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1 October 2019, Gateway House

Gandhi’s Bombay years

On the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary, our Bombay History Fellow harks back to three city sites where Gandhi launched movements that progressively stepped up the pressure on the British to leave the country

Bombay History Fellow

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Three landmarks in Bombay show the instrumental role the city played in India’s freedom struggle, a role that arose out of the time Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spent here. Bombay was the staging post for his launch of three movements that were central to the fight for independence, namely the first Non-Cooperation Movement (1920), Khilafat Movement (1919), and the Quit India Movement (1942).  October 2, Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, occasions revisiting the venues that evoke those momentous times.

So why did Gandhi choose Bombay as the launchpad for these movements over Delhi, the new capital city of India since 1911?

Bombay’s emergence as a hub of commerce, trading, banking, and manufacturing (textile mills), attracted various communities from what is today’s Gujarat and Maharashtra, such as the Parsis, Hindu trading communities, such as the  Lohanas, Bhatias and Banias, and Muslim traders –  the Khojas, Bohras, Memons, among others –  who were the engine of the city’s economy and Gandhi’s most vociferous  supporters.

Such a melting pot of cultures made for Bombay’s more liberal and cosmopolitan outlook. For example, women – the Desh Sevikas [1]– were at the forefront of picketing liquor shops and those selling foreign cloth during the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience Movements.

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Besides, Gandhi had a personal connection with the city as he had worked as a lawyer, first in 1891, and then again in 1902 and lived here. When he came back briefly to India from South Africa in 1902, Bombay was the perfect place for educating citizens on the plight of South Africa’s Indians. It was at this time too that he was in touch with some of the stalwarts of India’s early freedom movement – Gopal Krishna Gokhale (who visited South Africa when Gandhi was there), Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, and Dinshaw Vaccha, among others.

By 1915 when Gandhi returned to India for good, the people of Bombay were more open to his ideas as his successes in his 20-year fight against the oppression of the  Indian community in South Africa had earned him a formidable reputation.

Gandhi and his family received a rousing welcome at the city’s Apollo Bunder Pier in 1915, which was reserved only for welcoming VIPs. (The construction of the Gateway of India, begun in 1913, was completed only in 1924.) Shouts of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” rent the air, the first time that the sobriquet, ‘Mahatma’, was used. Two years after his return in 1915, he travelled the country, trying to understand the political and economic conditions of its people.

 Mani Bhavan

Mani Bhavan, on Laburnum Road, Girgaum – a beautiful old mansion with wooden balconies – was Gandhi’s home and headquarters in Bombay from 1917 to 1934, where he held meetings with Congress leaders, mill-workers, local traders and merchants, his supporters all.

He launched his first nationwide Satyagraha Movement against the Rowlatt Act in March 1919 from here. Known as the Black Act, it gave the British Indian government sweeping coercive powers against political offenders, persons suspected of seditious activities, and the press.

On April 13 that year, when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar, he stepped up the pressure by declaring the First Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920, whereby people stopped cooperating with government authorities. Lawyers boycotted the courts, Indian representatives in the legislatures resigned, people stopped paying taxes. Gandhi’s personal act of defiance was to publish an unregistered newsletter, Satyagrahi, from Mani Bhavan, at a time when registration under the Press Act was mandatory.

On 31 July 1921, he issued the call for the boycott of foreign cloth from Mani Bhavan, striking at the roots of British imperialism. British cloth had destroyed India’s artisanal home industries and enjoyed an unfair advantage over Indian mill-made cloth. Gandhi now had the support of many traders from the city’s cloth markets – Mulji Jetha[2], Mangaldas and Laxmidas – where shops continuing to sell foreign cloth were picketed.

Gandhi also learnt carding – the cleaning of raw cotton and preparing it for spinning – in 1917, and spinning on the charkha, making thread from cotton fibres here. Mani Bhavan is now a repository of his spinning wheel and other such memorabilia.

August Kranti Maidan Memorial

A short walk from Mani Bhavan is the Gowalia Tank Maidan, where the Quit India Movement was launched on 8 August 1942 by Gandhi to cries of “Do or Die”, the final push to make the British leave.

Once a stretch of open ground with a water tank where gowalia or cow herders brought their cattle to graze, it now turned into the venue of a historic Congress Working Committee meeting. Many factors impelled this. Firstly, the Sir Stafford Cripps Mission promised less than what had been sought: complete freedom from British rule. Second, Indian soldiers were fighting in the Second World War, an enterprise that most Indians did not support. Finally, the country was in imminent danger of invasion by the Japanese Army, which had already swept through British Burma (today’s Myanmar) and was on the country’s eastern border because it viewed India, a British colony, as enemy territory.

The next day (August 9), after arresting the top-tier Congress leaders (including Gandhi from Mani Bhavan) in a pre-dawn swoop, the police lathi-charged and teargassed the crowds to disrupt the scheduled hoisting of the Indian tri-colour, but feisty freedom fighter Aruna Asif Ali ensured that it flew.

The memorial, a tall pillar with a lotus atop it, was erected in 1970 by the Bombay Municipal Corporation.

Khilafat House

Khilafat House, located on a tree-lined lane in Byculla, has an entrance arch that says, ‘All India Khilafat Committee’, but the original bungalow in the compound was pulled down many years ago.  (The new one houses a college.)

The All India Khilafat Committee was founded by the Ali brothers – Maulana Mohammed and Shaukat Ali, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, all well-known nationalists – to defend Islam’s holy places, Mecca and Medina, whose fate was in question after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The future of the Ottoman Sultan, the protector of the faith or Caliph (therefore, ‘Khilafat’), itself hung in the balance.

Gandhi embraced the Khilafat Movement despite some opposition within the Congress. Combining this with the anger and frustration at the British government’s response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, he launched the First Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920, making it a showcase of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Upon being elected president of the first All-India Khilafat Conference in 1919, he led the first Id-e-Milad procession from Chhotani House, then the Khilafat headquarters in the Masjid area, to Haj House behind Crawford Market.

Even today, a 100 years later, this procession is an annual event, though it now begins at Khilafat House in Byculla.

These are just three historic milestones in the city one associates with Gandhi, but his presence touched so many public spaces: Chowpatty Beach, Azad Maidan, cinema halls (Excelsior and Empire), Congress Hall (in Congress House, Lamington Road) and Harijan colonies, like Walpakhadi in Worli, where he lived and worked amongst its residents. Two bungalows, where he stayed briefly, are Rungta House (formerly a sea-facing bungalow on Nepean Sea Road), and Birla House,[3] his headquarters during the Gandhi-Jinnah talks of 1944. Each site had a part in hosting the Father of the Nation in its long path to freedom.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

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[1] Some prominent women of the Desh Sevika Sangh were Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya , Hansa Mehta, Perin Captain, Avantikabai Gokhale, and Lilavati Munshi.

[2] For three months in 1932, the traders of Mulji Jetha Market observed a hartal. The market finally opened on 7 April 1932, when Desh Sevika and well-known freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu inaugurated the Swadeshi Wing of this market.

[3] Birla House is located on Mount Pleasant Road, just off Nepean Sea Road.

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