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Mahatma Gandhi


Another most interesting site is the Bombay (now Mumbai) home of Mahatma Gandhi between 1917 and 1934. It is now a museum to his life. The most interesting thing about it is how a man who may have simply lived a comfortable upper-class life became instead the ‘Father of Modern India’.

Mohandas Karamch  and Gandhi was born into an upper caste Indian family in 1869. His father, Karamch  and Gandhi (1822-1885), belonged to the Hindu Modh community and was the diwan (Prime Minister) of Porbander state, a small princely state in the Kathiawar that had come under British influence only 50 years before. His Mother was devout and his father political. Mohandas was educated in England; reading law in at University College London. But he was radicalised in South Africa when as a young lawyer he was excluded from a first class carriage on a train.

Observing the operation of the caste system even today it is easy to understand the depth of this insult to one who had been used to high social status. This and his London experiences may also account for his lifelong struggle to mobilise India against the remnants of the Raj. As the story of his life (as set out in the Museum) suggests, the train incident was his epiphany and led to a passionate distaste for discrimination; his struggle for civil rights on behalf of the expatriate Indian community's and the evolution of his methods non-violent civil disobedience. This eventually achieved Indians becoming re-classed as coloured, rather than black, and their gaining similar rights to whites in South Africa.

After his return to India in 1915, he set up as a lawyer in Bombay and began to organise protests by peasants, farmers, and urban labourers against the foreigners, focusing on excessive land-taxes, exploitation and discrimination.

His home in Bombay is a very substantial four storey mansion in a good street, as would befit a well-to-do lawyer with a wife and four children.



Gandhi's other house


Simultaneously Ghandi established a rural property, Sabarmati Ashram, on the bank of River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. This farm became the focus for his interactions with the rural community, protests and marches: ‘This is the right place for our activities to carry on the search for truth and develop fearlessness, for on one side are the iron bolts of the foreigners, and on the other the thunderbolts of Mother Nature.’ It was abandoned in 1933 but has since been restored as a monument.

By 1921 his activism had gained him the title Mahatma (great soul) and leadership of the Indian National Congress. From this power-base Gandhi led a number of campaigns; to stop importing foreign textiles and other goods (with public burnings of imported goods); against various taxes (eg on salt); for women's rights; against religious and ethnic intolerance; to end untouchability and ease poverty; and foremost, against the British presence in India.

He was jailed on several occasions and responded with fasts or hunger strikes; refining these to a successful form of social protest. Towards the end of his time in Bombay and at the Ashram (now in his sixties and his children adults) he began to accentuate his acetic lifestyle and adopted as a motif, a traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, made from fabric hand-spun on a charkha (spinning wheel); clothes he thenceforth wore in public (and overseas).


Gandhi - stepping it out in Shimla



This style, and his emaciated frame became his persona and the spinning wheel his symbol. He even designed a prototype Indian National Flag now on display at his house, with the spinning wheel as the central icon. This is now replaced by the Ashoka Chakraa wheel with 24 spokes symbolising the teachings of the Buddha.

By this time Ghandihad amassed considerable power and had already been named Time Magazine ‘Man of the Year’. With his now guru like appearance, manner and penchant for parables, he soon acquired an almost godlike status and was widely admired, and even revered, throughout the world. His intimate followers, such as Englishwoman Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn), like a self-styled Mary Magdalene (and dressing the part), are described in contemporary media as disciples.

But he was first and foremost a politician, with very well developed self-esteem, and the real politic of Indian life was tumultuous. As World War Two broke out he was equivocal on India’s proper response; initially supporting the allies but then opposing them, as an opportunity to end British influence. This led to the wartime suppression of the Congress and a further stint in jail for Gandhi. The Muslim League on the other hand supported the British war effort.

At the end of the War Ghandi became the final decision maker in settling the terms of the Indian Independence Act 1947. This Act was for ‘the dissolution of the British Indian Empire’ and its partition into India and Pakistan.

A British Parliamentary Mission had visited India in 1946, to negotiate British withdrawal, and in May reported that: ‘the Congress party under Gandhi-Nehru’ wanted to obtain absolute power for their party, having the discretion to: ‘deal with Muslim League and Muslims in general at their discretion after the British departed’. The All India Muslim League under Mohammed Ali Jinnah (another British educated lawyer), is said to have wanted to keep India united but with political safeguards provided to Muslims such as guarantee of 'parity' in the legislatures. This was said to reflect ‘the wide belief of Muslims that the British Raj was simply going to be turned in to a 'Hindu Raj' once the British departed’’.

