India’s Path to Freedom – Part 1

Ghandi’s claim of truthfulness towards himself expanded into an all-encompassing philosophy, into which his continued efforts for purity of life and simplicity of lifestyle were integrated.

India’s Path to Freedom – Part 1

India’s path to independence from the British Empire is usually seen as a glorious example of a nonviolent process. In fact, the Indian National Congress and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in a dual strategy of political action and mobilization of the masses into nonviolent resistance, managed to bring about the British withdrawal that brought freedom – but also partition – to India in 1947.

The British were not the only foreign rulers in recent Indian history. In fact, they gradually replaced the rule of the Muslim Mughals. From 1526 to 1858, India had been under Muslim rule (already for the second time). The Muslim conquerors and those Indians who converted to Islam formed the dominant class in this empire. Then, from 1601, when the British East India Company, endowed with privileges from the English queen, began to build up the sea routes for the Indian trade on a large scale and founded trading houses on the subcontinent, a slow shift of power toward the British already began. Gradually, they established military and civil jurisdiction, waged war against insurgents, imposed harsh terms of trade on India, and also began to expand and take over the existing administration. Repeated uprisings by Indians led Britain to strip the British East India Company of its trading monopoly in 1833, making it once again a pure trading company. In 1858, the Company finally lost its administrative role to the British government, and Queen Victoria became Empress of India.

India raises its voice

During all this time, there were repeated uprisings and aspirations for independence. The fact that the country was being squeezed out by the British, that textiles from British industrial production virtually destroyed Indian textile production, that increasing poverty led to great famines, proved, as it were, the illegitimacy of British rule over India. At the same time, during the time when India was a crown colony, it had been an endeavor of the British to provide enough Indians with a good English education so that they could be used in the administration, because it was impossible to fill all important posts with people from the mother country. Thus the families of the Indian upper class sent their sons to good English colleges, where they came into contact with the ideals of European culture – universal ideals, which they themselves, however, were not to enjoy, and all the less so after returning home to India, when they took up their responsible occupations and were nevertheless treated as an inferior race. Thus, the British raised a class of salon revolutionaries who founded the Indian National Congress (INC, 1885) and the Muslim League (1906) – in the beginning powerless debating clubs that could only draft resolutions and submit them to the colonial administration; only after World War I were they admitted as political parties and successively participated in the country’s government.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), who had been sent by his family to London to study law, discovered pacifism and vegetarianism there, read the Bhagavad Gita and studied Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. About Christianity he said:

If God could have sons, then we were all his sons. If Jesus was God-like or God himself, then we were all God-like and could become God ourselves.  [1]

By the end of his studies, Gandhi had become a lawyer, and the foundation had been laid for his satyagraha (meaning “holding fast to the truth”) approach to life, which went beyond the mere nonviolence of ahimsa.

At his first post as a lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi witnessed how dark-skinned people-Indian contract workers and the native colored population-were repeatedly deprived of their rights, and he began to represent them in court and before their “masters” and employers by working out a philosophy of moral superiority that appealed to the conscience and morality of the opposing side in each case. In the course of his activity, his claim of truthfulness towards himself expanded into an all-encompassing philosophy, into which his continued efforts for purity of life and simplicity of lifestyle were integrated. His approach succeeded and made him well known. Gandhi’s satyagraha is also often seen as a tactic to “turn” the opponent by appealing to his own conscience, but Gandhi’s aspiration was higher: he sought the common moral ground on which agreement became possible and mutual respect could grow.

When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, his reputation as a civil rights activist and accomplished organizer preceded him. He became a member of the INC and soon began to steer its direction, even as he stepped back in the party from 1936 behind Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who would eventually become the first prime minister of a free India. For Gandhi, more important than political work in the party was not only to mobilize the people so that they stood up for their rights, but actually to empower them morally and ethically to achieve self-reliance, dignity and freedom for themselves. He knew India would gain independence only if the effort was supported by the whole people and not just a group of salon revolutionaries.

Without a concrete plan, he always went wherever he was called because of blatant abuses. His cautious approach, always based on fundamental respect for the law, allowed him to politely but clearly criticize obvious injustices and oppression. He was often successful in this; his fame and recognition grew, and he was given the honorary name Mahatma (roughly translated: great soul).

(to be continued in part 2)


[1]     In his autobiography The Story Of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

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Date: August 30, 2022
Author: Angela Paap (Germany)
Photo: WikiImages on Pixabay CCO

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