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January 31, 1948

January 31, 1948

Mohandas K. Gandhi: The Indian Leader at Home and Abroad

January 31, 1948

Mohandas K. Gandhi: The Indian Leader at Home and Abroad


The assassin was a Hindu who disagreed with Gandhi's ideology. Gandhi was shot at point-blank range as he was going to delive his daily prayer meeting message. The assassin was immediately seized by the crowd and later told a foreign correspondent, "I am not at all sorry."

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in a radio address the evening of Gandhi's death: "Gandhi had gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. ... The father of our nation is no more -- no longer will we run to him for advice and solace. ... This is a terrible blow to millions and milions in this country ...

"Our light has gone out, but the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. For a thousand years that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it ... Oh, that this has happened to us! There was so much more to do."

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Hindu reformer and nationalist leader, was looked upon as a saint by millions of his followers, who bestowed upon him the admiring appellation of "Mahatma," literally "the great-souled one."

As was perhaps inevitable in the case of one who was the center of violent controversies for more than half a century, there were others who had very different views about the Indian leader, even contending that he was no better than a scheming demagogue. But, whatever view history may eventually take, there can be no contradiction of the statement that the emaciated little man in shawl and loin cloth made himself the living symbol of India in the minds of most Americans.

He was born on Oct. 2, 1869, at Porbandar, on the Kathiawar peninsula of India and came of a Bania family with official traditions. His father had been Prime Minister of the little native state. He was officially betrothed three times before he was old enough to realize it. His first two fiancees died; the third engagement, resulting in a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, came when he was only 7. The marriage took place when he was 13.

"I can see no moral argument in support of such a preposterous early marriage as mine," he wrote in his memoirs.

At the age of 19 Gandhi went to London, where he studied at University College and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple. He had a difficult time in London. Too proud to struggle against the snubs not only of white people but also of Brahmins, he retired to cheap lodgings, where he cooked his own vegetarian meals and lived for next to nothing.

Worked in South Africa

Returning to India Gandhi practiced law for a short time in the Bombay High Court, but in 1893 he was called to South Africa on professional business. There he became engrossed in a long struggle for the liberties of Indians who had migrated to that country, which was his principal occupation for more than twenty years. Both in Natal and the Transvaal race feeling against the Indian settlers was strong and discriminations were many.

When, in 1896, after a brief visit to India, Gandhi returned to Durban, he was attacked and badly beaten for his agitations. The South Africans had become incensed at a pamphlet he wrote in India on the conditions of the Indians in South Africa. It was then that his conception of passive nonviolent resistance developed. He relinquished his large income as a lawyer and founded a colony, the Tolstoy Farm, near Durban. It was along the lines of the Russian philosopher's estate at Yasnaya Polyass.

He was often imprisoned and more often subjected to indignities, but this neither checked his energies nor deterred him from rendering service of marked loyalty to the British Government.

In 1914, soon after a commission had removed some of the worst sources of injustice to the Indians living in South Africa, Gandhi returned to his native land and threw himself into support of the home rule movement. By 1918 he was busy organizing his Satyagraha (literally "insistence upon truth") movement, which he defined as follows:

"Satyagraha differs from passive resistance as the North Pole from the South. The latter has been conceived as a weapon for the weak and does not exclude the use of physical force or violence for the purpose of gaining one's end, whereas the former has been conceived as a weapon of the strongest and excludes the use of violence in any shape or form."

In the following year the British Government published the Rowlatt Acts, giving the government emergency powers for dealing with revolutionary crimes and conspiracies. Gandhi declared them to be an insult and denounced the bills as "instruments of oppression." His Satyagraha campaign spread with great rapidity throughout India.

Non-Cooperation Movement

Finally, in June, 1929, he formed his celebrated non-violent, non-cooperation movement. The main points of his campaign were the boycott of Government service, of the new Legislatures and of the courts of law; the surrender of all public offices and the withdrawal of children from Government schools. To this was subsequently added the militant boycott of foreign goods, the fighting of the liquor and opium trade, and the furtherance of Hindu-Moslem friendship.

