The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 3

Gandhi in South Africa

Gandhi_INThe story thus far: Gandhi, having studied well and completed his law degree in England, returns to India. He misses England but is happy to be reunited with his family. He begins practicing law in Rajkot.

Upon return to India, Gandhi started to practice law in Rajkot, but he was soon deeply disgusted at the greed and dishonesty of many of his fellow professionals. After some time, he got an offer to work in South Africa from Dada Abdulla & Co who owned big business concerns there. He was to be a legal adviser to thefirm that had filed a lawsuit against another company seeking damages of 400,000 dollars. They hired Gandhi for his fluency in the English language and his knowledge of English law. He was contracted for one year and was promised a substantial salary and first class passage to South Africa. The lure of seeing a different country and meeting new people piqued Gandhi’s interest. He accepted the offer, even though it was difficult to be apart from his wife and young son. In April 1893 he left Bombay for South Africa. He reached the port of Natal at the end of May 1893. In South Africa, he noticed that Indians were treated with little respect. They were called “coolies”, a derogatory term. Within a week of his arrival, he visited the court with Abdulla Seth of Dada Abdulla & Co. No sooner had he sat down that the magistrate pointed his plump finger at him and said “You must remove your turban”.  Gandhi was surprised. He looked around. There were several Muslim and Parsi men wearing turbans. He could not understand why he was being singled out.

“I see no reason why I should remove my turban. I refuse to do so,” said Gandhi. When the magistrate insisted that he remove his turban, Gandhi walked out of the court. Abdulla Seth ran after him and caught him by the arm.

“You don’t understand,” said Seth. “These white people consider Indians inferior and address them as coolie or sami. Parsis and Muslims are allowed to wear turbans as the turban is thought to have religious significance,” added Seth.

“The magistrate insulted me,” Gandhi said angrily. “Any such rule is an insult to a free man. I shall write at once to the Durban Press to protest such insulting rules.”

And Gandhi did write. The letter was published and it led to unexpected debate and discussion. At the same time, some other papers described Gandhi as a troublemaker and unwelcome visitor.

After a week in Durban, he left for Pretoria to attend to the case for which he was engaged. With a first class ticket, he boarded the train. At the next stop, an Englishman got into the compartment. He was traveling to Pretoria too, in the first class compartment. He looked at Gandhi with contempt and called the conductor.

“Take this coolie out and put him in a lower class!” he ordered.

The conductor turned to Gandhi and said, “Hey Sami, come along with me to the next compartment.”

Insulted, Gandhi refused to move saying that he had purchased a first class seat and was entitled to be there.

The conductor called a policeman who pushed him off the train with his bag and baggage. The train left and Gandhi spent the night shivering in the cold.

This incident changed the whole course of his life. He decided to fight all such injustices. He sent a note of protest to the general manager of the railways, but the official only supported the rail employees. More trouble was in store for him. The next morning, he went to Charlestown by train. He had now to travel by a stagecoach to Johannesburg, but he was not allowed to sit inside the coach with white passengers. To avoid confrontation Gandhi sat outside on the coach-box behind the coachman.

After some time the conductor asked him to sit on a dirty sack on the step below. Gandhi refused. The conductor began to pull him down and beat him. At this time, some of the passengers came to Gandhi’s rescue and he was allowed to sit with them.

Gandhi reached Johannesburg the next night, quite shaken by the experiences on the way. He had the address of a Muslim merchant’s house, where he spent the night. The next day he bought a first class ticket and continued his train journey to Pretoria. The only other passenger in the compartment was a well-dressed Englishman. A little later, a conductor entered and Gandhi quickly showed him the ticket. “Your ticket does not matter,” growled the conductor. “Go to the third class compartment at once!”

Before Gandhi could reply, the Englishman said, “Why are you harassing this gentleman? His ticket gives him a right to be here.”

And then turning to Gandhi, he told him to make himself comfortable. Thanking him warmly, Gandhi settled down with a book. It was late in the evening when the train pulled into Pretoria. He stayed at a hotel that night and moved into a lodge the next day. There he began to study the Abdulla lawsuit. Even while he was working on it, he found time to call a meeting of the Indians in Pretoria.

To be Continued Next week…