Gandhi is famous for his pacifist nature and ideology, and is often attributed as one of the main factors for the end of colonial rule in India. Yet this view may not be entirely deserved. Upon analysis, questions are raised about the effectiveness and impact of Gandhi’s ideologies, and there is a strong school of thought that points to Gandhi hindering Indian Independence.
The focus of the essay is to address this view, and answer “To what extent did Gandhi’s ideologies hinder the Indian Independence Movement?”, giving a more thorough conclusion on the value and effect of Gandhi’s ideology to Indian Independence. As such, Gandhi’s key ideologies and execution of said ideologies have been explored, and their pragmatism and impact on Independence examined. Analysis of the unifying effect Gandhi’s ideologies had has also been explored, as that was one of the notable effects.
It has been shown that Gandhi’s ideology was ineffective in reaching its goals and actually hindered Independence; Gandhi’s pacifism prevented a violent rebellion that would have been much more successful. Evidence and analyses have been gathered from a series of corroborated primary and secondary sources, and important case studies have been evaluated for bias.
What small successes Gandhi experienced were at an ideological price, with principles being abandoned or compromised; thus Gandhi’s ideology cannot claim credit. Gandhi’s primary contribution was in strengthening the Indian National Congress, turning it from a small scattering of intellectuals to a powerful and systematized national organization. Yet even this hindered Independence, as this meant an increased reliance on an ineffective pacifist ideology.
The high eminence and efficacy often attributed to his pacific actions are ultimately undeserved, and in conclusion, Gandhi hindered the Indian Independence Movement with his ideology.
Historical Context 4
Mohandas Gandhi is commonly revered as a pioneer of pacifism and a political leader of India during the Indian Independence Movement. Gandhi is famously attributed with the quote, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” This statement perfectly captures his pacifist ideologies, and the lengths he went to suppress violence during the Movement.
The perceived effectiveness and peacekeeping by Gandhi’s ideology is why he is officially honored and celebrated in India by “Father of the Nation” and listed as one of the most influential people in recent history. While there is no doubt that Gandhi was an important figure, there exist different viewpoints over the effectiveness of his ideologies, and its actual contributions to the Movement.
Indian and world politics, modern Hinduism, any form of political or social struggle—all have been shaped by his famous nonviolent demonstrations, and the successes associated with them. It is important to warrant just how worthy Gandhi and his ideologies are of praise, and the value they hold.
This essay accepts that Gandhi contributed to the Movement but his ideologies hindered the speed at which Independence took place. His primary success was gathering supporters through social reform and publicity, transforming the Indian National Congress (INC) from a small group to a proper political party with widespread appeal. However, the respect Gandhi’s ideologies are given as catalysts in the Movement are undeserved, and most likely hindered the Movement. Pacifism was ultimately unsuccessful in reaching Gandhi’s goals, and actually prevented a would-be powerful violent overthrow. Gandhi may have aided the handover through his ideological methods, but his pacific methods blocked an alternatively effective violent approach.
By analyzing Gandhi’s ideological contributions individually and holistically, a final judgment can be reached to the question, “To what extent did Gandhi’s ideology hinder the Indian Independence Movement?”
The British Raj occupied India for almost a century, between 1858 and 1947, and it is necessary to understand the historical context surrounding the Movement. Prior to Gandhi’s political homecoming in 1915, there had been several Indian attempts to overthrow colonial rule, notably the 1857 sepoy rebellion. Rebel leaders were hailed as national Indian heroes, but “generated no coherent ideology”. This lack of ideology and national consciousness was one of the weaknesses of the Independence, and Gandhi’s unique ideologies set him apart. Cogently linked with ideology is execution. Gandhi was surprisingly dynamic, given his passive ideology, and his methods also warrant analysis.
Historically, “India did not have a tradition of unity, much less a sense of national community.” Loyalties had always been limited by political and ethnic diversity, and there was no unified opponent against British rule. This leads to an examination of Gandhi and the INC as a unifier of India.
Gandhi was by no means the first or only party to oppose colonial rule in India, and to properly understand the significance and successes of his ideology, it is necessary to identify and categorize his contributions: his ideology, his role as a unifier, and his methods.
The exposition on Gandhi’s ideology can be categorized thematically by the political, social, and economic. On seemingly non-political issues, Gandhi sought to draw political strength from them. Gandhi believed “the political struggle was inseparable both from the economic and social.” Gandhi vitally created connections between all ideologies to his political goal, so that every action impacted Independence, the hindrance of which will be explored.