Gandhi adopted the spinning wheel as a sort of symbol of economic independence. He advocated the home manufacture of khaddar, or homespun cloth, to replace the imported goods from the cotton mills of Lancashire. Hartals, or other local strikes, were called and there were many burnings of stacks of foreign-made cloth. The general boycott was accompanied by rioting, looting of shops and unrest throughout India.

Partly by his eloquence, partly by his reputation as an ascetic. Gandhi had won enormous prestige in India by this time. The Indian Congress party delegated its full authority to him and empowered him to appoint his own successor. But the non-cooperation movement continued to be accompanied by outbursts of violence, many of them of a racial character.

In March, 1922, Gandhi was arrested and placed on trial on a charge of conspiring to spread disaffection with a view to overthrowing the Government. He pleaded guilty and took full blame.

His Sentence Remitted

He was condemned to six years' imprisonment but was released in January, 1924, after he had undergone an operation for appendicitis, and the rest of his sentence was unconditionally remitted. In 1925 he announced that he would retire from the world for a year. There followed a long period in which he was the apostle of the spinning wheel, and agitated with much energy for the uplifting of the "untouchables," the Hindu pariah caste.

Early in 1930 Gandhi proclaimed his intention of refusing to pay all Government taxes, and particularly the salt tax. On April 5 he set out with a group of followers to march from Ahmedabad to the sea, where they collected salt water in earthen jars, then obtained salt by evaporation of the water. On May 5 Gandhi was arrested at Surat and spirited away to Poona, charged with having been the leader of plans to seize the Government salt depots.

He was still languishing in prison when the first Indian Round-Table Conference began to gather in London. On Jan. 26, 1931, Gandhi was released by order of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, who later became Viscount Halifax.

There was much criticism in England of Lord Irwin's action.

However, the following month Lord Irwin invited Gandhi to a series of conversations at Delhi which resulted in the Delhi Pact of March, 1931, by which the Viceroy lifted the ban on the Indian Congress party and Gandhi in turn called off the civil disobedience campaign.

As the representative of the Congress party, Gandhi went to London to participate in the round- table conference. After much hesitation he undertook the mission, traveling steerage, clad in his shawl and loin cloth, and taking with him two goats. He was a guest, loin cloth and all, of King George V and Queen Mary in London, lunched with Lady Astor, and waited in vain for Mayor James J. Walker of New York to keep a date with him.

Lived in London Slums

In London, he lived in the slums, familiarizing himself with the condition of the poor. He also visited the Lancashire mill districts, where he was both cheered and booed.

On his way home he stopped in Rome and had a conversation with Premier Mussolini, but because of his scanty costume he was not permitted an interview with the Pope.

He lost no time in instituting a new civil disobedience campaign on Jan. 4, 1932, and was promptly sent back to his old Yerovda Jail. From there he sent out the announcement that he would starve himself to death unless the Government reversed its decision to grant separate political representation for seventy years to the Untouchables.

His fast ended after six days, however, when he was told that the British Government had accepted "with great satisfaction" the principal terms of the settlement between the higher caste Indians and the Untouchables. But in April, 1933, he announced that he would fast for twenty-one days to call attention to the situation of the Untouchables. Despite almost unanimous medical opinion that he could not stand such a strain, he refrained from food from May 8 to May 29, and soon regained his health.

Released from jail at the time he began his fast, Gandhi was re-arrested with his wife and thirty followers on July 31, 1933, when he began a new "individual civil disobedience" campaign. He was sentenced to a year in jail as an ordinary political prisoner without the privileges that had formerly been accorded him. A week later he began a new fast to obtain privileges that would enable him to carry on his fight in behalf of the Untouchables.

In April, 1934, Gandhi instructed his followers to abandon civil disobedience and campaign for the forthcoming elections for the Legislative Assembly. Meanwhile the British had been preparing a new Constitution for India, which Gandhi had announced he would give a trial. On April 26 of that year he was attacked and narrowly escaped a beating by a mob of Indians who resented his attitude on the question of the Untouchables.

