Gandhi’s Life – Part 08
|February 20, 2004||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
India: “And then Gandhi Came”
In July, 1914 Gandhi and Kasturbai sailed for England, on their way home to India. They arrived two days after England entered World War I. Again Gandhi offered to organize an ambulance corps. Many Indians opposed this plan, arguing that a slave should not cooperate with his master, but make his master’s need his own opportunity. Now was the time to demand home rule, they said. But Gandhi had demonstrated in South Africa that he would not exploit his enemies. Cooperate with the English first, he said, and then convert them by love. The ambulance corps was formed, but Gandhi was unable to serve because of a severe attack of pleurisy. When the illness persisted, Gandhi’s doctors advised him to leave England’s chilling climate and return to the warmth of India.
Gandhi and Kasturbai arrived in Bombay on January 9, 1915. He was forty-five years old, and in some parts of the country he was already spoken of as Mahatma for the work he had done in South Africa. It was a title often bestowed on exceptional men but Gandhi disliked it. “The woes of Mahatmas are known to Mahatmas alone,” he once wrote.
When Gandhi returned to India the drive for independence had an end but no means. Tiny Britain ruled a giant two thousand miles long and seventeen hundred miles wide, with a population of 275 million that swelled another five million annually in spite of unabated disease and famine. Most Indians were Hindus, but there was a large Moslem minority, as well as Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, and countless other religious groups.
Over the centuries the Indians had known many foreign rulers, and the British, who came in the seventeenth century to trade and stayed to conquer, were only the last in a long series of oppressors. They ruled through colonial administrators who could never accept the Indians as equals, or through local princes who were British puppets. The nation’s wealth flowed toward Britain or to a few favored Indians, and the distance between indecent poverty and indecent opulence was as high and as insurmountable as the Himalayas.
As early as 1906, India’s only political voice, the Indian National Congress, demanded self-government but the words did not carry all the way back to London. Oppressed peoples often turn to terrorism, and in 1912 an Indian tried to assassinate the Viceroy. But terrorism, wrote Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru, “was a bankrupt’s creed.” Yet how was freedom to be gained? “History … showed us,” Nehru said, “that peoples and classes who were enslaved had won their freedom through violent rebellion … [but] unarmed people could not rebel and face armed forces…
“There seemed to be no way out of the intolerable conditions of a degrading servitude … And then Gandhi came.”
Gandhi first spent time reacquainting himself with his homeland, where he had not lived for two decades. He established his followers at Sabarmati, near the city of Ahmedabad. In India a religious retreat is called an ashram, and Gandhi’s cooperative community came to be known as the satyagraha ashram. But it was as political as it was religious. “Men say I am a saint losing myself in politics,” Gandhi once commented. “The fact is that I am a politician trying my hardest to be a saint.”
The independence campaign had thus far been waged by a small clique of upper-class intellectuals who aped the British in manners and aloofness. Gandhi saw this was a path that led nowhere. Until that time he had worn European dress; now he discarded it for the simple trousers of the peasant. Some eighty percent of his countrymen were peasants; freedom could not be won without their support. For Gandhi freedom meant not the substitution of select Hindu rulers for the Viceroy but a truly representative government. It also meant freedom from poverty, ignorance, and discrimination.
To the horror of orthodox Hindus he admitted into his ashram a family of untouchables, who by implacable Hindu tradition are condemned from birth as unclean and outcaste. “We can infer from our past experience that the privileged and powerful are more unclean at heart than the downtrodden and despised,” Gandhi observed.
Reforming India was as much a part of Gandhi’s program as was home rule. Asked to speak at ceremonies opening a Hindu university in Benares he told the elegant Indian nobles, “There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewelry and hold it in trust for your countrymen.” The pompous politicians were warned that “No amount of speeches will ever make us fit for self-government. It is only our conduct that will fit us for it.” The audience was outraged at the unexpected challenge to India rather than England. Gandhi was told to shut up and sit down.