Politically, Gandhi outlined his goal in his 1909 book, Hind Swaraj: swaraj—to rid India of foreign domination and win her Independence. Gandhi admits that “All Indians are impatient to attain Swaraj, but we are certainly not decided as to what it is.” Gandhi remained deliberately vague to appeal to the largest audience, “speaking in generalities, but he was searching for a single cause.”
This search can be seen in Hind Swaraj, where Gandhi promoted a wide range of radical and neo-Luddite ideas, particularly opposing modern civilization and education. These ideas were publicly criticized by moderate leaders, such as Gokhale and Nehru. Gandhi was shortsighted in that he “largely concentrated on the darker side of modern civilization”. In hindsight, eliminating British education would have devastated the Movement of its primary supporters, those with higher educations. Gandhi also risked alienated Hindus, given that learning is a part of the Hindu stages of life.
Yet, these actions did not hinder the movement, and long-term benefits can be argued: appealing to the moderates to stop relying on elitist petitions, and the extremists to stop their violence. Gandhi’s political manifesto was valuable not because of its new ideology, but because it called for a unified India. It may also have been beneficial for Gandhi’s radical neo-Luddite notions to have been dismissed early—he would abandon these notions and become more conservatively appealing.
Gandhi’s primary ideology for bringing swaraj was satyagraha, non-violent protest, “to convert, not coerce, the wrong-doer.” Gandhi believed traditional methods would fail: that terrorism invited further repression from the Raj, while passive politics “left the British free to decide whether or not to grant reforms.” This theory suffered from critical flaws, and massively hindered Independence.
Pragmatically, satyagraha suffered from several limitations, that “made moral but not political sense.” Gandhi’s response to the Jews in Nazi Germany to commit collective suicide shows that “applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement.” Yet ultimately that did not matter to India’s independence. India was not a totalitarian system, and Gandhi believed satyagraha worked in India.
While some of Congress’ most powerful politicians—namely Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Bose—strongly opposed satyagraha, Jawarharlal Nehru believed satygraha was “a way out of the tangle”. Nehru was popular with the masses, and would become Gandhi’s political heir and four-time Congress President: satyagraha indirectly united Congress, strengthening the Movement, yet did so under flawed Gandhian ideas. 
Satyagraha completely abhorred violence, yet violence may have been the answer. George Orwell believed that the British actually enjoyed satyagraha, that “since in every crisis Gandhi would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever.” Revisionists collude with Orwell on satyagraha’s ineffectiveness, “that the British might have quit India much earlier had they been faced with a well-organized armed struggle.” Many Indians preferred a real and violent “revolution that would have swept away the cobwebs of colonialism”, which satyagraha denied. Historians typically point to the Indian National Army’s strength as a factor in the British choosing to leave, rather than to face a violent movement.
Violence was feared by the British, wanted for by the masses, yet Gandhi stood in the way, “imposing almost unbearable moral constraints on his followers, who, once the movement collapsed, were almost bound to drift into violence.” Satyagraha was important as it gave Congress a platform to stand behind, and a sense of national consciousness for the Indian people to unite under. Yet the philosophy was flawed, and the more supporters it gained, the more it hindered the Movement.
As an egalitarian, Gandhi was extremely concerned with feminism and the situation of the Hindu Untouchables. Gandhi gained the support of minorities, yet hindered Independence as this only added supporters to ineffective non-violence. In her essay “Breaking the Shackles”, Dr Usha Thakkar, specializing in Gandhian thought and feminism, presents a very positive and detailed feminist historiography view of Gandhi.
Gandhi believed that women should play an active role in politics, and worked actively for political and social liberation. Women were then able to join Gandhi, naturally siding with their campaigner. Liberated women participated in every aspect of the movement, strengthening it massively. They “organized public meetings, sold khadi and prescribed literature, started picketing foreign goods, prepared contraband salt.” A good example of the mutually beneficial system Gandhi created was when women, at Gandhi’s behest, broke their Czechoslovakian glass bangles. This has twofold effect: it strengthened Indian economic and political struggle, and also liberated women from age-old social traditions. Critically, Gandhi thought women had “an inherent capacity for non-violence” , and sought to use them—this added strength to an ineffective satyagraha only further hindered Independence.
Yet Thakkar’s predisposition as a secondary source should be noted. As an Indian heavily involved in many pro-Gandhi organizations and publications, it is likely she will have personal bias and particular reverence for Gandhi and his patriotism. For example, Thakkar fails to mention the lack of original women in Gandhi’s famous Salt March, as he did not believe them to have the necessary grit as men. However, an internal criticism of Thakkar’s work is sound, and her perspective is heavily corroborated by other primary and secondary sources.
