This is the first post in a series called Topic Of The Week. Every week I discuss a different topic, from historical figures to random vegetables. No guidelines.
I settled in for a Netflix and chill session the other night and found myself entranced by the 1982 Richard Attenborough (brother of David Attenborough) film, Gandhi. The film is just over three hours long. After the first hour and a half I realised it was 1am and that I had a decision to make. Feast on tuna and rice and continue watching or behave like a responsible adult and go to bed. I chose the former.
The film Gandhi runs for 3 hours and 11 minutes and stars actor, Ben Kingsley, in the title role.
My family has a joke that every week or so I am taken with a new obsession. From learning about the Meiji Restoration to Mark Wahlberg, I become interested in a topic and off I go. In this case, the biopic Gandhi sparked my desire to learn more about the man who was a pivotal part of the Indian Independence movement.
In the first five minutes of the film Gandhi was assassinated (did you know Gandhi was assassinated?) in the first ten he was fighting for Indian rights in… wait for it— apartheid South Africa. South Africa! Not India. Wah?! OK this is may not be news to you but clearly I knew nothing about Gandhi. I didn’t know he was a lawyer, I didn’t know he was active in South Africa and I did not know he is unofficially known as The Father of the Indian nation.
I felt somewhat ashamed by my lack of knowledge since I have studied modern history. After the movie I did more digging and learnt plenty of fascinating facts. I will relay them here in what I hope is an easily digestible format.
Quick Facts: Gandhi
On Gandhi’s name and legacy
+ Gandhi is known for being a key figure, if not the key figure, in the Indian Independence movement. He was born in 1869 and assassinated in 1948.
+Gandhi’s full name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. His name often appears as, Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma is an honorific that means “high souled” or “venerable”, it is not Gandhi’s first name.
+Gandhi began his career as a lawyer and was educated at University College London.
A strapping young Gandhi in South Africa. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
On Gandhi’s time in South Africa
+ Gandhi first came to public attention when he began to fight for Indian rights in apartheid South Africa. The story goes that Gandhi was hired to work in South Africa as a lawyer and upon arrival was shocked by the discrimination he faced. In one instance that was portrayed in Attenborough’s film, Gandhi was told to leave a first class train carriage despite having a ticket. After refusing (because: ticket) Gandhi was kicked off the train altogether. Many historians have questioned the entire veracity of the train story. Some say the young lawyer was actually allowed to stay in the first class cabin. Either way it cannot be denied than Gandhi experienced racism in the country and that this led him to seek better rights for South Africa’s Indian population.
+ Gandhi stayed in South Africa for over twenty years. It was in South African that Gandhi developed his policies of non-violent civil disobedience. It was also in South African that Gandhi earned the title, Mahatama.
+ Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and joined the struggle to gain Indian independence from British rule. India gained independence in 1947.
Gandhi returned to India in 1915 in more traditional clothing. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
On Gandhi’s policies of non-violence
+Gandhi is famous for his policies of non-violent civil disobedience. His fights took the form of peaceful marches and non-cooperation. Gandhi’s strategies influenced people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. As with any struggle for autonomy, violence certainly occurred during India’s nationalist movement. It would be wrong to think otherwise, the important thing to note is that Gandhi did not use violence as part of his strategy. ISIS is a current example of a group who uses violence (terrorism) as part of a strategy.
+Non-violence was a large part of Gandhi’s philosophy but this does not mean he was anti-war. At the outbreak of WW1 Gandhi helped recruit volunteers for the Ambulance Corps. At the tail end of the war he actively assisted in the recruitment of Indian combatants. These actions led many to question the exact nature of Gandhi’s stance on non-violence.
+ The Salt March was one of Gandhi’s most notable acts of civil disobedience. On March 12 1930, Gandhi and a group of supporters, which eventually came number in the thousands, marched around 240 miles (390 kilometers) to a village near the Arabian sea coast. The march lasted 24 days and at the end of it Gandhi proceeded to make salt from the sea. This behaviour was in direct defiance of the British Salt Acts that made collecting and selling salt illegal. Indians traditionally made their own salt (it was a staple in the Indian diet) but under English rule the population was forced to buy salt from British-approved sellers only. While the Salt March did not end British rule then and there, it led to nationwide non-violent rebellion (other Indians began making salt—and actually some of this defiance led to violence) and international attention.
