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Invincible Might of the Unarmed Truth
|by H.N. Bali|
Gandhi and the Second 9/11 of our Times
The year was 1893. Indian society was at its staid worst, reconciled for the umpteenth time in its chequered history to be ruled by foreigners, this time the British. Two Indians, unknown to each other, left that year from Bombay for destinations abroad. Destiny had beckoned them to blaze trails of epochal proportions not only for their coutry but also for mankind.
Gandhi in South Africa
Unable to set up a successful legal practice first in Bombay and later in Rajkot, Gandhi accepted a year-long assignment from Dada Abdulla & Co to represent their interests in South Africa. He arrived in British-governed Natal in May, 1893. He had come with a view to earining some money and, simutaneously, learning more about law.
It is an intriguing fact of history how in the lives of most leaders of men there is a tranforming event what changes their lives from the ordinary to the extraordinary; from one level of existence a much higher one. And such defining moments always come unexpected and unannounced. They determine their personalities and their mode of response to the situations they confront. Perhaps the true mettle of leadership is tested in such defining moments.
Gandhi had only been in South Africa for about a week when he was asked to undertake the long trip from Natal to the capital of the Dutch-governed Transvaal province of South Africa in connection with his work. The trip involved arduous travel by train and by stagecoach. During this trip when Gandhi boarded the first train of his journey at the Pietermartizburg station, railroad officials told him that he needed to transfer to the third-class passenger car. When Gandhi, who was holding first-class passenger ticket, refused to move, a policeman came and threw him off the train.
That was not the first of the injustices Gandhi suffered in South Africa. He found himself treated, like all his compatriots, as a member of an inferior race, the child of some lesser god, in Tennyson’s phrase. He was appalled at the widespread denial of elementary civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants to South Africa. As Gandhi talked to other Indians in South Africa – all of them derogatorily called "coolies" – he found that his experiences were most definitely not isolated incidents but rather, the general norm of behaviour that Indians must endure to continue staying in that country.
Imagine that bitter cold night. Helplessly, huddled on a wooden bench in the waiting room of Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa sat a twenty-four year old barrister from India, shivering and wrestling with his self to tap his spiritual reservoirs to formulate his response to the humiliation heaped on him. The insult was his being thrown out of the first class carriage because he was brown even when he carried a valid first class ticket. What should he do? Go back to India? Acquiesce into accepting such treatment that Indians were meted out day after day? Or, stand up and revolt? If so, how? Is there in this world a mode of retaliation other than violent hit-back?
After much thought, Gandhi decided that one thing was certain: he could not let these injustices continue and that he was going to fight to change these discriminatory practices. But how? He arrived at an answer. And that was the birth of an unarmed David resolving to take on the formidable Goliath of racial discrimination. In the years to come the tiny seed of a new type of social protest conceived of in that cold night sprouted into a mighty banyan tree under whose soothing shade many a protest movement ranging from India’s gignatic independence struggle to the long-due civil rights movement in the United States, took shelter, prospered and blossomed into an alternative to resolving human conflicts through means other than violent blood spilling.
Incidentally, the Pietermartizburg railway station first commissioned in 1880 is still in use. It has several plaques and markers regarding its unique connection with Gandhi’s evolution as a political leader as a result of his jouney on June 7, 1893. On South Africa’s second anniversary as a free country the Petermaritzburg-Msunduzi Transitional Local Council met on the platform to posthumously confer the Freedom of City award on Gandhi. It was received by the then High Commissioner of India Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who, incidentally, is also the Mahatma’s grandson. Speaking on that occasion, President Nelson Mandela said, “Today, we are righting a century-old wrong. This station, once one of the world’s most notorious symbols of discrimination, intolerance and oppression, today proclaims a message of dignity restored.”
On August 22, 1906, the Transvaal government in South Africa under the British Empire gave notice of a new legislation which stipulated that all Indians, which then included Arabs and Turks, settled in the colony, to register with the Government. Fingerprints and identification marks on the person’s body were to be recorded in order to obtain a certificate of registration. Those who failed to register could be fined, sent to prison or even deported. Even children had to be brought to the Registrar to get fingerprinted.
