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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: Part One

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
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Statue of Gandhi.

India, once described as the land of myth and snake charmers, has many attractions including the Taj Mahal in the northern city of Agra, and the Palaces, which once belonged to the Maharajas, the most famous of which is the Lake Palace in the western state of Rajasthan. However, it is Delhi itself that holds two of India's most memorable sites.

The first is situated on the banks where the Yamuna River flows through the capital. The Raj Ghat attracts many visitors from all over the world – the site consists of black marble platform marking the spot where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more popularly known to the world as 'Mahatma' (meaning 'great soul') Gandhi, was cremated. A stone footpath, flanked by lawns, leads to the walled enclosure that houses this memorial. As a sign of respect, those visiting the sight are required to remove footwear before approaching the memorial, and visiting foreign dignitaries pay their respect by laying flowers or a wreath.

The other site is Birla House, now known as 'Gandhi Smriti' (meaning 'Gandhi Remembrance'). The house once belonged to the Birla business family and was the place in which the Mahatma stayed during the last few months of his life. In the gardens of the house lies the spot where the father of the Indian Nation was assassinated. Meanwhile, in the suburbs of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, is the house known as 'Sabarmati Ashram' where Gandhi once lived. It was from here that the 'Mahatma' began his march down to Dandi in the 1930s, proclaiming that India's salt belonged to India.

Elsewhere in the world, there are statues of the Indian leader in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and in Union Square Park in New York City, USA. The house in which he lived in Phoenix, South Africa, still exists and has been restored. The Mahatma will long be remembered for the 'satyagraha' ('firmness of truth') movement that he started at a very young age in South Africa, encompassing non violence and civil disobedience in order to 'wean' enemies from the error of their ways. Many have tried to follow in his footsteps, perhaps the most famous of whom is Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, a leader of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement.

Friday 30 January, 1948 – Birla House, Delhi

It was 5.10pm and Gandhi's nieces, Manu and Abha, were worried, though they did not want to disturb the talks between the 78 year old and the deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel. Suddenly, the Mahatma got up and said that he must go for his evening prayers as he was already ten minutes late. He made his exit from the house leaning on his two nieces, who walked on each side of him.

Gandhi had always believed in keeping time, especially for his regular prayer meetings in the evening. As they were late, he decided to cut across the gardens and, as they approached the prayer ground, members of the public began to greet him and the cheering and chanting of his name started. People began to part to make way for the father of the nation and Gandhi soon slid his arms from the shoulders of his nieces, clasped his palms in greeting and climbed up the steps completely unaided as the crowd cheered, 'Bapuji, Bapuji' (father, father). At that moment, a man dressed in khaki pushed his way forward to the front and bowed slowly to greet the ageing leader. Manu, thinking that the man wanted to touch her uncle's feet, said:

'Brother, Bapu's already late for his prayers.'

The man in khaki – Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse – pushed her violently aside with his left arm, leaving his right arm to expose a black Beretta pistol. Within a matter of seconds he had pulled its trigger three times. The first bullet struck Gandhi in the abdomen, three and a half inches to the right of the midline and two and a half inches above the navel, and exited through the back. The second penetrated the seventh intercostal space one inch to the right of the middle line base. The third entered an inch above the right nipple and embedded in the lung. His white clothes, consisting of a shawl and dhoti (loin cloth), quickly turned red with blood and the lifeless body fell to the ground, as did his small round spectacles. As he fell, it is reported that the Mahatma gasped his last words twice: 'Ram Ram'1.

By now, it was 5.17pm. The crowd that had been cheering and chanting Gandhi's name slowly sat down on the ground as they realised what had happened. Some began to weep, and women began to break their bangles. In the meantime, the body was taken back into Birla House, and Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who had just left the building, returned, upon which he thought he was able to feel some life in the Mahatma's body. Ten minutes later a doctor arrived and upon checking, confirmed that he had passed away.

