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Mahatma Gandhi

Last modified 14 September 2011.

First published 21 January 2001

Birth name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, AKA 'Gandhiji'.

Country: India.

Cause: Civil rights for Indian immigrants in South Africa and liberation of India from British colonial rule.

Background: British occupation of India begins at the start of the 17th Century, with the 'Raj' reaching its zenith at the end of the 19th Century. Indian opposition to colonial rule gains focus in the early 20th Century as the nation unites to expel the British. More background.

Mini biography: Born on 2 October 1869 in Porbandar, the capital of a small principality in what is today the State of Gujarat in western India. His father is the prime minister of the principality. His mother is a deeply religious Hindu. The entire family follows a branch of Hinduism that advocates nonviolence and tolerance between religious groups.

1883 - At the age of 13 he marries Kasturba. He has been formally betrothed to two other girls before his engagement to Kasturba but both have died.

1888 - Gandhi sails to England to study law at University College, London.

1891 - Though admitted to the British bar, he returns to India and starts a practice as a barrister in the Bombay High Court.

1893 - He is employed by an Indian firm with interests in South Africa to act as legal adviser in its office in Durban, beginning a 20-year residence in South Africa.

Indian workers had been brought to South Africa in the mid-19th Century to labour on the sugar estates. Many had stayed on to form a small but closely-knit community. Gandhi is appalled by the treatment they receive in the racist society of South Africa and begins a campaign for their civil rights. He advocates a policy of passive resistance to, and noncooperation with, the South African authorities.

1906 - Gandhi begins a passive resistance campaign against laws prohibiting black South Africans, "coloureds" and Indians from travelling without a pass. He leads Indians in demonstrations and organises stop-work protests that win the support of thousands of people.

1914 - The South Africa Government, under pressure from the governments of Britain and India, accepts a reform package negotiated by Gandhi and the South African statesman General Jan Christian Smuts.

1915 - Gandhi returns to India. He quickly becomes involved in the home rule movement.

Gandhi establishes an ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River near Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. The ashram becomes the base for his political and social network and, at its height, will house about 200 of his supporters and colleagues.

Gandhi later acknowledges the significance of this network to the achievement of his goals.

"With each day I realise more and more that my mahatmaship, which is a mere adornment, depends on others," he writes in 1928. "I have shone with the glory borrowed from my innumerable co-workers."

1916 - Gandhi meets Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time at the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress Party in Lucknow.

1917 - The British Parliament announces that Indians will be allowed greater participation in the colonial administration and that self-governing institutions will be gradually developed.

1919 - The promise of self-governing institutions is realised with the passing of the Government of India Act by the British Parliament. The Act introduces a dual administration in which both elected Indian legislators and appointed British officials share power, although the British retain control of critical portfolios like finance, taxation and law and order.

However, the goodwill created by the move is undermined in March by the passing of the Rowlatt Acts. These acts empower the Indian authorities to suppress sedition by censoring the press, detaining political activists without trial and arresting suspects without a warrant.

Gandhi describes the Rowlatt Acts as "instruments of oppression" and begins a campaign of resistance or 'Satyagraha' (the devotion to truth or truth force) against them and British rule.

"Satyagraha differs from passive resistance as the North Pole from the South," he says. "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."

The Satyagraha movement spreads through India, gaining millions of followers, though Gandhi pulls back when violence breaks out and martial law is declared.

On 13 April the movement comes to a temporary halt when British troops fire at point-blank range into a crowd of 10,000 unarmed and unsuspecting Indians gathered at Amritsar in the Punjab to celebrate a Hindu festival. A total of 1,650 rounds are fired, killing 379 and wounding 1,137.

1920 - Gandhi proclaims an organised campaign of noncooperation. He urges Indians to boycott British institutions and products, to resign from public office, to withdraw their children from government schools, to refuse to pay taxes, and to forsake British titles and honours.

Gandhi is arrested, but the British are soon forced to release him. He refashions the Congress Party from an elite organisation into an effective political instrument with widespread grassroots support.

As well as Satyagraha, Gandhi advocates 'Swaraj' (self-rule), particularly in the economic sphere. He encourages the revival of cottage industries and begins to use a spinning wheel as a symbol for the return to the simple life and the renewal of domestic industry.

He also advocates 'Ahimsa' (nonviolence) and Hindu-Muslim unity. He leads his movement by example, rejecting earthly possessions and living an ascetic life of prayer, fasting and meditation. Indians begin to call him Mahatma, or 'Great Soul'.

1921 - The Congress Party gives Gandhi complete executive authority. However, after a series of violent confrontations between Indian demonstrators and the British authorities, he ends the campaign of civil disobedience.

1922 - In March Gandhi is arrested by the British and tried on a charge of conspiring to overthrow the government. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to six years imprisonment.

1924 - Gandhi is released from prison in January after an operation for appendicitis. His remaining jail sentence is unconditionally remitted.

1925 - He withdraws from politics to set up an ashram (commune), establish a newspaper, and work to help the rural poor and the members of the 'Untouchable' caste.

1927 - The British set up a commission to recommend further constitutional steps towards greater self-rule but fail to appoint an Indian to the panel. In response, the Congress boycotts the commission throughout India and drafts its own constitution demanding full independence by 1930.

1930 - Gandhi proclaims a new campaign of civil disobedience and calls upon the Indian population to refuse to pay taxes, particularly the tax on salt. The campaign centres on a 400 km march to the sea between 12 March and 6 April.

