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Gandhi, caught in two extremes



Today marks 72 years of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi’s assassination. Gandhi ‘father of Indian nation,’ was one of the world’s most revered leaders of 20th century. An apostle of non-violent protests he was caught in the world of two extremes even as he tried to keep British India (India and Pakistan, later Bangladesh), a united country before the acrimonious split of the country minutes before independence. EMEKA CHIAGHANAM goes down memory lane on the sage. He writes.

THREE bullets fired in quick succession from a Beretta 9 mm semi-automatic gun at direct range ripped through the chest of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi’s fragile frame. Gandhi, the father of Indian nation, crumpled to the ground; moments later, he was pronounced dead to the bullets of an assassin. 

  The date was Friday, January 30, 1948. The place was behind Birla House, a mansion (now Gandhi Smriti, a museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi) in New Delhi, the Indian capital where Gandhi spent his last 144 days. The murderous bullets dashed from the gun some seconds before 5.17 pm. Reactions at the scene were both shock and disbelief. The assassination threw the Indian nation into mourning.

  The story of British India in particular, the Indian nation, would poise unanswered questions without mentioning the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi. He wasn’t only a political reformer but a spiritual leader. Gandhi was a frail, bespectacled man; always in traditional Hindu loincloth, and revered as the father of the nation. He was a man of non-violence, peace, and endearingly called Bapu (father in Gujarati, his mother tongue)

  In spite of his simple look, Gandhi, an Indian lawyer, politician, and anti-colonial nationalist, who became the leader of the nationalist movement against the British rule of India, embodied his life as a freedom fighter and social reformer. He didn’t invent the non-violence movement but used to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence from British Rule.

  He had such a great influence on others, which inspired many other civil rights movements, including people like Martin Luther King Jr, who drank from his wisdom. Esteemed for his doctrine of nonviolent protest, his courage and commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of threat and death stood him out.

   Were Gandhi to be alive, he wouldn’t be happy with a divided British Indian descent into perennial resentment between India and Pakistan. Of concern to him would be the Indian Pakistani constant conflict over Kashmir impasse. The partition of British India in 1947 into two independent dominion states, the Union of India and Dominion of Pakistan came into existence at midnight on 14-15th August, 1947.

  The Liberation War in East Pakistan by Bengali nationalists led to the victory which established the nation of Bangladesh on 16 December, 1971. But the violent nature of the partition between Indian and Pakistan to date has created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship.

  The picture of the event presented by both Indians and Pakistan had no imagination in Gandhi’s mind before his death. If Gandhi had his way, British India would be one united country. Perhaps, today, that would be the most populous country, politically stable and economically thriving. Such was the dream that he returned to British India after his sojourn in England and South Africa.

  He was born as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into the humble home of Karamchand Uttamchand Gandhi and Putlibai on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, the coastal Gujarat State in British India. He was the youngest of four children. As a young child, Gandhi was shy, so timid that he slept with the lights on and would run home as soon as school ended to avoid talking to anyone but would later have a voice that resonated across the globe.   

  One side of his life that Gandhi wasn’t proud of was his early marriage. He had no say in the matter of his marriage at the age of 13 then, he was still in secondary school. He was married to 14 -year-old Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia. It was a marriage arranged by their respective parents, as is customary in India. Gandhi lost an academic year because of his wedding; he rejoined the school and eventually completed his schooling. The couple were married for 62 years with four surviving children. Their first child died soon after birth. 

  Gandhi recalled the day of their marriage thus, “As we didn’t know much about marriage, for us it meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives.” Regretfully, he wrote years later, describing with regret the lustful feelings he felt for his young bride, “even at school I used to think of her, and the thought of nightfall and our subsequent meeting was ever haunting me.”

  In 1887, 18-year-old Gandhi graduated from secondary school. He took interest in the study of medicine years back. However, his father had wanted him to become a government minister and influenced him go for the legal profession before his death. In January 1888, Gandhi gained admission into Samaldas Arts College, at the University of Bombay. He wasn’t a happy man at the university and dropped out shortly.

Mavji Dave Joshiji, a Hindu priest and family friend, adviced him to travel to England to study law. Gandhi jumped at the opportunity and in 1888, he sailed for England to study law at the University College London.

  In England, Gandhi struggled with the transition to Western culture during his three years stay. His main preoccupation was with personal and moral issues rather than with academic ambitions. He committed himself to a meatless diet, joining the executive committee of the London Vegetarian Society, and devoured sacred texts to learn more about world religions.