His first Indian campaign of any significance was in 1917 in behalf of the sharecroppers of Champaran, a remote area at the foothills of the Himalayas. Deceived and oppressed by theit British landlords, the sharecroppers needed a champion. They found Gandhi. He went to Champaran to investigate their complaints and was advised by the British commissioner to leave. When he ignored the warning, he received an official notice ordering him out of the district. He refused to go and was summoned to court.
On the day of the trial masses of peasants appeared in town in a spontaneous demonstration of sympathy and solidarity. The officials were bewildered and a little frightened. They were even more perplexed when Gandhi pleaded guilty. Judgment was postponed, and in a few days the case was withdrawn. It was the first victory for civil disobedience in India.
Gandhi and several of his associates remained in Champaran for seven months putting together a case against the landlords. While he was there he established schools and brought in volunteer teachers. Kasturbai came to teach the women cleanliness and sanitation.
Finally the local authorities set up an investigating commission which found the sharecroppers’ claims were just. The landlords were ordered to return part of the money dishonestly gained. But Gandhi later said the most important thing about Champaran was that he had proved the British could not push him around in his own country.
From Champaran Gandhi went to Ahmedabad, where textile workers were fighting for more pay and shorter hours. Gandhi argued their case before the mill owners, some of whom were his friends and supporters. He suggested the issues be submitted to an arbitrator, but the owners refused and he advised the men to strike.
After two weeks the strikers began to weaken and talked of going back to the mills. Encouraging them to hold out longer, Gandhi spontaneously said, “Unless [you] rally and continue the strike … I will not touch any food.” To make his intentions unmistakable he added, “My fast … will be broken only after the strike is settled.”
Fasting was not new to Gandhi. During his youth, under the influence of his ascetic mother, he had sometimes fasted. At Tolstoy Farm in South Africa he continually experimented with eating and not eating and each fast meant another victory for self-restraint. When his followers at the farm failed to maintain the high standards he set for them he took their penance on himself, fasting once for seven and once for fourteen days.
This time he fasted to pressure the mill owners to agree to his terms. Unwilling to allow him to suffer, they accepted arbitration after three days. Gandhi had discovered another potent weapon which could be used against men of conscience.
His next campaign was in behalf of the peasants in the Kheda district of western India. Their crops had failed and, facing famine, the people had asked the government to suspend their taxes. Gandhi won a compromise by which the rich farmers paid taxes and the poor ones didn’t. His larger victory, however, was in awakening the peasants to their rights and in lining up liberals and intellectuals to support the peasants they had once disdained.
Throughout this period, the butchery of World War I continued indecisively. In July, 1918, Gandhi attempted to recruit Indian soldiers for the British army. “If we serve to save the Empire,” he argued unconvincingly, “we have in that very act secured home rule.” But he won few recruits and instead was stricken with a protracted case of dysentery. Certain he was dying, he had verses of the Gita read to him. Doctors recommended milk to restore his strength but it would have violated an anti-milk vow he had taken.
Then Kasturbai, his wife, shrewdly observed he had directed his vow only against the milk of cows and buffaloes. “You cannot have any objection to goat’s milk,” she argued.
Gandhi knew he was betraying the spirit if not the letter of his intentions, but he conceded and drank goat’s milk for the rest of his life. “The will to live proved to be stronger than the devotion to truth,” he wrote sadly.
During Gandhi’s slow recovery, World War I ended and a fresh chapter in English oppression began. During the war, many Indian nationalists had been jailed for criticizing the British, and the Indian press had been censored. The Indian people expected to have their civil liberties restored at the end of the war; instead, a British commission headed by Sir Sidney Rowlatt went to India to study the situation and recommended that measures suppressing free speech, free press, and the right of assembly be continued.
The Rowlatt proposals became law on March 18, 1919. The following morning Gandhi said to a friend, “The idea came to me last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal.”
A hartal is a strike. An epic satyagraha campaign was about to begin with Gandhi as its undisputed leader and freedom from Britain as its inevitable consequence.
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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