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The Peace Train
by Jack Wellman
2008-01-30 09:33:46
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On January 30th, 1948, India and the British Empire would be forever changed. That day in New Delhi, India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of the Indian independence movement, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. The undercurrents from this event would change the continent and its form of government in epic proportions.

Gandhi's mother Vaishnava was deeply religious and heavily exposed her son to Jainism, a morally rigorous Indian religion that advocated non-violence. He was also learned in governmental affairs early on, being born the son of an Indian official in 1869. But Gandhi excelled in Hinduism, even though he was in Great Britain to study law. Academically, he was anything but spectacular, which may have induced him to return to India in 1891. Being Indian, his search for a job in law was futile. This prompted him to head for South Africa, where in 1893 he found regular work in the law profession.

While living in Natal, South Africa, Gandhi faced racism like he had not seen before. The restrictive racial laws were like India’s caste system, in that upward mobility for non-whites was nearly impossible. Even the rights of Indian laborers were nearly non-existent, encumbered by dozens of regulations. When Gandhi was removed from a first-class railway compartment, and in fact, thrown off the train because of his skin color, his burning passion became fighting prejudice, racial injustice and discrimination. But not with his fists.

Gandhi almost single-handedly formed the Natal Indian Congress, designed to fight South Africa’s new legislation proposed to deny Indians the right to vote. The Transvaal government sought to take away nearly all Indian rights, so Gandhi called for a nation-wide satyagraha, literally a massive civil disobedience campaign, but this did not mean looting, starting fires or destruction of property. The South African government resisted for seven long years, but Gandhi finally managed to acquire some compromises with them. He had won a political and a moral victory and had moved a proverbial, up-to-now unmovable mountain. The results changed Gandhi himself and his infectious charisma was responsible for social change in South Africa.

After such remarkable success in South Africa, Gandhi went back to India in 1914. In the beginning he was still supportive of the British rule. Especially through World War One, but shortly after the war was over, in 1919, he launched another satyagraha, but this protest was over Britain’s mandatory military draft of Indians. Military conscription was opposed to their philosophies and beliefs. British rule was now perceived as an occupation.

By 1920, Gandhi was the national leader of India’s struggle for independence. From this movement was born the Indian National Congress, which became a formidable political and economic force. A widespread and nation-wide boycott aimed specifically at British goods, institutions and services, in fact anything British. The boycott backfired and inadvertently caused violence and by 1922 Gandhi had seen enough. He called off the boycott, even though he was arrested, tried and found guilty of sedition and imprisoned. But this was not the end of the movement or for Gandhi.

The British finally released Gandhi in 1924, which is when he led an extended fast in protest of widespread Hindu-Muslim violence. It was not necessarily a protest of British rule at the time. In 1928, Gandhi realized that change could only come from social and political vantages, so in 1928, he entered national politics. Simultaneously, he initiated a mass protest against the British salt tax. This salt tax impacted India’s most poor, so he demanded immediate dominion status for India.

Gandhi and 60,000 others marched to the sea to evaporate their own salt. With this, international support for Gandhi and his movement began to grow. World leaders called it a peaceful resistance to British rule. And so their respect for him as a national leader grew. Especially after such a long and bloody war that was World War One.

In 1934, while Gandhi was still being incarcerated, he initiated another fast to protest how the British treated what they called, the "untouchables". They treated these impoverished and degraded Indians as deserving of their lowest-status tier of the caste system. Nonetheless, after the start of World War Two, he returned to politics primarily to build national unity and cooperation with the British during the war effort. However, this cooperation would be contingent upon Britain granting India’s independence. Instead of agreeing, the British sought to divide conservative Hindu and Muslim groups, even to the point of inciting them to violence over their differences.

Gandhi felt the time was perfect for the "Quit India" movement. This 1942 movement sought a total British withdraw from all of Indian, Muslims, Hindus, all caste levels. The British answer was the same as many times before. They threw Gandhi and several other nationalist leaders in prison.

After the war, a new British administration finally sat down to negotiate Indian independence. What they got on August 15th, 1947, left a bitter taste in Gandhi’s mouth and created violence and bloodshed between Muslims and Hindus. India was to be divided into two separate nations, India and Pakistan. What Gandhi had hoped would be a unified India was now more divided than ever.

In an effort to end India's religious strife, he resorted to fasts and personal visits to the more violent areas. New Delhi was one such troubled area and where he met a Hindu extremist named Nathuram Godse. Godse severely objected to Gandhi's tolerance toward Muslims and so he fatally shot him. Overnight, Gandhi had passed from peacemaker to the Mahatma, or literally "the great soul“.

His peaceful approaches to social change, his ability to unify people groups and ideals, and his passionate pursuit for India’s independence, made him one of the most influential leaders in the world. A leader in successful civil rights movements via powerfully effective and peaceful methods. Gandhi preferred a peaceful civil disobedience, boycotts, negotiations. These all influenced later civil rights movements, like the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s in the 1960s. All the jails in India couldn’t hold this movement now, as the inertia was increasing exponentially.

On December 27th, 2007 it seems nearly a repeat of history, albeit a sad chapter, as Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. And there is national and world-wide suspicion that Pervez Musharraf was behind it. The CIA believes al- Qaida may be linked to it or it might be part of the terrorist network of Baitullah Mehsud. We may never know. What follows next, after Benazir Bhutto’s death, is highly unpredictable.

Gandhi is gone but his ideas live on. His hatred of violence as a means to an end, and granted there was widespread violence in India that may have been avoided, but freedom through peace was his overriding purpose. To eliminate social injustice by political, and hopefully, peaceful means.
He changed India, but not in the way of the previous revolts. This was achieved with a thundering velvet hand. He was India and is now called the Father of the Nation. He is honored every year on October 2nd, his birthday. Cat Stevens once wrote a song in the 1970’s that would fit Gandhi’s movement. It’s called The Peace Train. If there were such a Peace Train, Gandhi would surely be on it…in fact he might be stoking the engine and crying…”Everybody on board…the Peace Train“.

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