Gandhi & The Tatas


October 5, 2019

Post by




Revisiting the relationship between the Mahatma and the founders of the Tata group, from satyagraha to swaraj

October 2019     |

Throughout his public service Mahatma Gandhi, in his own words, ranged himself “seemingly against capital”. The few exceptions to this included the Tatas. On his 150th birth anniversary, we recount the Tatas’ interactions with the Mahatma.

Gandhi developed a respect for the Tatas in the lifetime of Jamsetji Tata. “In whatever he did, Mr Tata never looked to self-interest,” he wrote in 1905 in the Indian Opinion (a newspaper he established), marking the first death anniversary of the founder. “He never cared for any titles from the Government, nor did he ever take distinctions of caste or race into consideration… the Parsis, the Muslims, the Hindus — all were equal to him. For him it was enough that they were Indians… Though he possessed unlimited wealth, he spent nothing from it on his own pleasures. His simplicity was remarkable. May India produce many Tatas!”

By then, Gandhi was already in South Africa to champion the Indian cause against discrimination but still a year away from taking the oath of passive resistance, which would define the rest of his life. Much of the success of his upcoming satyagraha in South Africa was owed to the “princely” contributions of Jamsetji’s younger son, Sir Ratan Tata.

“He has made the lot of passive resisters easy,” Gandhi wrote in the Indian Opinion after the third donation of Rs 25,000, “and the fact that there are at the back of the struggle such distinguished Indians, encourages those who are engaged in it, and probably brings them nearer their goal.”

He also separately acknowledged that the paper, which served as the mouthpiece of the movement, had “never been in a position to pay its way” and would have been “in dire straits if Mr Tata’s generous help had not been drawn upon to meet its needs”

These ties were what convinced Gandhi to visit Jamshedpur in 1925 to resolve the labour problems at Tata Steel. Addressing an audience of 20,000 people at the TISCO Institute (now the United Club), he said, “Believe me, throughout my public service of 35 years, though I have been obliged to range myself seemingly against capital… I may say that I have come here also as a friend of the capitalists — a friend of the Tatas.”

“And here it would be ungrateful on my part if I do not give a little anecdote about how my connection to the Tatas began. In South Africa, when I was struggling along with the Indians there in the attempt to retain our self-respect and vindicate our status, it was the late Sir Ratan Tata who first came forward with assistance… Ever since, I have a vivid recollection of my relations with the Tatas… I wish to this great Indian firm all the prosperity that it deserves and to this great enterprise every success.”


Gandhi and Dr Rajendra Prasad, who later became India’s first president, in Jamshedpur in 1934


Gandhi viewed Tata Steel as a “great Indian firm” and was so convinced that its success could herald “a miniature swaraj” that he travelled to Jamshedpur in 1925 to resolve labour problems. Jamshedpur, in turn, supported Gandhi in 1934, when he stopped there during his travels for the Harijan Movement. He stayed at the TISCO Institute, addressed a large meeting and raised funds for a Harijan rally.

His third and final visit to the city was a pitstop in 1940 on his way back from Ramgarh Congress.

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

After an All-India Muslim League session, which included Gandhi and other Congress members, was disrupted in December 1915, they reconvened at the Taj on January 1, 1916. “So, it came about that, in a quiet backroom of the Taj, the members of the Muslim League settled their differences with the Hindu-dominated Congress and, in a very significant step towards national unity, agreed to adopt a common goal: that of self-government for India,” says The Taj at Apollo Bunder.


It was the Taj in 1916 that the Muslim League and Congress agreed to adopt the common goal of self-government for India

It also documents the day in June 1931 when “the Mahatma slipped into the Taj clad only in a dhoti and chappals” to address a secret dinner of the Young Europeans. “Considering it essential that the discussions remain confidential, Gandhi obtained a pledge from all those present that not a word of their deliberations — said to have been prolonged but friendly — should be made public.”

BJ Padshah

The Tata family’s ties with Gandhi’s causes is likely to have stemmed from his association with BJ Padshah, a trusted lieutenant of Jamsetji Tata.

Padshah was a friend of both Gandhi and his mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and had, in fact, planned to work with Gokhale’s Servants of India Society before Jamsetji convinced him to join the Tatas. He was also a mentor to Sir Ratan Tata, who went on to became the first Indian to finance Gandhi’s movement.

The testament to Gandhi’s regard for Padshah lies in the letters between the two — many of which are conserved at the Tata Central Archives — on the Mahatma’s ideas of non-violence and non-cooperation.


An edition of the Indian Opinion from December 1910 after Sir Ratan Tata’s second donation to Gandhi (left); Sir Ratan Tata with Gopal Krishna Gokhale (right)

Sir Ratan Tata

Sir Ratan Tata’s donations, starting with 25,000 in 1909, played a crucial role in the survival of Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement, the birthplace of satyagraha; the Tolstoy Farm, and the Indian Opinion, the mouthpiece of the satyagraha in South Africa.

He not only contributed a total of 125,000, in five equal tranches, to the satyagraha, but also supported Gandhi by hosting him at York House in Twickenham when the latter visited England.

Lady Meherbai Tata

When Gandhi returned from South Africa to India, his ties with the Tatas continued to strengthen with the support of Lady Meherbai Tata.

She had donated 1,000 to protest the cruel treatment of Indians in South Africa in 1913 and picked up the mantle in India. In 1917, she visited the Viceroy of India with a deputation of prominent women to rally support for Gandhi’s fight against indentured emigration to South Africa. This ‘semi-slavery’ was stopped the same year, more than two decades after Gandhi had drafted the first petition against it.

Lady Meherbai then started learning spinning in 1919 to promote the activity — a key part of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement — as profitable and respectable.

She also championed Gandhi on global platforms like her speech at Battle Creek College in America in 1927.

RD Tata

RD Tata believed in the ultimate freedom of India. He aided Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of self-rule by providing 1 lakh spindles and other spinning supplies to support the Swadeshi Movement in 1926.

JRD Tata

JRD Tata and Gandhi didn’t always agree, but always respected each other.

In 1945, when JRD was part of a delegation of Indian businessmen to England and America, Gandhi had issued a press statement saying: “Freedom will come only after big business forgo crumbs from Indo-British loot.”

An unhappy JRD had written to Gandhi, saying the purpose of the trip was to gain knowledge and experience to help India’s economic development and that India could not afford to stand still while other nations forged ahead.

It mattered because JRD considered Gandhi “the most extraordinary human being”. He told Tata historian RM Lala, “He inspired in me, as in most people, a mixture of awe, admiration and affection combined with some scepticism about his economic philosophy despite which one would follow or support him to the end, come what may.”

Following Gandhi’s death in 1948, JRD wrote in a bulletin to all Tata employees, “Gandhi did more than lead his countrymen to freedom. He revived in millions of people, here and abroad, the consciousness of the prime virtues taught by every great moral leader of history — love, truth, faith and charity. The best memorial to Mahatma Gandhi would undoubtedly be to live up to the great ideals set by him.”

—Monali Sarkar

With inputs and photographs from Tata Central Archives and Tata Steel Centre for Excellence