The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 4


Gandhi’s Impact in South Africa:

The story thus far… Gandhi arrives in South Africa and is rudely made aware of the rampant racism in that country when has to visit Pretoria on work. He is unceremoniously thrown off a 1st class compartment on a train to Johannesburg. He manages to board another train where his white fellow traveler is quite willing to share the compartment. They travel harmoniously on to Pretoria.

It was late in the evening when the train pulled into Pretoria.

Gandhi, relieved to reach his destination stayed at a hotel that night and moved into a lodge the next day. There he began to study the Abdulla lawsuit. While he was working on it, he made the time to call a meeting of the Indians in Pretoria. This he did with the help of Tyeb Haji Khan Muhammad, an influential Indian merchant. Only a handful of Indians attended. It was the first time Gandhi had addressed a meeting.

“There is too much division among us,” he said. “Why should we be kept apart by differences in birth, family, caste, and religion? Let us form a league, representing every group, and keep the Government informed of our difficulties and our needs.” The audience listened to him with great interest. It was decided to hold regular meetings of all the Indians in Pretoria.

Involved in his work, Gandhi was entrusted with the task of translating into English all the correspondence between Dada, Abdulla & Co. and the rival party. After studying all the facts, he was convinced that his client’s claim was just and true. He knew, however, that if the case were taken to court it would drag on for a long time, so he called together representatives of both parties.

“Why don’t you choose a good man, whom you both trust, to arbitrate between you?” he said.

Both parties were astonished at this new idea. This young man was not the kind of lawyer they were familiar with; they appreciated his stand and agreed to his suggestion. An arbitrator was appointed, and he gave his award in favor of Gandhi’s clients. Although they had won, Gandhi persuaded his clients to be lenient with their opponent. They agreed not to demand the money due all at once, but in easy installments spread over a long period. Both parties were happy over the settlement.

Gandhi’s first success as a lawyer was not a crushing victory over an opponent, but the triumph of good sense and humanity. In the Orange Free State, Indians had been deprived of all their rights by a law enacted in 1888. They could stay there only if they did menial work. Traders were sent away with nominal compensation. Under a law passed in 1886, Indians who wanted to live in the Transvaal were forced to pay an annual poll-tax of £ 3 per head. There they were not allowed to own land except in certain locations. They had no freedom to move about. If they wanted to go out of their houses after 9 p.m., they had to carry a permit with them. They were not allowed to use certain highways at all.

Gandhi felt personally humiliated at the way Indians were treated there. He thought it was his duty to defend their rights and remove their grievances. He often went out for an evening walk with an English friend, Mr. Coates, and he rarely reached home before 10 p.m. He had obtained a letter from the State Attorney allowing him to be out of doors at any time without police interference.

Walking alone one evening, Gandhi was suddenly attacked and knocked down. He was injured. He struggled to his feet to face a police constable.

“That will teach you to obey the law,” shouted the policeman. “No Indian has the right to walk past the President’s house. Didn’t you know that?”

The policeman kicked him.

“Gandhi, are you hurt?” asked a familiar, friendly voice. It was Mr. Coates. He happened to be passing that way when he saw Gandhi being attacked. Mr. Coates warned the policeman.

“This man is my friend and a distinguished lawyer,” he said. “If he brings a complaint against you, I shall be his witness.”

Then he turned to his friend and said, “I am very sorry, Gandhi, that you have been so rudely assaulted.”

“You need not be sorry,” said Gandhi. “How is the poor man to know? All colored people are the same to him. I have made it a rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance.”

Coates turned again to the policeman and said, “You should tell an Indian politely what the regulations are – not knock him down.”

“Never mind,” said Gandhi. “I have already forgiven him.”

Now that the Abdulla case had been settled, Gandhi thought there was no need for him to stay on in South Africa. Towards the end of 1893 he went back to Durban to book his passage to India. Abdulla arranged a farewell party in his honor. While going through the newspapers that day, Gandhi was surprised to read that a bill was pending before the Natal Legislative

Assembly that would deprive Indians of their right to elect members to the Assembly. He brought this to the notice of the people gathered there for the party.

“What do we understand about such matters?” Abdulla Seth said. “We only understand things that affect our trade.”

Gandhi responded that the bill, if it passed into law, would make it extremely difficult for Indians.

“It is the first nail in our coffin. It strikes at the very root of our self-respect,” said Gandhi.

The Indians now realized what was at stake; but they were unable to decide what to do. They requested Gandhi to postpone his departure and help them. He agreed to stay on for another month and organize resistance to the new bill.

Late that night the Indians held a meeting in Abdulla Seth’s house under the presidency of Seth Haji Muhammad, the most influential Indian merchant there. They resolved to oppose the Franchise Bill. Telegrams were sent to the Speaker of the Assembly and the Premier of Natal requesting postponement on further discussion of the bill. The Speaker promptly replied that the discussion would be put off for two days. The Natal Indians then drew up a petition to the Legislative Assembly pleading against the bill. This was followed up by another petition to Lord Ripon, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies.

More than 10,000 Indians signed the petition. Copies were circulated in South Africa, England, and India. There was much sympathy for the Natal Indians’ plight, but the campaign had started too late to stop the bill becoming law. However, the campaign did do some good. For the first time, the people of India came to know of the conditions in Natal. An even more important result was the new spirit that now awakened the Indians in South Africa.

To be Continued next week…