Defying British law, Gandhi and followers march to the sea to make salt, 1930.

Illustration by Tim O’Brien

The Legacy of Gandhi

October marks the 150th birthday of the man who stood up to the British empire and helped give birth to modern India and Pakistan

He was a frail man who wore glasses and a traditional Hindu loincloth called a dhoti, walked with a bamboo staff, and had a toothless grin. He looked like a simple Hindu holy man. But armed only with great courage and a strong commitment to nonviolent resistance, Mohandas Gandhi took on one of the world’s mightiest empires.

For nearly 30 years, Gandhi led the movement that eventually forced Britain to grant independence to India, its most prized colony, in 1947. The subcontinent was partitioned, or divided, into two nations: India and Pakistan.

In October, celebrations will ring out across India in honor of the 150th birthday of Gandhi, known as the “Father of the Nation.” Today India is the world’s largest democracy, and it has the fifth largest economy in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. However, tensions have recently risen between the nation’s Hindu majority and its Muslim minority, as well as between India and Pakistan. And many experts believe the region is moving away from the ideals for which Gandhi fought.

Yet Gandhi is still revered worldwide, not only for helping liberate the Indian subcontinent from British imperialism, but for his nonviolent protests, which inspired many other civil rights movements, including the one led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States (see “Gandhi & MLK,” below).

Gandhi envisioned a world “of neighborliness and openness to strangers,” says Gyan Prakash, a history professor at Princeton University and the author of numerous books on India. “The message Gandhi stood for was that public service or politics was not just about power, but about something larger.”

He was a frail man. He wore glasses and a traditional Hindu loincloth called a dhoti. He walked with a bamboo staff and had a toothless grin. He looked like a simple Hindu holy man. But this man, Mohandas Gandhi, had great courage and a strong commitment to nonviolent resistance. With only those two things, he took on one of the world’s mightiest empires.

For nearly 30 years, Gandhi led the movement that eventually forced Britain to grant independence to India, its most prized colony, in 1947. The subcontinent was partitioned, or divided, into two nations: India and Pakistan.

In India, Gandhi is known as the “Father of the Nation.” This October, celebrations will ring out across the country in honor of his 150th birthday. Today India is the world’s largest democracy. It has the fifth largest economy in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. But tensions have recently risen between the nation’s Hindu majority and its Muslim minority. There’s also a rift growing between India and Pakistan. And many experts believe the region is moving away from the ideals for which Gandhi fought.

Yet Gandhi is still revered worldwide. He’s remembered for helping liberate the Indian subcontinent from British imperialism. And he’s still honored for his nonviolent protests. They inspired many other civil rights movements, including the one led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States (see “Gandhi & MLK,” below).

Gandhi envisioned a world “of neighborliness and openness to strangers,” says Gyan Prakash, a history professor at Princeton University and the author of numerous books on India. “The message Gandhi stood for was that public service or politics was not just about power, but about something larger.”

Jim McMahon

Gandhi’s Rise

Gandhi, born on October 2, 1869, in western India, never expected to be the face of a movement. But his moment of truth, when he decided that he would dedicate his life to fighting injustice, came in 1893, when he was 24 years old. After graduating from law school, he’d been hired to work as a lawyer for an Indian trader in South Africa.

Riding the train there one day with a first-class ticket, Gandhi was asked to move to a third-class car to make room for a white passenger. When he refused, he was thrown off the train.

The incident opened Gandhi’s eyes to the discrimination against non-whites that was common in South Africa, which at the time was split between British and Dutch rule. More than 150,000 Indians had been brought there as indentured servants. In certain provinces, they were forbidden to own property and vote in local elections, and they had to register with the government and have their fingerprints taken.

Gandhi spent 21 years fighting these injustices. During this time, he developed his philosophy of nonviolence: that the only way to bring about change was through peaceful demonstrations, such as boycotts, marches, and sit-ins.

“The first principle of nonviolent action,” he wrote, “is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.”

After negotiating the repeal of some of South Africa’s most oppressive laws targeting Indians, Gandhi brought his method of nonviolent action back to India.

Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in western India. He never expected to be the face of a movement. But his moment of truth came in 1893. He was only 24 years old, but he decided that he would dedicate his life to fighting injustice. After graduating from law school, he’d been hired to work as a lawyer for an Indian trader in South Africa.

