In April 1893, Gandhi had sailed for South Africa, a young and inexperienced barrister in search of fortune. In January 1915 he finally returned to India, a Mahatma, with no possessions and with only one ambition – to serve his people. Though the intelligentsia had heard of his exploits in South Africa, he was not much known in India and Indians in general did not realize that “the Great Soul in beggar’s garb”, as the poet Tagore called him called him later, had reached her shores. Nor did he know his shores. Nor did he know his India well. He therefore readily promised his “political guru”, Gokhale, that he would spend the first year in India studying the country, with “his ears open but his mouth shut”.
At the end of his year’s wanderings, Gandhi settled down on the bank of the river Sabarmati, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, where he founded an ashram in May 1915. He called it the Satyagraha Ashram. The inmates about twenty-five men and women, took the vows of truth, ahimsa, celibacy, non-stealing, non-possession and control of the palate, and dedicated themselves to the service of the people .
Gandhi’s first public address in India was on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University in February 1916, which was distinguished by the presence of many magnets and princes and of the Viceroy himself. Speaking in English he shocked them all by expressing his “deep humiliation and shame” at being compelled “to address my countrymen in a language that is foreign to me”. He shocked them more when turning to the bejewelled princes he said: “There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India.” Many princes walked out.
His first satyagraha in India was in Champaran, in Bihar, where he went in 1917 at the request of a poor peasants to inquire into the grievances of the much exploited peasants of that district, who were compelled by British indigo planters to grow indigo on 15 percent of their land and part with the whole crop for rent. The news that a Mahatma had arrived to inquire into their sufferings spread like wild fire and thousands of peasants left their villages to have his darshan and to tell him of their woes. The vested interests were up in arms and the police superintendent ordered Gandhi to leave district. Gandhi refused and was summoned to appear in court the next day. Thousand of peasants followed him there. The embarrassed magistrate postponed the trial and released him without bail, for Gandhi refused to furnish any.
Later, the case was withdrawn and Gandhi proceeded with his inquiry. Along with the inquiry, he educated the peasants in the principles of satyagraha and taught them that the first condition of freedom was freedom from fear. He sent for volunteers who helped to instruct the illiterate and ignorant peasants in elementary hygiene and ran schools for their children. This kind of activity was typical of Gandhi. Even as he taught people to fight for their rights, he taught them to fulfill their obligations. A free people must learn to stand on their feet. But the more he worked for the people the less was his presence welcome to the Government who were at last obliged to set up a committee of inquiry. The report of the committee of which Gandhi was a member went in favour of the tenant farmers. The success of his first experiment in satyagraha in India greatly enhanced Gandhi’s reputation in this country.
Hardly had his work in Champaran been done when Gandhi was called to his ashram at Sabarmati by an urgent appeal from the textile workers of Ahmedabad whose dispute with the mill-owners was taking a serious turn. Having satisfied himself that the workers’ demands were legitimate and mill-owners’ refusal to submit the dispute to arbitration unreasonable, Gandhi asked the workers to strike, on condition that they took a pledge to remain non-violent. They agreed, but after a few days their zeal began to flag and Gandhi feared that they might break the pledge and resort to violence. Since it was the fear of starvation which drove the workers to desperation, Gandhi decided to starve himself. He declared that he would not touch food until a settlement had been reached. At the end of three days, both parties agreed on an arbitration amid general rejoicing.
Almost immediately after came the agrarian trouble in the Kheda district of Gujarat. The peasants who were on the verge of starvation were being forced by the Government to pay the usual tax. Gandhi advised satyagraha and persuade all the peasants, the well-to-do as well as the poor, to take a pledge not to pay any tax until those who could not pay were granted remission. The no-tax campaign lasted for about four months at the end of which the Government suspended the assessment for the poor peasants.
Now there took place an event which still baffles the pacifists in the West. In 1917, the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford invited Gandhi to a War conference convened in Delhi to enlist the support of Indian leaders for the recruitment campaign. At that time Gandhi believed that the British Empire was by and large a power for good, and that since India had on the whole benefited by British connection, it was the duty of every Indian to help the Empire in the hour of its need. Gandhi not only supported the resolution of the War Conference but actually toured the Kheda district (where previously he had led the peasants in satyagraha) to persuade people to enlist.