On 7 June 1893, Mohandas Gandhi, then a young Indian lawyer recently arrived in South Africa, was asked to shift from the first class compartment of a train even though he had a valid ticket, just because he was not white-skinned. He refused and told the railway officers that if they wanted to throw him out, they could but he would not go voluntarily. This act of standing up against injustice was, in effect, Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience. And a lesson that he would never forget.
Gandhi was on his way from Durban to Pretoria, where he had to fight a case on behalf of a client. Gandhi’s law firm had booked a first class seat for him. At around 9 pm when the train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, a railway helper came up to him with bedding. Gandhi thanked him, saying he was carrying his own bedding.
Soon after another passenger took a close look at the young Indian lawyer, and returned with a couple of officials. There was an awkward silence for some time. Then another official walked up to Gandhi and told him that he must go the van compartment. “But I have a first class ticket,” Gandhi replied, as quoted in his autobiography My Experiments With Truth. But the official insisted that he must vacate the first class compartment. Gandhi refused. The official threatened to call a cop and forcibly push him out.
Gandhi, then, in an instinctive but classic act of civil disobedience, remarked: “Yes, you may [push me out]. I refuse to go out voluntarily.”
What happened next is well known: He was thrown out of the compartment, and his luggage was flung out too. But Gandhi refused to go to the other compartment. The train sped away leaving Gandhi shivering in the cold at the station.
My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
A turning point
More than 45 years after this first-hand experience of racial prejudice, Gandhi recalled the thoughts going through his head: “I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room, I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date.”
Once he had made up his mind the subsequent, public acts of civil disobedience — or satyagraha as he liked to call it — would define his long years in South Africa and the even longer struggle ahead when he became the pre-eminent leader of India’s freedom movement.
Gandhi ended up staying in South Africa for more than two decades to fight for the rights of the Indian community there.
He took the lead in setting up the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. After a short trip to India, when he returned to South Africa in a ship-full of Indians, a mob of whites attacked Gandhi. He barely managed to escape. His philosophy of non-violent resistance slowly began to take shape.
He successfully fought against attempts by the South African administration to disfranchise the Indian community.
When the Boer war broke out, Gandhi set up the Indian Ambulance Corps which enlisted hundreds of Indians to help the British side. Gandhi’s ideas were put to test in 1906 when the Transvaal government came out with a new Act making it compulsory for Indians to carry a pass bearing their fingerprints. This was naturally met with protest and Gandhi led the Indian community’s response. Ultimately, a compromise was reached.
Gandhi, who was arrested several times during his years in South Africa, led another major protest in 1913 against a tax imposed on indentured Indians. Again, Gandhi’s side emerged victorious.
By the time Gandhi returned to India for good, in 1915, he was ready to plunge into the Indian freedom struggle. In the initial years after returning to India he traversed the length and breadth of the country by train, learning first hand the myriad social and economic problems people in this vast and diverse nation faced. But it all began with another train journey in South Africa on 7 June 1983 when he did not lose his spirit and vowed to fight back.
Also on this day:
1914 — Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Indian filmmaker, was born
1954 — Jayanthi Natarajan, Indian union minister, was born
1975 — Ekta Kapoor, Indian TV and film producer, was born
1977 — Deep Dasgupta, Indian cricketer, was born