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Mahatma Gandhi150th birth anniversary
September 29, 2018, 4:18 pm

The birth anniversary of Indian Independence leader and global icon of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, on 2 October, is celebrated each year in India as ‘Gandhi Jayanti’, and around the world as the ‘International Day of Non-violence. This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

Honored as Father of the Nation in India, his non-violent form of civil disobedience has been transformative in inspiring and sustaining peaceful movements for freedom, civil rights and social change around the world. Throughout his life Gandhi remained committed to his belief in the ability of non-violence to subdue the most oppressive regimes and to overcome seemingly insurmountable societal and political challenges.

His principle of non-violence, or non-violent resistance, rejected the use of physical violence to achieve changes in society. The theory underlining his non-violence principle was that ‘just means lead to just ends’, implying that violence was not the path to achieve a lasting, peaceful and harmonious society.

A key tenet of his theory of non-violence is that the power of rulers depends on the consent of the population; by non-violence he sought to undermine such power through withdrawal of the consent and cooperation of the populace. Non-violence is not a synonym for pacifism or a way to avoid or ignore conflict.

To Gandhi, non-violence was a political tool that he wielded effectively against discrimination and oppression, and which encouraged the masses to reject their passivity and submission to colonialism and racism. Since the mid-twentieth century, Gandhi’s form of non-violence has been adopted by many movements around the world to usher in social and political change.

As the architect of a form of non-violent civil disobedience, Gandhi was an inspiration to leaders of peaceful liberation movements and civil rights movements, including to Nelson Mandela, the late South African freedom icon, president, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as well as to Martin Luther King, the activist and leader of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. In June 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution tabled by India to establish 2 October of each year as the International Day of Non-Violence.

The 140 co-sponsors for the UN resolution reflected the wide and diverse support and respect for Mahatma Gandhi on the international arena, and the enduring relevance of his philosophy of non-violence. The UN resolution stated that the annual commemoration should be an occasion to, “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness”, and to reaffirm “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and the desire “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence.”

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who would later go on to be known worldwide by the honorific appendage of Mahatma (Noble Soul) Gandhi, was born on 2 October, 1869, in Porbandar in the modern Indian state of Gujarat. His father Karamchand Gandhi, served as a chief minister in Porbandar and other states in western India, and his mother Putlibai was a deeply religious woman.

At the young age of 13, as was then the custom, Mahatma Gandhi married Kasturba Makanji, a merchant’s daughter who was a year older to him. In 1888, at the age of 19, Gandhi boarded a ship for London to study law and jurisprudence at the Inner Temple, one of the four professional associations of the Court in London, where one had to study to qualify as a barrister. He was ‘called to the bar’ in June 1891 but rather than practice in England, he left London for India where he struggled to find footing as a lawyer.

In 1893, Gandhi sailed for Durban in the South African state of Natal after he was offered a one-year contract to perform legal services there on behalf of an Indian client — he was to remain there for the next 21 years... Indians began arriving in South Africa in large numbers in the early- to mid-1800s, first as indentured laborers and then as traders, mainly from Gujarat. By the time of Gandhi’s arrival there was quite a sizeable Indian community in the country and in Natal state they outnumbered the ‘White’ population.

The large influx of Indians led to anti-Indian and racist legislations that barred Indians and other ‘coloreds’ from working in prime trading areas, and segregated them to living in specified areas. In response to the Indian Disenfranchisement Bill, in 1894, Indians in Natal formed the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) with Gandhi as its first secretary. He also started the first Indian newspaper in Natal, the Indian Opinion, in 1904 that reported widely on religious, social and political activities in India and South Africa.

In 1906, Gandhi organized his first civil-disobedience campaign — which he termed ‘Satyagraha’, a Sanskrit term meaning ‘something founded on truth’, against the government’s new restrictions on the rights of Indians. The time he spent in South Africa was marked by similar protestations against racial discrimination and inhumane practices by the ‘White’ government, as well as against the Act of Union legislation in 1910 that strengthened existing anti-Indian laws.

The formation of NIC helped mask prevailing class cleavages among Indians and fostered a separate racial and ethnic political identity based on their ‘Indianness’. Gandhi gave this ‘Indianness’ more form and direction, highlighting the advantages of considering themselves as ‘Indians’ first, rather than being separated by divisions of caste, class, religion or language. Gandhi promoted unity among Indians, and while respecting and not diminishing the diversity that existed, he encouraged them to focus on the larger issues that united them.

He defined India as a civilization and a territory and argued that the capacity of Indians to assimilate meant that the nation was a unified whole in spite of its many different parts. Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915 at the request of Congress Party leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who introduced him to Indian issues, politics and the Indian masses. Gokhale was a leader best known for his restraint and moderation, and his insistence on working inside the system, which were qualities that Gandhi imbued to a large extent from his mentor However, in 1919, Gandhi’s moderation came face to face with British brutality.

A newly enacted Rowlatt Act authorized British authorities to imprison people suspected of sedition without trial. In response to this, Gandhi called for a nationwide Satyagraha campaign of peaceful protests. Despite calls for restraint violence broke out at several venues when authorities opened fire on unarmed protesters.

On 13 April 1919, protesters who had gathered at a park in Amritsar were fired on by troops led by British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who used machine guns to mow down nearly 400 unarmed demonstrators, including women and children in what became known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The tragic event and the insouciant British response led Gandhi to conclude that India would never receive fair and equal treatment under British rule, and consequently he shifted his attention to Swaraj or self-rule and full political independence for India.

He joined the Indian National Congress in 1920 and a year later was elected its leader. Gandhi reorganized the party and expanded his nonviolent non-co-operation strategies to include the swadeshi policy, which called for the boycott of British goods.

Besides boycotting British products, Gandhi also urged people to shun British institutions and law courts, to resign from government employment, and to forsake British titles and honors, all of which were aimed at hampering the British rule in India economically, administratively and politically. His exhortations to Indians not to use violence or hatred in their fight for freedom, and his support for peaceful civil disobedience against British colonialism gained wide appeal among the people.

The launch of the Swadeshi movement and the call for the boycott of British goods in the 1920s, the Salt March in 1930 against unfair salt taxes imposed by the British rulers, and the Quit India call in 1942 for the complete removal of British rule over India were epochal events on their own in eventually gaining independence for India in 1947.

It is sad that the life of a pacifist who spend his life preaching non-violence should end in a violent act. On 30 January, 1948, Gandhi was killed by three shots to his chest by a person opposed to the noble ideals enshrined by Mahatma Gandhi.

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