Gandhi: Indian Freedom Fighter
Who is Gandhi?
Standing at a slight 5 foot 3 and weighing in at barely 130 pounds, it would be hard to peg Mohandas Karamanchand Gandhi as the heavy weight who united India’s people against the might of the British Empire. But Gandhi had a secret weapon that compensated for his small stature: love, compassion, and a stubborn streak a mile wide. Gandhi knew that violent rebellions often failed, ending in death, misery and chaos. India had tried that already during an uprising known as the Sepoy Rebellion.
The Sepoys were well- trained Indian soldiers who had risen up in anger over the insensitivity of their British commanders. The Sepoy Rebellion raged throughout 1857 with much loss of life and property. In the end superior British weapons put an end to the rebellion and India was made a direct colony as punishment.
Life in British India
If India couldn't beat the British at their own game they would have to win by rewriting the rules. Indians were resentful of British colonial rule. Ever since the 1600s, the British East India Company had gradually tightened its control over the subcontinent until by the 1800s Britain controlled its major natural resources. Wealthy British citizens came to India to set up tea, cotton, spice, and rice plantations. Employing Indians for low wages the British harvested the natural wealth of the country and shipped it off to British factories to be turned into manufactured goods. These goods were sold around the world for high profits but unlike Europeans or American shoppers, Indians had no choice but to buy British goods. British laws made it illegal for Indians to make their own clothes or produced their own goods. It was even illegal for Indians to walk down to the sea and scoop up a handful of sea salt. That’s because the British government had a monopoly on the salt trade and charged a tax on its sale.
To be fair colonial rule wasn’t all doom and gloom. The British improved the transportation network with canals and railroads––using Indian labor of course. Communication between the different parts of India improved with the telegraph and telephone. Schools taught children to read and hospitals introduced the latest western medicines to combat deadly illnesses like malaria. Food production improved as new irrigation methods were introduced by the British.
The British claimed that they had brought civilization to a backward people. This was probably the worst argument that the British could have made about a land whose people invented the zero, and created one of the oldest civilizations on earth. To prove their point the anti-Imperialists claimed that if the British were so concerned about improving the lives of the Indian people why did it prevent Indians from working in high government and military positions? Under British rule most Indians could only be low level government clerks, house servants, or common laborers.
Gandhi's Non-Violent Struggle
Gandhi joined the Indian National Congress and reached out to Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor, to unite in the satyagraha movement. The term comes from Sanskrit meaning truth and firmness. Satyagraha was the core of Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy.
But just because Gandhi believed in turning the other cheek (he was a fan of the teachings of Jesus) doesn't mean that he was pushover. Gandhi was willing to risk jail, torture and even death to achieve freedom for India. Gandhi believed that it was okay to die for your cause but never to kill for it.
When Gandhi learned how Indians worked in near slave existence on British-owned indigo plantations, he organized a protest. When underpaid textile mill workers went on strike in Ahemenabad––Gandhi was at the head of the picket line. When the British government passed the Rowlatt Acts in 1919; effectively ending Indian civil rights Gandhi organized a strike. In fact, Gandhi spent no less than 7 years in jail over 4 separate trips to the Big House.
It wasn’t always easy for Gandhi to urge his followers to stay calm especially when British rifles were aimed at you. The greatest test of Satyagraha came in April 1919 when thousands gathered to protest the arrest of two Indian nationalists. The mass demonstration broke a recent law banning public gatherings and the troops were called in to break up the crowd. Unfortunately for the crowd, the commander of the British forces was a trigger happy Brigadier General named Reginald Dyer, who ordered his troops to fire on the defenseless crowd. They continued to fire even while people tried to flee the scene. The Amritsar Massacre left four hundred dead.
Many wanted revenge. Gandhi called for peace. He pleaded with his followers to show love and compassion even those who shoot at you. The core of non-violent protest was to shame the enemy into defeat. After this Gandhi earned the honorific of Mahatma meaning ‘great soul’.
A bigger part of Gandhi’s mission was to instill national pride in Indians. Gandhi had always been a soft spoken, religious guy and he used these principles to shape the fight for freedom. Gandhi encouraged Indians to make their own homespun clothing and grow their own food. Gandhi himself walked around in a simple loin cloth called a dhoti and ate simple vegetarian meals.
