THE RISE OF A REVOLUTIONARY
GOPALKRISHNA Gandhi, the High Commissioner of India to South Africa in 1997, on receiving the Freedom of the City granted to his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi by the Msunduzi Municipality, asked the following questions in his speech: “Who was the man that was flung out? Who was it that fell, who was it that rose from his humiliation?”
We might want to add another few questions: “What exactly happened at the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station on the night of June 7, 1893, and what was its significance?”
The high commissioner answered: “When Gandhi was evicted an Indian visiting South Africa fell, but when he rose a Indian South African rose… He fell a barrister, but rose a revolutionary. He fell with a ticket nobody honoured, but rose with a testament none could ignore.”
Gandhi, of course, was travelling in a first-class compartment to Pretoria, where he was going to represent Dada Abdulla, a businessman from Durban in a court case, having just arrived from India a week before. A passenger embarking at Pietermaritzburg objected to his presence in the compartment and, after refusing to go to a third-class compartment, he was forcibly removed and thrown out.
So what was the significance of this event?
Gandhi said in his autobiography that this incident started his “active non-violence” and planted the seed for the formation of Satyagraha, which means “truth force”, and which is loosely translated as “passive resistance”. While sitting shivering in the waiting room at the station that cold winter’s night, he contemplated what he should do – one option was to return to India instead of suffering this humiliation – another option was to go on and not mind the humiliation. He chose to stay and fight this injustice.
June 7, 1893, is when it all started, at the railway station in Pietermaritzburg.
So, who was this young man that was flung out there on that platform?
Gandhi’s biographer described him as “the child of an ancient and noble race. His father, grandfather and uncle were prime ministers of their respective courts. His childhood and youth were spent in India, where he was familiar with the splendour of an eastern palace”.
Gandhi was born in Porbander, in the State of Gujarat in North West India on October 2, 1869. Porbander was a fishing port in those days. His father worked for the government – in today’s terminology he was a senior civil servant, a prime minister of the court. His mother, a Jain, exposed the young Mohandas to the idea of non-violence as the road to spiritual and social equality. The family later moved to Rajkot where his father was state prime minister.
Gandhi was educated in an English-medium high school, and was said to be a rebellious teenager. He studied law in England in 1888, after his mother reluctantly gave him permission to go – on three conditions: no meat, no wine and no women!
He was called to the Bar in 1891, and returned to India that same year and opened his first practice in Bombay, which was not very successful. He then moved his practice to Rajkot, where his brother worked for a legal firm.
It was here that his brother was contacted by a Memin firm in Porbander, who had a case in South Africa representing Dada Abdulla and Co. He met Abdulla Sheth Karim Jhaveri, a partner in the firm, who explained the nature of the case.
The offer was for a year, all expenses paid, including first-class passage on the ship and $105 – to advise the firm’s counsel. There was no berth available in first class, and he was offered a place on deck which he refused – he actually spoke to the chief officer, who offered him an extra berth in his cabin. And so he departed India in April 1893, at the age of 24, to (in his words) “try his luck in SA”.
After the incident on June 7, 1893, he sent a telegram to the railway authorities protesting against his treatment. He also contacted Dada Abdulla, who arranged for another ticket, and he left on the evening train to Charlestown, from where he boarded a coach to Pretoria.
The case lasted a year and, at its conclusion, he returned to Durban to prepare for his departure to India. At his farewell, the issue of the Indian franchise came up, and he was persuaded to stay for another month to make representations to stop the Bill.
He was to stay another two years. He left for India in 1896 to bring his wife and sons to South Africa. They stayed for two decades. It was during this time that he experimented with truth and developed the core tenets of his philosophy in all aspects of life. This was between his work as a lawyer and activist/passive resister in Natal and the Transvaal, taking up the various protest actions against discriminatory laws and regulations.
During those 21 years in South Africa he developed into the Mahatma that the world has revered, a far cry from the young, inexperienced “colonial trained” lawyer that landed here in 1893. Satyagraha, formulated in South Africa, was to be the weapon that was to bring freedom to India from colonial rule. And in South Africa, Satyagraha was used to pressure the government to scrap the need for the registration of Indians, to scrap the £3 tax imposed on free indentured labourers who chose to stay in the country, and to recognise marriages conducted under Indian religious rites.
Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa shaped his philosophy, especially as it relates to peace and non-violence, which, given what is happening around the world today, is so relevant to achieving a peaceful society, where human life is respected.
He left South Africa on July 18, 1914, soon after the Indian Relief Bill was passed in Parliament scrapping the £3 tax, the Black Act, Transvaal Immigration Act, and recognising Hindu, Muslim and Parsi marriages. His work in SA was done. After spending some time in England, he arrived back in India on January 9, 1915.
General Jan Smuts said on his departure in 1914: “The saint has left our shores, I hope forever.”
Of course Smuts had no idea of the legacy that Gandhi would leave and the impact that his ideals would have on the liberation of our country.
Nelson Mandela said in his speech here in 1997, and I quote: “He showed us that it was necessary to brave imprisonment if truth and justice were to triumph over evil. The values of tolerance, mutual respect and unity for which he stood and acted, had a profound influence on our liberation movement and on my own thinking. They inspire us today in our efforts of reconciliation and nation-building.”
The world has come to know Gandhi as the thin, older man – in a homespun dhoti and shawl – leading the independence struggle in India. He came to us as a shy, young barrister wearing the frock coat and patent leather shoes of his profession.
Ramachundra Guha said he was an unlikely candidate for the compelling episode of self-definition, from which he emerged a confident public figure and an accomplished political organiser by the time he left in 1914. It was here that he came to acquire and practise his four major callings – those of freedom fighter, social reformer, religious pluralist and prophet.
Almost seven decades after his death, his life and legacy are still discussed and acted upon in countries that barely knew him, and he continues to loom large in the land of his birth. His ideas are praised as well as attacked, dismissed by some as dangerous or irrelevant, yet celebrated by others as key to resolving religious tensions, tensions between low and high castes, and tensions between humans and the environment.
Einstein said this of him: “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one, ever in flesh and blood, walked upon this Earth.”
– David D Gengan is chairperson: Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Memorial Committee
June 7, 1893, was a defining moment in the life of young Indian lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Thrown off a first-class train compartment, he contemplated the injustice while sitting in a room at the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station. That incident,...
The Pietermaritzburg Railway Station, left, was a major transport hub in those days, with rickshaws and ox wagons waiting to pick up passengers and goods. On the right, the building is lit up in the colours of the South African flag. The station gained...
The Gandhi statue that was unveiled in Pietermaritzburg.