As the twentieth century was drawing to a close, three names were frequently mentioned in the media as top contenders for the title of 'Man of the Century'. One was Adolf Hitler - the notorious German dictator hated worldwide for his crimes against humanity during the Second World War. The second was Albert Einstein, who was declared person of the century by Time Magazine for his "engaging humanity and political idealism, as well as his contribution to scientific understanding of the universe". The third outstanding personality, and in many people's view the 'Man of the Twentieth Century', was the great Indian political icon Mahatma Gandhi - a champion of all that was divine, humane and idealistic during the turbulent twentieth century. As his 150th birthday falls on October 02, here is a tribute.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 02 1869 in Probandar, in the Indian state of Gujarat. He was a Hindu by birth, belonging to the Pranami sect. He lost his father early while during his teens and then left for London for higher education, where he was to study for the bar. He stayed in London for about two years, loneliness being his constant companion. The impression that the English people made on him during those formative years greatly influenced his attitude and outlook during later years.
After being called to the bar and getting enrolled in the High Court, he returned to India in 1891. During his absence, two major events had occurred. His mother, whom he greatly adored, had died; and his wife Kasturba had given birth to their first son.
Work appeared almost non-existent in Gujarat at that juncture. So he tried Bombay, but was again unsuccessful. Then occurred an event that had profound repercussions not only in Gandhi's life, but also on the lives of millions of others - particularly the Indian nation. A family friend required a lawyer to pursue a case in South Africa, and the young Gandhi was invited for the purpose. Gandhi left India in 1893, and arrived in the African continent in May. On his way to Pretoria by train in a first class compartment, he was confronted by a European man accompanied by the conductor of the train. They ordered him out, and ultimately threw him out of the train at Pietermaritzburg. He spent the night sitting on the platform in freezing cold; he simply could not believe there would be people objecting to his travel in a first class carriage merely because of the colour of his skin.
After settling down in Africa, he along with a number of Indian and English friends decided that something had to be done about the rights of the indentured labourers from India, who were treated so appallingly at their workplace. He masterminded a series of protests and negotiations in an attempt to ensure a decent living for those who had left their own country to set up temporary or permanent abode in South Africa.
It was in Africa that Gandhi first began to experiment with his ideas of a simple life and set up his first Ashram in the process. Kasturba found this new way of life difficult to accept, as she had been brought up by strictly adhering to the Hindu caste system. Gandhi not only brought the untouchables to the Ashram, he himself did a number of tasks, which normally would have been left to the untouchables. His assimilation of this lowest of all Hindu castes caused him untold sufferings. But his conviction was unshakeable, and ultimately he named these people Harijans or the children of God.
Perhaps the most far-reaching event that took place during this period was Gandhi's acceptance of 'Brahmacharya' and 'Satyagraha' as the guiding principles of life. The former preached ridding oneself of physical desires in order to generate absolute peace within the self, and thereby gain the ability to react with compassion and love for other human beings. The latter preached the liberation of the self from egoistic impulses and earthly possessions in order to discover the ultimate truth.
It was amazing that Gandhi spent over twenty years in Africa and did not return to India until he was forty-five, to take up his great crusade for Indian independence. He finally landed in Bombay in 1915. The fame he earned during his campaign in South Africa had reached India much earlier. He was instantly lionised and a number of national figures, including Annie Besant, Vallabh Bhai (Sardar) Patel and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, met him within the first few months of his return. But sadly, his principal mentor - the great Indian patriot Professor Gokhale died within a year of his arrival.
The first major social campaign that Gandhi undertook was the Bihar indigo farmers' protests in Champaran. This established him as a major national figure. At the first Congress conference that Gandhi attended, he was content to merely act as a party worker. However, during the Lahore Conference in 1917, he took the gathering by storm with a speech of such originality and force that he established himself not only as a prominent figure in the party, but also as one committed to India's independence. The first important move towards this end was the declaration of a national day of prayer and fasting on April 06, 1919. It was a programme that covered the whole subcontinent. It was so successful that India was brought to a standstill; however, not for the first time, Gandhi was put behind bars.
It was only a few days later that the most cataclysmic event of all took place in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar on April 13. The British General Dyer had ordered the Indian troops to open fire on a crowd of 15 thousand attending a meeting at Jalianwalla Bagh. It resulted in 379 killed and 1137 injured. This particular event was in fact a precursor to the demise of the British occupation in India. Gandhi and his fellow Congressmen told Britain that there was no alternative now for them but to leave. The Congress party embarked on a programme of peaceful, non-violent non-cooperation in September 1920. The natives refused any involvement in administration, commerce and the judicial process. And eminent public figures such as Motilal Nehru committed themselves to the Congress movement.
