Mahatma Gandhi Assumes Leadership

  • Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 at Porbandar in Gujarat.

  • After attaining his legal education in Britain, Gandhiji went to South Africa to practice law.

  • Imbued with a high sense of justice, Gandhiji was revolted by the injustice, discrimination, and degradation to which Indians had to submit in the South African colonies.

  • Indian laborers who had gone to South Africa, and the merchants who followed were denied the right to vote. They had to register and pay a poll-tax. They could not reside except in prescribed locations, which were insanitary and congested.

  • In some of the South African colonies, the Asians, also the Africans, could not stay out of door after 9 p.m.; nor could they use public footpaths.

  • Gandhi soon became the leader of the struggle against these conditions and during 1893-94 was engaged in a heroic though unequal struggle against the racist authorities of South Africa.

  • It was during this long struggle lasting nearly two decades that Gandhiji evolved the technique of Satyagraha based on truth and non-violence.

  • The ideal satyagrahi was to be truthful and perfectly peaceful, but at the same time, Gandhiji would refuse to submit to what he considered wrong. He would accept suffering willingly in the course of struggle against the wrong-doer. This struggle was to be part of his love of truth.

  • In a famous article in his weekly journal, Young India, published in 1920, Gandhiji wrote that "Non-violence is the law of our species, as violence is the law of the brute", but that "where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence ....."

  • Gandhiji returned to India in 1915 at the age of 46. He was keen to serve his country and his people.

  • In 1916, Gandhi founded the Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad where his friends and followers were to learn and, practice the ideals of truth and nonviolence.

Champaran Satyagraha (1917)

  • Gandhi's first great experiment in Satyagraha came in 1917 in Champaran, a district in Bihar.

  • In Champaran, the peasants of the indigo plantations were excessively oppressed by the European planters. They were compelled to grow indigo on at least 3/20th of their land and to sell it at prices fixed by the planters.

  • Similar conditions had prevailed earlier in Bengal, but as a result of a major uprising during 1859-61 the peasants there had won their freedom from the indigo planters.

  • Having heard of Gandhi's campaigns in South Africa, several peasants of Champaran invited him to come and help them.

  • Accompanied by Baba Rajendra Prasad, Mazhar-ul-Huq, J. B. Kripalani, and Mahadev Desai, Gandhiji reached Champaran in 1917 and began to conduct a detailed inquiry into the condition of the peasants.

  • The infuriated district officials ordered him to leave Champaran, but he defied the order and was willing to face trial and imprisonment. This forced the Government to cancel its earlier order and to appoint a committee of inquiry on which Gandhi served as a member.

  • Ultimately, the disabilities from which the peasantry was suffering were reduced and Gandhi had won his first battle of civil disobedience in India.

Ahmedabad Mill Strike

  • In 1918, Mahatma Gandhi intervened in a dispute between the workers and mill owners of Ahmedabad.

  • Gandhiji undertook a fast unto death to force a compromise. The mill owners relented on the fourth day and agreed to give the workers 35 per cent increase in wages.

  • Gandhiji also supported the peasants of Khaira in Gujarat in their struggle against the collection of land revenue when their crops had failed.

  • Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel left his lucrative practice at the Bar at this time to help Gandhiji.

  • These experiences (discussed above) brought Gandhiji in close contact with the masses whose interests he actively exposed all his life.

  • Gandhiji was the first Indian nationalist leader who identified his life and his manner of living with the life of the common people.

  • The following issues were very close to Gandhi's heart −

    • Hindu-Muslim unity;

    • The fight against untouchability; and

    • The raising of the social status of women in the country.

Satyagraha Against Rowlett Act

  • Along with other nationalists, Gandhiji was also aroused by the Rowlett Act.

  • In February 1919, he founded the Satyagraha Sabha whose members took a pledge to disobey the Act.

  • Gandhiji asked the nationalist workers to go to the villages. That is where India lives, he said.

  • Gandhiji increasingly turned the face of nationalism towards the common man and the symbol of this transformation was to be null, or hand-spun and handwoven cloth, which soon became the uniform of the nationalists.

  • Gandhiji emphasized on the dignity of labor and the value of self-reliance. India's salvation would come, he said, when the masses were wakened from their sleep and became active in politics.

  • March and April 1919 witnessed a remarkable political awakening in India. There were hartals (strikes) and demonstrations. The slogans of Hindu-Muslim unity filled the air. The entire country was electrified. The Indian people were no longer willing to submit to the degradation of foreign rule.