This was the agni-prakisha – baptismal by fire – not figuratively, but very literally – of Barrister Mohandas K. Gandhi.
On Tuesday, September 11, 1906, Gandhi called a mass meeting of some 3,000 Transvaal Indians to find ways to resist the Registration Act. He felt the Act was the embodiment of “hatred of Indians” which if accepted would “spell absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa”, and therefore resisting it is a “question of life and death.”
Among these 3,000 odd people attending the meeting was one inconspicuous Indian bearing the name of Sheth Haji Habib, an old Muslim resident of South Africa. Deeply moved after listening to Gandhi’s speech, Sheth Habib stood up to tell the congregation that the Indians had to pass this resolution with God as witness and would never yield to a cowardly submission to such a degrading legislation. Gandhi later wrote in his Satyagraha in Africa (1928), that “He then went on solemnly to declare in the name of God that he would never submit to that law and advised all present to do likewise.”
Gandhi was taken aback by the suggestion. He later recorded, “I did not come to the meeting with a view to getting the resolution passed in that manner, which rebounds to the credit of Sheth Haji Habib as well as it lays a burden of responsibility upon him. I tender my congratulations to him. I deeply appreciate his suggestion, but if you adopt it you too will share his responsibility.”
At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg on 11 September 1906, Gandhi adopted his approach to non-violent protest commonly known as Satyagraha (loyalty to the truth) for the first time. He called on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the punishments for doing so, rather than resist through violent means.
However, the ordinance, which the Indians called the Black Act, was enacted and became operative in July, 1907. Indians picketed the offices at which they were supposed to register, and when only about five hundred of the thirteen thousand Indians in the Transvaal complied with the new law, the authorities decided to act. They started arresting the leaders of the Satyagraha movement, including Gandhi, thinking this would intimidate and disperse his followers. But Gandhi, pleading guilty in the same court where he had often appeared as counsel, asked for the maximum sentence; the others followed his example.
Gandhi's first jail term was brief. He was soon summoned by distraught officials to a conference with the Boer leader, General Jan Christian Smuts. Since there was no time to change his clothes, Gandhi faced Smuts in his prison uniform.
To set the example, Gandhi wanted to be the first to register voluntarily, but on the way he was severely beaten by Moslems who felt he had betrayed them. But he asked that his assailants not be punished and that the blood he shed help bind the Moslems and Hindus closer together. It was a prayer he offered often but in vain.
Gandhi was freed in December, 1908, and rearrested for a three-month term beginning in February, 1909. He spent most of his time in prison reading, and Smuts, ironically, sent him two books—both dealing with religion.
When the jails overflowed with satyagrahis, the Boers began deporting the Indians. At one time twenty-five hundred of the Transvaal Indians were in prison and another six thousand had fled or been expelled.
Men, women, and children, Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and Jews, lived at the farm with equal rights and equal responsibilities. Smoking and liquor were banned, and the few meat-eaters voluntarily became vegetarians. Anyone who had to go to Johannesburg walked over twenty miles each way. This saved a fortune in train fares and provided ample exercise, which pleased Gandhi, who in his medical views was a self-confessed quack. He believed a light diet, plenty of exercise, and a mud pack would heal anything from a headache to heart attack.
In 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a prominent liberal leader of his day – later Gandhi’s political mentor – came to South Africa to investigate Indian grievances. He was graciously received by the Boers, who were lavish with their promises. "Everything has been settled," Gokhale told Gandhi. "The Black Act will be repealed. The racial bar will be removed from the emigration law." Smuts had even promised Gokhale that the annual tax on serfs who became free labourers would be lifted.
Concept of Satyagraha
This is how the meeting on that fateful Tuesday, September 11, 1906, unfolded. It gave mankind a new political weapon to fight oppression. That new wapon was Satyagraha.
The Sanskrit term Satyagraha loosely translated means "insistence on truth"-- satya means truth and agraha means insistence. Truth force or "soul force" is a particular philosophy and practice within the broader overall category generally known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. The term "satyagraha", it is important to highlight, was coined and developed by Gandhi. He deployed the weapon of satyagraha later in the Indian independence movement – not discussed here – as he had during his struggles in South Africa for Indian rights.
