Sometime in the late nineteenth century, about 900 men of the Mahiya pastoralist-warrior community came together, sitting-in for months on public grounds in Junagadh in Kathiawad without much to eat or drink. The Mahiyas had served the kings of Junagadh for generations, and in return for their military services to the state, they had been granted tax-free lands. Now, their royal patrons, with whom they shared deep historical ties had decided to impose an unfair tax burden on their pastures, the source of their livelihood.

But the Mahiyas’ sense of loyalty was strong and instead of taking on arms to protest the injustice, they resorted to another method of resistance – risaamanu, the temporary severing of relations between friends or family members, or as in this case, between patrons and clients.

Despite hardships, the Mahiyas did not budge, did not attack the villages nearby for food, and most importantly, did not take to violence against the rulers who had subjected them to new taxes. The Junagadh king remained unmoved, however, and ultimately, the Mahiyas were defeated at the points of guns, even as they stuck to their commitment of not using violence against their former patrons.

Gandhi’s roots

Kathiawad, the peninsular portion of present-day Gujarat, is also where Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was from. He was born in the sea-side town of Porbandar, a prominent princely state, and grew up in Rajkot, less than 200 km away from his birth-place. Until he left for London to train as a lawyer at the age of 18 in 1888, Gandhi had mainly lived in this part of western India and had received his primary and secondary education there.

Later, Gandhi would go on to work for the firm of a fellow Kathiawadi in South Africa, where he established himself as a political activist of repute. And after decades of being away, when he returned to India in 1915, surrounded by much anticipation and fanfare,he would choose to evoke this heritage by donning the traditional Kathiawadi dress – plain cotton cloak, turban, and dhoti – in contrast to the suits preferred by the other Indian leaders at a reception held in his honour at a fashionable Bombay venue.

Traditionally, the people of Kathiawad had not just used dharnas, or sit-ins but had also developed many other ways to gain political leverage. From today’s vantage point, some of these, like risaamanu and fasting seem to share common elements with Gandhi’s ideas. In contrast,others like self-punishment, self-immolation, as well as well as forms of guerilla warfare are distinctively “un-Gandhian”.

How much was Gandhi directly influenced by this tradition in framing his political methodology? Historian Howard Spodek answers that as the son of a high official in the Porbandar and Rajkot states, at the very least Gandhi would have been familiar with these ways of negotiating power and settling disputes.

Political ferment

This specific version of the Mahiya protest against the Junagadh kingdom is a partially fictionalised account of real incidents, told by Jhaverchand Meghani (1896-1947), the well-known, writer and folklorist from Kathiawad, who Gandhi once referred to as rashtriya shayar, or national poet. What is known though is that the mode of protest the Mahiyas chose was certainly traditional to Kathiawad which was home to hundreds of small kingdoms which had been around for centuries; even at Independence over 200 of the 550 Princely States of India were located in this region of present-day Gujarat. Disputes between different kingdoms often required means to garner political leverage, making Kathiawad a hotbed of political ferment and resistance.

Gandhi upon returning from South Africa was felicitated by his community in Jetpur, near Porbunder, in 1915...

In Kathiawad, Gandhi had also grown up in an eclectic socio-religious milieu.He mentions his encounters with Vaishanavism, Jainism, and Islam in his autobiography but he would have also known followers of Zoroastrianism and other Hindu devotional sects. Kathiawad was a region where different religions had co-existed for centuries thanks to its links with the Indian Ocean trading world. While it was a predominantly Hindu region in the nineteenth century, for ages, the Hindu and Muslim communities in Kathiawad had lived side by in relative amity.

On occasion, as in other parts of India, the two faiths also mingled. For instance, Gandhi’s mother, to whom he was deeply attached, belonged to the small Pranami sect. Krishna-worship was central to the Pranamis but the sect’s eighteenth-century founder also drew from Islamic practices and beliefs. While the Pranami faith spread to a few other parts of the subcontinent, it is in Kathiawad that this syncretic religious order had originated.

It is not a stretch to imagine then that at 18, when Gandhi made his way to London, he was not a young man from a remote village who had set out across the sea to a large international city, but instead, someone who had already encountered and lived a complex cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Rajkot was no bustling metropolis like Bombay, but his specific setting had perhaps fitted him with the tools needed to embark on a new journey of experiments in England.

‘A genuinely trans-national figure’

To be clear, it was later in London, South Africa, and eventually back in India, that Gandhi developed satyagraha as a unique mix of elements, specific to his early twentieth century context and experiences. In addition to indigenous influences, his ideas were shaped by the works of many international thinkers including the Russian Leo Tolstoy, the Englishman John Ruskin, and the American Henry David Thoreau. And his earliest experiments in non-violent resistance were carried out, not in India but in South Africa. As his most recent biographer, Ramachandra Guha points out, “Gandhi was, and remains, a genuinely trans-national figure. He was trans-national in the range of his influences and in the reach of his thought.”

Significantly, Gandhi also went far beyond the scale and scope of what anyone had ever attempted with non-violent protest. Unlike his Kathiawadi precursors, he took on not a local ruler but the entire British empire: his satyagraha, or truth force, succeeded in creating a political movement that eventually broke down colonial rule.

The courtyard of Gandhi's childhood home in Porbunder. Credit: Aparna Kapadia

Today, non-violent resistance has gained traction all over the world. Yet in India, while Gandhi is officially celebrated as the “father of the Indian nation”, his ideas of peaceful protest are newly controversial. Often the common line of attack is that that Gandhi’s pacifism is either too weak a remedy for our times, too outdated, or simply an aberration that only an uncommon person, a “mahatma” (great soul), or saint like him, could sustain in the real world of politics and power. While his symbolic legacy remains unquestioned by almost every political creed, on the left and right, the central Gandhian notion – the right to protest peacefully – is disputed.

The Kathiawadi traditions of resistance remind us that Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance was not quite the aberration it is imagined to be. It had deep roots in India itself, including in his own home region. Wednesday marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. On this occasion, as Gandhi’s ideas face a new test in India, it is perhaps worth recalling these small and little-known histories: the Mahiyas of Kathiawad, and other non-violent protestors of the region, whether Gandhi knew them or not, were his ancestors in more ways than one.

Aparna Kapadia teaches history at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.