In 1921, Gandhi was elected president of the Congress party. He remained the dominant figure in Indian politics for more than twenty years. His words, actions, and ideas inspired Indians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Gandhi was horrified by the violence at Amritsar, but he also condemned Indian acts of violence in response to the massacre. Instead, he preached a philosophy of nonviolent protest that he had first begun to develop during his years in South Africa. His philosophy was based on the ancient Hindu and Jain doctrine of ahimsa (uh HIM sah), or nonviolence and reverence for all life. By using the power of love, Gandhi believed, people could convert even the worst wrongdoer to the right course of action. To fight against injustice, he advocated the use of nonviolent resistance. Hindu tradition also informed Gandhi's belief that all Indians regardless of religion had a common spiritual character and common interests.
Gandhi's philosophy reflected Western as well as Indian influences. He admired Christian teachings about love. He believed in the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau's ideas about civil disobedience, the refusal to obey unjust laws. Gandhi also embraced Western ideas of democracy and nationalism.
Inspired by both Indian and Western ideas, Gandhi rejected the inequalities of the Indian caste system and fought hard to end the harsh treatment of untouchables, the lowest caste of Indian society. He called these outcasts Harijans, or “children of God.” Gandhi also urged equal rights for all Indians, women as well as men.
Over the next two decades, Gandhi initiated a series of nonviolent actions against British rule. He called for Indians to boycott, or refuse to buy, British goods, especially cotton textiles. The move was designed to boost local Indian industries and help restore Indian pride. For centuries, India had produced fine textiles, which had declined under British rule. Gandhi wanted to rebuild such traditional industries.
He made the spinning wheel the symbol of the nationalist movement. In a symbolic move, he abandoned Western-style clothing for the dhota, the simple white garments traditionally worn by village Indians.
Through his own example, Gandhi inspired Indians to “get rid of our helplessness.” When protests led to violent riots, Gandhi would fast, pray, and call on patriotic Indians to practice self control. His campaigns of civil disobedience attracted wide support, and his nonviolent protests caught the attention of the British government and the world.
Gandhi taught his ways to people throughout India. Here, he speaks to harijan workers at his ashram, or spiritual retreat, in the village of Sevagram.
What force did Gandhi propose using to free India from British colonial rule, and what was the basis for his ideas?
To mobilize mass support, Gandhi decided to take a stand against the British salt monopoly, which he saw as a symbol of British oppression. Natural salt was available along the shore, and people had traditionally gotten their salt supplies by boiling seawater. But under colonial rule, the British claimed the sole right to produce and sell salt. By taxing those sales, they collected money to maintain their government in India.
Early in 1930, Gandhi wrote to the British viceroy in India. He stated his intention to break the hated salt laws and condemned British rule as “a curse.”