Misunderstood and caricatured in life, oversimplified and deified in death, M.K. Gandhi stared down the British Empire, reformed the governments of three nations, and inspired a global network of neo-Gandhians such as Martin Luther King Jr. If any individual can be described as the most effective activist of the 20th century, that person was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
The Natal Indian Congress and the Indian Civil Rights Movement in South Africa:
Gandhi, retained by an Indian law firm to work in South Africa, was the first nonwhite attorney to appear before the country's Supreme Court. Indians were mainly imported to South Africa to work on plantations, and anti-Indian stigma was strong. When Gandhi was forbidden from boarding a train on the basis of his skin color, he decided to stay in South Africa as a civil rights attorney--cofounding the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, and securing several crucial judicial and legislative victories. By the time he returned to India in 1914, he was already among the best-known Indian civil rights activists on Earth.
The Champaran Indigo Strike, More Commonly Known as the Champaran Satyagraha:
In South Africa, Gandhi observed poor Indian laborers cultivating sugar. In the coastal city of Champaran in India's Bihar province, it was indigo. By 1917, when Gandhi got involved, indigo cultivation had long been a brutal business. "Not a chest of indigo reaches England," Edward De Latour of the Bengal Civil Service remarked in 1848, "without being stained with human blood." The Indian government initially barred Gandhi's stay in Champaran, given his reputation as an activist, but he defied the order to lead a series of large-scale nonviolent protests that resulted in policy reforms a year later.
Reorganization of the Indian National Congress:
When the Indian National Congress was reorganized in 1916, Gandhi represented a new generation of reformers. The father of the radical Indian independence movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, had just defeated a moderate faction for control of the INC. And Gandhi, fresh on the heels of his Indian civil rights work in South Africa and his efforts at organizing laborers in Champaran, became the new face of a new movement. When he wasn't in prison, Gandhi was the unofficial leader of the INC--and with it, the independence movement--from 1916 until his own death in 1948. His portrait still decorates the INC's official web site.
The Svadeshi Boycott Principle and the Khadi Movement:
One of the primary goals of the Indian independence movement was self-sufficiency. In Sanskrit, svadeshi is a word with a specific meaning--sva- means "self," -deshi means "country." Gandhi urged Indians to rely on svadeshi goods, goods made in India under Indian ownership--essentially a national version of the locavore or "buy local" movement. Central to this movement was khadi, a simple cloth that even poor Indians could spin in their own homes, which provided an alternative to imported fabrics. Gandhi, who once dressed in suits, switched to homespun khadi in the 1910s and wore it for the rest of his life.
The Purna Svaraj (Declaration of Indian Independence):
On January 26th, 1930, the Indian National Congress officially declared its independence from the British Empire. The term adopted by the INC to refer to its goal of independence was purna svaraj--purna meaning "full," sva- meaning (as noted above) "self," and -raj meaning "rule." Prior to 1930, some accommodation of Indian goals--substantially greater independence, but not necessarily total independence--would have likely been acceptable to most in the INC, but after the declaration of independence, nothing less than purna svaraj would be acceptable. The khadi wheel became the emblem of a new Indian flag.
The Salt March to Dandi (Also Known as the Salt Satyagraha):
Empire brings absurdities, bureaucracies, and taxes--and few things could be more absurd and bureaucratic than an oppressive tax and regulations mandating the import of British salt in a country with widespread poverty and its own salt resources. When the Indian National Congress placed Gandhi in charge of coordinating an action to galvanize support for independence, he organized a 240-mile march to the coastal city of Dandi with a crowd that gradually grew to 50,000. They reached Dandi on April 5th, 1930, and illegally produced salt from mud on the shore.
The Dharasana Satyagraha:
Gandhi was unable to lead the subsequent protest at Dharasana Salt Works, as he was arrested on public order charges for organizing it, but British officials abused protesters so severely--beating over one thousand, injuring 320 to the point of hospitalization, and killing two--that the action destroyed any remaining credibility that the British Empire had left in India. The reaction of British officials to the massacre did not help, either. "Your Majesty can hardly fail to have read with amusement," wrote the Viceroy of India to King George, "the accounts of the severe battles for the Salt Depot in Dharasana."
World War II and the "Quit India" Movement:
As the British Empire entered World War II, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress organized nonviolent protests nationwide--based on the slogan "Quit India"--calling for the British to allow India to become self-sufficient and use the resources they would otherwise have dedicated to occupying it on the war effort instead. Britain refused. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had long despised Gandhi, referring to him in 1930 as "a seditious middle temple lawyer," and Gandhi was imprisoned from 1940 to 1942 on sedition charges. He nearly died of appendicitis in prison, and his health never entirely recovered.
Hindu-Muslim Relations and the Partition of India:
India achieved independence in 1947. Gandhi resisted the temptation to run for office, focusing his efforts instead on negotiating terms for an independent India and healing friction between Hindus and Muslims, who had been united in the movement for independence. It was this effort that cost him his life, as a Hindu nationalist who felt that Gandhi had made too many concessions to India's Muslim community and to the Pakistani government walked up and shot him dead.
October 2, 1869 - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is born in Porbandar, Gujarat (India).
1883 - A marriage is arranged between Gandhi and Kasturbai Makhanji.
1888 to 1891 - The young Gandhi studies law in London, where his relatively high level of religious asceticism, his vegetarianism, his sexual fidelity to his wife, and his overall refusal to conform to British norms earns him respect from some quarters and ridicule from others.
1893 to 1915 - Gandhi works as an attorney in South Africa, where the discrimination he faces at the hands of the apartheid-era white government wears down his patience, transforming him from a principled but gregarious and timid young man into an advocate for social justice. In 1914, the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa successfully abolishes the Indian poll tax and requires the South African government to accept Indian marriages. Gandhi, already known as "Mahatma," becomes the most visible Indian civil rights activist on Earth.
1916 - Gandhi returns to India, advocating for independence and civil rights.
1921 - Gandhi becomes de facto leader of the Indian National Congress, the primary organization advocating for independence. Though never officially serving as president of the organization, he unofficially leads the Indian independence movement for the rest of his life.
1922 to 1924 - Gandhi is imprisoned by the British government for "sedition."
1937 to 1939 - Gandhi is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, but never becomes a laureate, presumably because this would force the Nobel Committee to stand in opposition to the British government.
1942 to 1944 - Gandhi and his wife are imprisoned by the British colonial government for leading the "Quit India" movement. Gandhi's wife dies while he is in prison, and his own health eventually fails to the point where the British government is forced to release him.
January 30, 1948 - Gandhi is assassinated by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse.