Global Icon of peace and non-violence | Daily News
Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st birth anniversary falls today

Global Icon of peace and non-violence

He is one of the most instantly recognizable figures of the 20th century - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known to many as the Mahatma or Great Soul.

The 2nd of October, 2020, marks the 151st anniversary of Gandhi’s birth and the start of a life of struggle in the fight for Indian independence from British colonial rule.

It’s an occasion being marked all over the world, particularly in India. But who was Gandhi and how did he end up championing Indian independence? Here’s a brief timeline of his life.

Legal leanings

He was born in 1869 in the princely state of Porbandar, in modern-day Gujarat, where his father served as a government official. At the age of just 18, Gandhi sailed for London to study law, where he eventually passed the bar exam and qualified as a barrister.

But any hopes he may have had of a glorious legal career soon began to crumble. After losing his first case back home in India, he left India again, this time for South Africa. It was there he became so nervous advocating on behalf of a client in court that he couldn’t speak properly. He ended up reimbursing his client and fleeing the court.

But it was another incident in South Africa that set Gandhi on a new path. While travelling first class on a train, he was ejected from his carriage after a white passenger complained. The experience would help to solidify some of the ideas he had already started to form around equality for all people. It may be worthwhile to revisit Gandhi’s famous life-defining moment on that train journey in 1893 from Durban to Pretoria. Gandhi was forcibly evicted from the first-class compartment because he was a “coloured” man. The bitter cold night that Gandhi spent on a lonely railway station in a strange country could have become a life-long trauma. As he shivered through the night in the station’s waiting room, Gandhi did consider running back home to Rajkot. But eventually, he began to think of his duty. The real culprit, Gandhi realised, was not that particular man who had him thrown off the train. That man’s behaviour was merely “a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice”. Therefore, resentment towards his offender was a waste of time and energy. By contrast, trying “…if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process” seemed truly worthwhile. Gandhi, later, described the incident at the railway station as a “creative experience” that changed the course of his life. He said: “My active nonviolence began from that date.” This sequence of action and reaction illustrates powerful and universal truths.

A tax on your roots

Indian immigrants in South Africa were subject to punitive laws and restrictions on freedoms. There was even a tax levied on them simply because they were Indian immigrants. Gandhi set about tackling segregation and founded the Indian Congress in the Natal region of South Africa. This was also the point at which he began dressing in the traditional white Indian dhoti, which became his trademark attire.

His first target was the £3 ($3.69) tax on people of Indian origin. Preaching a strategy of Satyagraha, or nonviolent protest, Gandhi organized a strike and led a march of more than 2,000 people to call for the tax to be scrapped. He was arrested and sent to prison for nine months. But his actions brought about the end of the tax and catapulted him to international attention.

Back in India, in 1915, Gandhi founded an ashram, or spiritual monastery, open to all castes of people. He wore just a simple loincloth and shawl, and dedicated himself to prayer and fasting.

In 1919, when the British implemented laws that allowed for the arrest and imprisonment of anyone suspected of sedition, Gandhi rose up calling for a wave of nonviolent disobedience. Tragedy followed.

A massacre and a wave of boycotts

In the city of Amritsar, British Indian Army soldiers were ordered to open fire on a crowd of 20,000 or so protestors that had begun to grow unruly. Around 400 people were killed, with more than 1,000 injured. From that point on, Gandhi’s goal was clear – Indian independence. He soon became a leading figure in the home-rule movement.

The movement called for mass boycotts of British goods and institutions. Gandhi implored civil servants to stop working for the British, for students to quit government schools, for soldiers to abandon their posts and for the citizenry to withhold their taxes and avoid buying British goods.

In 1922, he was arrested by the British authorities and pleaded guilty to three counts of sedition, which resulted in a six-year prison sentence, although that was commuted after just two years.

Britain’s strong grip on India was also evident in the Salt Act, which made it illegal for Indians to collect, produce or sell salt. Official sales of salt were also subject to tax. It was legislation that hit the poorest hardest. And so, in 1930, Gandhi took on the Salt Act. The most well-known part of his campaign was the 390 kilometre Salt March to the shores of the Arabian Sea, where he collected salt in symbolic and open defiance of the government monopoly.

He wrote to the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, saying: “My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

The Salt Act protests gathered momentum and around 60,000 were imprisoned, including Gandhi.

Time magazine named him Man of the Year in 1930.

Real change

The following year, Gandhi was invited to London on behalf of the Indian National Congress. He met King George V, and visited mill workers in Lancashire, gaining publicity and sympathy for his cause in the UK. But there was little in the way of progress and relations with Britain remained strained.

At the height of World War II, Gandhi stepped up his Quit India campaign, urging the British to get out of the country altogether, while arguing that the war was none of India’s concern. Once again, he was arrested and jailed - this time along with fellow leaders of the Indian National Congress and his wife.

A change of government in Britain after the end of the war saw more willingness to discuss independence for India. But the negotiations that followed led to the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. On August 15, 1947, India gained its independence, Pakistan was born and millions of people were displaced and relocated, leading to waves of violence and killings.

The sculpture of the tied-up Gun at the UN HQ in New York, symbolising non-violence. 

The following year, on 30 January, 1948, Gandhi was shot three times and killed by a Hindu extremist. Gandhi’s dedication to nonviolent, anti-colonial protest has made him an inspirational figure for millions of people to this day.

International Day of Non-Violence

The International Day of Non-Violence is observed on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement and pioneer of the philosophy and strategy of non-violence. According to General Assembly resolution A/RES/61/271 of 15 June 2007, which established the commemoration, the International Day is an occasion to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness”. The resolution reaffirms “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and the desire “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”.

Introducing the resolution in the General Assembly on behalf of 140 co-sponsors, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, Anand Sharma, said that the wide and diverse sponsorship of the resolution was a reflection of the universal respect for Mahatma Gandhi and of the enduring relevance of his philosophy. Quoting the late leader’s own words, he said: “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man”.

Gandhi, who helped lead India to independence, has been the inspiration for non-violent movements for civil rights and social change across the world. Throughout his life, Gandhi remained committed to his belief in non-violence even under oppressive conditions and in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The theory behind his actions, which included encouraging massive civil disobedience to British law as with the historic Salt March of 1930, was that “just means lead to just ends”; that is, it is irrational to try to use violence to achieve a peaceful society. He believed that Indians must not use violence or hatred in their fight for freedom from colonialism.

The principle of non-violence - also known as non-violent resistance - rejects the use of physical violence in order to achieve social or political change. Often described as “the politics of ordinary people”, this form of social struggle has been adopted by mass populations all over the world in campaigns for social justice.

Professor Gene Sharp, a leading scholar on non-violent resistance, uses the following definition in his publication, The Politics of Nonviolent Action:

“Nonviolent action is a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential, can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not an attempt to avoid or ignore conflict. It is one response to the problem of how to act effectively in politics, especially how to wield powers effectively.”

While non-violence is frequently used as a synonym for pacifism, since the mid-twentieth century the term non-violence has been adopted by many movements for social change which do not focus on opposition to war. (WEF, UN)