30 January 1948 was the day on which the world lost one of its greatest politicians and figureheads. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, the man who brought the destructive effects of South African apartheid to the world’s attention, who led India to independence from Britain, and who set an example of successful peaceful protest and progress for all to follow, had, by this point in his life, already survived five attempted assassinations but no-one could prevent the sixth from being successful. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu radical who had been involved in other earlier attempts on Gandhi’s life, approached him during his customary evening stroll and shot him, three times, through the chest.
Born into a privileged caste, Ghandi was fortunate to receive a comprehensive education, but proved a mediocre student. In May 1883, aged 13, Gandhi was married to Kasturba Makhanji, a girl also aged 13, through the arrangement of their respective parents, as is customary in India. Following his entry into Samaldas College, at the University of Bombay, she bore him the first of four sons, in 1888. Ghandi was unhappy at college, following his parent’s wishes to take the bar, and when he was offered the opportunity of furthering his studies overseas, at University College London, aged 18, he accepted with alacrity, starting there in September 1888.
Determined to adhere to Hindu principles, which included vegetarianism as well as alcohol and sexual abstinence, he found London restrictive initially, but once he had found kindred spirits he flourished, and pursued the philosophical study of religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and others, having professed no particular interest in religion up until then. Following admission to the English Bar, and his return to India, he found work difficult to come by and, in 1893, accepted a year’s contract to work for an Indian firm in Natal, South Africa. “Ghandi suffered six known assassination attempts during the course of his life.” Although not yet enshrined in law, the system of ‘apartheid’ was very much in evidence in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Despite arriving on a year’s contract, Ghandi spent the next 21 years living in South Africa, and railed against the injustice of racial segregation.
On one occasion he was thrown from a first class train carriage, despite being in possession of a valid ticket. Witnessing the racial bias experienced by his countrymen served as a catalyst for his later activism, and he attempted to fight segregation at all levels. He founded a political movement, known as the Natal Indian Congress, and developed his theoretical belief in non-violent civil protest into a tangible political stance, when he opposed the introduction of registration for all Indians, within South Africa, via non-cooperation with the relevant civic authorities. On his return to India in 1916, Ghandi developed his practice of non-violent civil disobedience still further, raising awareness of oppressive practices in Bihar, in 1918, which saw the local populace oppressed by their largely British masters. He also encouraged oppressed villagers to improve their own circumstances, leading peaceful strikes and protests.
His fame spread, and he became widely referred to as ‘Mahatma’ or ‘Great Soul’. As his fame spread, so his political influence increased: by 1921 he was leading the Indian National Congress, and reorganizing the party’s constitution around the principle of ‘Swaraj’, or complete political independence from the British. He also instigated a boycott of British goods and institutions, and his encouragement of mass civil disobedience led to his arrest, on 10th March 1922, and trial on sedition charges, for which he served 2 years, of a 6-year prison sentence. The Indian National Congress began to splinter during his incarceration, and he remained largely out of the public eye following his release from prison in February 1924, returning four years later, in 1928, to campaign for the granting of ‘dominion status’ to India by the British. When the British introduced a tax on salt in 1930, he famously led a 250-mile march to the sea to collect his own salt.
Recognizing his political influence nationally, the British authorities were forced to negotiate various settlements with Ghandi over the following years, which resulted in the alleviation of poverty, granted status to the ‘untouchables’, enshrined rights for women, and led inexorably to Ghandi’s goal of ‘Swaraj’: political independence from Britain.