The Salt March
Gandhi’s greatest protest came in the form of the Great Salt March of 1930. Remember that tax on salt? Well, Gandhi decided to defy it. He made plans to march to the Arabian Sea near Dandi to protest the tax on salt. On foot, Gandhi walked the entire 200 miles journey from his ashram in Ahemedabad. Along the way he attracted a few friends–––ahem, more like 80,000 followers. His plan was to meet at the Dharasana Salt Works to stage a non-violent protest. The British arrested him as soon as he scooped up his first handful of sea salt, along with sixty thousand followers. Gandhi used fasting and hunger strikes as his weapons. While in jail Gandhi often refused to eat for weeks. You might be thinking how starving yourself would frighten the British, but it did. Think about it. What might happen if the British let Gandhi die of starvation. ..exactly. The British didn’t want Gandhi’s death on their hands and often let him out of prison to continue his protests. He only spent a few weeks in the pokie after British officials got spooked by the agitated crowds that might riot at any moment. He was then invited to meet with Winston Churchill who was unimpressed by the man who attended official meetings dressed in a loin cloth. Churchill once described Gandhi as “half-naked”.
The Partition of India
But , Gandhi’s greatest fight was convincing India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority to live together in peace. The Muslims wanted a separate country for Muslims only. In 1947, when Britain announced plans to grant Independence Gandhi was dismayed that the plan included a Muslim state of Pakistan. At midnight on August 14th India and Pakistan were brand new nations on the world scene. But the split was all but peaceful. Muslims in India packed up their things to cross the border into Pakistan. Hindus did the same and along the way the two sides often got into deadly confrontations.
Massacres in Punjab and Bihar claimed hundreds of lives. Rather than celebrating Gandhi stayed in his house in mourning. Gandhi went into Calcutta and the state of Bengal urging an end to the religious violence. The British were busy packing up and nobody was listening. The tragedy is that over the next two years over one million people would lose their lives in the religious hysteria that gripped the country. Gandhi would become one of these victims was Mohandas Gandhi. While on a fast in Delhi Gandhi was fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic who opposed Gandhi’s call for peace with the Muslims. It’s odd that Gandhi may have seen this moment coming. A few days before his assassination he told friends “If I fall victim to an assassin’s bullet, there must be no anger in me.” At just after 5:00 p.m. on January 30th, 1948 the Great Soul was no more. Gandhi’s body was cremated in Hindu custom, and the news of his death traveled like wildfire. Muslims and Hindus suddenly stopped their orgy of violence––even in death Gandhi had that kind of power.
The Partition of British India into three seperate states turned into chaos as 15 million people found themselves on the wrong side of the border. Hindus in East and West Pakistan suddenly had to pack up their stuff and leave for the new Hindu area of India. Muslims in India began to do the same. The British partition plan created the largest mass migration of in human history but they did little to ease the transition other than to redrawa few lines on a map and help set up refugee camps which became overcrowded and rife with hunger and disease. After all, the British were too busy trying to pack up and get the heck out of Delhi.
Tempers flared as 15 million people hit the road on foot, in bullock carts, or packed themselves into trains bound for a new home in a place they had never seen. Fear and uncertainity lead to anger. It didn't take much, a wrong word, or a push, to spark a riot between Hindus and Muslims who blamed each other for the loss of their homes.
Throughout 1947 and well into 1950 Hindu and Muslim mobs attacked enemy communities, burned homes, and committed cold-blooded murder. An attack carried out by Muslims would lead to retailiation by Hindus, which brought revenge killings by Muslims and on it went.
The governments of Pakistan and India found themselves with 7 million homeless refugees who were pouring across the border daily. The refugee camps that became their new homes were little more than tent cities with no running water. Keeping up with the sanitation problem turned into a nightmare, and the easiest solution was to dig trenches to hide the tonnage of human waste. Human waste doesn't stay buried for long as rats swarm in bringing disease. Another problem with hole-in-the-ground sewers is that the waste leaches into the ground which eventually finds its way into the drinking water.
Death stalked the people of India like a tiger with an attitude. Whether it it be through revenge killings, disease, or starvation over one million people were dead as a direct result of the choas that was the Indian partition.
"An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."
India provided the largest volunteer force (2.5 million) of any nation during World War II.
Gandhi's non-violent methods inspired freedom fighters from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. in their own struggles for equality.
Dr. King even traveled to India in 1959 to learn more about who Gandhi was.
"One explanation for the chaos in which the two nations came into being, is Britain's hurried withdrawal with the realisation it could ill afford its over-extended empire."
BBC: Gandhi and the Road to Freedom.