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Gandhi’s first experiment in Satyagraha

Gandhi in his law office

Gandhi in his law office

In December 1902, a cable reached Gandhi from South Africa urging him to return as promised. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, was arriving from London on a visit to Natal and the Transvaal and the Natal Indian Congress wanted to present their case to him.
Gandhi kept his promise. He reached Natal in time to lead the Indian deputation, but the Colonial Secretary gave the deputation a cold reception. The Indians felt disheartened. From Natal, Chamberlain proceeded to the Transvaal. The Indians there also wanted Gandhi to present their grievances to him.
Before the Boer war, Indians had been free to enter the Transvaal at any time, but now they had to obtain a permit from the newly created Asiatic Department. The new rule was designed to separate Indians from the whites. To get a permit was no easy matter. The officers of the Asiatic Department did their best to prevent Gandhi from entering the Transvaal but he had his way in the end. He got a permit and went to Pretoria. He was not allowed, however, to lead a deputation and present the memorandum he had drafted.
Gandhi now decided to stay in the Transvaal and fight the color bar which was taking such ugly shape there. He realized that now he would not be able to leave the country, as he had hoped to. He therefore settled down and prepared to do his utmost for the cause of the colored people, particularly the Indians.
He was enrolled in the Supreme Court at Johannesburg. He rented a place and established his office. He made good earnings from his practice, but his heart was in the service of the people.
Meanwhile, he continued his experiments with vegetarianism. He gave up all luxuries and pleasures. His idea was to tune his physical body to his spiritual self.
It was at this time that a friend, Madanjit, came to Gandhi with a proposal to start a journal called Indian Opinion. Gandhi liked the idea and in 1904 the journal was launched. Mansukhlal Naazar was the editor. Gandhi helped the journal generously, contributing money and editorial work!
The journal, published every week in Gujarati and English, reflected his ideals and gave the Indian readers a liberal education. With absolute frankness Gandhi pointed out to them their failings and prejudices. Indian Opinion also gave the Europeans a correct picture of the difficulties faced by the Indians in South Africa.
After the rains in 1904 there was a sudden outbreak of plague in one of the gold-mining areas near Johannesburg. It soon spread to the Indian quarters. Gandhi rushed to the spot and organized preventive measures. With the help of friends, he set up improvised hospitals and looked after the sick.
Another thing that happened that year was that Gandhi met H. S. L. Polak, then a sub-editor of The Critic. The two soon became fast friends as their outlook on life was similar.
Polak presented to Gandhi a copy of a book by John Ruskin called Unto This Last. This book on economics presented many new ideas, and it influenced Gandhi a great deal. He then hit upon the idea of starting a farm and founding a community with a true sense of brotherhood. His friends supported the project enthusiastically.
About 100 acres of land was acquired at a place called Phoenix near Durban, and a farm was set up. In the beginning six families were settled there. The office of Indian Opinion was moved to Phoenix, complete with press. Members of any race could freely go and live on the farm, tilling the soil or working at the press.
Gandhi, however, could stay in the Phoenix Settlement only for brief periods. His headquarters were at Johannesburg where he continued his practice as a lawyer. He knew that it would not be possible to return to India in the near future, so he decided to send for Kasturbai and the children. They soon joined him.
Whenever he found time he undertook the task of educating his three sons. He also pursued the experiments with his diet. “I intend to be the ruler of my body,” he would say. “The spirit can only rule me if I am free of earthly wants.” He gave up drinking coffee and tea. Next to go was milk. Sometimes he would fast, taking only water. Kasturbai watched all this silently. She knew it was useless to argue with her husband on such matters.
In 1906, the Zulu Rebellion broke out in Natal. It was a notax campaign. The Zulus were only asserting their rights, but the whites got panicky and declared war against the Zulus. Gandhi’s sympathies were with the Zulus, but they were fighting against the British and Gandhi believed that the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world. He considered it his duty to help the British. He offered to form an Indian Ambulance Corps. The authorities accepted the offer.
The Indian Ambulance Corps was formed. It consisted of a squad of 24 men, and was in active service for six weeks, nursing and looking after the wounded.
Gandhi realized that the whites were determined to enforce the tax on the unwilling Zulus. They wanted to put down all resistance and deny the colored people their rights in their own land. The Zulu Rebellion was finally over and Gandhi returned to Johannesburg. His presence was needed there to look after the interests of the Indians, for they were facing all kinds of oppression from the white settlers.
In August 1906 an ordinance was issued by the Transvaal Government requiring all Indians — men, women, and children — to register themselves and obtain a personal certificate bearing name and thumb impression. This card was to be carried by all individuals at all times and had to be shown on demand. Anyone failing to produce the certificate was liable to be fined, imprisoned, or deported. The police even had orders to enter private houses and check certificates.
“This is too much to bear,” Gandhi told his colleagues. “If we meekly submit, it will spell absolute ruin for us in South Africa. We must take action immediately if we are to live here.”
The Indians decided not to submit to this humiliating and insulting measure. They resolved to fight it. But how? Gandhi saw here the need for passive resistance or satyagraha. He explained to the people his concept of satyagraha. First, he said, they must be prepared to observe absolute nonviolence. The authorities would take all measures to put down the agitation. They might use violence, arrest people and send them to jail, but all this must be faced without resistance, “Merely disobeying the government’s laws will not be enough,” Gandhi told them. “You must have no hatred in your hearts and you must cast away all fear.”

— To be continued


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