Colonial India, Gandhi, and Eventual Independence

For a century and a half, the area now known as India was ruled by either the British East India Company, or the Royal Crown herself. The native people were subjected to the whims of British colonialism, which involved a strict system of monopolization to afford greater profits for the English. But around the turn of the century, the move toward Indian independence began to gather steam. The leader of this movement eventually came to be Mohandas Gandhi.


To continue competing as a world power, England felt it had to become wealthier. In the year 1600, some merchants in London created the East India Company. At the time it could not compete with the Dutch East India Company, which had control of all the East Indies Islands; but the British could stake a claim to the Indian subcontinent, which they did.

In the middle of the 18th century, the Seven Years War made it possible for England to increase its presence in the Indian mainland, and starting in the year 1757 they came to have the majority of control there. Profits were made in the traditional spice trade, as well as in Indian textiles and later in calico. The effect of colonial rule in India was one of 'breaking up the old system of self-sufficient and self-perpetuating villages and supporting an elite whose self-interests would harmonize with British Rule ('.

The English colonial perspective is revealed in the famous Minute on Indian Education, presented in 1835 by Thomas Babington Macaulay. There was a debate over how or if Indians should be educated in the traditional literature of England. Macaulay believed in educating the Indians with English because their native dialects were 'so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.' Macaulay explained that 'What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity.' In perhaps the most famous part of the Minute, he stated his intent for English education in India, to 'form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.' These people were to then aid in governing and civilizing the natives of India, in order that they would conform to British rule. A good representation of British colonial ideology in literature is in the novel Kim, by Rudyard Kipling.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in British colonial India in the year 1869. He attended school in England for several years, after which he returned home to find his mother dead, and the prospects for work poor. He accepted a one year contracted job in South Africa, where he immediately incurred race and religious discrimination and extreme prejudice from white European colonial rulers. This was the norm for local non-whites, but it infuriated Gandhi to the point of protest. He became political, arguing proficiently on behalf of the rights of the Natal Indians in South Africa. It was here that he first put into use his concept of satyagraha (devotion to truth), which upheld the philosophy of inviting suffering, rather than inflicting it, to address social and economic wrongs. After reading John Ruskin's Unto this Last, a critique of capitalism, Gandhi started a sort of communal farm, where friends and relatives lived together with the help of each other. The second of these farms was named after the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose book The Kingdom of God is Within You also had a profound effect on Gandhi. The Indian uprising in South Africa affected many people, and a gang of angry whites once assaulted Gandhi and almost lynched him upon his return to Durban from India.In July, 1914, Gandhi left South Africa to return home to his native India, leaving behind him many improvements in the condition of the Natal Indians - though they were still oppressed, and left with much to accomplish.

In India, Gandhi was welcomed as a Saint, as his efforts in South Africa had become famous back home. He had supported the British effort in World War I, but after colonial British authorities imposed laws that would allow Indians to be imporsoned without trial for suspicion of sedition, Gandhi decided it was time to implement a satyagraha protest. The country rocked, and violence ensued: over 400 Indians were massacred at Amritsar in the Punjab by British-led soldiers. In 1920, Gandhi had become the predominant leader of the Indian National Congress, a 35-year-old group lobbying for Indian independance. For the next few years, his non-violent protests and boycotts of British policies and products, involving thousands of people, made enormous waves. The English authorities were not quite sure how to deal with him, for he was revered by the people of India - a population at the time of somewhere near 350 million or more - that if anything were to happen to him, the countryside would erupt in rage and violence. Though his non-violent acts of civil disobedience were very effective, the British often ended up being in the position of not wanting to punish him, as his imprisonment often caused far greater problems for them with angry natives. It became harder to hold together everyone in non-voilence, and in 1922 violence broke out, which was against everything Gandhi stood for - so he temporarily called off the action. He was then tried for sedition and imprisoned for two years.

Several months after he got out of prison, he endured a three-week fast - to protest violent outbreaks by militant Indians, to convince them of the way of non-violence. In 1927, Britian appointed a constitutional reform commision, a group that did not include a single Indian. The Indian National Congress boycotted the commission, and Gandhi demanded dominion status from the British government withing a year. He used as leverage the threat of a nation-wide satyagraha for complete independance. In March 1930, he implemented one of his most famous incidents of satyagraha in history: the march to the sea to make salt. Thousands hiked more than two-hundred miles with him to the sea, where together they made salt - a product monopolized by the British, and deemed illegal to make or sell otherwise. The protest against British salt resulted in the imprisonment of over 60,000 Indians - whom were said to have gone to the prisons ‘cheerfully’. This event, as welll as others - like Gandhi’s implementation of a national day of prayer to protest British policies - are well-chronicled in the 1982 movie ‘Gandhi,’ starring Ben Kingsley.

1947 brought about the eventual independance of India, but it was a tainted one for Gandhi. The fighting between Muslims and Hindus had become terrible, despite fasts by the Mahatma which temporarlily levelled peace through some of the troubled areas (also covered well by the movie). In the end it was not enough, and India was divided into two seperate countries: India, of Hindu majority; and Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country. Gandhi's teachings of tolerance and love for all men as brothers often angered both Muslim and Hindu, and in the end he was murdered by a radical Hindu who evidently felt betrayed by the Mahatma's dual allegiance to both religions.

For a taste of Indian independence literature, see The Man-eater of Malgudi, by R.K. Narayan, page.


Albert Einstein admired Gandhi for his dedication to non-violence, realizing it was an 'antidote' for the explosiveness of the atom bomb.

Mohandas Gandhi is credited with beginning assaults on three enormous areas that would be echoed in other countries throughout the century: racism, colonialism, and violence. For Americans (and also for the rest of the world), a notable leader for change who used many of the teachings of Gandhi was Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gandhi greatly admired the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (especially for his book The Kingdom of God is Within You), and named one of his communal farms after him. He also stated that he learned much of his ideas of non-violence from Jesus Christ (although he was not a Christian). He also cited Henry David Thoreau as a source for the idea of civil disobedience.

"'Persons in power,' Gilbert Murray prophetically wrote about Gandhi in the Hibbert Journal in 1918, 'should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise, or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy, because his body which you can always conquer gives you so little purchase upon his soul.'"(Britannica, p.650)

The complete collection of the writings of Mohandas Gandhi runs to 90 whole volumes. Included in his work is the autobiography he wrote in 1925 An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments With Truth.

Here is a short list of quotes from Gandhi, who was called Mahatma (great soul) by the people of India:

'Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals.'

'We must be the change we wish to see.'

'Let hundreds like me parish, but let truth prevail.'

'The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust.'



*** - brief synopsis of Independence movement, and of Gandhi's life and importance

** - information on Gandhi and Indian Independence

*** - page of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non Violence, founded by Gandhi's grandson, Arun; articles on Gandhi's relevance to today's society

***Encarta Gandhi page - a good overview of the life of Gandhi, citing dates and importance in Indian Independence

*** an excellent history of colonialism all over the world by the European countries

** good page with some infomation about Gandhi


Here are some things to talk about and discuss in class:

1. What do you like about the concept of non-violent yet active resistance?

2. Do you think there is a time for violence against opression, or do you think Gandhi's philosophy would work in every situation.

3. Compare the teachings of Gandhi with the teachings of Frantz Fanon.

4. Can you see where Martin Luther King Jr. used some of Gandhi's teachings? How?


The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.: Volume 19, 15th edition. pp.648-650, Chicago: 1998.

Gandhi, M.K. An Autogiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth. Navajivan Publishing House. Ahmedabad: 1990.


Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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