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.



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