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Gandhi (Part 3)

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Back to India

Having spent twenty years in South Africa helping fight discrimination, Gandhi decided it was time to head back to India in July 1914. On his way home, Gandhi was scheduled to make a short stop in England. However, when World War I broke out during his journey, Gandhi decided to stay in England and form another ambulance corps of Indians to help the British. When the British air caused Gandhi to take ill, he sailed to India in January 1915.

Gandhi's struggles and triumphs in South Africa had been reported in the worldwide press, so by the time he reached home he was a national hero. Although he was eager to begin reforms in India, a friend advised him to wait a year and spend the time traveling around India to acquaint himself with the people and their tribulations.

Yet Gandhi soon found his fame getting in the way of accurately seeing the conditions that the poorer people lived in day to day. In an attempt to travel more anonymously, Gandhi began wearing a loincloth (dhoti) and sandals (the average dress of the masses) during this journey. If it was cold out, he would add a shawl. This became his wardrobe for the rest of his life.

Also during this year of observation, Gandhi founded another communal settlement, this time in Ahmadabad and called the Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi lived on the Ashram for the next sixteen years, along with his family and several members who had once been part of the Phoenix Settlement.

 

Mahatma

It was during his first year back in India that Gandhi was given the honorary title of Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Many credit Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, for both awarding Gandhi of this name and of publicizing it. The title represented the feelings of the millions of Indian peasants who viewed Gandhi as a holy man. However, Gandhi never liked the title because it seemed to mean he was special while he viewed himself as ordinary.

After Gandhi's year of travel and observance was over, he was still stifled in his actions because of the World War. As part of satyagraha, Gandhi had vowed to never take advantage of an opponent's troubles. With the British fighting a huge war, Gandhi could not fight for Indian freedom from British rule. This did not mean that Gandhi sat idle.

Instead of fighting the British, Gandhi used his influence and satyagraha to change inequities between Indians. For example, Gandhi persuaded landlords to stop forcing their tenant farmers to pay increased rent and mill owners to peacefully settle a strike. Gandhi used his fame and determination to appeal to the landlords' morals and used fasting as a means to convince the mill owners to settle. Gandhi's reputation and prestige had reached such a high level that people did not want to be responsible for his death (fasting made Gandhi physically weak and in ill-health, with the potential for death).

 

Turning Against the British

As the First World War reached its end, it was time for Gandhi to focus on the fight for Indian self-rule (swaraj). In 1919, the British gave Gandhi something specific to fight against - the Rowlatt Act. This Act gave the British in India nearly free-reign to root out "revolutionary" elements and to detain them indefinitely without trial. In response to this Act, Gandhi organized a mass hartal (general strike), which began on March 30, 1919. Unfortunately, such a large scale protest quickly got out of hand and in many places it turned violent.

Even though Gandhi called off the hartal once he heard about the violence, over 300 Indians had died and over 1,100 were injured from British reprisal in the city of Amritsar. Although satyagraha had not been realized during this protest, the Amritsar Massacre heated Indian opinion against the British.

The violence that erupted from the hartal showed Gandhi that the Indian people did not yet fully believe in the power of satyagraha. Thus, Gandhi spent much of the 1920s advocating for satyagraha and struggling to learn how to control nationwide protests to keep them from becoming violent.

In March 1922, Gandhi was jailed for sedition and after a trial was sentenced to six years in prison. After two years, Gandhi was released due to ill-health following surgery to treat his appendicitis. Upon his release, Gandhi found his country embroiled in violent attacks between Muslims and Hindus. As penance for the violence, Gandhi began a 21-day fast, known as the Great Fast of 1924. Still ill from his recent surgery, many thought he would die on day twelve, but he rallied. The fast created a temporary peace.

Also during this decade, Gandhi began advocating self-reliance as a way to gain freedom from the British. For example, from the time that the British had established India as a colony, the Indians were supplying Britain with raw materials and then importing expensive, woven cloth from England. Thus, Gandhi advocated that Indians spin their own cloth to free themselves from this reliance on the British. Gandhi popularized this idea by traveling with his own spinning wheel, often spinning yarn even while giving a speech. In this way, the image of the spinning wheel (charkha) became a symbol for Indian independence.

 

The Salt March

In December 1928, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (INC) announced a new challenge to the British government. If India was not granted the status of a Commonwealth by December 31, 1929, then they would organize a nation-wide protest against British taxes. The deadline came and passed with no change in British policy.

There were many British taxes to choose from, but Gandhi wanted to choose one that symbolized British exploitation of India's poor. The answer was the salt tax. Salt was a spice that was used in everyday cooking, even for the poorest in India. Yet, the British had made it illegal to own salt not sold or produced by the British government, in order to make a profit on all salt sold in India.

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