The Early Days and Sailing Off To England

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the fourth son of Karamchand and Putlibai Gandhi, was born in the coastal city of Porbandar, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on 2 October, 1869. This was the same year in which the Suez Canal was opened, and Thomas Edison registered his first invention in the USA.

Karamchand Gandhi was the Prime Minister to the ruler of Porbandar and later took up the same position in the city of Rajkot. Affectionately known to his family as 'Mohania', Mohandas had the warmest affections for his mother despite forming an attachment with a nurse hired to look after him. During his childhood he was engaged to be married three times – at the time it was common practice in India for the parents to arrange marriages at a very young age. At the age of 13 he married Kasturba, a girl of the same age whom Mohandas soon became jealous of. As a dutiful wife the young Kasturba would ask for his permission to go out, and the reply she would receive sometimes was 'no'. There were times when the two wouldn't talk to each other for days, and this was compounded by the tradition that the young wife would spend much of her time away from her husband, instead living with her parents.

Tragedy soon struck the family when Mohandas was only 15. He had been massaging the feet of his father, who had been suffering from a fistula (an abnormal opening between two parts of the body). A few hours later, Mohandas's uncle relieved him from his duty and the young Gandhi went into his wife's room. A few minutes later, he was called back but upon reaching his father's room, he saw that his father had passed away. With this tragedy, his mother Putlibai sought advice on family matters from a Jain monk. A short while after, Kasturba, who had been pregnant, lost her child just a few days after birth.

As the Jain monk made preparations for the young man to go to England, one family friend went further by suggesting that if Mohandas was to succeed his father as Prime Minister, he should become a lawyer quickly. Having struggled to pass his final exam at high school, Gandhi thought university to be a difficult matter set in a distasteful atmosphere. He had hoped to opt for medicine, but was now encouraged to take a three year course in law. However, his elder brothers objected to this, and his mother was not keen on parting with her youngest. Gandhi attempted to find a way out by consulting his uncle, who was now the head of the family. His uncle agreed on the basis that his mother must also agree, but was not very encouraging. In the meantime, Kasturba became pregnant and gave birth to their first healthy child, Harilal Gandhi.

Gandhi's mother finally gave her consent for him to go to England, but only after he took an oath that he wouldn't touch wine, women or meat. In June, 1888, having pawned his wife's jewellery, Mohandas Gandhi departed Rajkot for Bombay, and from there for University College, London. Many members of his merchant caste objected to him travelling, insisting that it was forbidden in their caste for anyone to travel, and many began to treat him as an outcast.

MK Gandhi, Attorney - South Africa

During his time in London, Gandhi honoured his mother's requests, even going as far as to form the Vegetarian Society. Having qualified in Law and being called to the Bar2 by the Inner Temple in London, Gandhi returned to India. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in posts in Mumbai and Rajkot, and it was at this time that he was offered a contract from an Indian firm in Natal, South Africa. He accepted it and left his wife and two children (Manilal was born in 1892), sailing to the southern end of the African continent via Mombasa and Zanzibar. He reached Durban in May, 1893.

A week after his arrival in South Africa, Gandhi, dressed in a frock coat of a London Inner Temple barrister and with his briefcase (crammed with documents on the rich Indian businessman whose interests he had come to defend), boarded a first class compartment on a night train from Durban to Pretoria with a valid first class ticket. Halfway into the journey, a white man walked into the compartment and then walked out only to reappear a few moments later with a railway official, who ordered him to move to third class. Gandhi protested that he had a valid ticket and that he was a barrister who was on his way to Pretoria to fight for an Indian firm, as was requested by the legal authorities. This made no difference whatsoever and he was thrown off the train at the next station, Pietermaritzburg, in the cold night. He was unable to get his coat as it was in his bag, which was being held by the railway officials and therefore, sat shivering all night long. This incident not only exposed the young Indian barrister to racism and prejudice, but also ignited his first step towards 'satyagraha' and was, for him, a watershed.