  Gandhi’s interaction with some English vegetarians that rejected the prevailing values of the late-Victorian establishment, by denouncing the evils of the capitalist and industrial society had a huge influence. The English idealists some of who were regarded as rebels preached the merits of the simple life, stressing the superiority of moral over material values and of cooperation over conflict. They shaped Gandhi’s personality.

  Following his admission to the English Bar at the age of 22, he returned to India three years later to learn that his mother had died in his absence; his family had kept the news away from him. He cut the image of disappointed figure when he discovered his law degree wouldn’t guarantee a lucrative law career in India.

  He struggled to establish a law practice in Mumbai, as he was psychologically unable to cross-examine witnesses. He applied for part-time job as a teacher. Mumbai turned him down. He had to return to Rajkot to make a modest living by drafting petitions for litigants.

  In 1893, a Muslim merchant in Kathiawar named Dada Abdullah, who owned a shipping business in South Africa asked Gandhi if he would be interested in serving as his cousin’s lawyer in South Africa as they preferred someone with Kathiawari heritage. Though, a none-too-attractive offer, Gandhi accepted it and left for South Africa, which would serve as a turning point in his political career.

  Gandhi arrived South Africa on a year’s contract but spent the next 21 years living in South Africa. He experienced racial prejudice against blacks and Indians and this made him more focus in civil rights. On many occasions, he faced humiliation but made up his mind to fight for his rights. On one occasion while travelling from Durban to Pretoria, he was thrown from a first-class train carriage and left shivering and brooding at the rail station in Pietermaritzburg despite having a valid ticket.

  His opposition to the introduction of registration for all Indians, within South Africa, through non-cooperation with the relevant civic authorities propelled him in to founding a political movement, known as the Natal Indian Congress, where he developed his non-violent civil movement. Turning into an activist, Gandhi took upon him many cases that would benefit the Indians and other minorities living in South Africa. In 1906, during the British war against the Zulu Kingdom, Gandhi mobilised Indians volunteers to help Zulu victims.  

  White soldiers stopped Gandhi and his team of volunteers from treating the injured Zulu, some Indian volunteers were shot dead by the British. Gandhi called his first year in South Africa a most valuable experience in his life, writing further, “Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.”At the age of 45 in 1814, Gandhi and his family first went to London before returning to India in 1915. He returned transformed into a new person.

  The widespread poverty in India faced by most India’s farmers prompted Gandhi to mould his life and lifestyle in sync with the common man, the poor farmers of India and sought to resist a colonial power. When asked how he will achieve, Gandhi replied: “With the strength of millions of voiceless people.”

  In 1917, he set up the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, his concept of non-violence into practice, becoming a dominant figure in India’s political landscape. Gandhi joined the Indian National Congress and took leadership of the Congress in 1920 demanding independence. Gandhi was jailed several times and went on hunger strikes for British Indian self-rule. His nonviolent movement against the British government, included boycotts of everything of British manufactures, institutions operated or aided by the British in India:

  He resigned from the party in 1934 citing instances of Congress party members using the non-violent movement as a political expedient and not as the fundamental creed. British Indian eventually gained independence, but for Gandhi, British India’s freedom was realised without Indian unity.

  The country at midnight of 14–15 August 1947 split on Hindu and Muslim line. As a man that advocated unity, some Hindu nationalists viewed Gandhi as not doing enough for the Hindu; having a soft stand on minority Muslim demands, in what some Hindus described as, ‘betrayed the cause of Hindus with his support for religious pluralism.’ While on the other hand, the majority of Muslims from East India now Pakistan saw Gandhi trying to marry them into a forced alliance.

  When Gandhi walked barefoot through the villages in East Bengal, locals threw shattered glass on his path. His assassin, Hindu Brahmin, named NathuramGodse, viewed Gandhi’s acceptance of the partition of British India as a betrayal of the Hindu population. Before his assassination on the evening of January 30, 1948, Gandhi had survived six-assassination attempts.

  Mahatma Gandhi, named Time Magazine Person of the Year in 1930 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times but never received the award. The United Nations declared Gandhi’s birthday, October 2nd, as the International Day of Non-violence in 2007. It became an irony that a man of  peace, great soul as the title “Mahatma,” stands for, or what many in India call “Bapu,” a word for father found himself in two extremes, his life cut down by nearest snuffing life out of him but not diminishing his legacy.

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