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GANDHI IN SOUTH AFRICA
(1893-1914)

While traveling by train to Pretoria, Gandhiji experienced his first taste of racial discrimination. Inspite of carrying first class ticket, he was indiscriminately thrown out of the train by the authorities on the instigation of a white man.

Gandhiji's reaction was that of `David confronting the Goliath of racial discrimination.

Instead of fleeing from the seen, Gandhiji stayed back - for 21 years to fight for rights of the Indians in South Africa. By May 1894, he had organized the Natal Indian Congress. In 1896, he returned to India and enlisted support from some prominent Indian leaders. He then returned to South Africa with 800 free Indians. Their arrival was met with resistance and an inflamed mob attacked Gandhiji physically. Gandhiji exercised `self-restraint'. His philosophy of winning the detractors with the peaceful restraint had begun.

It yielded fruit. Under pressure from the British government the attempt to disfranchise Indians in South Africa was abandoned.

With the outbreak of the Boer war in 1899, Gandhiji enlisted 1100 Indians and organized the Indian Ambulance Corps for the British. Inspite of the Indian support, the Transvaal Asiatic Department continued its anti-Indian regulations. Gandhiji chose to support the British as he felt, "The authorities may not always be right but as long as the subjects owe allegiance to the state, it is their clear duty to...accord their support".

Gandhiji was now the recognised leader of South Africa's Indian community. By1901,he returned to India with his family. He travelled extensively in India and even opened a law office in Bombay. However, South African Indians refused to part with their crusader of justice.

He had to return to South Africa on the request of the Indian community in 1902.

By 1903, Gandhiji had begun to lead a life of considerable discipline and self-restraint. He changed his dietary habits, he was his own doctor, he embraced the Gita and he was confronting untouchability. By 1906, after undergoing many trials and tribulations of self-abnegation and eventually brahmacharya (celibacy), he had became invincible to face the South African government. Except God, Gandhiji feared nothing.

Influenced by John Ruskin's preaching of rustic life, Gandhiji organized Phoenix Farm near Durban. Here he trained disciplined cadres on non-violent Satyagraha (peaceful self-restraint), involving peaceful violation of certain laws, mass courting of arrests, occasional hartal, (suspension of all economic activity for a particular time), spectacular marches and nurtured an indomitable spirit which would fight repression without fear.

In Sept 1906, he organized the first satyagraha campaign in protest against the proposed Asiatic ordinance directed against Indian immigrants in Transvaal. While in June 1907, he organized satyagraha against compulsory registration of Asiatics (The Black Act).

In 1908, Gandhiji had to stand trial for instigating the satyagraha. He was sentenced to two months in jail (the first time), however after a compromise with General Smuts he was released. Out of jail he was attacked for compromising with General Smuts. Unfortunately, Smuts broke the agreement and Gandhiji had to relaunch his satyagraha.

In 1909, he was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Volkshurst and Pretoria jails. After being released, he sailed for England to enlist support for the Indian community.

In 1913, he helped campaign against nullification of marriages not celebrated according to Christian rights. He also launched his third satyagraha campaign by leading 2000 Indian miners across the Transvaal border. By December, he was released unconditionally in hope of a compromise.

Gandhiji's ahimsa (non-violence) had triumphed. Victory came to Gandhiji not when Smuts had no more strength to fight him but when he had no more heart to fight him. Much later General Smuts declared that men like Mahatma Gandhi redeem us from a sense of commonplace and futility and are an inspiration to us not to weary in well doing....'

 

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Copyright 2004 Mani Bhavan<