The shy 23-year-old Indian lawyer who landed in the South African port city of Durban in 1893 was unsure of what the future held for him, and there was little in his personality to suggest that he had the leadership skills to lead a mass movement. Yet, more than 20 years later, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India, he was a fully-formed leader, supremely confident about his moral philosophy, and ready to take his country down the road to freedom.
All his ideals that became buzzwords during the Indian freedom struggle —satyagraha, non-violence, truth—were first practised and perfected in South Africa.
When Gandhi was arrested in South Africa for leading a miners’ march, it was one of the several struggles and protest movements that he launched there.
Early on, in what is now a well-known incident, he was forcibly removed from a carriage meant exclusively for whites, on June 7, 1893, on a train in Pietermaritzburg, for disobeying race-segregation laws. Sitting in the waiting room, shivering in the bitter cold, not knowing where his luggage was, he weighed his options: “Two courses were open to me. I might either free myself from the contract with Messrs Dada Abdulla on the ground that circumstances had come to my knowledge which had not been disclosed to me before, and run back to India. Or I might bear all hardships and fulfil my engagement . . .,” he later wrote. “Sleep was out of the question. Doubt took possession of my mind. Late at night, I came to the conclusion that to run back to India would be cowardly. I must accomplish what I had undertaken.”
Though at that point of time his goals were narrowly focused on his firm’s court cases, this first-hand experience of racial discrimination and his determination to “bear all hardships” and not “run back” foreshadowed his later involvement in anti-discrimination campaigns.
He helped establish the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. Barely three years after he arrived in South Africa, Gandhi had become a political leader and community organiser, a pivot around which Indians who lacked political rights began to rally. In 1903, he launched the newspaper Indian Opinion to express his goals and opinions. It was perhaps here that he first articulated his views on ‘passive resistance’ or satyagraha.
In the early 1900s, segregation affected where Indians could stay or find employment, and they were also compelled to pay a £3 poll tax. The Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance that was introduced some years later required all Indians in the Transvaal to carry a pass, among other repressive measures. Gandhi led some 3,000 Indians in protest against this Act, in what was known as the 1906 satyagraha campaign, and marks the beginning of his passive-resistance movement.
He was later quoted as saying: “My people were excited . . . I had then to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method . . . and it came to me that we should refuse to obey legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked. Thus came into being the moral equivalent of war.”
The Indian community largely followed Gandhi’s plan, and the struggle against the Act continued for over six years. During this period, thousands of Indians were put in jail and brutally suppressed though they only followed non-violent forms of resistance. The South African regime later sought to reach a comprise with Gandhi.
To protest a tax imposed on former indentured labourers, Gandhi led a march of mine workers on November 6, 1913. He was arrested. On securing bail, he rejoined the march and was again arrested. But eventually, Gandhi’s side won. The Indian Relief Bill was dropped.
Leading Indians in South Africa to protest against injustice was, however, only part of Gandhi’s learning curve. He also realised how diverse the Indian community in South Africa was, and the importance of creating spaces that were open to all people, irrespective of religion, caste or creed. These experiences provided him a template for the long struggle that lay ahead in India.
As historian Ramachandra Guha writes in his 2013 book Gandhi before India: “Many years later, reflecting on his South African experience, Gandhi remembered that the residents of Phoenix and Tolstoy farms were, in religious terms, Hindus of different castes, Sunnis and Shias, Protestants and Catholics, Parsis and Jews. The professions they had previously practised included architecture, journalism, the law and trade. They now submerged their faiths and their qualifications in the common work of printing, gardening, carpentry and house-building. And so, as Gandhi recalled, the ‘practice of truth and non-violence melted religious differences, and we learnt to see beauty in each religion’.”
South Africa was thus a great laboratory for Gandhi and his experiments with truth. The young man who went to South Africa to try his luck as a lawyer, ended up learning the art of satyagraha, and returned to his own land a mahatma.
Also on this day:
2010 — Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Union Education minister and Chief Minister of West Bengal, passed away
1985 — Sanjeev Kumar, Hindi film actor, passed away