Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Volume 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

Born on October 2, 1869, in the coastal town of Porbandar in the Gujarati-speaking Kathiawar region of western India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi died in 1948, five and a half months after achieving his goal of India’s freedom from British rule. Though less successful in attaining two other aims of his, Hindu-Muslim amity and justice for India’s “untouchables,” Gandhi (a Hindu, like a majority of his compatriots) saw to it that independent India assured equal rights to its Muslim and other religious minorities, and to “untouchables.” He claimed that his efforts in India were relevant for “an aching, storm-tossed and hungry world” (Collected Works, vol. 98, pp. 218-220), and the participation of thousands of men and women in the nonviolent campaigns he led, first in South Africa and then in India, inspired nonviolent struggles on different continents.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. would acknowledge the debt he and the American civil rights movement owed to Gandhi, and there have been similar expressions from Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), the North American farmworkers’ leader; from Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), who in the 1930s raised a nonviolent army of Pashtuns not far from the Afghan-Pakistan border; from Benigno Aquino (1932-1983), the chief opponent of Marcos’s military regime in the Philippines; from His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet (1935-); and from Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-), the leading fighter for democratic rights in her country of Burma (Myanmar); and others.

Though the Gandhis belonged to the “bania,” or trader, caste (third in the hierarchy of Hindu castes, but a “high” caste still), Mohandas’s father, Karamchand, was not a trader or businessman. He was a public official, the “first minister” to the ruler of Porbandar state, which included the town of Porbandar. The British governed much of India directly and the rest indirectly, through chieftains or princes. Porbandar was one of over 500 princely states in India. Karamchand’s father, Ota Gandhi, had also been Porbandar’s “first minister,” as were Ota’s father and grandfather.

When Mohandas was seven, Karamchand moved to Rajkot, another princely state in Kathiawar, serving there also as first minister. He and his wife, Putlibai, were liberal by the standards of their time, but their children were enjoined not to touch “untouchables” or Muslims or to eat meat. At thirteen Mohandas was married to Kasturbai Kapadia, who was a few months older and from the same bania caste—virtually all marriages occurred within a caste and when the bride and groom were thirteen or younger.

The boy Mohandas had a rebellious side (he secretly ate meat) and also a prickly conscience (he confessed petty thefts in a note he handed to his ailing father). After Karamchand’s death, Mohandas persuaded his mother and other relatives to send him to London to study law, but he was required before departure to promise that he would avoid liquor, meat, and women in England.

Identity in London

Leaving behind his wife and a newborn son, Mohandas arrived in England in the summer of 1888, enrolled at the Inner Temple (one of London’s Inns of Court, a law school), and sought to fashion himself as an “English gentleman,” wearing “proper” clothes and learning ballroom dancing, elocution, and the violin. But his bid to find a British identity lasted only a few months. Engaged in London with political and religious questions, and evidently keeping to his three pledges, Gandhi learned public campaigning from England’s vegetarian movement, of which he became an active member. In 1891 he returned to India as a barrister who sought Indians’ equality with whites but not secession from the British Empire, and he believed that all souls had equal worth, irrespective of skin color or religious views.

In Bombay, western India’s biggest city, Gandhi formed a friendship with Rajchandra, a jeweler who was also a scholar of the Hindu, Jaina, and Buddhist religions. Success in the law seemed to elude him, however, and in early 1893 he collided in Rajkot against colonial arrogance. Charles Ollivant, the British officer supervising all princely states in Kathiawar and someone Gandhi had met in England, was examining a charge of impropriety against Gandhi’s brother Laxmidas, who pressed his younger brother to intercede. Against his better judgment Gandhi called on his acquaintance, who ordered a servant to remove the young barrister from his office. When the ejected Gandhi threatened a lawsuit, Ollivant dared him to do his worst. Told by India’s leading lawyer of the day, Pherozeshah Mehta, that he would invite ruin by suing Ollivant, Gandhi pocketed the affront. But the descendant of “first ministers” fumed and looked for a life outside Kathiawar.

Finding a Purpose

Gandhi did not have to wait for long: A South Africa-based firm with origins in Porbandar asked him if he would assist for a year with a legal case in Pretoria, and Gandhi grabbed the opening. He was twenty-three when, in May 1893, he landed in Port Durban. The three weeks that followed saw more incidents of ejection or attempts at ejection: from a courtroom in Durban, from a train at Pietermaritzburg station, from a stagecoach in Pardekoph in the Transvaal, and from a hotel in Johannesburg. During the Pardekoph incident he was soundly thrashed as well. By the time he reached Pretoria in the first week of June, he was a different man: resolute, realistic, and ready to fight for South Africa’s persecuted Indian minority, which had come from all parts of India. He had found a purpose, and now realized how India’s “untouchables” felt.