When the new Constitution was promulgated the following August, Gandhi was bitterly disappointed in it. Although he had been succeeded as leader of the Congress party by Jawaharlal Nehru, he remained active behind the scenes, helping to direct the opposition to the new form of government. He drafted certain conditions regarding the carrying out of the provisions of the India act, and his tactics hamstrung the workings of the new act until July, 1937, when a compromise was reached.

In the spring of 1939, five years after his ostensible retirement from politics, Gandhi openly returned to activity because the Congress party had elected a president whom he did not want, Subhas Chandra Bose. He began the sixth of his famous fasts to force certain reforms from the Thakore Saheb, autocratic ruler of the tiny principality of Rajkot, in northwestern India.

Apprehension swept India. Eight of the eleven autonomous Indian Governments established in the Provinces resigned and hamstrung the Government of India Act, which had been in operation only two years. Markets closed in Bombay. Trade was at a standstill. The mounting public unrest forced the British Viceroy, the Marquess of Linlithgow, to cut short a tour of northern India and returned to the capital at New Delhi to protect the interests of the Crown. He informed Mr. Gandhi that the ruler of Rajkot would be forced to grant the reforms.

Gandhi broke his four-day fast with a glass of orange juice, and his millions of followers rejoiced.

The Congress party promptly committed its new president, Mr. Bose, to the guidance of Gandhi and Mr. Bose resigned. Gandhi's follower, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, was elected to succeed him.

When the second World War broke out, the Viceroy declared India to be a participant in it without consulting the Congress party leaders. Gandhi, although a strong critic of Nazi Germany, demanded the complete independence of India as the price of Indian cooperation.

There followed three months of conversations between Gandhi and the Viceroy. In the last war, Gandhi pointed out, Britain had promised India "self-governing institutions" after victory. He wanted the promise kept by freeing India at once; Indians could not fight for democracy while it was denied to them. Lord Linlithgow answered for the British Government that any constitutional changes must be deferred until after the war and then Dominion status would be gradually extended to India. He said Gandhi must first solve the everlasting problem of protecting the Moslem and other minorities before they were turned over to the Hindus, who outnumbered them three to one -- all creeds and sects hating one another. Gandhi insisted that freedom came first; the minorities would then become a domestic problem of no concern to Britain. There the conversations became deadlocked.

Hated Nazis More

For almost three years during the early part of the war Gandhi, in complete control of the Congress party, pursued a cautious policy of enlarging his support among the Hindu millions, and constantly seeking independence from the British.

In March, 1940, the Congress party voted Gandhi full power to direct its future policy and conduct its program. Under his control, the Working Committee, which is the executive body of the party, made a tentative offer of military aid to Britain in June, but withdrew it two months later when Gandhi declared he was convinced Britain had no intention of recognizing Indian independence.

In October, on his seventy-first birthday, he announced that he had no ill-will toward Britain and that there would be no civil disobedience campaign. Two weeks later he announced that there would be a campaign, but in order not to embarrass the British war effort it would be conducted by a few individuals in a symbolic rather than a massive way.

He instructed two members of the Congress party to break the Defense of India Act prohibiting speeches directed to impede the conduct of the war. One of them was his personal servant. The other was the former president of the Congress party, Pandit Nehru. They made speeches, urging disregard of the laws and courts, non-cooperation with munitions manufacture, non-contribution of funds and not enlistment. They were jailed forthwith, Pandit Nehru was sentenced to four years.

Thereupon the Working Committee of the party ordered 1,500 individuals to invite arrest in the same way. The jails filled. Gandhi suspended his weekly paper, Harijan, when he was forbidden to publish accounts of the speeches and the arrests. He now kept out of jail, which he had never avoided previously, in order to direct the fight. In August, 1943, Gandhi said that the purpose was "not to force Britain but to convert her."

With the entry of Japan into the war in December, 1941, Gandhi, on Dec. 30, asked the Working Committee of the party to relieve him from leadership. He explained that sympathy for the Axis- overrun countries, rather than for Britain, dictated his second retirement. But he continued to run the Congress party from behind the scenes.

