Gujarat’s most famous son, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar. Although merchants by caste – Gandhi means grocer – both his grandfather and father rose to positions of political influence. Young Mohandas was shy and sickly, just an average scholar, but from early on he questioned the codes of power around him, even flouting accepted Hindu practice: he once ate meat for a year believing it would give him the physical edge the British appeared to possess. As a teenager, he began to develop an interest in spirituality, particularly the Jain principle of ahimsa (nonviolence).
At 19, he moved to London to study law, outwardly adopting the appearance and manners of an Englishman while obeying his mother’s wish that he resist meat, alcohol and women. Studying the Bible alongside the Bhagavad Gita, he came to view different religions as a collective source of truth from which all could draw spiritual inheritance.
After a brief spell back in India, Gandhi left again to practise law in South Africa. The plight of his fellow Indians there, coupled with his own indignation at being ejected from a first-class train carriage, fuelled his campaigns for racial equality. Gaining crucial victories for minorities against the usage of indentured labour, his public profile grew. At this time he opted to transcend material possessions, donning the peasant’s hand-spun dhoti and shawl and taking a vow of celibacy. This turn to ascetic purity he characterized as satyagraha, derived from Sanskrit ideas of “truth” and “firmness”; it would become the touchstone of passive resistance.
Returning to India with his messianic reputation well established – the poet Tagore named him “Mahatma” (Great Soul) – Gandhi travelled the country campaigning for swaraj (home rule). He also worked tirelessly for the rights of women and untouchables, whom he called Harijans (children of God), and founded an ashram at Sabarmati outside Ahmedabad where these principles were upheld. Gandhi stepped up his activities in the wake of the brutal massacre of protesters at Amritsar, leading a series of self-sufficiency drives during the 1920s, which culminated in the great salt march from Ahmedabad to Dandi in 1930. This month-long 386km journey led a swelling band of followers to the coast, where salt was made in defiance of the British monopoly on production. It drew worldwide attention: although Gandhi was promptly imprisoned, British resolve was seen to have weakened. On his release, he was invited to a round-table meeting in London to discuss home rule. The struggle continued for several years and Gandhi served more time in jail, his wife Kasturba dying by his side in 1944.
As the nationalist movement gained strength, Gandhi grew more concerned about the state of Hindu-Muslim relations. He responded to outbreaks of communal violence by subjecting his own body to self-purification and suffering through fasting. After Independence, Partition left him with a deep sense of failure. In a bid to stem the ensuing violence, he again fasted in Calcutta as large numbers of Hindus and Muslims flowed between the new countries. Gandhi’s commitment to the fair treatment of Muslim Indians and his intention to visit and endorse Pakistan as a neighbour enraged many Hindu fundamentalists. He survived an attempt on his life on January 20, 1948, only to be shot dead from close range by a lone gunman, nationalist Nathuram Godse, in Delhi ten days later. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced the loss on national radio: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”