In Pretoria he read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You and six volumes on an 1857 revolt in India crushed by the British. He conversed with Christians keen to convert him and exchanged letters with Rajchandra. Christianity was not embraced but thoughts of hate and violence were yielded, as well as “pride of birth and education” (Doke 1909, p. 45). The following year (1894), Gandhi founded a political party, the Natal Indian Congress, and in 1906 he felt he had found a special way to fight. Coining a phrase, he called it satyagraha, which combined two Indian words, satya (truth) and agraha (firmness). Gandhi translated the phrase variously as “truth-force,” “soul-force,” or “love-force,” and he insisted on nonviolent fighting. When people opposing an unjust law refuse to kill but are ready to be killed, their satyagraha could win, claimed Gandhi.

One year in South Africa turned out to be a period of twenty years, during which Gandhi made money as a lawyer, gave large sums to South Africa’s Indian community, simplified his life and the lives of his wife and four sons, took vows of celibacy and poverty for the rest of his life, launched a journal, Indian Opinion, and started two centers for community living and training in satyagraha, one in Phoenix near Durban in Natal and the other in Lawley near Johannesburg in the Transvaal.

Several whites backed Gandhi in South Africa and worked at his side, including Christians and Jews, clergymen, journalists, secretaries, and housewives. Henry Polak (a Jewish journalist born in Britain), Hermann Kallenbach (a German Jew trained in architecture), and Joseph Doke (a Baptist minister) were among them. While Polak edited Indian Opinion for several years, Kallenbach placed at Gandhi’s disposal the 1,000 acres that housed the Lawley center, which was named Tolstoy Farm in honor of the Russian novelist and thinker whose views had influenced Gandhi, and who, shortly before dying, expressed great satisfaction at Gandhi’s battles in South Africa. In 1909 Joseph Doke published (in England) the first Gandhi biography. Scores of others would follow.

Gandhi and Africans

Gandhi’s interaction with Africans was more limited. His aim of Indian equality with whites in South Africa was different from a fight for African rights. Moreover, for some time Gandhi seemed to share a general Indian sense of superiority vis-à-vis Africans. In 1908, however, he envisioned a day when “all the different races [of South Africa] commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen” (Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 323). That year Jan Smuts, a future prime minister of South Africa, warned that the Indian defiance initiated by Gandhi could lead one day to African defiance (Nayar 1989, vol. 4, p. 168), a possibility Gandhi recognized and welcomed.

Later, after returning to India, Gandhi would speak in his weekly, Young India, of political conversations with Africans in South Africa (March 28, 1929), but the discussions are not recorded. John Dube, a founder of the African National Congress, was one of the leaders Gandhi had met; Dube’s Ohlange center in Phoenix predated Gandhi’s center in the same place. In 1914 Dube spoke of the impact made on him by the bravery of nonviolent Indians whom Gandhi had inspired but added that he could not see Africans fighting that way; they were likely, Dube thought, to invite a massacre by hitting back at whites (Patel 1990, pp. 216-217). While not joining the Indian defiance, Africans silently applauded and blessed it.

Led by Gandhi, hundreds of Indians of different religions and castes, mostly from the Transvaal, peacefully broke discriminatory laws from 1908 to 1910 and incurred imprisonment; and in 1913 thousands of Indians working in Natal’s coal mines, sugar plantations, the railways, hotels, and restaurants disobeyed laws and marched for rights. Many women joined the disobedience. Repression from the South African government was brutal, and over two dozen Indians were killed, but strong reactions in India, Britain, and South Africa forced the government to modify its laws. Claiming victory, a forty-five-year-old Gandhi returned in January 1915 to India, where people called him “Mahatma” (great soul).

Strategy for India

British control over India seemed permanent in 1915. Peasants, the bulk of the population, appeared grateful for stability; the British policy of divide and rule had separated Hindus from Muslims; leaders of the “untouchables” preferred alien rule to an independence dominated by “high” castes; and India’s princes relied on British officials to prevent uprisings by subjects. These facts shaped Gandhi’s strategy: He would aim to enlist the peasants, unite Hindus and Muslims, convince caste Hindus of the folly of untouchability, and ask the princes to find safety in their subjects’ goodwill. And he would present the weapon of satyagraha to his people.

His years in South Africa had familiarized Gandhi with Indians of all kinds and from all regions. Although establishing a base in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarati-speaking India, he traveled to almost every part of the land, sharing his vision, challenging and encouraging his audiences, recruiting allies, and probing issues where satyagraha could be employed. In 1917 satyagraha was successfully used in defense of indigo-raising peasants in Bihar in eastern India; in 1918 it was conducted on behalf of peasants in rural Gujarat and textile workers in Ahmedabad; and April 1919 saw the first all-India demonstration in the country’s entire history, when place after place responded to Gandhi’s call for a nonviolent protest against new curbs on free speech.

