Mahatma Gandhi

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Mahatma GandhiThat India opted for an entirely original path to solving this crisis and obtaining swaraj (independence) was due largely to Gandhi, commonly known as "Mahatma" (or Great Soul) or, as he himself preferred, "Gandhiji" (an honorific term for Gandhi). A native of Gujarat who had been educated in Britain, he was an obscure and unsuccessful provincial lawyer. Gandhi had accepted an invitation in 1893 to represent indentured Indian laborers in South Africa, where he stayed on for more than twenty years, emerging ultimately as the voice and conscience of thousands who had been subjected to blatant racial discrimination. He returned to India in 1915, virtually a stranger to public life but "fired with a religious vision of a new India, whose swaraj . . . would [be] a moral reformation of a whole people which would either convert the British also or render their Raj impossible by Indian withdrawal of support for it and its modern values," according to historian Judith M. Brown.

Gandhi's ideas and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience (satyagraha--see Glossary), first applied during his South Africa days, initially appeared impractical to many educated Indians. In Gandhi's own words, "Civil disobedience is civil breach of unmoral statutory enactments," but as he viewed it, it had to be carried out nonviolently by withdrawing cooperation with the corrupt state. Observers realized Gandhi's political potential when he used the satyagraha during the anti-Rowlatt Acts protests in Punjab. In 1920, under Gandhi's leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, whose goal was swaraj . Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee, and a hierarchy of committees--from district, to province, to all-India--was established and made responsible for discipline and control over a hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement. During his first nationwide satyagraha, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British education institutions, law courts, and products (in favor of swadeshi ); to resign from government employment; to refuse to pay taxes; and to forsake British titles and honors. The party was transformed from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal.

Although Gandhi's first nationwide satyagraha was too late to influence the framing of the new Government of India Act of 1919, the magnitude of disorder resulting from the movement was unparalleled and presented a new challenge to foreign rule. Gandhi was forced to call off the campaign in 1922 because of atrocities committed against police. However, the abortive campaign marked a milestone in India's political development. For his efforts, Gandhi was imprisoned until 1924. On his release from prison, he set up an ashram (a rural commune), established a newspaper, and inaugurated a series of reforms aimed at the socially disadvantaged within Hindu society, the rural poor, and the Untouchables (see Changes in the Caste System, ch. 5). His popularity soared in Indian politics as he reached the hearts and minds of ordinary people, winning support for his causes as no one else had ever done before. By his personal and eclectic piety, his asceticism, his vegetarianism, his espousal of Hindu-Muslim unity, and his firm belief in ahimsa, Gandhi appealed to the loftier Hindu ideals. For Gandhi, moral regeneration, social progress, and national freedom were inseparable.

Emerging leaders within the Congress--Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Jaya-prakash (J.P.) Narayan--accepted Gandhi's leadership in articulating nationalist aspirations but disagreed on strategies for wresting more concessions from the British. The Indian political spectrum was further broadened in the mid-1920s by the emergence of both moderate and militant parties, such as the Swaraj Party (sometimes referred to as the Swarajist Party), the Mahasabha Party (literally, great council; an orthodox Hindu communal party), the Unionist Party, the Communist Party of India, and the Socialist Independence for India League. Regional political organizations also continued to represent the interests of non-Brahmans in Madras, Mahars in Maharashtra, and Sikhs in Punjab.

The Congress, however, kept itself aloof from competing in elections. As voices inside and outside the Congress became more strident, the British appointed a commission in 1927, under Sir John Simon, to recommend further measures in the constitutional devolution of power. The British failure to appoint an Indian member to the commission outraged the Congress and others, and, as a result, they boycotted it throughout India, carrying placards inscribed "Simon, Go Back." In 1929 the Congress responded by drafting its own constitution under the guidance of Motilal Nehru (Jawaharlal's father) demanding full independence (purna swaraj ) by 1930; the Congress went so far as to observe January 26, 1930, as the first anniversary of the first year of independence.

Gandhi reemerged from his long seclusion by undertaking his most inspired campaign, a march of about 400 kilometers from his commune in Ahmadabad to Dandi, on the coast of Gujarat between March 12 and April 6, 1930. At Dandi, in protest against extortionate British taxes on salt, he and thousands of followers illegally but symbolically made their own salt from sea water. Their defiance reflected India's determination to be free, despite the imprisonment of thousands of protesters. For the next five years, the Congress and government were locked in conflict and negotiations until what became the Government of India Act of 1935 could be hammered out. But by then, the rift between the Congress and the Muslim League had become unbridgeable as each pointed the finger at the other acrimoniously. The Muslim League disputed the claim by the Congress to represent all people of India, while the Congress disputed the Muslim League's claim to voice the aspirations of all Muslims.

The 1935 act, the voluminous and final constitutional effort at governing British India, articulated three major goals: establishing a loose federal structure, achieving provincial autonomy, and safeguarding minority interests through separate electorates. The federal provisions, intended to unite princely states and British India at the center, were not implemented because of ambiguities in safeguarding the existing privileges of princes. In February 1937, however, provincial autonomy became a reality when elections were held; the Congress emerged as the dominant party with a clear majority in five provinces and held an upper hand in two, while the Muslim League performed poorly.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress