Today is the birthday (1869) of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, usually known as ‘Mahatma’ (Sanskrit for ‘great soul’ or ‘venerable’), Indian leader and proponent of civil disobedience and pacifism as a means of revolution. Gandhi was the preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India. Employing non-violent resistance to colonialism, Gandhi led India to independence, and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared Gandhi’s birthday, 2 October, as the International Day of Non-Violence. In India the day is commemorated as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday.
Gandhi was born and raised in a Hindu, merchant caste family in Gujarat on the west coast of India. At 13 years old Gandhi was married to 14 year old Kasturbai Makhanji in an arranged child marriage, according to the custom of the region at the time. Recalling the day of their marriage, he once said, “As we didn’t know much about marriage, for us it meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives.” In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days. They went on to have four more children, all sons.
In 1888, Gandhi traveled to London to study law, and trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple. Curiously, it was his time in England that first stirred his interest in Indian spirituality. He had made a vow to his mother, in the presence of a Jain monk, to observe the precepts of abstinence from meat and alcohol as well as from promiscuity while in England. But he had a hard job surviving on his landlady’s bland vegetables until he found a vegetarian restaurant in London, which in turn led him to the Vegetarian Society. Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society which was devoted to the study of Buddhist and Hindu literature. They encouraged Gandhi to join them in reading the Bhagavad Gita both in translation as well as in the original. A tremendous irony that Gandhi was led to Indian spiritual traditions by Englishmen.
Gandhi was called to the bar in June 1891 and then left London for India, where he learned that his mother had died while he was in England and that his family had kept the news from him. His attempts at establishing a law practice in Bombay failed because he was too shy to speak up in court. He returned to his home to make a modest living drafting petitions for litigants, but he was forced to close it when he ran afoul of a British officer. In 1893, he accepted a year-long contract from Dada Abdulla & Co., an Indian firm, in the Colony of Natal in South Africa, then part of the British Empire.
Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in Pretoria to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based there. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views and political leadership skills. At the time Indians in South Africa consisted largely of wealthy Muslims, who employed Gandhi as a lawyer, and impoverished Hindu indentured laborers with very limited rights. Gandhi considered them all to be Indians, taking a lifetime view that “Indian-ness” transcended religion and caste. He believed he could bridge historic differences, especially regarding religion, and he took that belief back to India where he tried to implement it. The South African experience exposed Gandhi to social and political issues that he was unaware of. He realized he was out of contact with the enormous complexities of religious and cultural life in India, and believed he understood India by getting to know and leading Indians in South Africa.
In South Africa, Gandhi faced the discrimination directed at all people of color there. Once he was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from the first-class. On another occasion he was beaten by the driver of a stagecoach for refusing to move to make room for a European passenger. Such events were a turning point in Gandhi’s life and awakened him to social injustice, prompting his move to social activism. After witnessing racism, prejudice and injustice against Indians in South Africa, Gandhi began to question his place in society and his people’s standing in the British Empire. He also began developing his ideas concerning non-violent action and civil disobedience often in the face of threatened violence against him by white settlers.
After his return to India in 1915, he set about organizing peasants, farmers, and urban laborers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, and ending the status of the untouchables. In the process he evolved his own concept of Swaraj or self-rule.
Gandhi’s first major achievements came in 1918 with the Champaran and Kheda agitations of Bihar and Gujarat. The Champaran agitation pitted the local peasantry against their largely British landlords who were backed by the local administration. The peasantry was forced to grow Indigo, a cash crop whose demand had been declining over two decades, and were forced to sell their crops to the planters at a fixed price. Unhappy with this, the peasantry appealed to Gandhi at his ashram in Ahmedabad. Pursuing a strategy of non-violent protest, Gandhi took the administration by surprise and won concessions from the authorities.
In 1918, Kheda was hit by floods and famine and the peasantry was demanding relief from taxes. Gandhi moved his headquarters to Nadiad, organizing scores of supporters and fresh volunteers from the region. Using non-co-operation as a technique, Gandhi initiated a signature campaign whereby peasants pledged non-payment of revenue even under the threat of confiscation of land. A social boycott of mamlatdars and talatdars (Indian revenue officials within the district) accompanied the agitation. Gandhi worked hard to win public support for the agitation across the country. For five months, the administration refused but finally at the end of May 1918, the Government gave way on important provisions and relaxed the conditions of payment of revenue tax until the famine ended.
In 1920, Gandhi had the base of support to employ non-co-operation, non-violence, and peaceful resistance as his weapons in the struggle against the British Raj. His wide popularity among both Hindus and Muslims greatly enhanced his leadership possible He even convinced the extremists within the Muslims to support peaceful non-co-operation. The spark that ignited a national protest was overwhelming anger at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (or Amritsar massacre) of hundreds of peaceful civilian demonstrators by British troops in the Punjab. Many Britons celebrated the action as necessary to prevent another violent uprising similar to the Rebellion of 1857. Gandhi criticized both the actions of the British Raj and the retaliatory violence of Indians. He authored the resolution offering condolences to British civilian victims and condemning the riots which, after initial opposition in the party, was accepted following Gandhi’s emotional speech advocating his principle that all violence was evil and could not be justified.
After the massacre and subsequent violence, Gandhi began to focus on winning complete self-government and control of all Indian government institutions, maturing soon into his concept of Swaraj or complete individual, spiritual, and political independence. During this period, Gandhi claimed to be a “highly orthodox Hindu” and in January 1921 during a speech at a temple in Vadtal, he spoke of the relevance of non-co-operation to Hindu Dharma, “At this holy place, I declare, if you want to protect your ‘Hindu Dharma,’ non-cooperation is first as well as the last lesson you must learn up.”
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the Dandi Salt March in 1930. He was joined by thousands of Indians as he marched the 388 kilometers (241 mi) from Ahmedabad to Dandi in Gujarat to make salt himself. This campaign was one of his most successful at upsetting British hold on India. Britain responded by imprisoning over 60,000 people.
Gandhi strongly favored the emancipation of women, and once said that “women have come to look upon me as one of themselves.” He opposed purdah, child marriage, untouchability, and the extreme oppression of Hindu widows. He especially recruited women to participate in the salt tax campaigns and the boycott of foreign products. Gandhi’s success in enlisting women in his campaigns, including the salt tax campaign, anti-untouchability campaign, and the peasant movement, gave many women a new self-confidence and dignity in the mainstream of Indian public life as well as bolstering popular support for his campaigns.
Gandhi’s vision of a free India based on religious pluralism, however, was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, and the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan. As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to their new lands, religious violence broke out, especially in the Punjab and Bengal. Gandhi did not participate in the official celebrations of independence in Delhi and instead visited the affected areas, attempting to provide solace. In the months following, he undertook several “fasts unto death” to promote religious harmony. The last of these, undertaken on 12 January 1948 at age 78, also had the indirect goal of pressuring India to pay out some cash assets owed to Pakistan. Some Hindu Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating to Muslims, however. Among them was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, who assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest at point-blank range.
Although Gandhi was not the originator of the principle of non-violence, he was the first to apply it in the political field on a large scale. The concepts of nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonresistance have a long history in Indian religious thought and have had many revivals in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Jewish and Christian contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Some of his remarks are widely quoted: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” and “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”
Gujarati cuisine, from Gandhi’s home state, is primarily vegetarian (despite having an extensive coastline for seafood) due to the influence of Jainism and Hinduism. The typical Gujarati main meal consists of roti (flatbread), dahl (lentils), rice, and some kind of curried vegetables, with a few side dishes and condiments. Gujarati cuisine varies widely in flavor and heat, depending on a given family’s tastes as well as the region of Gujarat they are from. Many Gujarati dishes are distinctively sweet, salty, and spicy at the same time.
Traditionally Indian dishes from all regions were flavored using various combinations of spices, giving each dish a unique taste. It used to be very difficult to get many of the necessary ingredients in Europe and North America, but with increasing populations of Indian and Pakistani immigrants there now it is much easier to make authentic curries. Gone are the bad old days when a cook had to rely on something generic labeled “curry powder.” This culinary atrocity should not be confused with blends and pastes that are available nowadays that replicate spice combinations from various regions of India. Many of these are very good and, in fact, are now widely used in Indian kitchens, although purists still blend their own.
Here is my recipe for dry potato curry which is a personal favorite. The secret lies in the repeated boiling dry of the pan which infuses the potatoes with the spices and gives them a crisp coating in the end. Garam masala is essential for this dish. It is a blend of spices that can be found in good supermarkets or online. You can also make this curry with a mix of cauliflower and potato, or peas and potato.
Dry Potato Curry
30 g ghee or clarified butter (or vegetable oil)
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsps coriander
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
1 ½ tsps salt, or to taste
4 -6 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp chopped cilantro or scallions
Use a large heavy skillet. Heat the ghee over medium heat. Fry the mustard seeds until they pop.
Add the onion, coriander, turmeric, paprika, and salt and fry for 2 to 3 minutes or until the onions are soft.
Add the potatoes and about ¼ cup of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and let boil dry. Add another ¼ cup of water and repeat the process. Do this three times or more until the potatoes are cooked through. Stir the potatoes periodically during the cooking process to prevent sticking. At the very end sprinkle the potatoes with the garam masala, add lemon juice, and stir well over high heat.
Garnish with chopped cilantro (or scallions) and serve.
Serves 6 or more as a side dish