Indian people, being represented by non-Indian lawyers, were not able to walk on the pavements with their legal eagles. However, Gandhi decided to begin his fight against the authorities and urged the Indians there to unite and defend their interests. To do this, he began to teach English and at the same time forced the South African Railway Authorities to allow well–dressed Indians to travel first and second class on the railways. Meanwhile, he headed a letter writing campaign against a proposed amendment to the law that would allow only the 300 Indian merchants with voting rights to remain indentured in South Africa. The campaign was so successful that, for a while, the British government avoided passing the bill. This, though, was just the beginning.

The Birth of Satyagraha

The case that Gandhi had gone to fight in South Africa soon came to a successful end, and Gandhi returned to Durban from where he planned to return to India. However, as he was about to leave, he was handed a copy of a newspaper revealing that Indians in the state of Natal would be deprived the right to vote for members of the legislature. With this knowledge, he agreed to remain for a month but went on to stay for 20 years. Having said that, Gandhi did travel in the meantime, serving as a stretcher-bearer for the British forces in the Second Boer War and then returning to India. However, having failed to secure a position in the leadership of India's nationalist party, Gandhi returned to South Africa in 1902 with his wife, while his eldest son, Harilal, remained in India.

In 1906, the South African government passed an Act stating that all Indians over the age of eight would have to register, be finger-printed and carry special identity cards. The Act had been created in response to the influx of illegal immigrants from other parts of the British Empire, namely Indians and Malays, to the prosperous Transvaal colony in South Africa. A policeman, passing an Indian home, would be allowed to enter it and demand an ID card from the Indian woman who owned the dwelling. Any person who failed to register and give their fingerprints were to lose their right of residence and could be fined, imprisoned or deported. Furthermore, any Indian failing to produce an ID card when stopped in the street could be imprisoned.

In response, Gandhi organised gatherings. The most notable of these was at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg on 11 September, 1906, where 3,000 Indians had gathered. It was here that Gandhi first implemented 'satyagraha', declaring that they must protest peacefully, suffering the effects of their protest instead of resorting to violence. The next day, the theatre was destroyed by fire. From that day, Indians refused to register and began to burn their ID cards at mass rallies and protests. Gandhi went to London to protest for the reversal of the Act, but the Transvaal colony was granted self-government soon after, and began to arrest Indians for non-compliance. By January 1908 2,000 Indians had been arrested, with Gandhi himself being arrested for having instigated the satyagraha in the first place. Following this, Gandhi's eldest son, Harilal, who he asked to come over after he had been left behind in Rajkot, had helped him by working in his press office and making sure that the peaceful protests continued.

On 30 January, 1908, the Chief of the Police took Gandhi to visit General Jan Smuts, who was also a barrister. Here it was decided that the Act would be repealed as long as the members of the Indian Community would register voluntarily, and that the alterations that had been suggested to him had been accepted. This was accepted; Gandhi was freed from that moment and the other prisoners were released the next day. Though he had made no promises about the permanence of his compromise with Gandhi, Smuts eventually left his post in South Africa following the criticism that surrounded the deal. Meanwhile, it was with this victory over an unfair Act that Gandhi began his satyagraha movement.

Gandhi and the Zulu War, 1906

In May, 1906, the Zulus killed two British officers after the introduction of the Poll Tax. In response to this act of aggression, the authorities declared war against them. In order to legitimise their claims to full citizenship, Gandhi urged the Indians to support the war effort. The authorities, however, refused to offer the Indians any positions of rank in the military but they accepted Gandhi's offer to let a detachment of Indians act as stretcher bearers to treat the wounded. Through his newspaper, Indian Opinion, Gandhi went on further by urging the Indians to join the war through his column. At the end of 1914, Gandhi, with his family, returned to India.

1Ram is short for Rama, an ancient Indian king whom Hindus believe to have been an avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu.2Allowed to practice as a barrister by one of the organisations responsible for calling members to the Bar.

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