Gandhi was riding the train there one day with a first-class ticket. He was asked to move to a third-class car to make room for a white passenger. When he refused, he was thrown off the train.

The incident opened Gandhi’s eyes to the discrimination against non-whites that was common in South Africa. At the time, the country was split between British and Dutch rule. More than 150,000 Indians had been brought there as indentured servants. In certain provinces, they were forbidden to own property and vote in local elections. They also had to register with the government and have their fingerprints taken.

Gandhi spent 21 years fighting these injustices. During this time, he developed his philosophy of nonviolence. He believed that the only way to bring about change was through peaceful demonstrations, such as boycotts, marches, and sit-ins.

“The first principle of nonviolent action,” he wrote, “is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.”

Gandhi negotiated the repeal of some of South Africa’s most oppressive laws targeting Indians. After, he brought his method of nonviolent action back to India.

Keystone/Getty Images

Gandhi during one of his many hunger strikes to protest British rule, 1932

British India

India had been under British rule dating back to 1757, when an army assembled by Great Britain’s East India Company (a group of British investors who wanted to trade with India) defeated the governor of Bengal in a battle near Calcutta. This private company, with its own troops and powers of taxation, soon became the dominant force on a subcontinent of 400 million people. It was a brutal and often racist overseer whose indifference helped create and exacerbate famines in India in the late 1700s.

A failed uprising by Indian troops led the British Crown to dissolve the East India Company in 1858 and take control of the subcontinent, making it an official colony (see timeline, below). In 1919, the British passed the Rowlatt Act, which gave the Raj (as the British administration in India was known) the power to imprison without trial anyone thought to be plotting to overthrow the government.

India had been under British rule dating back to 1757. That year, an army assembled by Great Britain’s East India Company defeated the governor of Bengal in a battle near Calcutta. The company consisted of a group of British investors who wanted to trade with India. With its own troops and powers of taxation, the private company soon became the dominant force on a subcontinent of 400 million people. It was a brutal and often racist overseer. The company’s indifference helped create and exacerbate famines in India in the late 1700s.

A failed uprising by Indian troops led the British Crown to dissolve the East India Company in 1858 and take control of the subcontinent. That move made India an official colony (see timeline, below). In 1919, the British passed the Rowlatt Act. The law gave the Raj (as the British administration in India was known) the power to imprison without trial anyone thought to be plotting to overthrow the government.

‘The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation.’

The Act was aimed at shutting down opposition from Indian nationalists, but it had the opposite effect: The push for Indian independence intensified, and Gandhi emerged as a national figure. He called for a day of protest, in which businesses throughout the country shut down.

The British arrested Gandhi and other protest leaders, fueling more demonstrations. At one of them, in Amritsar, British forces fired on the unarmed crowd, killing more than 400 people. The massacre galvanized Indians, and they rallied around Gandhi, calling him Mahatma (“great soul” in Sanskrit). In 1920, Gandhi organized a campaign of noncooperation with the British. Indians boycotted British goods, courts, schools, and taxes, bringing the nation to a standstill.

Gandhi was unlike other leaders of the independence movement, which had been dominated by elites. He believed India would gain independence only through a mass movement that included all Indians, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim. He rejected modernity, wore simple clothes to identify with the poor, and advocated for the Dalits, known then as the “untouchables,” the lowest caste in India’s traditional social hierarchy.

The Act was aimed at shutting down opposition from Indian nationalists, but it had the opposite effect. The push for Indian independence intensified, and Gandhi emerged as a national figure. He called for a day of protest, in which businesses throughout the country shut down.

The British arrested Gandhi and other protest leaders, fueling more demonstrations. At one of them, in Amritsar, British forces fired on the unarmed crowd, killing more than 400 people. The massacre drove Indians to rally around Gandhi. They called him Mahatma (“great soul” in Sanskrit). In 1920, Gandhi organized a campaign of noncooperation with the British. Indians boycotted British goods, courts, schools, and taxes. The boycott brought the nation to a standstill.