With the threat of Japanese invasion growing daily Britain made a great effort in the spring of 1942 to unite the Indian factions behind a common policy of defense. Prime Minister Churchill dispatched Sir Stafford Cripps on a special mission to India to try to compose the difficulties of the parties there. He officially offered complete independence and equality for India in the British Commonwealth of Nations as soon as the war was won with the right of ultimate secession.

Although this was the largest voluntary disbursement of power that Great Britain had ever offered, the warring groups within India refused it. The Moslems and other minority groups rejected it because of their fear of their status under a Hindu majority. The Congress party rejected it because it was not immediate. Gandhi, in April, introduced a resolution closing the door to further negotiations with the British on the issue.

In May, Gandhi called upon the British to quit India.

Terms for an Ally

Shortly thereafter he laid a resolution before the Working Committee of the Congress party giving Britain a last choice: India would be her war ally if immediate freedom was granted; otherwise "full powers to lead a civil disobedience movement against Britain would be given to Mohandas K. Gandhi." The Working Committee adopted it unhesitatingly, and only ratification by the All-India Congress party's general assembly was required to launch "open non-violent rebellion."

Campaigning in behalf of the move, Gandhi said that he would not flinch at calling a general strike. He said that there was increasing ill will against Britain in India, and growing satisfaction at Japanese victories. He warned that India might welcome a Japanese invasion, even as many of the people of Burma had done.

In New Delhi, the British directed Government of India made public a copy of a memorandum seized in a raid on the headquarters of the Congress party, which purported to show that Gandhi had proposed conversations with the Japanese four months earlier. The Government charged that he and his followers were appeasers.

On Aug. 9 the Congress party assembly, in plenary session, voted to throw his strength behind the "non-violent rebellion" and the Government announced its intention "to use force as the necessities of the situation might require." Gandhi and some fifty of his followers were arrested as widespread rioting began. As he was taken to jail he left the slogan: "Either we get freedom or we die."

He was imprisoned in the Victorian palace of the Aga Khan in Poona, but the Government's action was not followed by as widespread unrest as had been predicted by some observers. There were demonstrations and acts of sabotage, but the Government's policy was successful in keeping the heavy war industries running.

Gandhi wrote the Viceroy, disclaiming the responsibility of the Congress party for the acts of violence that were occurring, and threatening to begin a new fast, his ninth, unless he was liberated. The Government, which published the correspondence, refused to yield, terming the hunger strike "political blackmail," for which there can be no moral justification.

Gandhi began his fast on Feb. 10, 1943. He announced that it would not be a "fast unto death," but that he would subsist for twenty-one days on a diet of citrus juice mixed with water. There were some disturbances among the Hindu community, but on the fifth day after the fast began The New York Times correspondent in New Delhi wrote that "it was evident that his move would probably misfire."

Fears were felt for the life of the fasting man for several days, but he astonished the doctors by surviving, even though he was too weak to lift a glass of orange juice. American correspondents in India, pointing out that this was the first time he had failed to win at least a partial victory by a fast, said that his failure seemed to have disappointed and discouraged him.

Disorders marked the first anniversary of Gandhi's arrest, and agitation for his release was continued both in India and abroad. On Feb. 17, 1944, however, Viscount Wavell, who had assumed the position as Viceroy, declared that he and his associates would be held until they showed "some signs" of cooperation.

Mrs. Gandhi, his frail companion through a married life of more than sixty years, died late in February. She had faithfully followed her husband to jail more than once. He was released on parole for a week, and, sitting in the shade of a tamarind tree, he watched the cremation of her remains. Then he went back to prison.

On May 6, after twenty-one months as a prisoner, Gandhi was released by the Government because of his failing health. The official doctors considered giving him blood transfusions but Gandhi was said to have frowned on the idea, maintaining that the essential life stream of one human should not be used to extend the life of another. Viscount Wavell was praised for his decision to release the Hindu leader.

