On June 7, 1893, then-24-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was minding his own business in the first-class section of a South Africa train when a white man angrily demanded that he be sent to a rear car. The reason? The color of his skin.
A spark of rebellion ignited in Gandhi, and he refused to move. As a result, he was forcibly tossed onto the platform of the next station stop. He vowed, right then and there, to dedicate his life to fighting prejudice and injustice.
His fight would be fueled by an unusual arsenal, however. It drew upon the Hindu principle of ahimsa that he'd learned as a boy. Ahimsa called for one to act nonviolently towards all beings at all times and in all possible ways. This, in turn, provided the foundation for his burgeoning political ideology, Satyagraya, which called for "firmness in truth." The two ideologies combined to inform Gandhi's use of passive non-violent resistance – protests, marches, boycotts, hunger strikes – to combat injustice, even if it came at the hands of the powers-that-be. Indeed, especially so.
The early 1900s
After that formative moment on the train, Gandhi put his British law degree to use, organizing working-class Indians in South Africa – mainly agricultural laborers and miners. He lead civil disobedience campaigns against injustices under British rule, like its refusal to acknowledge Hindu marriages. He led a strike to protest an unfair £3 tax levied on people of Indian descent. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment for that cause. But the strike persisted, eventually forcing the elimination of the obviously discriminatory legislation.
Gandhi's activism continued upon his return to India. Formerly sheltered by his family's elite roots, as an adult he was shocked by the crushing poverty of the disenfranchised and vowed to apply non-violent methods on their behalf. He set about organizing boycotts of British schools and manufacturers; protesting taxes and the brutal, inhumane treatment of India's poorest communities; and fasting to bring popular attention to unfair practices stemming from prejudice.
His methods were met with serious push-back, and he was arrested on multiple occasions. But even more tragic was when events turned violent. In Amritsar in April, 1919, for example, 400 people were killed and another 1,300 wounded when 20,000 non-violent protesters were fired upon by the British Indian Army.
Still, Gandhi refused to give up. Indeed, the Amritsar massacre convinced him that it was high time to agitate for independence from British colonail rule, once and for all.
Gandhi envisioned a free India characterized by religious tolerance and acceptance of all faiths. With the help of the Indian National Congress and millions of engaged citizens, he worked tirelessly for the next quarter century to achieve this singular goal. In 1947 he came close, but success was only partially won.
That's when the British, unable to arrest the increasing nonviolent cries for freedom, finally agreed to negotiate. But they had a different vision: to divide their former colony along religious lines to form two separate, or "partitioned," states: primarily Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.
Partition sets off mass mutual killings and a chaotic migration of 10 million people. It was an international humanitarian disaster. Gandhi took to nonviolent means again, this time a prolonged fast with the goal of winning peace between Hindus and Muslims.
On June 30, 1948, while on his way to his daily evening prayer service in New Delhi, Gandhi was attacked by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a right-wing advocate of Hindu nationalism. Godse shot the 'Great Soul', or Mahatma, three times in the chest at point blank range. But even a heart as big as Gandhi's could not survive violence of that scale.
The loss of one of the history's greatest activists reverberated around the world. An estimated one million people attended his funeral procession and cremation. His revolutionary principles and abundant faith have acted as the foundation for generations of non-violent protesters, such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and César Chavez, and still inspire us to face down injustice today.
Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi showed us that peaceful protests could still pack a punch. He was an astute political campaigner who fought for the rights of the poor as well as for Indian independence from British rule without ever stooping to violence means, even in the face of it. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Whitney Stewart of New Orleans, LA, USA, for nominating him.