Gandhi would similarly liberate untouchables, allowing them to contribute to the Movement. The defining moment came in the Yeravda Pact in 1932, where Gandhi’s fast unto death created enough pressure for the viceroy to agree for normal Untouchable participation in elections, “a decisive step forward.”. This was doubly a political move as the Untouchables would unquestionably support their emancipator now.
Socially, Gandhi’s ideology looked towards the minorities and oppressed, who he recruited to join his side, massively supporting Congress and perpetuating an image of moral liberator. Yet once more, this hindered Independence, as the masses were being molded into Gandhi’s unsound pacifism.
Economically, Gandhi adapted a pre-existing philosophy, swadeshi, Indian economic self-sufficiency. Indian economy suffered as it could not compete with British mechanization, and Gandhi envisioned a completely Indian, hand-crafted economy. Importantly, Gandhi wanted to further the political significance of swadeshi, and amended for a decentralized community, “a marriage of political and economic ideals.”
Swadeshi protests accurately perceived in World War I that “India’s colonial economy had been linked to the needs of the metropolitan British.” India could simultaneously control her own industry, and weaken the British. Like Gandhi’s social reforms, economic policies backed political goals. If executed properly, swadeshi could massively help and unite Independence.
However, Gandhi’s radical vision of Indian communes alienated Nehru and the “Congress backed by Indian capitalism.” Nehru opposed Gandhi, and would preside the All-India Trade Union Congress for industrial workers; while other groups, notably the Communist Party, would reach out to trade unions, robbing the INC of supporters. This hindered Congress greatly, as they could not claim to represent India; in turn, the Movement suffered from a lack of unity.
Gandhi recognized this, and “was too shrewd a politician not to recognize the financial advantages” that modernization gave, and would later support the industrialists. It is clear that Gandhi had an ambivalent view of swadeshi, torn between practicality and principle. While economic power would play a successful role in later protests, Gandhi’s societal additions to swadeshi were largely abandoned—Gandhi had again traded ideology for results, and cannot claim acknowledgement for swadeshi’s aid to the Movement.
Following his success in South Africa, Gandhi gained some prestige and influence. Yet, India was severely divided on many levels, and Gandhi needed to unite her.
Interestingly, colonial rule provided the basis for unification. India has never been united, and political division had been at an extreme when the British arrived—“this lack of unity had always prevented the development of a true Indian national consciousness.”
Gandhi’s first task was to make the INC a powerful party. The Congress suffered from elitism, and was unapproachable, with internal factions further alienating the masses. Gandhi’s unique ideology created a new platform, one that was solid and unyielding. Gandhi’s satyagraha can be seen as national consciousness, a patriotic stand against the British.
Between 1915-22, Gandhi “made a successful bid for a truly national ‘all-India’ leadership”, changing policy and political organization. Congress lacked proper organization and provincial connections, and Gandhi successfully solved these problems. In the Nagpur Congress of 1920, Gandhi introduced committees on all levels and places, “transforming the Congress into a structure with genuine claim to be an all-India organization”. This also appealed to the peasantry, expanding the INC from urban to rural places. The widespread action of non-cooperation at the time shows Gandhi’s success, although this nonetheless hindered Independence as non-violence became integrated with Congress.
Bringing Congress to Gandhi did have a price. Many Congress leaders “were forced to cut their links with Congress because of Gandhian policies and formed the National Liberal Party.” Not only was Congress robbed of several capable politicians, but it symbolized an India divided.
Gandhi’s biggest mistake was not appealing more to other political factions. The Raj had long depended on Indian support for its rule, especially the Indian Army and Indian Civil Service (ICS). Clearly, Gandhi “held a powerful weapon in his hand in calling on such Indian personnel to question loyalty to the Raj” Critically, Gandhi’s peaceful ideology prevented him from seeing the worth of the Indian Army, “the ultimate sanction of British rule in India” The Army would become one of the major factors in the British’s decision to leave, and had Gandhi utilized their strength, the Movement would have been much more powerful.
Gandhi’s peaceful and egalitarian ideology “was always able to command publicity.” Gandhi fully utilized the press, notifying them of his actions in advance. A case study of Gandhi in the Second Round Table Conference shows him “winning over everyone from Charlie Chaplin to English children.” Gandhi had the image of a peaceable saint, and British violence only made him more sympathetic. Again, Gandhi cultivated the image of satyagraha’s success, while in reality, support for it only hindered the Movement.
Upon his return to India in 1916, Gandhi decided to reconnect with India, and travelled all over the country, gaining support from the masses. Gandhi’s pacifism was not cowardly, but seen by Indians as “a kshatriya warrior ethic of strength.” Bose, one of Gandhi’s primary critics, noted that Gandhi’s chaste life appealed massively to India’s masses: “His simple life… has marked him out as one of the eccentric Mahatmas of old and has brought him nearer to his people.”
Contrarian Richard Grenier famously challenged the traditional view of Gandhi as a saint, calling Gandhi racist, a violent hypocrite and “unshakably loyal to the crown.” While Grenier’s arguments carry weight, his heavily personal attacks point to bias. Nonetheless, contextually, these assertions did not matter. It was only decades later that any hint of Gandhi’s personal failings would be publicized, long after support was given.
Gandhi’s ideological execution to win Independence was primarily satyagraha. While holistically, Gandhi’s satyagraha hindered Independence, analyses of key events will strengthen and prove this argument. Satyagraha was first tested in India between 1917 and 1918, in three social episodes of peasant oppression by British taxes and landlords in Champaran, Ahmedabad and Kheda.
Gandhi experienced success, with the cases ending in compromises acceptable to all parties. Gandhi was primarily successful in that he had achieved his goal: liberating the Indian masses from British rule “by enhancing its political consciousness.” This aided Independence in the short run because of the publicity, that it “drew Indian political life, and the fight for independence itself, out into the open.” It brought Gandhi media attention, cementing his status as a political leader and making him a viable political force. Furthermore, this early success created confidence in Gandhi’s new ideology, and can be attributed to larger scales satyagrahas in the future—a blunder that was responsible for the success associated with non-violence.
Satyagraha was launched on a larger scale in the non-cooperation movement, from 1920-22. Gandhi incorporated elements from Hind Swaraj, specifically khadi. This time, Gandhi had the support of the INC, and its aim was clearly to protest British occupation. The political protest sought social and economic ground: national schools and autonomous courts were created, British products were boycotted.
Gandhi personally persuaded the All India Congress Committee that, as he writes in his autobiography, Indians were “duty bound to [start the movement], if they had in them the necessary grit and confidence.” The vote passed with an overwhelming majority, although Gandhi had fatally misjudged India’s readiness—increasingly violent and deadly demonstrations led to the death of 23 policemen by protestors on February 4th 1922 in Chauri Chaura.
Gandhi became disillusioned with the movement and was convinced it was such a failure that it would have undone all his work. It is clear that Gandhi and the INC had placed too much faith in satyagraha as a method, particularly so early.
While superficially there appear to be positive outcomes for Independence, each of them can be rebuffed. While it had been the first mass swaraj movement through non-violence, satyagraha proved too difficult on a bigger level than by the personal supervision of Gandhi in 1917 and 1918. Non-cooperation saw unity between the INC, and Hindus and Muslims for two years, although relations would quickly sour over the Khalifat movement, and two factions favoring and opposing Gandhian ideas formed—Gandhi had been arrested, severely limiting his actions and could only pacify sides to mixed success.. Furthermore, the Ali brothers and many nationalists broke away, disillusioned by how quickly Gandhi had given up.
Perhaps the only beneficial outcome was that “Congress had consolidated its strength and transformed itself into a proper party”, with Gandhi’s ideas integral. Non-cooperation (along with Gandhi’s political machinations) was the turning point for the INC and Gandhi. Both had become relatable and recognizable to the masses, and were now respected. Yet this was double-edged, as the Movement was now working on ineffectual pacifist means.
Gandhi returned from his political hiatus in 1928, prompted by the omission of an Indian member in the British constitutional reform commission. Gandhi pushed Nehru to become president of the INC, and with Nehru’s influence, the INC boldly proclaimed purna swaraj, complete independence, and civil disobedience was reignited. Gandhi chose the Indians’ right to mine salt without British taxes as his main cause.
Most Indian politicians and the British believed salt was too limited and unrelated to the masses, and would fail. However, Gandhi had his reasons. Salt was “harmless enough not to alienate the Congress Moderates but an issue of such widespread popular concern that it would mobilize a mass following.” Gandhi published an article called the “Eleven Points”, “meant to bring together the greatest number of social groups possible”. Here, Gandhi’s worth as a unifier can be seen: the widespread action of millions of Indians mining salt shows Gandhi’s foresight.
Millions of Indians followed Gandhi’s lead in gathering salt, while boycotting British goods and resigning from government posts. It forced the British to recognize that their control of India relied on India’s consent—and India was now protesting. Critically, world press “reported the whole affair… and testified to the world that India was free at last.”
The salt satyagraha would lead directly to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, where Indian’s right to salt was guaranteed, political prisoners freed, and most importantly, Lord Irwin, and by proxy the British, publicly acknowledged Gandhi and the INC’s validity by inviting them to the Round Table Conference. However, Nehru and the other leaders were upset as it also specified continued British occupation. Nonetheless, this was an important step forward, and legitimized and aided Independence.
This success came at an ideological price. Gandhi became increasingly lax with his pacifism vows, and incidents of violence did not stop the movement. The first signs of Gandhi’s pragmatic successes in lieu of ideological integrity can be seen.
The final act of the non-violence movement would be the 1942 Quit India campaign. During Japanese aggression in WWII, Congress passed a resolution demanding independence, threatening massive civil disobedience. The British authorities responded harshly, imprisoning Gandhi and Congress leaders and violently targeting protestors, leading to more violence in turn. With Gandhi’s pacifist ideology, however, it was easy for the world press to cast the Indians as the sympathetic victims.
Francis Hutchins, in the only full-scale study of the Quit India campaign to date, believes Gandhi did not think the Raj would accept the Resolution, and it was an excuse to cause a “social revolution… forcing India back into self-reliance on its 700,000 villages.” Hutchins notes that this was a turning point, where violence was condoned and allowed—no Chauri Chaura would stop the movement this time; some “1,060 demonstrators and sixty-three police had died”. Gandhi had changed from a committed pacifist to an active revolutionary searching for rebellion. While no major concessions were made, and the Raj did not agree to the terms, Hutchins believes the main success lies in “it led the Raj to revise its assumptions.” The massive action of millions of Indians claiming independence as a non-negotiable goal forced the Raj to acknowledge the Movement.
Yet is difficult to assess Hutchins’ validity, as there are few other Quit India analyses to compare against. Hutchins has no obvious bias, and has published dozens of books on the Movement, indicating his expertise in the matter.
When the British Prime Minister at the time was asked why the British withdrew, “Clement Attlee cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA activities and the RIN Mutiny.” Attlee believed Quit India had played a “minimal” role in the British’s decision to leave, instead claiming the violent revolts and growing dissatisfaction of the Indian Armed Forces had been the prime factor. Not only was Gandhi’s Quit India campaign ultimately inconsequential, Gandhi’s whole satyagraha ideology hindered the violence that was the true catalyst for Independence.
Gandhi’s overall contributions to the Movement through his ideology were mixed, but ultimately hindered Independence. Gandhi substituted a violent revolution for his ineffective pacifism, and delayed Independence by doing so.
On a purely ideological basis, Gandhi held several new radical ideas, and revamped old ones. His primary success was on a social level: the liberation of minorities allowed for them to join the INC and strengthen the M$ovement, and is ethically sound and forward thinking. Yet economically, Gandhi’s ideas were ineffective. Gandhi cannot claim credit for swadeshi as he did not conceive it, and his communal version was flawed and abandoned. Swadeshi later became compromised, as Gandhi realized the financial incentives. Nevertheless, Gandhi cleverly weaved the social and economic with the political, so that all his ideologies pointed towards the ultimate goal of swaraj.
Politically, there is strong evidence to indicate that a violent protest would have worked better than satyagraha, and that Gandhi actually hindered the Movement by blocking violence. Gandhi’s ideological execution of satyagraha produced little and came at a price. The British were ultimately unfazed by the satyagrahas, although it did force them to recognize India’s strength.
While satyagraha was successful under Gandhi’s personal supervision on small-scale events, bigger movements saw violence and harsh responses from the British. Gandhi can neither claim ideological integrity, as he would allow pragmatic concessions of violence in his later satyagrahas. Satyagraha’s worth lay not in attacking the British, but in the press it received and the statement it made, and the sympathetic view world opinion took.
Gandhi’s ideology’s biggest achievement was the impact on Congress. Congress was perhaps the prime proponent of Independence, and it would not have been nearly as effective without Gandhi’s reforms. Gandhi had crucially transformed Congress into a powerful political party, one that was organized and held national influence. It helped that Gandhi held the support of Nehru and the Indian masses, partly due to his social ideologies and the popular saint-like image.
Yet gaining the support of Congress and the masses all pointed towards satyagraha, massively delaying Independence. In conclusion, Gandhi aided the Movement in his own way, primarily as a unifier and through press attention; but his failures overshadowed his successes: accomplishments were often yielded at the cost of ideology, and his ideologies were often flawed. Command of the masses and publicity led to more followers, although directed at the wrong pacifist technique. A violent Independence steeped in bloodshed would most likely have come faster and more effectively.
Gandhi was wrong: an eye for an eye would not have made the whole world blind, but would’ve only hurt the British and left India with Independence sooner.
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