Gandhi was unlike other leaders of the independence movement, which had been dominated by elites. He believed India would gain independence only through a mass movement that included all Indians, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim. He rejected modernity and wore simple clothes to identify with the poor. He also advocated for the Dalits, known then as the “untouchables.” They were the lowest caste in India’s traditional social hierarchy.

The Salt March

Gandhi’s most famous act of defiance began on March 12, 1930, when he led a protest against the Salt Acts, which prohibited Indians from gathering, making, or selling their own salt, forcing them instead to buy it from the British.

With 78 followers by his side, the 61-year-old Gandhi embarked on a 240-mile walk from his home in Ahmedabad to Dandi, on the shore of the Arabian Sea. At the end of the 24-day journey, known as the Salt March, Gandhi picked up a lump of salt from the mud and proclaimed to a large crowd: “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British empire.”

Gandhi was imprisoned for seven months, but tens of thousands of Indians followed his example, making salt at the seaside and submitting to beatings and arrests.

When World War II (1939-45) began, Gandhi and other Indian leaders decided not to support the war unless Britain “quit India” immediately and granted independence. Britain refused, and Gandhi began the “Quit India” movement. The British arrested Gandhi and more than 100,000 others. But the movement helped persuade other countries, including the U.S., to put pressure on Britain to set India free. After the war, the financially depleted Britain was finally ready to do just that.

Gandhi’s most famous act of defiance began on March 12, 1930. That day, he led a protest against the Salt Acts. These decrees prohibited Indians from gathering, making, or selling their own salt. The ban forced them to buy it from the British instead.

The 61-year-old Gandhi embarked on a 240-mile walk from his home in Ahmedabad to Dandi, on the shore of the Arabian Sea. He had 78 followers by his side. Their 24-day journey is known as the Salt March. At the end of it, Gandhi picked up a lump of salt from the mud and proclaimed to a large crowd: “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British empire.”

Gandhi was put into prison for seven months. But tens of thousands of Indians followed his example. They made salt at the seaside and submitted to beatings and arrests.

When World War II (1939-45) began, Gandhi and other Indian leaders decided not to support the war unless Britain “quit India” immediately and granted independence. Britain refused, and Gandhi began the “Quit India” movement. The British arrested Gandhi and more than 100,000 others. But the movement helped persuade other countries to pressure Britain to set India free. Even the U.S. joined the cause. After the war, the financially depleted Britain was finally ready to do just that.

India is still wrestling with some of the issues Gandhi tried to address.

However, within India tensions increased between Hindus and Muslims, as both groups feared being left out of India’s new government. In July 1947, the British Parliament approved the Indian Independence Act, dividing the subcontinent into two independent countries: Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

Millions of Hindus soon fled Pakistan for India, as millions of Muslims left India for Pakistan (though many more stayed in India and remain today). More than 10 million people became refugees, and as many as a million people were killed in violence between the two groups.

Gandhi opposed partition. Hindus and Muslims, he said, “must be brave enough to love one another, tolerate one another’s religion . . . and trust one another.”

To protest the violence, he went on hunger strikes and visited troubled areas. It was during one of those visits, in 1948, that his life was tragically cut short. A Hindu extremist, upset about Gandhi’s tolerance of Muslims, shot him three times, killing him at age 78. People around the world mourned his loss.

“Just an old man in a loincloth in distant India,” the American journalist Louis Fischer wrote, “yet when he died, humanity wept.”

But tensions within India increased between Hindus and Muslims. The growing divide was driven by both groups fearing being left out of India’s new government. In July 1947, the British Parliament approved the Indian Independence Act. This divided the subcontinent into two independent countries: Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

Millions of Hindus soon fled Pakistan for India. At the same time, millions of Muslims left India for Pakistan (though many more stayed in India and remain today). More than 10 million people became refugees. And as many as a million people were killed in violence between the two groups.

Gandhi opposed partition. Hindus and Muslims, he said, “must be brave enough to love one another, tolerate one another’s religion . . . and trust one another.”

To protest the violence, he went on hunger strikes and visited troubled areas. It was during one of those visits, in 1948, that his life was tragically cut short. A Hindu extremist, upset about Gandhi’s tolerance of Muslims, shot him three times, killing him at age 78. People around the world mourned his loss.

“Just an old man in a loincloth in distant India,” the American journalist Louis Fischer wrote, “yet when he died, humanity wept.”

