The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 8

Gandhi-In

First victory for the Satyagraha experiment

The story thus far… a recent court decision in South Africa held that the law did not recognize Indian marriages. The women were suitably offended by this and found it an attack on their basic family values. They openly broke the law and were imprisoned in large numbers. In the coal-mines at Newcastle, in Natal, Indian workers went on strike protesting against the repression. The arrests, the deportation of passive resisters, and the untold sufferings of Indian families angered the people of India. A large amount of money was collected for the relief of the victims.

Many protesters were beaten and flogged, and some were beaten to death. Gandhi, who felt intensely the humiliation his people suffered, took a triple vow of self-suffering. He changed his mode of dressing, opting for the look of a poor laborer, walked barefoot, and decided to have only one meal a day, till the poll-tax and other injustices were abolished. But Gandhi found the Government to be a relentless and merciless opponent. There seemed no solution in sight. He had to take further drastic measures.

In October 1913, Gandhi organized a march of over 6,000 Indian workers from the Natal mining area into the Transvaal, although the law did not allow non-whites the freedom of crossing into the Transvaal without a permit.

Gandhi advised his followers, “We are going to march peacefully together across the border into the Transvaal. The Government will arrest us and put us in prison. We are to remain peaceful. This is the nonviolent way of protesting against the poll-tax, against the Government’s decision not to recognize our marriages, and against all the laws that are made against us. We are fighting for just causes, we will not harm anyone.”

He then asked the people, “Are you ready to face arrest and harsh treatment, remaining always nonviolent?”

Roars of assent assured him of everyone’s support. They were ready to follow Gandhi anywhere. And so the march into the Transvaal began.

Late in the evening Gandhi was roused from sleep by several uniformed men, who arrested him. Gandhi and many other Indians were jailed. The mines were cordoned off by barbed wire and converted into temporary jails. The satyagrahis or protesters were beaten to force them to go back to work, but without success. The authorities could not make them return to work. Gandhi had inspired in them the spirit of quiet, dignified resistance.

The movement of passive resistance, or satyagraha, spread all through Natal and the Transvaal like wildfire. The Government had no idea how to handle this phenomenon unlike any they had ever encountered before, because none yielded to their cruel treatment. The prisons were overflowing. At last General Smuts was obliged to act. He appointed a Commission to study the situation.

In December 1913 Gandhi was released, but he would not give up the struggle.

Gandhi threatened Smuts that he would start another march if his demands were not met. That march, however, never took place. The European employees of the railways in the Union went on strike, and this made the Government’s position extremely difficult. Gandhi decided to drop the idea of the march at such a crucial time as he did not wish to embarrass the Government further. Gandhi ordered every Indian to go back to work, at least for the time being. His decision created a good impression on the Government and even General Smuts recognized this courtesy.

The Inquiry Commission reported in favor of all the essential reforms demanded by the Indian leaders. The Indians’ Relief Bill was at last passed and signed by the Governor. It abolished the poll-tax on indentured workers, declared absolutely legal all Indian marriages, and removed penalties for crossing from one State to another.

It was a huge victory for Gandhi and the satyagraha movement. Gandhi had been active in South Africa for 21 years and had contributed so much to the welfare of the Indians in South Africa. Gandhi now felt that his mission in South Africa was over and he wanted to return to India.

At that time Gokhale was in England. He wanted Gandhi to meet him in London before returning to India. Gandhi promised to do so. Gandhi announced his decision to Kasturbai.

“You are going to London with me,” he said. “From England we will go back to India.”

Gandhi, with Kasturbai and Hermann Kallenbach, a white South African farmer sailed for England on July 18, 1914. On August 4, two days before he reached London, the 1st World War was declared.

Upon arrival in London, Gandhi heard that Gokhale had gone to Paris for reasons of health. Communications were cut off between London and Paris because of the war. Gandhi was disappointed. He did not want to return to India without seeing Gokhale, so he stayed on in London.

Gandhi had no idea what to do during the war. At the suggestion of some Indian friends, a meeting was called of the Indians in England. Gandhi expressed the view that Indians residing in England ought to do their bit in the war. English students had volunteered to serve in the army and Indians should do no less.

This brought forth many objections from many Indians who were of the opinion that the war provided an opportunity to get freedom for India and that Indians should assert themselves and claim their rights. Gandhi felt that England’s difficulty should not be turned into India’s opportunity. He insisted on rendering all possible help to England. He organized an ambulance corps which, in spite of many difficulties, helped the British in their time of need.

After some time Gokhale returned to England. Gandhi and Kallenbach went to see him often and they talked together about the war and other matters. Then Gandhi had an attack of pleurisy and Gokhale and his friends were worried. Dr. Jivraj Mehta treated Gandhi but there was little relief. Gandhi was still ill when Gokhale returned to India. As the pleurisy still persisted, Gandhi was advised to go back to India as soon as possible. He accepted the advice and returned to his homeland.

After 12 long and eventful years, Gandhi was back in India. He was welcomed with a great reception in Bombay. Gandhi was overwhelmed by the great love and wealth of kindness shown to him by the people. Gokhale was in Poona and was in poor health, so Gandhi went to see him.

Gandhi told Gokhale that his plan was to have an ashram where he could settle down with his Phoenix family. They had followed him to India and already were settled at Santiniketan. Gokhale approved of the idea and promised whatever help he could.

Meanwhile Gandhi went to Rajkot and Porbandar to meet his relatives and then went on to Santiniketan. There Gandhi met poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore for the first time, as well as C. F. Andrews who was also present.

During his short stay at Santiniketan Gandhi heard the sad news that Gokhale had passed away. He immediately left for Poona, with C. F. Andrews accompanying him up to Burdwan.

-To be Continued next week

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