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Mohandas K. Gandhi

Asiaweek Pictures
BORN: Oct. 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India
1888: Starts to study law in England
1893: Goes to work in South Africa, where he fights for the rights of Indian migrant workers and gets jailed
1915: Returns to India
1919: Enters politics to protest British sedition laws
1921: Heads the National Congress party and advocates a policy of non-violence to achieve Independence
1930: Leads a march to the sea to protest a British tax on salt
1947: India wins Independence from Britain
1948: Assassinated on Jan. 30 in New Delhi

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once remarked that the real life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi could only be written by a person who was as great as the Mahatma ("Great Soul") himself. The best an ordinary biographer could hope to accomplish, said Nehru, was to recall some glimpses from the life of Gandhi, a "pilgrim of truth," as he called him. In Nehru's view, the most significant picture of Gandhi dated back to 1930 during the historic "Salt March" he led. Clad in his trademark loin-cloth and accompanied by 78 followers from various faiths and regions, Gandhi trekked 385 km from his ashram in the city of Ahmedabad in western India to the town of Dandi on the coast. There, he defied an oppressive British monopoly on the manufacture and collection of common salt by simply grabbing a pinch of the substance lying thick on the seashore. "With this," cried Gandhi, making a claim as sweeping as the vast shoreline on which he stood, "I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire."

Within days, a nationwide movement of civil disobedience had begun. Millions were collecting salt illegally and every large city in the subcontinent reverberated with demonstrations. The British, who had been ridiculing Gandhi before he set out on his seemingly eccentric journey, responded with violence, beating and kicking protesters. In the northern city of Peshawar (now in Pakistan), 70 people were machine-gunned to death and about 100 were injured. Over the next nine months, up to 100,000 non-violent resisters, including Gandhi and Nehru, were jailed. Through all the turmoil, barring one incident, not a single protester retaliated. The remarkable movement was described by one British India specialist as "a silent response to those who, both Indian and British, had dismissed Gandhian non-violence as a 'weapon of the weak.'"

Gandhi gave a name to his method of peaceful protest - satyagraha. The term meant, literally, a "firm grasp of the truth." It is based on an age-old Hindu practice whereby an aggrieved party sits indefinitely at the doorstep of an offender, often without eating. The protest does not cease until sufficient social pressure is generated to oblige the wrongdoer to take corrective action. It is a tribute to Gandhi's political genius that he was able to transform this individual form of resistance into a system of mass action.


Introduction: From among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are...

  Deng Xiaoping
  Morita Akio
  Kurosawa Akira
  Charles K. Kao
  Mohandas K. Gandhi

Contenders: As they say in film production, many great scenes from our history were left on the cutting room floor

20 Icons of the Century: Here are 20 concepts that defined the region over the past 100 years

Poll: Have your say on who you think is the Asian of the Century

Gandhi first put satyagraha to the test in South Africa. He had gone there in 1893 to practice law - only to end up breaking it. Within a week of his arrival in the country, Gandhi was thrown off a train in the middle of the night for daring to travel first class, which non-white people were forbidden to do. The young lawyer responded by mobilizing the local Indian community to oppose repressive legislation. In 1908, South African authorities sentenced him to three months' imprisonment for willfully breaking the law. In jail, Gandhi read Civil Disobedience, the famous treatise by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who had been imprisoned under similar circumstances six decades earlier. Gandhi, the prosperous son of the chief minister of one of India's 600 princely states, was particularly impressed by this passage: "I saw that if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was."

Upon his return to India in 1915, Gandhi set about dismantling the barriers that separated him from the common people. He wore clothes he spun with his own hands, ate simple food and cleaned public toilets in the communes where he lived with his wife Kasturba. Therein lay the key to Gandhi's immensely charismatic appeal as he plunged into the subcontinent's freedom struggle. When a friend asked him how he managed to arouse the people, Gandhi replied: "The man of our country realizes when he sees me that I am living as he does, that I am part of his own self." People who came into contact with Gandhi worshipped him like a god, touching his feet wherever he went. When somebody told him he was a saint trying to be a politician, Gandhi insisted it was the reverse: He was a politician trying his best to become a saint.

When India gained Independence in 1947, Gandhi was not in New Delhi. Ironically, he felt there was no reason to celebrate and didn't even send a message. He was far away in the east, trying to stop the communal bloodshed that had accompanied Britain's decision to partition the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi saw the mass violence as his personal failure - "an expression of my unbearable hopelessness." So did many Indians who were angry or bitter about the division of the motherland. Less than six months after Independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist.

It would be unfair to evaluate Gandhi solely on the basis of his political achievements. His real worth lies in the fact that throughout his struggle to make India free, he tried to become as pure and transparent a human being as he could. Through numerous acts of personal example, he overcame anger, vanity, selfishness, personal ambition, jealousy and social conformity. Indeed, his life, Gandhi said, was the only "real book" by which he wished to be judged. He provided the world with not so much an ideal, but a moral compass with which to steer through life. There have been greater saints, reformers, statesmen and organizers than Gandhi, wrote Bhikhu Parekh, a noted critic of the freedom fighter. "But it is difficult to think of one who was all these and fought simultaneously on so many fronts." Indeed, if anyone deserved the honorific Mahatma, it was Gandhi.

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