But the tragedy of Chauri Chaura occurred shortly afterwards on February 05, 1922. What started as a peaceful demonstration ultimately led to the massacre of twenty policemen by an unruly crowd. Gandhi was terribly shocked and in despair demanded cessation of all protest activities and an end to non-cooperation with the British authorities. He was vigorously resisted by the party leaders and workers, but in order to persuade them, Gandhi resorted to a tool he used on numerous occasions - fasting. He undertook fast unto death until all cooperation with the British was restored and there was an end to all forms of protests. However, despite all these developments, the British considered it prudent to arrest him. He was once again put behind bars, this time for six years. Gandhi, in fact, did not serve the full six years sentence, as he fell sick and underwent an operation. He was released and allowed to recuperate.
After this period of conviction was over, there took place one of the most famous of his protest campaigns. Seventy-five Ashramites, led by him, marched some 240 miles to the beach of Dandi (Mar 12, 1930 - Apr 6, 1930). There, the Mahatma, as he was now called, broke the law by picking up a handful of crystallised salt. Through this symbolic march and a simple act, Gandhi exhorted all Indians to follow his example and break the law. The whole salt campaign culminated in a huge protest at the Dharasana salt works and resulted in the Viceroy Lord Irwin inviting Gandhi as the representative of the Indian National Congress to the 1931 conference.
The conference was in fact a sham. The British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald indulged in the policy of divide and rule, which was always so successful in India. Gandhi was disillusioned, but not surprised. Britain used the latent antagonism between the Hindus and Muslims, and also between princely states, to thwart the whole movement. Gandhi passionately believed in Hindu-Muslim unity, but there were those, led by Jinnah, who were adamant about establishing a separate Muslim state.
There also occurred a further friction, when a group led by Netaji Subhash Bose became convinced that the Gandhian concept of non-violence was too slow and most likely to end in failure. This resulted in the formation of the Indian National Army by Netaji.
When, in 1942 the British government delegation, led by Sir Stafford Cripps, failed to satisfy the Congress leaders, Gandhi declared, "The time has come for the British to go". The 'Quit India' movement was then proposed by Nehru, seconded by Patel and passed by the Congress.
The British did not wait for a mass movement to gain ground. They arrested Gandhi along with all Congress leaders. Gandhi was imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace at Pune with Kasturba. Kasturba died in Gandhi's arms in 1944, at the age of 75.
The Congress leaders were released after the Second World War was over. Lord Wavell was replaced as the Viceroy by Lord Louis Mountbatten. A date in August 1947 (August 14-15) was set for the independence of India. But the violence that was already in evidence between the Hindus and Muslims erupted into a holocaust as partition took its dreadful toll. Gandhi's legendary courage while attempting to stop the communal bloodbath, particularly in Noakhali, walking alone from village to village to halt the riots, became the wonder of the world. During this period, Lord Mountbatten referred to Gandhi as his 'One man frontier force'. Two great fasts accompanied by his last plea to bury the hatred and live as brothers resulted in near-death situation for Gandhi, but virtually brought the violence to an end.
After achieving independence, Mahatma's crusade for equal treatment of Hindus and Muslims persuaded the government of India to make massive financial contributions in aid of those Muslims who had fled from India. This was the last straw for the Hindu extremists. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic named Nathuram Godse, who believed that the Mahatma was defiling the highest ethics of Hindu religion.
On hearing the news of his assassination, the grief and sorrow experienced the world over was unique and unprecedented. The tributes paid were without reservation. As a gesture of respect and reverence, the United Nations halted its deliberations as soon as the news reached New York. In an obituary reference, Albert Einstein commented, "It may be that in years to come, man will scarce believe that one such as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth". Mahatma Gandhi was cremated at Rajghat on the outskirts of Delhi and his ashes were scattered at the confluence of the holy Ganges and the mighty Jamuna near Allahabad.
In this turbulent world of ours, where life at times appear but a delusion, where man in many instances has lost faith in God, and science has failed to deliver an alternative religion, where moral degeneration has reached a point of no return, and all that remains to be seen is the final extermination of the human race, the Gandhian philosophy of 'Brahmacharya' and 'Satyagraha' will remind this disbelieving world that there is still need for love, compassion and understanding for fellow human beings. And man should take solace not from his material or earthly possessions, but from his spiritual wellbeing, which is the only path out from this perennial suffering.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former
editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.
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