Satyagraha influenced Nelson Mandela's struggle in South Africa under apartheid, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaigns during the civil rights movement in the United States, and many other similar movements.
Gandhi always insisted that satyagraha went far beyond mere "passive resistance". It is a potent force. As he enunciated in Satyagraha in South Africa: ‘Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”’
The concept of such resistance was Gandhi’s original contribution as much to political vocabulary of our times as to the armoury of weapons to resist injustices without resort to violence. In September 1935, in a letter to P.K. Rao, a member of the Servants of India Society, Gandhi disputed the oft-made proposition that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted (if not borrowed) from the writings of Henry David Thoreau.
Gandhi always emphasised the distinction between Satyagraha and nonviolent resistance. Also, the theory of satyagraha sees means and ends as inseparable. The means used to obtain an end are wrapped up in, and attached to, that end. Therefore, it is contradictory to try to use unjust means to obtain justice or to try to use violence to obtain peace. As Gandhi wrote: “They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end...”.
Over a Century Later
What is the significane of Second September 11 – this time in 1906? What does it mean to the world after over a century—106 years to be precise? Just a date of history or something very special?
It means remembering that a nonviolent alternative was conceived of in a people’s fight against injustice. It means remembering that for Gandhi, it is Truth Force that both binds people together and energizes them in their course of struggle against oppression. That is why invoking God as witness in this case reflects the degree to which a person is willing to sacrifice his/her all for “Truth” or God. It also means remembering the Muslim role in fostering such an alternative at the advent of Satyagraha or Gandhi’s nonviolence.
Most importantly, “remembering September 11, 1906” means reminding ourselves how when once ordinary people decided to do something extraordinary by freeing themselves from despair they could change their world, and without resort to violence. It can be put more effectively in a verse of poet Iqbal—forget his role in dividing India —
Ghulaami mein kaam aati hain na tadbeerain na shamsheerain
In a state of servitude are of no avail either strategies or weapons.
It was Gandhi, above all, who gave his countrymen first in South Africa and then back in India that courage of conviction to cut asunder the chains of long-endured servitude. And for that he gave Indians as much as manking a new weapon—the weapon of Satyagraha.
It would be pertinent, I think, to refer here to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It occurred when African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating. It took place from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, and is regarded as the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the US. What led to it?
Gandhi's combination of renunciation of violence with active acceptance of suffering also received support from Jewish thinkers, many of them survivors of the infamous Holocaust. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, both Holocaust survivors, confirmed Gandhi's experience that individuals who neither submit passively nor retaliate to violence find in themselves a new sense of strength, dignity, and courage.
Validity of Gandhi’s Way
India is among the countable countries and, perhaps, the first one to disown the Mahatma and his concepts of the struggle based on truth and non-violence. It took only a few months of independence for Gandhi to realize that he and his ideas were not relevant to the rulers who were once upon a time supposedly his followers.
The English novelist and popular philosopher, Arthur Koestler – a respected figure in twentieth-century intellectual life—was a fierce critic of Gandhi. In a famous essay, originally written in 1969, he discussed what he called the "disastrous aspects of Gandhi's life and philosophy.” He scoffed at many a fad of Gandhi and his philosophy. Yet he conceded how Gandhi invented an entirely new and humane technique for the liberation struggle of an oppressed people and carried it out with the greatest energy and devotion.
It is no secret that Gandhi’s ultimate dream did not fructify – an independent united India. Does this mean that "the method" failed? Gandhi believed "the method" could never fail since it was a method of truth and love. If anything failed, he admitted "…I did." In his life-long search for truth he, like any other human beings, made mistakes and attracted criticisms. Even if these criticisms were all true, does that negate what Gandhi did for India and humanity?
There is a great deal of practical wisdom to be found in what Mahatma spoke, wrote and did. The things that so passionately concerned and motivated him need to be taken seriously. If one is interested in forging a link between private principles and public justice, the Mahatma is always there as an unfailing guide.
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10/15/2012 23:55 PM
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