The position of Jinnah in this is still hotly debated. His early position was that Muslim leaning states should continue to be governed locally, as a federation, within greater India. But Gandhi and the Congress were adamantly opposed to this and Jinnah (apparently reluctantly) came around to support partition.

Jinnah continued to command sympathy in London and was adamant that ‘parity’ (with separate statehood) was essential. He lost a good deal of this support when in August 1946 he organised Direct Action Day in support of partition. This quickly descended into mass Muslim/Hindu rioting and inter-religious murder in Calcutta and surrounding regions that became known as ‘The Week of the Long Knives’. Many thousands died and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.

It was into this politically charged, internecine environment, that Navel Officer, Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and uncle to the Duke of Edinburgh had sailed as the 24th Viceroy.




Gandhi’s chosen successor, Congress leader Jawaharlal (Pandit) Nehru was a man of extraordinary charisma and quickly became very close to Mountbatten (and his wife). Mountbatten’s specific instructions when appointed were to preserve a united India but he soon determined, under Nehru’s and to a lesser extent Jinnah’s influence, that this was politically impossible and instead negotiated a partition solution with the Council of Princes; to their ultimate demise.

Ghandi’s role in this was complex and is interestingly treated in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi  that is dedicated to both Nehru and Mountbatten as its progenitors. Gandhi  is represented as leading the Hindu opposition to partition but ultimately had to make a decision between delaying indefinitely ‘the dissolution of the British Indian Empire’ and partition. He chose partition. The alternative, of a federation with the Muslim States, is not given any credence. Indeed, it may have prevented India becoming a secular State; and was not attractive to Nehru, a British educated Fabian Socialist lawyer.

Upon proclamation of the Independence Act, widespread violence immediately erupted, with  many killed, and hundreds of thousands of refugees moved across the new borders in both directions (sometimes forcibly). Within months the first the Indo-Pakistani War broke out over the disputed status of Jammu  and Kashmir. The partition displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million.

In an attempt to stem the violence Ghandi announced yet another hunger strike ‘unto death’. But he was persuaded not to continue and soon after he was assassinated (in January 1948 at the age of 79) by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who held him responsible for weakening India by partition and for paying the newly created Pakistan 550 million rupees as part of the agreement, which it was alleged had funded arms, used against Hindus and India.

Partition is now generally seen as an evil in India and blamed on the British. Mountbatten was subsequently murdered by the IRA so the focus of this blame was lost. But looking at Gandhi’s house and the photos displayed there it is interesting to speculate just how accidental and contingent world history is. What might have been if Gandhi had not been thrown off that train; if he did not so easily take offence; if he had not come to dislike the British as much as he clearly did; and/or if he had not been so keen to see the back of the British Indian Empire before he died? Might partition have been avoided?

After all, India already had much the same style of government as Australia but Australians felt no need to expel the British – good Queen Bess rules to this day. And while those West Australians can be a bit odd, we feel no desire to murder them en masse.

Might India’s economy have been stronger without Gandhi’s  protectionism, agrarianism and implicit religiosity, leading to subsequent militarism (against both its major neighbours) and (largely failed) socialism?

There is no doubt that Gandhi  to a greater extent than Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and even Mao, has been a direct influence on the course hundreds of millions of lives. The British Indian Empire, if it still existed, with the pre1947 borders, would now be far the largest country in the world and if kept stable very likely would have surpassed China economically. Indeed India seems to work best in those areas where Muslims and Hindus work side by side. Instead, India still has an appalling literacy rate, endemic crushing poverty and a life expectancy a full ten years below China’s.

Many tens of thousands have died in inter-religious feuding in disputed territories and actual wars and conflicts between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is now clearly unstable, with internal terrorist attacks happening while we watched live on Indian TV. Bangladesh is in the grip of runaway population explosion.

Again Jaisalmer  is interesting in this context. It was once a step on the route through the desert to the Northwest Frontier (now Pakistan) and then to Afghanistan, Europe and China (the Silk Road). It is now instead a centre of military activity with a major Army and Air Force base. Fighter jets (Russian made) regularly roar overhead and leave vapour trails high above.


Jaisalmer Fort - from our room - fighter jets regularly roared overhead leaving vapour trails high above


And of course in Mumbai The Gateway to India (across the plaza from the Taj Hotel) was a further reminder to us of recent attacks by paramilitary terrorists from Pakistan as it is now guarded at all points by soldiers behind sandbags armed with fully loaded 7.62 mm self loading rifles and flak jackets.


The Taj Hotel


Indeed all major public buildings (like the law courts) in Mumbai and many elsewhere in India are similarly guarded.





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