GANDHI The rise of an Icon

How did Gandhi become an international inspiring and emblematic figure?

I – Discovering his life

A – Introducing the context: India

India (Republic of India) is located in South Asia. The seventh largest country by area, the second-most populated country (1.2 billion people).

Bounded by Indian Ocean (south); Arabian Sea (southwest) and the Bay of Bengal (southeast), Pakistan, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh.

Indian flag

Capital: New Delhi (largest city: Mumbai)

Languages: Hindi, English

Religion: Hinduism (79%), Islam (1/4), Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism

Government: Federal Parliamentary constitutional republic

Independence: 1947 from United Kingdom, Republic in 1950

Total area : 3 287 263 km²

Population: around 1 310 069 000

The first is the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, the second is the vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari and the third is prime-minister Narendra Modi.

Modern India started around 1850. The real changes from Medieval India started in 1848, when Lord Dalhousie became Governor General of the East India Company. For example, those changes included the consolidation and demarcation of sovereignty, the surveillance of the population, the education of citizens. Technical changes were railways, canals, telegraphs… But still some problems which led to rebellion in 1857: invasive British-style social reforms, harsh land taxes, … The east India Company was dissolved and the British took power (british parliamentary and government). They protected princes.

Technological innovation at the end of 19th century create a setback in economy. Small farmers depended on far-away markets, increase in the number of large-scale famines.

After World War 1 (one millions Indians served): British reforms, repressive legislations, beginning of non-violent movement of non-cooperation.


India have a fast-growing economy since independence and became a democracy with liberties.

This country is famous for its movies (Bollywood), music and spiritual teaching. Since 1947 helped many countries (Africa, Asia) for decolonisation. Last few years, they gave soldiers to peacekeeping operation across 4 continents.

It's economy is growing (increasing GDP since the past two decades). The model is capitalist. Thanks to its labour force and most important sectors are services and industrials.

But, still problems: poverty (the highest number of people living under the poverty line which mean 1,25 dollar/day) and disparities are growing, corruption (a high illegal capital flow).

B – Who was he?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi he was born on October 2, 1869 and die on January 30, 1948.

He was known as a politic leader and a spiritual guide and he was called Mahatma “big soul” but he didn’t want to be called like that or Bapu “father”.

He was born in a rich family of merchants, and had 3 older brothers. He got married at thirteen (his wife had the same age) and later they had 4 sons. His father died when he was 16.

Studied law in London for 3 years in order to become lawyer. He went to South Africa to organise a non-violent fighting way: the non-obeisance method, in order to help Indian community to regain its rights over there. When he came back to India, he incited farmers and workers to protest against taxes that were too important. He fought against the Britain colonial laws, and became the leader of the Indian National Congress. Helped the poorest, the Indian women, fought for fraternity between everyone, for the end of the castes, etc. He has been put in jail many times in South Africa or India because of his activities and protestation. He actually spent 6 years in jail.

II – His battles

Dandi March : Salt Satyagraha

A – What did he fight against?

Mahatma Gandhi's primary cause was the Indian independence movement, which desired to create an Indian state that was free of British rule. He was also devoted to a philosophy of peaceful resistance through which the Indian people could achieve their goals without fall back on war or violence.

Gandhi spent most of his life fighting for the independence of India, this was not the only major civil rights battle that he was involved in. Forward World War I, he spent 20 years in South Africa contending institutional discrimination against Indians. A while after Indian independence in 1947, Gandhi attempted to conciliate the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bengal but was assassinated over his involvement.

Fight against colonial rules in India

British Empire took the power in India during the 16th century.

Since the 16th century European colonists had began to visit the embankment of India.

The Portuguese were the first ones who established their rule on the West Coast of India in the 16th century. But their domination continued on the coastal area, because they were not able to move further inside the country.

The British occupation in India dates back to the early part of the 17th century.

British Indirect Rule in India

The British faith in bringing civilisation to India by establishing a reliable system of justice and Western principles, create the prohibition of many Indian social and religious practices. Subsequently, more and more territories came under British domination in the 1840s and 1850s.

"A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission to alter the course of history" Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi went to South Africa after an Indian firm had committed him as a legal adviser in its office in Durban. He was the first "coloured" lawyer, who was accepted to the Supreme Court. South Africa was at that time under British control and racial discrimination was freely practised on the streets. Gandhi found himself considered as a member of an inferior "race".

One day, Gandhi was forcefully launched out of a train after he had refused to offer his seat to a white person. This accident finally opened his eyes and he decided to fight for the rights of minorities and especially those from the Indian working class. But he decided to never use violence in his fights. And this aim was one fact why Gandhi became so popular.

Gandhi resided in South Africa for 20 years. During that time he began his peaceful revolution and he engaged himself in the fight against racial discrimination and the humiliation of non-whites.

A march of women through Bombay, shows them taunting police at Maidan Esplanade during the time when there was a call to boycott British goods.

Gandhi favoured to go to jail or even die, than to obey any law that was against human rights.