+Fasting was one of Gandhi’s tools for non-violent protest. He undertook about 17 fasts during the Indian Independence movement. His longest fasts were 21 days (dayum). Fasting or hunger strikes are a strategy used by protestors to this day. In 2011 a man named Anna Hazare was branded a ‘modern day Gandhi’ for his fast against corruption in New Delhi.
Gandhi making salt at the end of the Salt March. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
On Gandhi’s OOTD
+Gandhi is famously known for wearing traditional Indian peasant garb. He did not always dress like this. Gandhi was born middle class and, as mentioned, completed his university studies in the UK. This type of clothing was not Gandhi’s only option as it was for many Indians. Gandhi chose to dress like this so that he could better identify with and represent the poor he sought to release from the shackles of British hegemony (can you tell I am dramatic?).
+Gandhi visited London in 1931 to attend a round table conference about India’s future. Gandhi remained in his traditional garb while in the UK, the pictures are admirable (fight for the cause) and amusing (LOL, London is cold and everyone else was in Western attire).
Gandhi in London. Image via: Wikimedia Commons
While in the UK Gandhi visited mill workers at the cotton town of Darwen. Image via: Wikimedia Commons.
On Gandhi and his correspondence with Hitler (you read that right)
+ Gandhi wrote at least one letter to Adolf Hitler. Read the letter here. Hitler did not reply to the letter, no one knows if he even read it. Rumour has it that Gandhi had books by Hitler in his library and vice versa. The tenuous connection between these men has intrigued millions. Gandhi stood for peace and Hitler for violence (a simplified synopsis to be sure). There was even a movie made about the topic. The 2011 Indian movie, Gandhi To Hitler. Apparently it’s not a very good film. Heh.
Gandhi and old mate Hitler? Image via India Facts.
On Gandhi’s sexuality
+ Gandhi was celibate in later life (he had a wife and four children). He saw sex as counter to his moral and religious ideals. Gandhi’s celibacy was criticised by his contemporaries and historians alike. Some revisionist historians question whether Gandhi was in fact a sexual predator due to experiments he would conduct with women to test his celibacy. The publishing of a correspondence between Gandhi and close friend, Hermann Kallenbach, has also led to speculation that the Father Of The Nation may have been gay. Tabloid speculation or something more concrete? We’ll never know.
Was Gandhi a sexual predator? Image via: Wikimedia Commons.
On Gandhi’s assassination
+ Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse. He was shot in the chest three times. India was in the process of becoming an independent nation. This involved splitting the nation into two dominions: India and Pakistan. The partition of India led to tension between Hindu and Muslim groups, a tension that manifested in rioting and violence. Gandhi stood for tolerance and pluralism and this irked many extremist Hindus, including Godse, who resented Gandhi for his complacency toward Muslims. Millions across the world mourned Gandhi’s death, click here to read an article from the New York Times published soon after the event.
Nathuram Godse shot Gandhi three times in the chest . He was executed on November 15, 1949.
Gandhi was more than an influential peace-loving hippie, which is ashamedly how I viewed him all these years. Gandhi is emblematic of peace and tolerance but he also represents resilience and shrewdness. His decision to fight for independence with a policy of non-violence was clever above all else. Violence against the British would have led to a tightening of laws and even worse violence toward Indians in response (in many instances this occurred anyway). Gandhi analysed the system and knew where to strike for the most impact. The Salt Acts were ridiculously unjust but this was not the driving reason behind the Salt March. There were worse injustices perpetrated by the British at the time. Gandhi chose salt because it was symbolic, and an item used by all Indians. An item that the poorest of the poor needed and could relate to. I agree with historians who view Gandhi as a tactician. Some think that you cannot be a saint and a political mastermind (and a suspected pervert). If it seems incongruous it cannot be, right? In my experience, it makes more sense to understand Gandhi as a complex man. I have yet to meet an entirely simple person, why would a global hero be any different?
The next time you see a portrait of the bald-headed Gandhi wearing round spectacles and a robe, know that the benign eyes staring back at you are masking a whirring brain and a more cunning man.
Find out more
+ Listen to the podcast series Biography by Aussie podcaster Matt Smith. It features four short, highly informative and entertaining episodes about Gandhi. I like this series because it features academics that are experts on the topics at hand. The information is trustworthy and insightful.
+ Learn more about the partition of India and the brutal violence that ensued in the fantastic New Yorker article, The Great Divide by William Dalrymple.