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Mohandas Gandhi

India and World War I

The Making of the Mahatma

Amritsar and Rebellion

The First World War began with the murder of an Austrian Archduke by a Serbian assassin in June of 1914, and soon mushroomed into a conflict that gripped Europeanpe and the world in four years of strategic stalemate and unparalleled butchery. When war was declared in August, Gandhi was in England, where he immediately began organizing a medical corps similar to the force he had led in the Boer War. But ill health soon forced his return to India, where he received a wildly enthusiastic welcome. In his absence, his fame as the politician-saint of South Africa and the founder of satyagraha had spread throughout India, and now cheering crowds cried "Mahatmaji" ("ji" being a suffix connoting affection) wherever he appeared. "Mahatma" meant "Great Soul," an appellation applied to the holiest men of Hinduism, and was first conferred upon Gandhi by the great Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1913. Gandhi, of course, insisted that all souls were equal, and found bothersome the religious adulation lavished upon him, even as it gave him great practical power on the subcontinent. But despite his distaste for it, Mahatma was a title he would bear until his death and beyond, and while there were other Mahatmas in the India of his lifetime, Gandhi is the only one remembered today.

Gandhi spent his first year in India in retirement from public life. However, the year was punctuated by a brief visit with the British Governor of Bombay (and future Viceroy of India), Lord Willingdon, whom Gandhi promised to consult before he launched any political campaigns, and then the death of G.K. Gokhale, Gandhi's political mentor, an event that left him feeling somewhat adrift in the currents of Indian political life. Indian nationalism was a fast- growing phenomenon, as some members of the Indian National Congress had begun to push for Swaraj, or "home-rule." But Gandhi steered clear of these agitators, in part because he was not yet certain that he agreed with them, and in part because he had to resettle his family and the other inhabitants of the Phoenix Settlement (and the Tolstoy Settlement, a twin he had founded near Johannesburg) in India. To this end, he established a new settlement near the town of Ahmedabad, the capital of the western province of Gujarati, near where he had been born. It came to be known as the Satyagraha ashram, ashram being an Indian word for a communal settlement, and was officially founded on May 25, 1915. Its initial inhabitants included some twenty-five people, all sworn to chastity and poverty- -and among them was a family of untouchables, India's lowest caste.

By living in a communal space with untouchables (whose very presence, it was believed, defiled higher-caste Hindus), Gandhi deeply offended many of his supporters and lost considerable financial support. He was actually considering a move to the untouchable district in Ahmedabad when a generous Muslim merchant donated enough money to keep the ashram running for a year–by which time Gandhi's communal life with the untouchables had become slightly less of an outrage.

Gandhi's public life in India commenced in February of 1916, when he gave a speech at the opening of the new Hindu University in the city of Benares. The speech was typical of Gandhi, as he urged the assembled, westernized Indians that they would never be worthy of self-government unless they looked out for their less fortunate brethren. He then went on to catalogue the awful living conditions of the lower classes that he had observed during his travels around India–with a special focus, as always, on sanitation. The speech enjoyed little popularity among the Indian intelligentsia, but Gandhi hardly cared. He had begun to approve of the idea of home rule, but he had no interest in exchanging government by a British elite for rule by an Anglicized Indian elite. If swaraj was to come to India, he argued, it must come as part of a wholesale social transformation that stripped away the old burdens of caste and crippling poverty.

During the war years, he set about putting these principles into action. His intervention (and willingness, as always, to face arrest) in the Champaran district on behalf of impoverished indigo-cultivators led to a government commission being appointed to investigate abuses by the indigo planters. At the same time, he discovered what was to become one of his most effective weapons in late years–the fast. He had always fasted as part of his personal regimen, but when a group of striking Ahmedabad mill-workers, whose cause he had supported, turned to violence in their struggle with the mill-owners, he resolved to fast until they returned to his principle of non-violence. As it happened, the fast only lasted three days, as the two sides came to the bargaining table and hammered out an agreement. But it set a precedent for later action, and he would continue to use it as weapon in the arsenal of satyagraha–despite criticism from those who condemned such behavior as little more than a form of blackmail.

As the war in Europeanpe dragged to its conclusion in 1917-18, Gandhi began tramping about India, recruiting men for the British Army. Although his dreams of home rule had grown stronger, he was still loyal to Britain and to the ideals of the British Constitution, with which he later declared to have "fallen in love." But the Indian people, having listened to him preach non-violence and resistance to unjust authority, had a difficult time accepting him in the role of recruitment officer–how, they wondered, could the apostle of peace ask them to take up arms in defense of the Raj? Wearied from his journey, he fell ill with dysentery; it was his first serious illness, and he resolutely resisted treatment, preferring his own regimen. As a result he spent a long time as a convalescent.

While Gandhi lay in bed in his ashram, the war came to an end. In a sense, the long struggle had been a great vindication of the British Empire and its Indian "jewel": the subcontinent had remained loyal, for the most part, and Indian troops had fought valiantly for the Empire around the globe. But the seeds of the Raj's downfall were sown. Britain was drained, of both manpower and will, and would never again regain the sunny optimism that had characterized its 19th century rule. The interwar years would soon bring a malaise to the Empire, as a series of mediocre governments stood by impotently in the face of a hostile Germany's rise to power and the progressive loss of their own domination. Meanwhile, India was restive: the British had destroyed the world's only Muslim power, the Ottoman Empire, and the loyalty of Indians Muslims was questionable. And having fought a war whose supposed purpose was to protect the rights of small states and independent peoples from tyranny, the rhetoric of British rule in India had begun to ring hollow.

In this atmosphere, the harried British government made a frightful mistake. They elected to follow the recommendations of the Rowlatt Committee, which advocated the retention of wartime restrictions in India–including curfews and the suppression of free speech. Gandhi, reading the soon-to-be-passed Rowlatt Act in his sickbed, was too weak to mount a protest, but his loyalty to the Empire, which he had long viewed as the guarantor of Indian liberties, suffered a major blow; events of the next few years were to shatter it entirely.

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