In a proposal designed to break the political deadlock over India's independence Gandhi in September, 1944, agreed to discuss with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, head of the Moslem League, the Moslem's long-standing demand that India be partitioned into separate Hindu and Moslem states. It was this basic plan that was finally agreed upon in 1947 when India won her long-sought independence, but Gandhi's conversations with Mr. Jinnah were fruitless.

Gandhi had some time previously made an offer to withdraw his civil disobedience campaign for the duration of the war. By this time the Japanese drive toward India had been turned back and to most observers, the cooperation pledge from the Hindu leader seemed a little gratuitous. Nevertheless, Gandhi was hailed for his conciliatory attitude.

A White Paper issued in London in June, 1945, made a new attempt to break the deadlock in India, and Gandhi announced that he would ask Congress party leaders to accept it. The British offer, looking toward Dominion status for India, proposed setting up of a Viceroy's Council to be composed "in equal portions of Moslems and caste Hindus."

Eight months later Prime Minister Clement Attlee offered to India the right to full independence, and a Cabinet mission was dispatched to work out the procedure. Gandhi appealed to his people to be patient and to give the mission a chance, but warned against "fake promises." When the mission had drafted its plan for Indian self-government, Gandhi at first said he regarded it as "seed to convert this land of sorrow into one without sorrow and suffering."

By June, although the proposal had not been altered to any degree, Gandhi, for reasons that remained obscure, developed "vague misgivings," but the Congress party, which he once controlled, accepted the plan, as had the Moslem League.

In the ensuing months it became clear that other political leaders had taken the stage in India, but Gandhi remained the national Government's core and he told a New York Times correspondent that he intended to remain in politics for many years. Asked if he still expected to live to the age of 125, Gandhi, on the eve of his seventy-seventh birthday replied "Yes," in order to serve his people.

In early 1947 the British plan was to quit India by June, 1948, earlier if the Hindu and Moslem communities would compose their differences. Gandhi, in an open break with the Congress party, reversed himself and balked at a Hindu-Moslem partition and the formation of Pakistan as a separate state for the Moslem majority regions of India.

The Gandhi viewpoint was that whether it caused chaos or not, the British must leave India on the promised date and let India work out its own fate. By this time the British were convinced that partition was the only solution that would be accepted and finally Gandhi reluctantly went along, declaring: "Partition is bad. But whatever is past is past. We have only to look to the future."

When on Aug. 15, 1947, India achieved her independence, Viscount Mountbatten, Viceroy of India, hailed Gandhi as the "architect of India's freedom through non-violence."

Gandhi did not participate in the independence observances held throughout India. At the moment of victory he sat on a wooden cot in a Calcutta hut, scorning the result of his decades of labor and fast. He announced his intention of living with the Hindu minority in Pakistan, the predominantly Moslem state created by partition.

Riots swept across much of India, with scores killed and injured in communal clashes. Gandhi started in Calcutta his first fast in independent India. It would end, he said, only when Calcutta "returned to sanity."

After he had been assured that there would be no more rioting in Calcutta, Gandhi broke his fast. He was credited with having restored peace to India's largest city. Crowds of Moslems and Hindus made their way to his camp and surrendered guns, swords and ammunition they had used in the riots.

"If the peace is broken again, I will come back and undertake a fast unto death and die if necessary," he said.

He went to New Delhi, where he continued his efforts to end the communal strife, which had broken out more violently than ever along the Punjab border and in Delhi itself. Daily he exhorted all non-Moslems to accept Moslem neighbors as friends and brothers.

However, on Sept. 16 he told the Hindu Youth Organization that "if the Dominion of Pakistan persists in wrongdoing there is bound to be war between India and Pakistan."

On Oct. 2 he celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday (Hindus are counted a year old at birth), which had been declared a national holiday by the Government of India.

He started a new fast on Jan. 12, 1948, declaring that he would continue until greater unity between Hindu, Sikh and Moslem communities was achieved. This fast was ended after five days, when Hindus and Moslems in Delhi agreed to live in peace.

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