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Mohandas Gandhi

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When Mohandas Gandhi was born in western India in 1869, Europe ruled the world. The various colonial powers controlled huge territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; chief among these powers was Britain, whose Queen Victoria gave the age its name. The British Empire ruled all of India, from present-day Pakistan in the west to present-day Burma in the east: this Indian dominion, or Raj, as they called it, was the brightest jewel in an empire that included Canada, Australia, much of Africa, and countless smaller territories.

India was an ancient and proud civilization; in the Middle Ages, it had been far more powerful and civilized than Europeanpe. However, under the Mughal Dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries its power had waned, and the Western powers had passed it by technologically, as the Industrial Revolution gave them an insurmountable edge in economic and military matters. The British did not so much conquer India as occupy a power vacuum, first under the auspices of the East India Company in the 17th century, which used British troops to protect and expand its trading sphere, and then under the British Crown after 1857. But the colonial empire that Britain (and France, and Germany, and others) had asserted across the less-developed world contained the seeds of its own downfall. In their loftier moments, the Europeanpean powers declared they were spreading civilization; but spreading civilization meant creating a class of educated people in their conquered lands, familiar with Western politics and power structures–a class that would soon rise up against them.

Gandhi, who studied law in England, was a member of this class–although his distaste for modernity and his love of ancient India set him apart from most of his allies in the quest for independence. And just as Gandhi was a part of a larger class of rebels, the movement he led in India in the '20s and '30s was a part of a larger wave of independence movements that would spread throughout Asia and Africa in the aftermath of World War II. To some extent, the rise and ultimate triumph of these movements were inevitable: While the Indian nationalists were partially responsible for the fall of the British Empire, so too was World War I, in which the nations of Europeanpe bled themselves dry, in manpower and morale. After that crushing struggle, the cheerful optimism of the long British-dominated 19th century was gone. In its place emerged a suspicion of ideas like progress, a distaste for empire, and a diminished sense of national pride. While the Indians gained the will to seek independence, the British lost their will to hold their empire.

The death knell of empire, however, came with World War II, when the Germans crushed Europeanpe flat and the Japanese showed that a "non-Western" nation could be a military power. The Cold War became the dominant political reality, with the United States and the Soviet Union as the two world powers. National independence movements gained momentum under this new order, for both superpowers gave at least lip service to "national liberation." When India gained its independence and Gandhi gained martyrdom in 1947 and '48, the country set an example that African and Asian leaders would follow to independence in the decades that followed. By 1970, only a century after Gandhi's birth, only a century after the peak of the British Empire, the era of colonialism was at an end.

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