With his writings and his ardent life he won a mass of Indian followers that supported his disobedience fight. Gandhi was imprisoned twice, because of his insurrection-causing action, but this could not stop him.

One of his many accomplishment was the foundation of the Natal Indian Congress in May 1894, whose connotation it was to join together the differing cultural and religious immigrants from the Indian subcontinent into a single unified organisation.

But he still remained loyal to the British. Five years after the foundation of the Congress he create the Indian Ambulance Corps for the British soldiers who fought in the Boer War in South Africa from 1899 to 1902 and appointed a Red Cross unit. For this practice he even got a decoration from the British government.

Fight against caste system

In India, inequalities still persist because of the caste system. It defining if you will be privileged or poor, defining roles and position in society for everyone. The four Castes are composed of Brahams, Kshatriyas, Vashyas and Shudras, they are protected and granted to have a better life than outcastes. They are lawyers… Outcastes are named Untouchables or Dalits and from birth they are considered as inferior in society. They are poor and live unhealthy because it’s their « destiny ». It represents 20% of the Indian pop : 170 millions. But India had a willingness to change and this system was abolished in 1950 to make India a country equal by its citizens. Castes still exist, it’s impossible to eradicate it yet but changing in mind make people aware that this system is unfair. It was a discrimination system who don’t help to developed the country.

Caste system pyramide

Gandhi is generally characterise in and outside India as the main champion of the cause of the Untouchables (Dalits). It is, however, far from the truth. Mahatma Gandhi called them “Harijans” (children of God) although that term is now considered pretentious and the term Dalit (downtrodden) is the more commonly used. Gandhi’s contribution toward the independence of the untouchables is still answer.

There is no doubt that he needed the Untouchable caste to be abrogate but he, at the same time, was a strong proponent of the caste system.

“I believe that caste has saved Hinduism from disintegration... To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation, which is the soul of the caste system. The hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder.”

Fight against social evils

When he was liberated from prison, the next five years were different than before in Gandhi’s life. He seemed to be resigned from his disturb role in the fight for freedom. He chose, instead, a period of thinking, writing, traveling across the country, speaking and doing things aiming at the rehabilitation of rural economy and employing his approach of hand-spinning and braid.

During one of these days he wrote:

“I am not interested freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing the people from social shackles and economic dependence because social freedom and economic freedom should go together.”

Gandhi had one more reason to adopt such a position.

Gandhi was against :

1. The malicious system of child marriage.

2. The purdah system. It break not only the free movement of women but interfered with their improvement and their capacity for doing work useful to the society.

3. The dowry system. For the middle and poor classes it was a nightmare. It was also on this explanation that while there was joy on the male child, there was expressed of silent grief on the birth of a female child.

4. Heavy investment in connection with marriages. He wanted to simplify marriage tradition. He was against feasting on such occasions. Many marriages were celebrated in the Ashram. All that was done was the recitation of the simple Ashram prayer and some advice from Gandhiji to young couple on how they should live a contended and happy life of service. At the end of this simple ceremony, he would present to the couple a copy of Bhagavad-Gita.

B – What did he fight for ?

Fight for India

His first battle was on March 12, 1930. Indian independence leader Gandhi begins a audacious march to the sea in protest of the British monopoly on salt, his bravest act of civil disobedience against British rule in India.

On March 12, Gandhi set out from Sabarmati with 78 followers on a 241-mile march to the coastal town of Dandi on the Arabian Sea.

Britain’s Salt Acts prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, a predominant in the Indian regime. Citizens were forced to buy the vital mineral from the British, who, in addition to applying a cartel over the manufacture and sale of salt. Defying the Salt Acts, Gandhi figure out, would be an expertly simple way for many Indians to break a British law non-violently. He announced defiance to British salt policies to be the unifying argument for his new campaign of Satyagraha, or mass civil disobedience.

Gandhi and his supporters were to defy British policy by making salt from brine. During the way, he transmitted it to large crowds, and with each passing day an increasing number of people joined the salt satyagraha. By the time they attain Dandi on April 5. Gandhi was at the head of a crowd of tens of thousands.

Civil disobedience arise all across India, soon affected millions of Indians, and British authorities arrested more than 60,000 people. Gandhi himself was arrested on May 5, but the satyagraha continued without him.

In January 1931, Gandhi was liberated from prison. He later met Lord Irwin, the viceroy of India, and admit to abandon the satyagraha in exchange for a role at a London conference on India’s future.

The meeting was a disappointment, but British leaders had confirmed him as a force they could not abolish or ignore.

Gandhi had won his political obligation through organising the Indian community against the vicious system of discrimination in South Africa. During his battle, he adopted an austere traditional Indian style of living, which won him large popularity. When he arrived in India he began to revitalise the freedom movement that had create on the streets. His aim was to bring all classes and religious sects together, especially Hindus and Muslims.

During the World War 1, Gandhi played an active part in organising campaigns and encouraged his policy of "Satyagraha". Satyagraha was a method of non-violent resistance, often called "non-cooperation" that he and his partners used to great effect against the governments in South Africa.

