Mahatma Gandhi, walking through the garden of Birla House in New Delhi with his arms around two of his granddaughters, felt as if the evening of January 30, 1948 would be just like most others. On his way to the evening prayer meeting, however, a young man emerged from the adoring crowd and shot him three times, assassinating one of the most beloved figures the world has ever known.
From a very early age, Gandhi’s mother impressed the values of Jainism upon him. Built upon personal responsibility for salvation and a commitment to non-violence, it is easy to see how the young boy could mature into the influential figure Gandhi became. Traveling to England to further his education — the request of his father, an administrator in the family’s hometown of Porbandar — he received a law degree in 1891.
Unable to find work in India, Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893. As a victim to discrimination perpetrated by government officials and common citizens, his ideas for social activism and justice crystallized quickly. In a bid to thwart provisions disfranchising Indians living in South Africa, he formed the Natal Indian Congress, creating a buzz worldwide about the issues facing his people. With fresh legislation presented in 1906 to undercut Indians even further, Gandhi organized his first satyagraha, the form of effective, peaceful civil disobedience he would come to be known for. Seven years later, he would help to negotiate a compromise with South African government.
When he finally returned to India in 1914, Gandhi seemed content to remain on the fringes of Indian politics. The forced service of Indians in the British military during World War I, however, changed his mind. Bringing the weight of another satyagraha decrying the policy to bear, Gandhi helped turn the Indian National Congress (INC) into a major organization for elevating society and, eventually, pushing for self-government in 1928.
In 1930, Gandhi managed to garner even more international attention, launching a protest against the Salt Tax with some 60,000 of his followers. Arrested for attempting to evaporate sea water to acquire the salt within it after the 250-mile Dandi Salt March, he would be rewarded for his efforts with the first months of a combined six years in prison during his lifetime. Energized, Gandhi moved increasingly moved away from politics to give voice to those on the margins of Indian society — “untouchables” from lower castes and women, in particular. His disciples, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, took the baton in the fight for independence.
When he returned to politics in 1936 after a two-year hiatus, the importance Gandhi placed on non-violent means to the desired ends of sovereignty fell on increasingly deaf ears in the INC. As nations all over the planet descended into World War II, he offered support to the British cause in defeating Nazi Germany, though he hoped India’s role would be limited to that of a moral ally instead of a source for new recruits. Seeing his country mined for soldiers once again, his calls for full independence became louder and louder.
Frustrated with colonial administrators, which showed no sign of guaranteeing self-government in exchange for Indian military action, Gandhi made his most famous speech at Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai on August 8, 1942. Launching the Quit India movement against colonial rule, he and hundreds of others were imprisoned the following day for inciting crowds against British officials. During the two years he spent in jail, Gandhi organized numerous hunger strikes to protest policies he believed perpetuated the oppression of the Indian people.
Once out of prison, the now-widowed Gandhi stepped into a vastly different political landscape. Other groups, such as the Muslim League, gained wider influence while much of the INC leadership (and nearly 100,000 others) languished in prison. As the British moved toward relinquishing colonial responsibility, Gandhi argued for maintaining a single nation tolerant of all religions, as opposed to the partitioned arrangement of India and Pakistan. With hundreds of thousands killed during late 1947 in battles between religious groups attempting to transfer from one side of the Radcliffe Line to the other, Gandhi’s belief in the possibility of true unity vanished.
Five months later, Gandhi walked through the courtyard at the home of the wealthy Birla family shortly after 5pm. As was customary, the gathered admirers parted to provide him a pathway into the house and he pressed his hands together as a sign of reverence for those kind enough to shower him with such affection. Nathuram Godse, a member of the extremist Hindu Mahasabha, stepped into the gap and fired a small pistol at Gandhi from hardly more than an arm’s length away. Crumpling over with bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen, the influential leader was rushed inside as people in the courtyard seized and beat the assassin.
Gandhi survived four previous attempts on his life but the proximity of this attacker left him little chance with the fifth. He was dead 25 minutes later. As word spread throughout the nation, riots erupted in Mumbai resulting in 15 deaths and 54 injuries. Nehru, now Prime Minister of the fledgling country, announced plans for the funeral over national radio, informing the world “The light has gone out of our lives.”
Thousands gathered outside Birla House that night, patiently standing in line for a glimpse of Gandhi’s body laying on a cot on a second-floor balcony. The following day, a funeral procession began at 11:30 in the morning, winding along the major streets of New Delhi and Delhi to reach the banks of the sacred Jumna River. Millions packed the sidewalks along the way, awaiting the moment when the great leader’s body would be placed on ceremonial pyres awaiting the traditional cremation.
The list of future leaders impacted by Gandhi’s legacy is innumerable. Far beyond the reaches of India — perhaps most famously with the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa — the adored teacher’s methods have been adopted to effect grand social change over and over again.
Also On This Day:
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1820 – Edward Bransfield claims the discovery of Antarctica after laying eyes on Trinity Peninsula
1969 – The Beatles perform in public for the last time, on the roof of Apple Records in London
1982 – The world’s first PC virus, a 400-line code disguised as an Apple program, is written by Richard Skrenta
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