Tracing the steps of Mahatma Gandhi in Britain

This Saturday 15th August India will be celebrating her Independence Day which they got in year 1947 and one of the leaders who led this quiet struggle was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi- or, as he’s more often referred to, Mahatma Gandhi. Famed around the world as the man who led a non-violent revolution against British imperial rule in his home of India, Gandhi has become a household name. His birthday, October the 2nd, has become the internationally recognised Day of Non-Violence.

But why Gandhi? What linked him to the UK beyond being the man who led the revolution against British rule in his home? It may surprise some of you to find out that his links to the UK, and London, in particular, go back a long way.

Mahatma Gandhi statue in Parliament Square, London. Image: miyagawa (WikiCommons)

In 1888, the 19-year-old Gandhi left his home in India and travelled to London where he would train as a lawyer at the Inner Temple. He first took rooms at the Victoria Hotel, before a short spell in Richmond and finally settling in West Kensington.

For the first part of his three-year stay Gandhi attempted to live the life of an English gentleman- photos from the time show him dressed not in the traditional Khadi cloth that he would go on to make world-famous, but in Victorian courtly dress. However, as is the case with many young people just starting out in life, he discovered that living this lifestyle is expensive. He resolved to drop many of his new habits.

These three years in his early 20s would play a formative role in his life, both philosophically and politically. He fell into the orbit of numerous societies and organisations which advocated for greater autonomy for India and Indian rights.

There were three main groups that Gandhi was associated with in London. The first of these groups was the London Indian Society, an organisation of Indian students which served as a forum for airing their political grievances. Second, the National Indian Society- formed originally to push for better education for Indian girls and women but which expanded out as the number of Indians in the country grew to educate the British population on Indian affairs offer a social outlet where people from the two countries could mix. Finally, the Theosophical Society- a group which mixed Hindu and Buddhist thinking with metaphysics to form a new philosophy.

As well as the introductions to political and philosophical thought, Gandhi’s views on vegetarianism were also moulded by his time in the imperial capital. Before leaving India, the 19-year-old Gandhi promised his mother that he would not eat meat. This proved harder than expected- the English diet being quite a carnivorous one- until he came across the Vegetarian Society and discovered a range of vegetarian restaurants in the city.

Through his association with these groups and his time at university, Gandhi would mix with British society and these formative years no doubt played some role in shaping him into the man who would go on to have his birthday celebrated worldwide as the International Day of Non-Violence.

David Cameron and Prime Minister Modi pay homage to the Gandhi Statue in Parliament Square, London with a Red Arrows Fly Past. Image: 10 Downing Street, licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0.

After three years in the city, Gandhi graduated from the bar and left for home. He’d stay there for another two years before moving to South Africa. It was while in Africa that he would find himself in the role of political activist- advocating for better treatment of Indians in the colony- and in this capacity he would return to London many times through his life.

His first return to the city was in 1906 where he met with Lord Elgin to discuss the issues faced by Indians in South Africa. Although he regarded the meeting as positive, on his return he was gravely disappointed- little had been changed.

In 1909 he would return again- this time to promote the status of educated Indians across the empire. During this trip, he would visit friends across England and speak to Indian students at Cambridge. The most notable thing about this journey though is surely the work he started on the trip back to South Africa. It was during this voyage that he put pen to paper and began writing Hind Swaraj- or Indian Home Rule in the English of the day.

An admiring East End crowd gathers to witness the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi), in Canning Town, East London. (Photo by London Express/Getty Images – Public domain)

This book is where we start to see the Gandhi that we all know about today begin to emerge. He tells of his growing disillusionment with the Imperial machine and discusses his views on non-violent resistance as well as his vision for Indian politics.

Two days after the outbreak of World War One in 1914, Gandhi would be back in London. As well as attending a reception at the Hotel Cecil held in his honour (by this point he was a well-regarded lawyer and activist across the empire) it was during this visit that he would help to form the Indian Volunteer Ambulance Corps and recruit Indian staff for hospitals across the south coast. These medics would help treat the injured and wounded Indian soldiers who fought on the Western Front. Over 1,000,000 Indian soldiers would fight on behalf of the British Empire during the conflict.

1931 saw a final visit to London. By this point in his life, Gandhi was a leading figure in Indian national life- pushing for non-violent civil disobedience with the aim of breaking British power in India. This journey was made to take part in the second Round Table Discussion on Indian affairs.

Federal Structure Committee of the India Round-Table Conference at the St. James Palace in London, England. Lord Sankey is seen in the chair, with, on his left, Gandhi and Paudit Malaviya, will state the Congress case.
Credit: Photo by Uncredited author, public domain

Gandhi had missed the first discussion the year before as he had been arrested for organising the Salt Tax march- a protest against the unfair policy that said Indians couldn’t collect or sell the salt which was a vital ingredient in much of their staple diet. Gandhi had come to the conclusion that this was a simple and non-violent way in which Indians could participate in civil disobedience. The American journalist Webb Miller reported how the marchers were treated by British forces and these reports caused international outrage.

The Second Round Table Discussion did not yield independence for India and Gandhi returned home to continue his struggle. The struggle would last another 16 years before India was finally recognised as an independent state in 1947. Not even a year later Gandhi was assassinated.

After his death, Gandhi became the world’s best-known symbol of non-violent revolution.

Statue of Gandhi in Tavistock Square. Image by It’s No Game, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Two memorials stand in London today. The first (and lesser known) was unveiled in 1968 by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. This simple statue with a recess for candles and flowers in the plinth stands in Tavistock Gardens today, beside other memorials to non-violent campaigners. The second memorial was unveiled by present Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former British Prime Minister David Cameroon as a symbol of friendship between Britain and India in 2015. It stands in Parliament Square. You can explore these places of Gandhi’s relevance through Westminster walking tour by London strides by Blue badge guide Shaju Nair .During this summer’s BLM protests, the statue of Gandhi was catapulted back into the headlines after it was vandalised with the word “racist”- encouraging us to re-examine history and accept the negative aspects as well as the positives.


Featured image credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969 / 14997

Shaju Nair is a Blue Badge guide in London and well versed with most of the Indian languages .If you’d like to explore the city’s links with his tours, or any of the many, many other links which bind London and India he is available to show them to you. You can contact him here or through his London city blog .