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Gandhi Freed India With the Power of Nonviolence

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

He had just begun his public evening prayers, with arms joyously uplifted, when a fanatic brushed past his aide, raised a gun and fired three shots.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, 78, uttered a last praise of God and then was dead.

The world mourned the assassination of the wizened ascetic, whom the U.S. secretary of state eulogized as the “spokesman for the conscience of man.”

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Indeed, although Gandhi lacked rank, office, title or wealth, he became that rarest beacon of good. His life exemplified what he preached: love, compassion, justice, equality and, above all, nonviolence.

In the process, he also played master politician and shrewd strategist, helping to oust one of the great powers of the day from his native land and fathering one of the major nations of the world.

He created his own mix-and-match philosophy, including references to Jesus Christ, the Buddha and Tolstoy. It helped steer a subcontinent for decades.

Historians estimate that as many as 150 million lives have been lost in this century because of armed conflicts. To a weary planet, Gandhi offered a clarion call for something better: a fair, peaceful way of life.

As he sought to free India from British colonialism, his methods--civil disobedience, passive resistance and nonviolence--proved so powerful that they were later adopted by such revolutionaries as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Cesar Chavez.

Gandhi was born in 1869 into a privileged Hindu family and was a meek, unremarkable child who married young. He grew into a struggling lawyer who rarely read a newspaper, was often tongue-tied and was certainly apolitical.

Then his quest for a livelihood took this tiny brown man to white South Africa. Like tens of thousands of his kinsmen who had helped build the new homeland, he found it deeply prejudiced against him: In 1893, Gandhi was thrown off a train at a Natal station for refusing to leave a whites-only section. The incident launched him on a career of crusades against centuries of racial, economic and class discrimination.

It took Gandhi until 1914 to get South African officials to compromise on measures against the Indian minority.

He then went home, where he took up the causes of Indian nationalism and the rights of his people’s most downtrodden. He became a tireless advocate for Indians’ lowest caste, the untouchables.

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Clad in loincloth and simple robes, he learned to hand-spin cloth, arguing that a modern economy, with rampant materialism and streamlined manufacturing methods, made no sense for the many who were poor; he preferred that each man have humble, steady labor so society would not be riven between haves and have-nots.

He helped spin a new role for the Indian National Congress, shifting it from an elitist social group to a mass political party that reached into India’s villages. He formally declared in 1929 and 1930 that his people should be free from Britain, and he kept the congress at the fore of the independence drive.

He crisscrossed India on foot, as in his famed 1930 march against British salt taxes and controls. He led boycotts of British goods and institutions such as schools, courts and offices. And for almost two decades, the Mahatma (Great Soul), with thousands of his followers, endured jailings and beatings.

Although he said he hoped to live long, Gandhi time and again showed that he was willing to starve himself to death for his causes. His dozen major ordeals were not all successful. But his 1932 fast, which greatly agitated followers and almost killed him, won key rights for the untouchables.

Even in his last days, when conflict-weary, overextended Britain was finally ready to grant India independence, Gandhi still was using fasts to quell his nation’s old scourge of religious enmity.

The British on Aug. 15, 1947, quit the subcontinent. But the decision did not leave behind the huge, happy Indian state Gandhi had envisioned. Instead, over his opposition, the British partitioned the land into largely Hindu India and largely Muslim Pakistan. Religious strife erupted.

His fast in September 1947 halted bloody outbreaks in Calcutta; in January 1948, he fasted until he won pledges of peace from Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

He was killed Jan. 30, 1948, by a Hindu zealot who thought Gandhi had betrayed his fellow believers. The peace-loving man’s death prompted violence that claimed 1 million lives. More than 50 years later, India and Pakistan, now nuclear powers, continue to clash.


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