Gandhi driven by SA’S in­equity

Be­ing hu­mil­i­ated in Mar­itzburg was a ma­jor turn­ing point, writes Richard Rhys Jones

Sunday Tribune - - FRONT PAGE -

ASTONE’S throw from the City Hall in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg is a statue of Ma­hatma Gandhi, cham­pion of the un­der­dog, who cam­paigned so suc­cess­fully for equal rights for Indians in South Africa that he be­came one of the great men of the 20th cen­tury.

But had it not been for a twist of fate at the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg rail­way sta­tion on the evening of June 7, 1893, Indians might not have be­come full cit­i­zens of their adopted coun­try – and In­dia could still be ruled by Bri­tain.

No­body could have fore­seen that the forcible ejec­tion from a train of a young lawyer 125 years ago would have such far-reach­ing con­se­quences. To­day, the Gandhi statue and the sta­tion foyer are places of pil­grim­age for In­dian tourists and other ad­mir­ers of the man called Ma­hatma (Great Soul).

Gandhi landed in Dur­ban 33 years af­ter the first im­mi­grants from In­dia had ar­rived to de­velop the Bri­tish colony’s coastal sugar belt. Natal’s white sugar farm­ers were des­per­ately short of cane cut­ters be­cause the Zu­lus pre­ferred their tribal econ­omy to work­ing in the cane fields.

In­dia of­fered a so­lu­tion to their dilemma when peas­ants and crafts­men were per­suaded by un­scrupu­lous re­cruit­ing agents to fill va­can­cies cre­ated by eman­ci­pated slaves on the world’s trop­i­cal plan­ta­tions. It was a new form of slav­ery as Indians were loaded into ships and dis­patched to Bri­tish, Dutch and French Guiana, Guade­loupe, Trinidad, Cey­lon, Fiji, South Amer­ica, Kenya, Mau­ri­tius and Natal. The sys­tem was only abol­ished in 1920 fol­low­ing ag­i­ta­tion led by Gandhi.

The first ship to ar­rive in Dur­ban from Madras on Novem­ber 16, 1860, was the pad­dle-steamer SS Truro, and the next day the im­mi­grants dis­em­barked. There were 342 of them, mainly South In­dian Hin­dus with a sprin­kling of Chris­tians and Mus­lims. Ten days later, on Novem­ber 26, the SS Belvedere docked in Dur­ban from Cal­cutta with 351 Indians, most of them from the south and east of In­dia. Shiploads of im­mi­grants con­tin­ued to ar­rive at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, some­times sail­ing for 30 days and of­ten for as long as two months.

Mo­han­das Karam­c­hand Gandhi was 24 when he ar­rived in Dur­ban in May 1893. Af­ter com­plet­ing his le­gal train­ing in Eng­land he had been en­gaged to de­fend a Dur­ban In­dian in a court case in Pre­to­ria.

Gandhi wrote in his mem­oirs: “I was go­ing by train as far as Charlestown and then had to take a coach to Pre­to­ria. On the train I had a first-class ticket but not a bed ticket. At Mar­itzburg, when the beds were is­sued, the guard asked me to go to the van com­part­ment. I would not go.”

The Natal Gov­ern­ment Rail­ways guard called a po­lice con­sta­ble who pushed the young lawyer and his lug­gage out of the com­part­ment on to the sta­tion plat­form.

“The train steamed away, leav­ing me shiv­er­ing in the cold,” Gandhi re­called. “This was the ex­pe­ri­ence that changed my life. I en­tered the sta­tion’s dark wait­ing room and asked my­self whether I should go back to In­dia or 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.”

The tele­gram of protest he sent next morn­ing to the gen­eral man­ager of the Natal Gov­ern­ment Rail­ways launched his pub­lic ca­reer.

Back in Dur­ban, he dis­cov­ered that the in­dig­ni­ties he ex­pe­ri­enced were a daily oc­cur­rence for Indians who merely wanted to be left in peace to pur­sue their busi­ness. Con­cerned that they seemed im­mune to racial hu­mil­i­a­tions, Gandhi soon sharp­ened their sen­si­tiv­i­ties and en­cour­aged them to re­act to bad treat­ment by the colo­nial author­i­ties. He told them that hu­man dig­nity was fun­da­men­tal and viewed their dis­en­fran­chise­ment in 1896 as per­ma­nently rel­e­gat­ing them to an in­fe­rior po­si­tion in South African life.

His in­ves­ti­ga­tions into anti-in­dian dis­crim­i­na­tion re­vealed a shock­ing state of af­fairs on the sugar farms. There were no writ­ten con­tracts and ver­bal prom­ises rarely co­in­cided with ac­tual prac­tice. Pay­ment was pal­try and the men and women worked from sunrise to sun­set, six days a week and some­times on Sun­days.

Soon af­ter his hu­mil­i­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at the sta­tion, he gal­vanised them into peace­ful protest – “satya­graha” – and launched an in­ten­sive pro­pa­ganda cam­paign. Gandhi coined the word from truth (satya), im­ply­ing love, while firm­ness (agraha) was a syn­onym for force.

He be­came sec­re­tary of the Natal In­dian Congress and, in 1902, founded the In­dian news­pa­per, The In­dian Opin­ion, which played a sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal role un­til its clo­sure in 1960. From 1894, the Natal In­dian Congress and its as­so­ciate body, the Transvaal Bri­tish In­dian As­so­ci­a­tion, pro­tected In­dian rights and pro­moted In­dian in­ter­ests in South Africa.

Gandhi in­flu­enced the po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion of both or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­sist­ing that equal­ity was a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right. He em­pha­sised that the gov­ern­ment was bound by treaty obli­ga­tions to ex­tend equal citizen rights to Indians – and ev­ery dis­crim­i­na­tory mea­sure was op­posed on these grounds.

Gandhi led many peace­ful protest marches be­tween 1906 and 1913, against the im­po­si­tion of passes on Indians by the Bri­tish Transvaal gov­ern­ment, as well as with 6 000 strik­ing coal min­ers in Natal. Re­turn­ing to In­dia in July 1914 af­ter al­most 21 years of ac­tive cam­paign­ing, Gandhi was des­tined to do the same in the coun­try of his birth, build­ing on the foun­da­tion of his South African ex­pe­ri­ence to be­gin a new strug­gle for hu­man free­dom.

The Great Soul re­turned to his Source on Jan­uary 30, 1948 when Gandhi was shot in the chest three times by an as­sas­sin.

The Gandhi statue in the Church Street Mall is close to the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg City Hall.

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