A massacre occurred on April 13, 1919, in Amritsar, the Sikhs’ holy city: At least 389 Indians—Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs—were gunned down in less than ten minutes by troops commanded by a British general, Reginald Dyer. The following year Gandhi launched a joint Hindu-Muslim struggle for Indian independence and in support of Muslim control over Islam’s holy places in the Middle East.

In this program of “nonviolent noncooperation,” tens of thousands were arrested, including some women; lawyers quit British-run courtrooms, students left British-run colleges, and a host of distinguished Indians returned British honors and titles. Muslims were invited to Hindu homes, and vice versa; and the removal of untouchability was made a central plank of the Indian National Congress (INC), the country’s principal political organization (founded in 1885), which accepted Gandhi as its guide. India was experiencing both a new spirit and a new unity.

Fearing uncontrollable unrest, and also acknowledging his commitment to nonviolence, the British refrained from arresting Gandhi. In February 1922, however, after a demonstrating mob killed twenty-two policemen in Chauri Chaura in northern India, Gandhi called off the movement, saying he did not want a foundation of murder for a free India. The suspension demoralized the public, and the British felt they could safely arrest Gandhi. He was taken prisoner in March 1922, the first of his six incarcerations in India. In South Africa he had been jailed three times; altogether he spent ten years in prison.

Salt Marches

Hindu-Muslim recrimination followed the 1922 suspension. Released after two years, Gandhi gradually rebuilt his nonviolent forces, but it was not until 1930 that he launched another all-India struggle. The issue he chose this time was the British monopoly of the salt trade and the tax on salt. Collecting the salt left by the sea was illegal, as was selling or buying untaxed salt. Gandhi asked Indians on the coast to scoop up their own salt, and Indians elsewhere to buy or sell contraband salt. Since the salt tax hurt every Indian, and the poorest the most, a satyagraha against it was an issue on which all united: Hindus and Muslims, caste Hindus, and “untouchables.”

Spectacular salt marches made news worldwide, American reporters sent home accounts of police brutalities on violators of salt laws who remained nonviolent, and tens of thousands filled India’s jails. A year later, the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, admitted that underestimating a national movement’s power was a profound mistake and released Gandhi and his political colleagues of the Indian National Congress. A Gandhi-Irwin accord that followed made coastal salt collection legal, and Gandhi agreed to attend a political conference in London in the fall of 1931, though he did not expect much from it.

Also invited to the London conference, Gandhi’s political opponents in India claimed that he did not speak for India’s princes, Muslims, or “untouchables.” Saying that Indians had to agree among themselves before demanding self-government, British leaders announced the conference’s failure, but outside the conference Gandhi made friends with the British people. Based in London’s downscale East End, he traveled widely, including to Manchester, where he met textile workers hurt by boycotts in India. The suffering of India’s poor was even worse than theirs, Gandhi told them. He was given a warm, understanding response. At England’s elite school, Eton, Gandhi told its students: “It can be no pride to you that your nation is ruling over ours. No one chained a slave without chaining himself” (Collected Works, vol. 54, p. 82).

African Americans

Two years earlier, invited by W. E. B. Du Bois to send a message for African Americans through Du Bois’s journal, The Crisis, Gandhi had expressed a similar thought: “Let not the twelve million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonor in being slaves. There is dishonor in being slave-owners.” In a note printed next to Gandhi’s message, the journal called him “the greatest colored man in the world, and perhaps the greatest man in the world” (The Crisis, July 1929).

In 1936, two African American couples visiting India, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman and Edward and Phenola Carroll, asked Gandhi why he did not speak of “love” instead of “nonviolence.” Admitting his attraction to “love in the Pauline sense,” Gandhi added that “love” did not always connote struggle, whereas “nonviolence” did. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary from 1917, told the Thurmans and the Carrolls that the warmth in Gandhi’s welcome to them was unprecedented (Kapur 1992, p. 88). It derived from Gandhi’s view that untouchability and slavery were similar evils and that India’s fight against imperialism paralleled black America’s struggle against racism.

Gandhi asked his visitors “persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery, and how we had survived it” (Kapur 1992, p. 88). Was color prejudice growing or dying? Did American law recognize marriages between blacks and whites? And so forth. It was during this 1936 conversation (in Bardoli, Gujarat) that Gandhi made the prophetic remark: “Well, if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world” (Collected Works, vol. 68, pp. 237-238).