Thousands follow Gandhi as he walks south from his ashram outside Ahmedabad to Dandi (near Surat on the Gulf of Cambay). When they arrive they illegally make salt by evaporating seawater.

"Let the government then, to carry on its rules, use guns against us, send us to prison, hang us," Gandhi says during the march. "But how many can be given such punishment? Try and calculate how much time it will take of Britishers to hang 300 million of persons."

On 5 May Gandhi is arrested. He is held at Yerovila Jail in Poona for the rest of the year. About 30,000 other members of the independence movement are also held in jail.

Gandhi is named 'Time' magazine's person of the year for 1930.

1931 - Gandhi is released from prison on 26 January. He accepts a truce with the British, calls off the civil disobedience campaign and travels to London to attend a 'Round Table Conference' on the future of India.

On his return to India he finds that the situation has deteriorated. Hopes that calm will prevail following the negotiations between the Indians and the British are dashed when Gandhi and Nehru are again arrested and imprisoned.

1932 - In September, while still in jail, Gandhi begins a "fast unto death" to improve the status of the Untouchable caste. The fast ends after six days when the British Government accepts a settlement agreement between the Untouchables and higher caste Indians.

1933 - In April Gandhi fasts for 21 days to again focus attention on the plight of the Untouchables. He is released from jail during this fast but rearrested with his wife and 30 followers on 31 July after commencing a new "individual" civil disobedience campaign and sentenced to a year in jail.

1934 - Gandhi formally resigns from politics and is replaced as leader of the Congress by Jawaharlal Nehru.

1935 - Limited self-rule is achieved when the British Parliament passes the Government of India Act (1935). The Act gives Indian provinces a system of democratic, autonomous government. However, it is only implemented after Gandhi gives his approval.

1937 - In February, after elections under the Government of India Act bring the Congress to power in seven of 11 provinces, the party is faced with a dilemma. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the defeated Muslim League, asks for the formation of coalition Congress-Muslim League governments in some of the provinces. His request is denied.

The subsequent clash between the Congress and the Muslim League hardens into a conflict between Hindus and Muslims that will ultimately lead to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.

During the year Gandhi is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is selected as a candidate for the shortlist but does not win the award. Further unsuccessful nominations follow in 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948.

1939 - Gandhi again returns to active political life, beginning a fast to support the federation of Indian principalities with the rest of country. The colonial government intervenes and Gandhi's demands are granted.

When the Second World War breaks out in September Britain unilaterally declares India's participation on the side of the Allies. In response the Congress withdraws from government and decides it will not to support the British war effort unless India is granted complete and immediate independence. The Muslim League, however, supports the British during the war.

1940 - In March the Congress gives Gandhi full power to determine policy and direct programs. Meanwhile, the Muslim League adopts the 'Pakistan Resolution' calling for areas with a Muslim majority in India's northwest and northeast to be partitioned from the Hindu core.

1941 - On 30 December Gandhi asks the Congress Working Committee to relieve him of its leadership. Despite stepping down he continues to run the party from behind the scenes.

1942 - With Japanese forces reaching the eastern borders of India, the British attempt to negotiate with the Indians. However, Gandhi will accept nothing less than independence and calls on the British to leave India.

When the Congress Party passes its 'Quit India' resolution in Bombay on 8 August the entire Congress Working Committee, including Gandhi and Nehru, is arrested and imprisoned.

Also during 1942, Gandhi officially designates Nehru as his political heir.

1943 - On 10 February Gandhi begins a 21-day fast to win his freedom. The British are unmoved and refuse to release him from custody.

1944 - In February Gandhi's wife dies. Gandhi is allowed to attend her cremation but is then returned to prison. On 6 May he is released for good because of failing health.

Meanwhile, the British Government agrees to independence for India on condition that the two contending nationalist groups, the Muslim League and the Congress Party, resolve their differences. In September Gandhi discusses the possibility of partition with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League. The talks fail to resolve the issue.

1946 - Nehru, with Gandhi's blessing, is invited by the British to form an interim government to organise the transition to independence. Fearing it will be excluded from power, the Muslim League declares 16 August 'Direct Action Day'. When communal rioting breaks out in the north, partition comes to be seen as a valid alternative to the possibility of civil war.

1947 - On 3 June British Prime Minister Clement Attlee introduces a bill to the House of Commons calling for the independence and partition of the British Indian Empire into the separate nations of India and Pakistan. On 14 July the House of Commons passes the India Independence Act. Under the Act Pakistan is further divided into east and west wings on either side of India.

On 14 August Pakistan is declared to be independent. India formally attains its sovereignty at midnight on the same day. Amid the celebrations Nehru delivers a famous speech on India's "tryst with destiny", but the initial jubilation is soon tempered by violence.

Sectarian riots erupt as Muslims in India flee to Pakistan while Hindus in the Pakistan flee the opposite way. As many as two million die in north India, at least 12 million become refugees, and a limited war over the incorporation of Kashmir into India breaks out between the two nation states. Gandhi pleas for peace, using fasts to shame rioting mobs into order.

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

1948 - On 30 January Gandhi is assassinated in New Delhi while on his way to his evening prayer meeting. His assassin is a Hindu extremist who opposes Gandhi's willingness to engage in dialogue with Muslims.

The same evening Nehru makes a radio address to the nation. "Gandhi has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere," he says. "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 millions 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."

Comment: Gandhi was the most inspirational leader of the first half of the 20th Century. His advocacy of civil disobedience and nonviolent mass protest as the most effective way of achieving social change has instructed freedom movements around the world, from Poland to the United States to Burma.