Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born only 2nd October, 1869. The place of his birth was a small town named Porbandar. The tiny princely state of Porabandar was situated on the western coast of India in the Kathiawar of Saurastra area of Gujurat. Gandhi belonged to the Vaishya caste.
The name of Gandhi’s father was Karamchand Gandhi. He was the Dewan of the state of Porabandar, which was ruled by a Rana. Karamchand had no much education in the formal sense, but he was able, honest and dutiful as a Dewan. As a man, Karamchand Gandhi was courageous, virtuous and truthful. Gandhi’s mother was Putli Bai. She was extremely religious. Her innocence, goodness and saintly qualities left a permanent influence only her son.
Gandhi studied in a high school at Rajkot. Once, one performance his friends influenced him to take meat in order to develop a strong body like the body of an English man. The Gandhi family was strictly vegetarian. But young Mohandas secretly ate meat to become strong. His conscience revolted at once. He felt as if “a live goat were bleating within me.” He could not think of a being a non-vegetarian.
Gandhi married at the age of 13. His wife Kasturi Bai was also of that age. She was pious and simple. She served Gandhi with devotion till the end of her life. Gandhi’s father died when he was only 16. Two years after that, Gandhi passed matriculation and went to a college. At that time, some of his well-wishers advised him to go to England to study law and return as a barrister.
The idea was attractive. With much difficulty, money was arranged by loan. Gandhi’s mother however, did not like to send her son to that impure land. But when Gandhi took the vow not to touch wine and meat, she agreed.
In 1888, Gandhi left for England. He lived there an austere life. Among many books he read, Edwin Arnold’s English translation of the Gita and his life of the Buddha, writing only Prophet Mohammad, and the Bible, left deep impression in his mind. He, of course, studied law and in three years, came out as a barrister. He returned home in 1891. Gandhi’s mother had died while he was in England. But he was not informed of it.
Gandhi selected Bombay to begin his practice as a Barrister. But success in practice appeared remote. He felt depressed. It was at that time that a Muslim gentleman request Gandhi to go to South Africa to help his Lawyers there in a big legal case concerning his business. Gandhi proceeded to South Africa in 1893. There in that Dark Continent his future awaited him.
Gandhi landed at Port Natal or Durban in South Africa. South Africa was a British colony. The number of Englishmen there was very small. But they ruled supreme over the Africans. More than that, the White English men regarded the black Africans and the brown Indians as inferior human beings. India traders, merchants, businessmen and laborers were there in large number. The white people called them all as ‘coolies’ and showered contempt only them. Shortly after his arrival, Gandhi was travelling one evening in train in first class. A white man entered into it and was angry to see a ‘colored’ man there. Poor Gandhi was forced out of the compartment into the platform. There in that cold winter night, sitting in a railway platform of an unfortunate country, Gandhi thought over the vices of white racialism. His mind revolted. He suffered a few more severe insults in the hands of white men including sever blows. But, then, he stood up to challenge, to oppose and resist. The man in Gandhi was roused. He stood to fight against injustice, no matter where and in what conditions.
Gandhi called a meeting of the Indian community at a place called Pretoria. He addressed them. That was his first public speech in life. His moral force was his only strength. He stood to uphold the dignity of man. He had no fear in him. And, he had no hatred towards the white Government against which he stood. He only demanded justice for his fellowmen. Gandhi’s political life began.
Gandhi stayed in South Africa for long. The laws of the White Government against the Indian were severe. When Gandhi organized movement against those laws, the Government became more oppressive. In 1906, an ordinance was issued that every Indian man woman or child- should possess a registration card for identification. Everyone should register his or her name and put thumb impression only that card. Police was authorized to enter any house to check the card. Any Indian walking in the street or going anywhere could be asked to show it any time. Gandhi called it the Black Ordinance. In a mass meeting of the Indians, he declared: “there is only one course open to me, namely, to die, but not to submit to the law.” It was a challenge to one of the mightiest of colonial powers on earth. Mostly with ignorant and illiterate laborers as his followers, Gandhi rose against the British might in a distant content. It was not with arms that he stood to fight. He stood with courage and will for what he thought right. His method of struggle was Passive Resistance. The Indians were asked not to obey that Black Law. Peaceful picketing was done before registration offices. Volunteers were raised to organize people. People were taught not to fear punishment.
The Government came down with a heavy hand. Many were thrown into prisons. Some were deported. Fines were imposed. Traders and shopkeepers were thrown out of business. Gandhi was sent to jail at Johannesburg. But the miracle was achieved. More than 95 percent of Indians disobeyed the law, and did not register names. Gandhi had succeeded.
It was a new revolution in history. An unarmed people struggled with a powerful Government without fear. Gandhi named it as Passive Resistance or Civil Resistance. But still more appropriately, he called it the Satyagraha. It rested on Truth. It was non-violent. It upheld what was just and right for human dignity. Those who joined the resistance were required to suffer any punishment from Government. They were taught to be fearless but non-violent. The Gandhian Satyagraha proved itself a unique method of revolution. Far away in South Africa, the ignorant, poor and uneducated Indians who had gone there as laborers and were called ‘coolies’ fought bravely against a deposit white Government.
Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa continued for several years. At last he achieved victory. The Powerful Government of General Smuts bowed down at length for compromise. Early in 1914, Smuts and Gandhi reached an agreement. The Government agreed to grant several concessions to the Indian community, honorable to the people.
So, at last, Gandhi left South Africa in July, 1914. First, he sailed for England, and from there he returned to India in January 1915. More than 20 years he had passed in the meantime.
In India, very few persons at that time knew his name. The leader of the Congress, of course knew of his role in South Africa. Gokhale was full of admiration for him. And Gandhi regarded him as his “political guru”. Those who first came into contact with him in India were quickly captivated by his remarkable personality. His personal as well as political principles appeared quite unusual and saintly. He was seen as a moral force. His words touched the human heart. It was at that time, somebody felt moved to describe him as ‘Mahatma’ or ‘Great Soul’. Soon there after the poet Rabindra NathTagore described him as the Mahatma. Very soon, among countless millions all over India, the name of Mahatma Gandhi became the most renowned.
Gandhi returned while the First World War was going only. For one year he observed Indian politics.Gokhale’s death that year made him extremely sorry. As Gandhi began to see India, the poverty of the people moved him deeply. At Champaran in Bihar he took up the cause of the poor peasants and fought only their behalf. At Ahmadabad he fought for the cause of the poor textile workers. At Gujarat, he stood by the side of starving peasants and fought for their relief from tax.
While fighting for the poor peasants and workers, Gandhi nevertheless supported the British Government in its war efforts. The Empire was in grave danger. Gandhi thought it a moral duty to stand by the British in their darkest hour of need. He asked the people to help the Government and told the Government about India’s hope ‘of a better future.’
The Great War ended in 1918. There were great expectations everywhere. India hoped for better treatment from hands of the British for the help rendered. But the hopes turned false. The Government betrayed. Instead of giving more rights to the people, the Government decided even to take away the existing right in the fear following political agitation. The people were stunned at British injustice. India stood at a critical hour.
At that hour of need, history presented Mahatma Gandhi to begin his real role in Indian politics.