Gandhi and Women Empowerment

In his political movement “Satyagraha”, Gandhi also fight for women liberty. One of the noteworthy consequences of his life-work has been the awaking of women, which made them discard their ingrained sense of inferiority and rise to dignity and self-esteem. For Gandhi, "When woman, whom we all call abala becomes sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful". The interest of the weaker sections of society was close to his heart. He had no hesitation about the priority of social over political ends.

"Women must have votes and an equal status. But the problem does not end there. It only commences at the point where women begin to affect the political deliberations of the nation."

Gandhi revolutionised not only Indian politics, but also the whole perception of life for women.

C – How did he fight ?

Gandhi used nonviolent civil disobedience during a campaign in 1930 and 1931 to pave the way for Indian independence. His efforts started with the Salt March, which undermined British authority and gave Indians a sense of national solidarity.

The British not only forced Indians who wanted salt to purchase it from them, but they also leveraged a colossal tax on the commodity. Gandhi believed the march would address the direct issue along with helping to unify Indians.

Gandhi continued to lead nonviolent protests, eventually gaining the attention of the British government. British leaders believed that Gandhi was too prolific to ignore. They gave India its independence in 1947. A Hindu extremist assassinated Gandhi not quite six months later.

III – His impact

A – What and who did he inspire?

People and movement he had inspired

Today, Indians, anti-war protestors and authors, for the many interesting quotes he provided, celebrate Gandhi as a preeminent figure. Not 20 years after his death, Gandhi also had a direct impact on the history of the United States. Gandhi inspires civil rights.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. is said to be have been heavily influenced by Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence, believing it to be the only logical approach to the problem of race relations in America.

During his India visit, Martin Luther King was very moved to learn how Gandhi dealt with those who were labeled as “untouchables” and denied entrance into temples.

“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale” King remarked.
Cesar Chavez

Gandhi had a great effect on Cesar Chavez. Chavez the Latino civil rights leader traced his political awakening to a newsreel he saw at the age of 11 or 12 showing that “this half-naked man without a gun had conquered the might of the British Empire.” Chavez modelled many of his tactics on Gandhi, from boycotts to hunger strikes.

“Not only did he talk about nonviolence, he showed how nonviolence works for justice and liberation,” Chavez said.

Gandhi’s vision helped inspired movements that toppled dictators from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1989 to the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 2000.

Gandhi also made a big impact on the Muslim world.

During Gandhi’s lifetime, a good friend of his, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, founded a movement for nonviolence and social reform among the Pashtuns on the border of current-day Pakistan and Afghanistan that had at its height more than 100,000 adherents. In the 1990s, Ibrahim Rugova led a movement for independence in Kosovo that drew inspiration from Gandhi. And several activists in Palestine have adopted Gandhi’s message to offer nonviolent ways of resisting Israeli occupation.

Outside the United States, Gandhi has had a similar effect. Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu — all these giants of our time have acknowledged Gandhi as a guiding light.

B – His perception

Some newspaper

The other side of Gandhi

Even though Gandhi had a big and important impact as a spiritual guide on the world, some of his habits or behaviours were not perceived as good as his battles. There still is some debates about he’s personality, and it led some people to dislike him, even if they can’t ignore the fact that he had a positive impact on the world and has changed the situation for the best in India.

He used to sleep with young naked women in order to test his chastity, and proclaimed that married couples should also not have sex, and rather take a cold shower if they felt any sudden passion. This kind of advices, that he gave to his friends and more in general (but not that much) has been perceived has weird and not usual. He was not close to his own wife, and was more focused on his own development than on his family. This practice has been seen as a perverse act and is one of the reason making some people dislike him.

He would also have had an affair with a German Bodybuilder, but unfortunately was not tolerant with homosexuals as he eradicated all sort of homoerotic art from the Hindu temple, for a “sexual cleansing” campaign.

Gandhi has also been perceived as racist against Black Africans, that he considered as wild and not civilised. He explicitly said that they “lived like animals”.


“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Gandhi was born in India when it was still a British colony (1869). He studied law in London and became lawyer. He fought for Indian rights in Africa, and came back in India. He incited inhabitants to fight passively against the British rules (taxes). He was the founding father of Satyagraha the non-violent way to protest. He fought for Indian's people civil rights and India's independence. He use non-violent fights like walks or civil disobedience. He was assassinated in 1948 by an extremist.

The Salt March did not gain concessions from the British toward Indian independence, but it did inspire the Indian people to think of their country as one large, unified whole. Gandhi’s fought for Indian’s people civil right by defying British Empire and made a “non-cooperation” system with long walk. All their fight were non-violent. Gandhi's revolutionary perspective is embraced by many activists today.

More than half a century after Gandhi’s death, we need more leaders who want to catch up with nonviolent people.

Some quotes from Gandhi

“My life is my message.”

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. “

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“Satyagraha has been designed as an effective substitute for violence.”

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world. “


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