The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 5


The story thus far…Gandhi’s activism on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, brought him much strife. The local Afrikaners and the British considered him as a troublemaker. He was attacked by angry mobs. With his calm demeanor, he wins over the people, and even gets to help create an ambulance corps.

The Durban police rescued Gandhi from a bloodthirsty mob. He was escorted by the police to Rustomji’s house, where a doctor attended to his injuries. “They are sure to calm down when they realize their mistake,” he said. Late in the evening, another mob of white people surrounded the house. “We must have Gandhi,” angry voices demanded. The mob was getting more and more threatening. “Give us Gandhi or we will bum down the house,” they shouted.

Gandhi knew that they might carry out their threat. To save his friend’s house, he slipped out in disguise, eluding the crowd. Two days later a message came from London. Joseph Chamberlain, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, asked the Natal Government to prosecute every man guilty of attacking Gandhi. The Natal Government expressed its regret for the incident to Gandhi and assured him that the assailants would be punished.

When Gandhi was called upon to identify the offenders, however, he would not do so.

“I do not want to prosecute anyone,” he told the Natal Government. “I do not hold the assailants to blame. They were misled by false reports about me and I am sure that when the truth becomes known they will be sorry for their conduct.”

Gandhi’s statement suddenly changed the atmosphere in Durban. The press declared Gandhi innocent and condemned his assailants. The Durban incident raised Gandhi’s prestige and won more sympathy abroad for the Indians in South Africa. As the struggle in South Africa continued, a change was coming over Gandhi. He had begun with a life of ease and comfort, but this was short-lived. As he became more and more involved in public activities, his way of life became simpler. He started cutting down his expenses.

He took to washing and ironing his own clothes, and he did it so badly at first that the other lawyers laughed at him. But soon he became quite an expert at this and his collars were no less stiff and shiny than theirs. Gandhi once went to an English barber in Pretoria. The barber insolently refused to cut a ‘black’ man’s hair. Gandhi at once bought a pair of clippers and cut his own hair. He succeeded more or less in cutting the front part but spoilt the back. He looked very funny and his friends in the court laughed at him.

“What’s wrong with your hair Gandhi? Have rats been gnawing at it?” they asked. “No,” said Gandhi proudly, “I have cut my hair myself.” Then Gandhi tried changes in his food. He started taking uncooked food. He believed that if a man lived on fresh fruits and nuts he could master his passions and acquire spiritual strength. He made many experiments with his diet. He even came to the conclusion that fasting increased one’s will power. While he was thus experimenting with himself, the Boer war broke out. The Boers were South Africans of Dutch origin. They were fighting the British. Neither of these two white nations had treated the Indians well. Gandhi did not want to support either of them, but his familiarity with the British made him organize an Indian ambulance corps to help them. To his puzzled followers, he said: “India can achieve complete emancipation only through development within the British Empire. Therefore we must help the British.” The British won the war and the ambulance corps was disbanded.

The newspapers in England praised the services rendered by the Indians. The relations between the Indians and the Europeans had now become more cordial, and the Indians believed that their grievances would soon be removed. It was now 1901, six years after Gandhi had brought his family to Durban. Now he felt that his future activity lay not in South Africa but in India. Also, friends in India were pressing him to return home. When he announced his decision to his co-workers, however, they again pressed him to stay on. After much discussion they agreed to let him go, but only if he would come back to South Africa if the Indians there needed his help. He agreed to this. There were farewell meetings and presentations of gifts. The gifts were so many and so valuable that Gandhi felt he should not accept them. The people who had presented them would not take them back. He then prepared a trust deed, and all the gifts were deposited with a of the Indian community. On his arrival in India, Gandhi went on a tour of the country. The annual meeting of the Indian National Congress was being held in Calcutta under the presidentship of Dinshaw Wacha. Gandhi attended the session. It was his first contact with the Congress which he was to lead so gloriously in the future. The Indian National Congress was the only organization which gave the people of India a chance to express their political views. It was an influential body, as many important Indians were members, but its decisions had little affect on the Government.

At the Calcutta session in 1901 Gandhi had an opportunity to meet Congress leaders like Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Lokamanya B. G. Tilak, G. K. Gokhale, and others. He was not impressed with the way the Congress was functioning. He noticed a lack of unity among the delegates. Moreover, while they spoke English and affected the style of Westerners in their dress and talk, they did not seem to bother about essential things like good sanitary facilities in the camp. Gandhi wanted to teach them a lesson. On his own he quietly started cleaning the bathroom and urinals. No one volunteered to join him.

“Why do you undertake an untouchable’s job?” they asked. “Because the caste people have made this an untouchable place,” replied Gandhi. From Calcutta Gandhi traveled around India by train. As he moved from place to place, he was shocked to see the life of the common people – the famished, ignorant, and neglected masses. His heart was filled with sadness and anger. Gandhi settled down in Bombay and started practice as a lawyer. He did well, much better than he had expected. In December 1902, however, a cable reached him from South Africa requesting 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 Gandhi to present their case to him.

-To be continued next week …