Mahatma Gandhi and Civil Disobedience

Mahatma Gandhi led the fight for India’s independence from British rule. He advocated nonviolent methods of resistance and called it civil disobedience. The man who was eventually called the father of India was influenced by his profoundly religious mother and by various thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau. He was also deeply affected by sacred books such as the Holy Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. Under the harsh rule of the British empire, these influences helped Gandhi develop his philosophy of civil disobedience. 

In 1893, Gandhi sailed to South Africa to work as a company lawyer. He immediately received his first taste of discrimination while on a train. He bought a first-class ticket, but train officials ordered him to transfer to third class because of his skin color. Gandhi refused, and he was thrown out of the train. He spent the night on the train station platform, thinking about whether he should go back to India or file a protest. He decided to stay and assert his rights as a British citizen. Since then, Gandhi experienced and witnessed many other acts of discrimination against Indians in South Africa. This changed his outlook toward the British Empire and India’s situation. 

When the government enacted a law forcing all Indians to undergo mandatory registration, Gandhi and thousands of other Indians voiced their opposition. He was arrested and jailed, but this was only the first of several times he would be jailed for opposing injustices. While in detention, Gandhi thought deeply about an essay entitled “Civil Disobedience” by the American writer Henry David Thoreau. He decided that he could use the term “civil disobedience” to refer to his method of nonviolent cooperation with the harsh government. However, he used the Sanskrit term satyagraha, which meant “truth force.” In developing his philosophy of nonviolence, Gandhi was also deeply moved by the New Testament and the philosophy of loving your enemies. The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text, also inspired Gandhi to oppose injustices through unselfishness. When he was set free from prison, he resumed his protest by actively participating in labor strikes and launching a huge but non-aggressive demonstration. As a result of the continued protests, the government changed some portions of the registration law. 

Gandhi returned to India in 1914 after 20 years of fighting racial injustices in South Africa. He was welcomed in his home country as a mahatma, or “great soul.” Gandhi then turned his efforts to solving three great ills tormenting India. He identified that the greatest of these ills was British rule, which imposed great suffering on Indians. The second was the religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims. At the same time, the third was the caste system, which classified millions of Indians as untouchables, and made them vulnerable to severe discrimination. 

During World War I, the Indians helped the British fight the war against the Axis powers led by the Nazis. In turn, the British stated that they would give Indians their independence after the war. World War I ended, but the British maintained power and showed no signs of keeping their promise. Furthermore, the British rulers passed the Rowlatt Acts, which extended their power over the land. The insincerity of the British irritated Gandhi, and he decided it was time he led the nation to its independence.

He stated that the British should grant India its freedom; otherwise, Indians would stop cooperating with the government. This ignited the campaign of non-cooperation. Indians started to come together and talk about the Rowlatt Acts. In April of 1919, nationalist leaders spoke publicly, opposing the Rowlatt Acts, and British troops fired upon them. Over 300 people were killed, and this event, which came to be known as the Amritsar Massacre, ignited the intensified struggle for Indian independence. The Indian National Congress, along with Gandhi, was enraged by the massive injustice and demanded total independence. 

However, the Muslim League still preferred home rule over complete independence, worrying about their status as a minority. Gandhi was convicted of treason, admitted guilt, and imprisoned for seven years. Gandhi viewed his imprisonment as an important part of civil disobedience because he wanted the world to know how harshly the British treated the Indians. Gandhi felt there was no reason for the British to imprison him because he was not a danger to anybody. 

But Gandhi held on to his deepest convictions and, at one time, stated that non-cooperation with injustices holds the same value as cooperation with good acts. When he was set free, he continued fighting for independence using nonviolent means. 

When the British started giving signals that India would finally be granted its independence, tensions arose between Muslims and Hindus. The tension erupted into violence, and Gandhi called for understanding and forgiveness. He opposed partitioning the country into Muslim and Hindu states and hoped for a unified India.  

However, in 1947, the British, along with Muslim and Hindu political leaders, reached an agreement that finally granted India its independence. This independence came with a price because it also allowed for the creation of the independent Muslim state of Pakistan. As Indians and Muslims awaited independence day, millions left their homes and crossed the border between India and the newly-created state of Pakistan. The country was overwhelmed with violence, murder, plunder, and rape. To put an end to the massive violence, Gandhi declared that he would go on a fast and that he would not stop until peace and forgiveness replaced the chaos. Gandhi was already old then, and his fast quickly weakened him. Despite this, he continued his spiritual quest for peace until Muslim and Hindu leaders promised him peace and reconciliation.

After a few days, Gandhi was assassinated by a fanatic Indian nationalist, who believed that Gandhi was the reason for India’s division and the massive violence. 

Gandhi’s civil disobedience and peaceful non-cooperation were adopted by global leaders that came after him. Gandhi believed nonviolent civil disobedience is the gold standard for peaceful methods because it leaves no bitterness behind and allows enemies to reconcile and become friends.