Presented byProf David HardimanHistorian
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is known as Mahatma meaning ‘Great Soul’. He was an astute political campaigner who fought for Indian independence from British rule and for the rights of the Indian poor.
His example of non-violent protest is still revered throughout the world today. Find out how this man of peace and representative of India's poor came from a privileged background and spent his teenage years as a rebel.
Born to an elite family
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is born in north-west India in the princely state of Porbandar on 2 October 1869.
His family comes from an elite background. His father works for the government as the chief minister of Porbandar. His mother is a deeply pious woman who spends a lot of her time at temple and on frequent fasts. She instils in him a strong Hindu ethic, with an emphasis on vegetarianism, religious tolerance, a simple lifestyle, and non-violence.Jainism - Gandhi's mother's religion
Gandhi’s father moves the family to the nearby city of Rajkot. Crucially schooling here is better and Gandhi is taught English.
At the age of 13 Gandhi marries Kasturba, a local girl who is 14. Gandhi is a rebellious teenager – drinking, eating meat and womanising. Yet he is interested in self-improvement and is repentant after each act of vice. When his father is on his death bed, Gandhi leaves to have sex with his wife and misses the moment of his death. When his wife becomes pregnant and the child dies shortly after birth, he sees this as divine retribution.
I felt deeply ashamed and miserable. I ran to my father's room. I saw that if animal passion had not blinded me, he would have died in my arms.
Studies law in London
Gandhi is unhappy at Bhavnagar College in Bombay and is offered the chance to study law at the Inner Temple in London.
The elders of his caste tell Gandhi he will be labelled an outcast if he travels abroad. He defies them and moves to London where he dresses in Western clothes. He finds kindred spirits in the vegetarian movement and at the Theosophical Society who help him to return to the traditional Hindu principles of his childhood: vegetarianism, no alcohol and sexual abstinence. Influenced by the society, Gandhi formulates his own ideas about the essential unity of all peoples and religions.What is theosophy?
My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, The Light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount.
Moves to South Africa
After graduating, Gandhi returns to India to practise as a lawyer. He loses his first case and is thrown out of the office of a British official.
Humiliated, Gandhi accepts a post in South Africa. When travelling the country he is ejected from a first-class train carriage because of his skin colour. Appalled at the treatment of Indian immigrants, he sets up the Indian Congress in Natal to fight segregation and to develop the idea of self-purification and “satyagraha”– non-violent civil protest. He takes a vow of celibacy and begins wearing what he calls his 'mourning robe', a traditional white Indian dhoti.Nelson Mandela's speech at unveiling of Gandhi Memorial
Wins a victory for Indian civil rights in South Africa
In 1913 Gandhi organises a strike against a £3 tax on people of Indian descent.
For the first time he is leading working-class Indians – agricultural labourers and miners. Building on his years of protest, Gandhi decides to lead a march of 2,221 people from Natal into the Transvaal in his final act of public disobedience. Gandhi is arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. But the strike spreads and the British are forced to drop the tax and release Gandhi. News of his victory is reported in England and Gandhi starts to become an international figure.
Returns to India
Gandhi makes a triumphant return to India. He decides he and his wife Kasturba should travel across the country in a third-class train carriage.
Gandhi is shocked by the overcrowding and poverty he encounters and vows to work for the disenfranchised. He calls for a day of protest against the Rowlatt Act which enables the British to imprison anyone they suspect of terrorism. Hundreds of thousands gather in several cities but the protests turn violent. In Amritsar, General Dyer fires on 20,000 protesters. About 400 people are killed and 1,300 are wounded. This massacre convinces Gandhi to start campaigning for Indian independence.The link between Gandhi and Nelson Mandela
Struggle for Indian independence
With his popularity rising Gandhi becomes the main voice of the Indian National Congress and campaigns for political independence from Britain.
Gandhi transforms the Indian National Congress from an elite group to a party of mass appeal. He wants a free India based on religious tolerance and acceptance of all faiths. Gandhi's calls for non-violent protests are embraced by Indians of all classes and religions. He encourages non co-operation with British rule, which includes a boycott of British goods. In response the British arrest Gandhi for sedition and he is imprisoned for two years.
I wear the national dress because it is the most natural and the most becoming for an Indian.
Salt March for freedom
Unable to ignore Gandhi’s work, the British plan a conference in London to discuss India’s future. They exclude all Indians from the talks.
Gandhi is furious and starts campaigning against Britain’s Salt Laws which outlaw Indians from collecting or selling salt and force them to pay for heavily taxed British salt. He leads thousands on a 'March to the Sea' where the protesters boil up salt water to make illegal salt – a symbolic act of defiance against British rule. He is arrested and the campaign escalates, with thousands refusing to pay their taxes and rents. The British give in and Gandhi travels to London to join the conference.Read Gandhi's speech to the marchersWitness: Gandhi's Salt March protest
With this I'm shaking the foundations of the British Empire.
A missed chance to define India’s future
Gandhi travels to London for the Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress.
He presents a powerful image wearing his traditional Indian clothes. But the conference is a failure for Gandhi. The British are not ready to grant India independence and Muslim, Sikh and other delegates do not ally themselves to him as they don’t believe he speaks for all Indians. However Gandhi is granted an audience with King George V and visits mill workers in Lancashire. These public appearances gain him great publicity and some sympathy for the Indian nationalist cause in Britain.Read Gandhi's speech to the conferenceWhen Gandhi met Lancashire's mill workers
It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir.
Gandhi's "Quit India" campaign
After his failure at the conference, Gandhi chooses to step down as leader of the Indian National Congress and is side-lined from national politics.
When Churchill calls on India to support the fight against the Nazis, Gandhi is adamant it should not come to Britain’s aid while Indians are subjugated at home. He plans a non-violent protest demanding the British “Quit India” for good. In response he is imprisoned along with his wife, Kasturba. Violent protests calling for Gandhi’s release erupt across the country, but Winston Churchill is determined not to give in. Gandhi's wife dies in prison months before his release in 1944.Witness: India and World War Two
We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of slavery.
India gains its freedom
Unable to stop strengthening calls for freedom, the British finally begin negotiations for the independence of India.
However the outcome is far from what Gandhi has campaigned for. The Mountbatten Plan outlines the formation of the two new independent states of India and Pakistan, divided along religious lines. In the capital Delhi there are independence celebrations, but Gandhi’s vision of a united India is shattered. The Partition sets off mass mutual killings and the chaotic migration of 10 million people. Gandhi leaves Delhi, traveling to Calcutta to quell the violence by fasting to bring peace.The hidden story of the partition of India
The death of a great soul
Partition creates more violence. Gandhi returns to Delhi to help protect Muslims who have opted to stay in India and begins a fast for Muslim rights.
On his way to a prayer meeting at Birla House he is attacked by a Hindu extremist. He is shot three times in the chest. In some hard-line Hindu strongholds there are celebrations at his death, but for most Indians it is a national tragedy. A crowd of nearly one million people line the route of Gandhi's funeral procession to the banks of the Yamuna River. Across the world people unite to mourn the death of a global figure of peace, who never saw his dream of a united India become a reality.Is Gandhi still a hero to Indians?Witness: The funeral of Gandhi
In the midst of death, life persists. In the midst of untruth, truth persists. In the midst of darkness, light persists.