India & Pakistan

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Today the region’s Muslim-Hindu divide persists. And many say it has gotten worse with the re-election of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, in May. Modi has promoted a Hindu-nationalist message that has often pitted Hindus against Muslims.

Since partition, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, two over the disputed region of Kashmir, which both claim. Both countries are nuclear-armed and they’ve come close to a nuclear confrontation. Fighting between the two countries escalated recently after a suicide bomber from a Pakistan-based militant group killed 40 Indian troops in Kashmir in February, in the region’s deadliest attack in three decades.

Prakash of Princeton says that if Gandhi were alive today, he’d be working toward healing these divisions, as well as eliminating inequality and the caste system, both of which still hamper India. And, Prakash says, Gandhi would be doing it the same way he always pursued justice: “through dialogue and love, rather than an us-versus-them struggle.”

Today the region’s Muslim-Hindu divide persists. And many say it has gotten worse with the re-election of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, in May. Modi has promoted a Hindu-nationalist message that has often
pitted Hindus against Muslims.

Since partition, India and Pakistan have fought three wars. Two have been over the disputed region of Kashmir, which both claim. Both countries are nuclear-armed, and they’ve come close to a nuclear confrontation. Fighting between the two countries increased recently after a suicide bomber from a Pakistan-based militant group killed 40 Indian troops in Kashmir in February. It was the region’s deadliest attack in three decades.

Prakash of Princeton says that if Gandhi were alive today, he’d be working toward healing these divisions, as well as eliminating inequality and the caste system. Both still hamper India. And, Prakash says, Gandhi would be doing it the same way he always pursued justice: “through dialogue and love, rather than an us-versus-them struggle.”

Gandhi & MLK

Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

MLK had a portrait of Gandhi in his office in Atlanta.

How Mohandas Gandhi inspired Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1955, when Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, he looked to Mohandas Gandhi for inspiration.

“While the Montgomery boycott was going on,” King would later say, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

The civil rights leader had first come across Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence when he was studying to become a minister. Gandhi’s ability to bring about change through love and nonviolence, King said, gave him
“the method of social reform I had been seeking.”

Following the success of the boycott—during which blacks in Montgomery refused to ride the city buses to protest segregated seating—King traveled to India with his wife, Coretta Scott King. Though Gandhi had been assassinated by then, they met with the Gandhi family.

When King returned to the U.S., he continued to employ Gandhi’s methods of nonviolence to fight for equal rights for African Americans.

“Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister,” King said, “but he resisted with love instead of hate.”

In 1955, when Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, he looked to Mohandas Gandhi for inspiration.

“While the Montgomery boycott was going on,” King would later say, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” 

The civil rights leader had first come across Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence when he was studying to become a minister. Gandhi’s ability to bring about change through love and nonviolence, King said, gave him 
“the method of social reform I had been seeking.”

Following the success of the boycott—during which blacks in Montgomery refused to ride the city buses to protest segregated seating—King traveled to India with his wife, Coretta Scott King. Though Gandhi had been assassinated by then, they met with the Gandhi family.

When King returned to the U.S., he continued to employ Gandhi’s methods of nonviolence to fight for equal rights for African Americans. 

“Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister,” King said, “but he resisted with love instead of hate.”

TIMELINE: India & Pakistan

PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Prince Edward of Wales visits India, 1922.

1858: British Colony

The India Act transfers power from Britain’s East India Company, a private company that became a dominant force in India after 1757, to the British Crown.

The India Act transfers power from Britain’s East India Company, a private company that became a dominant force in India after 1757, to the British Crown.

1919: Gandhi’s Leadership

Mohandas Gandhi launches a nonviolent campaign against British rule that includes marches, sit-ins, and boycotts.

Mohandas Gandhi launches a nonviolent campaign against British rule that includes marches, sit-ins, and boycotts.

1940: Hindus vs. Muslims

Amid growing tensions between Muslims and Hindus, Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah calls for the partition of British India into two nations.

Amid growing tensions between Muslims and Hindus, Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah calls for the partition of British India into two nations.

UtCon Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Refugees pack onto a train after partition.

1947: Independence

Britain withdraws, and Pakistan (majority Muslim) and India (majority Hindu) become independent countries.