South Africa remained on Gandhi’s mind. In 1926 he said in Young India (July 22) that he could not imagine “justice being rendered to [South Africa’s] Indians, if none is rendered to the natives of the soil.” Two years later he reiterated the necessity of African-Indian cooperation: “[Indians] cannot exist in South Africa for any length of time without the active sympathy and friendship of the Africans” (Young India, April 5, 1928).

India’s natives gained a slice of power in 1937. While the center remained firmly under British control, elected legislatures could form governments in provinces. Following Gandhi’s advice, the INC contested elections and formed ministries in a majority of the provinces. But in 1939, when World War II started, the British clipped provincial powers, citing the war’s requirements. When London refused to assure Indian independence at the end of the war, the INC broke with the British, its sympathy for the Allied cause notwithstanding, and its ministries resigned.

Quit India

With popular opinion turning increasingly anti-British, the British encouraging anti-INC elements, especially the Muslim League (ML), which in 1940 demanded secession from India of Muslim-majority areas, and other separatist movements gaining strength, Gandhi asked the INC, in August 1942, to issue a call to the British to quit India. There was a nationwide eruption, which in some places took a violent form. It was the greatest defiance the British had faced in India. It was eventually suppressed, and Gandhi and all INC leaders and tens of thousands of others were quickly put behind bars, yet two outcomes now became certain: India would be free after the war, and the INC would inherit the power left by the departing British.

The INC’s leaders—Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who would be India’s prime minister from 1947 to 1964, Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950), Abul Kalam Azad (1890- 1958), Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1878-1972), and Rajendra Prasad (1883-1962), among others—were more than political colleagues to Gandhi, and he more than a mentor to them. They had struggled and suffered together.

Released in the summer of 1944, and striving again for a Hindu-Muslim alliance through an agreement between the INC and the ML, Gandhi held fourteen talks in September 1944 with the ML’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But the talks failed. In the summer of 1945 the INC leaders were released. The two years that followed saw intense negotiations involving the British, the INC, and the Muslim League; they also saw the INC leaders separating from Gandhi.


These leaders felt that agreeing to the division demanded by the ML and Jinnah would put an end to Hindu-Muslim violence. Gandhi thought it would increase the violence. They envisioned India as a militarized, industrial power; Gandhi saw India as a land of peace and he championed rural India. An increasingly isolated Gandhi spent much of 1946 and 1947 in areas that had seen Hindu-Muslim violence, restoring peace and instilling courage in victims.

A London announcement in February 1947 that within months the British would definitely leave India, transferring power to one or more governments, produced a scramble for leverage that heightened the Hindu-Muslim tension, especially in northern India’s large Punjab province, which contained areas passionately claimed by both Muslims and non-Muslims (Hindus and Sikhs). As a possible solution, Gandhi asked the INC leaders and Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, to invite Jinnah to head a new government, but the viceroy as well as the INC leaders rejected the proposal.

Gandhi was excluded from the negotiations of April, May, and June 1947 that led to an agreement on independence and India’s division into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. On August 14 Pakistan came into being. The next day independent India emerged. But violence exploded. About half a million were killed, mostly in the Punjab, in August and September 1947. Almost twelve million moved. Half of them, Muslims, trudged westward to Pakistan, and the other half, Hindus and Sikhs, in the opposite direction. On the other hand, Gandhi’s 1946-1947 interventions in eastern India probably saved many lives.

Empowering the Weak

Close to the day of Indian independence, Gandhi answered, in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), a question on coping with doubts:

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? … Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away. (Tendulkar 1951-1958, vol. 8, facsimile facing p. 89)

Though INC leaders turned down several of Gandhi’s proposals, he supported India’s new government led by Nehru and Patel (who became deputy prime minister). Gandhi’s view that an “untouchable” should become India’s first head of state, occupying the mansion where the British Empire’s viceroys had lived, was not endorsed, but, following Gandhi’s advice, Nehru and Patel embraced Bhimraro Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), the brilliant leader of the “untouchables” who for years had criticized Gandhi and the INC as not being radical enough over caste. Chairing the committee that drafted the Indian constitution, Ambedkar played a crucial role in independent India’s evolution.

On January 30, 1948, while walking to a prayer meeting in New Delhi, Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse, who planted himself about four feet in front of Gandhi and fired three bullets into his chest and stomach. Godse was part of a group of high-caste Hindus who alleged that Gandhi had emasculated India’s Hindus with his nonviolence and friendship with Muslims. Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai, had died four years earlier while the two were prisoners of the British. The Gandhis had four sons, Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas, and Devadas, and fifteen grandchildren.

Gandhi wrote two books (both in the mid-1920s), an autobiography entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and A History of Satyagraha in South Africa; a tract called Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), published in 1910; a translation (in the 1920s) of the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita; and innumerable articles in his journals, Indian Opinion, Young India, and Harijan. The 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi contain almost all that he wrote, including letters, and most of his speeches.