have influenced civil rights movements and leaders, as well as political activists around the world. Gandhian philosophy of passive resistance and triumph of truth impacted the activities of American Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson, former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. The deeply religious Martin Luther King once said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”
It is not surprising that today Gandhi is regarded as a universal icon of peace and nonviolence. Gandhi and his philosophy has even begun to find resonance in Communist China, especially among the younger generation. For decades, after the Communist Revolution in 1949, Gandhi remained an enigma to the population, most of them had not even heard about Gandhi or his peace movement that won India freedom just two years earlier.
Chairman Mao Zedong who led China’s national liberation movement was younger to Gandhi but both leaders were contemporaries in the struggle for independence of their respective countries. But the two leaders professed diametrically opposite views on how to achieve freedom for their people. Mao was a firm proponent of violent liberation movements based on his dictum that ‘power flows out of the barrel of a gun’.
It was not surprising therefore that Gandhi’s belief that ‘non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind’, and that it is ‘mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man’, did not find much traction with Mao as he led the Red Army in a violent struggle against the ruling Kuomintang to establish the People’s Republic of China.
It was only after Mao’s death in 1976 that the Chinese media even began mentioning Gandhi. In 2005, a statue of Gandhi sculpted by acclaimed Chinese sculptor and artist Yuan Xikun was installed at the Chaoyang Park in Beijing. Since then, every year on 2 October the charming park resonates with recitation of Gandhi bhajans and quotes by the Mahatma.
“Gandhi stands tall among the tallest of the leaders. His multifaceted message combining spirituality with political movements of his time has inspired me to create this statue to pay my homage to him,” said the statue’s sculptor Yuan Xikun.
Interestingly, Gandhi’s early experiments with nonviolent civil disobedience in South Africa had a Chinese component to it. More than a thousand Chinese reportedly took part alongside the Indians to protest the South African government’s racist Asiatic Registration Act in 1906
Invoking Gandhi’s famous words that “China and India are fellow travellers sharing weal and woe in a common journey”, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang was recently quoted as saying: “Gandhi’s spirit and deeds not only inspired the people of India, but also left a precious spiritual legacy to the world.” What has made Gandhi different from other similar figures in history is that with the passage of time, his message and example has acquired added significance and an increasingly universal relevance.
In a world engulfed by complex power struggles and a materialistic culture, perhaps the greatest tribute the world can pay to Mahatma Gandhi is to follow his idea of simple living and faith in the power of truth and nonviolence, of respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation and compassion for one’s fellow human beings. “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty,” said the Mahatma reposing his faith in humanity and its intrinsic goodness.