Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, Kathiawar, India, which was then part of the British Empire. He studied law and advocated for the civil rights of Indians, both at home under British rule and in South Africa. Gandhi became a leader of India’s independence movement, organizing boycotts against British institutions in peaceful forms of civil disobedience.
His father, Karamchand Gandhi, served as a chief minister in Porbandar and other states in western India. His mother, Putlibai, was a deeply religious woman who fasted regularly. Gandhi grew up worshiping the Hindu god Vishnu and following Jainism, a morally rigorous ancient Indian religion that espoused non violence, fasting, meditation and vegetarianism.
Young Gandhi was a shy, unremarkable student who was so timid that he slept with the lights on even as a teenager. At the age of 13, he married to Kasturba Makanji, a merchant’s daughter, in an arranged marriage.
Although Gandhi was interested in becoming a doctor, his father had hoped he would also become a government minister, so his family steered him to enter the legal profession. Shortly after the birth of the first of four surviving sons, 18-year-old Gandhi sailed for London, England, in 1888 to study law.
Upon returning to India in 1891, Gandhi learned that his mother had died just weeks earlier. Then, he struggled to gain his footing as a lawyer. In his first courtroom case, a nervous Gandhi blanked when the time came to cross-examine a witness. He immediately fled the courtroom after reimbursing his client for his legal fees. After struggling to find work in India, Gandhi obtained a one-year contract to perform legal services in South Africa.
When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, he was quickly appalled by the discrimination and racial segregation faced by Indian immigrants at the hands of white British and Boer authorities. Upon his first appearance in a Durban courtroom, Gandhi was asked to remove his turban. He refused and left the court instead. The Natal Advertiser mocked him in print as “an unwelcome visitor.”
A seminal moment in Gandhi’s life occurred days later on June 7, 1893, during a train trip to Pretoria when a white man objected to his presence in the first-class railway compartment, although he had a ticket. Refusing to move to the back of the train, Gandhi was forcibly removed and thrown off the train at a station in Pietermaritzburg.
His act of civil disobedience awoke in him a determination to devote himself to fighting the “deep disease of color prejudice.” He vowed that night to “try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.” From that night forward, the small, unassuming man would grow into a giant force for civil rights.
He was the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. He is also called Bapu( “father”) in India. In common parlance in India he is often called Gandhiji. He is unofficially called the Father of the Nation.
Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, but above all for achieving Swaraj or self-rule.
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km (250 mi) Dandi Salt March in 1930, and later in calling for the British to Quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, upon many occasions, in both South Africa and India. Gandhi attempted to practise nonviolence and truth in all situations, and advocated that others do the same. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient residential community and wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn hand-spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as a means of both self-purification and social protest.
Gandhi’s vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism, however, was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, but the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan. As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to their new lands, religious violence broke out, especially in the Punjab and Bengal.
The official celebration of independence in Delhi, Gandhi visited the affected areas, attempting to provide solace. In the months following, he undertook several fasts unto death to promote religious harmony. The last of these, undertaken on 12 January 1948 at age 78, also had the indirect goal of pressuring India to pay out some cash assets owed to Pakistan. Some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest at point-blank range.
His birthday, 2 October, is commemorated as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday, and world-wide as the International Day of Nonviolence.