The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 7

GANDHI_INThe story thus far… Gandhi realizes that he could be more effective at supporting the cause of the Indians in South Africa if he returned to India. Once in Calcutta, he drew attention to the plight of the South African Indians to the Indian government and media, where there was widespread support. But he was soon recalled to South Africa as the Lord Chamberlain was visiting South Africa.

In 1906, an ordinance introduced by the Transvaal government required all Indian men, women, and children, to register themselves and obtain a personal certificate bearing their name and thumb impressions. It was demeaning and humiliating to Indians, who refused to submit to the terms of the ordinance. They resolved to fight it. Gandhi saw 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, Gandhi told them.

“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.”

The Government ignored all Indian protests against the ordinance and it came fully into force. The Indians decided to disobey the provisions of the ‘Black Act.’ Hundreds of Indians were arrested, tried, and jailed. They all pleaded guilty and went to jail without putting up any defense. Gandhi too was imprisoned. Then one day he was taken out of prison and sent to Pretoria to see General Jan Smuts.

“This movement you have started,” Smuts said, “must stop at once. It is not in me to dislike Indians, but they must obey the law”.

“I would rather die than submit to this law,” Gandhi replied. “It is meant to humiliate the Indians.”

After some argument, however, they reached a compromise. Gandhi promised to end the satyagraha if the act was repealed and the prisoners released. Smuts agreed to do this provided the Indians would register of their own accord. On this agreement, they parted.

Back in Johannesburg, Gandhi called a meeting of the Indians.

“We must now register voluntarily to show that we do not intend to bring a single Indian to the Transvaal by fraud,” he said. “If we show our goodwill by prompt registration, General Smuts will see to it that the “Black Act” is repealed,” added Gandhi.

Many Indians agreed with Gandhi, but a man named Mir Alam disagreed, saying it was Gandhi who had earlier preached that only criminals get finger-printed. He wanted to know why Gandhi had changed his mind.

Early the next morning Gandhi, with his fellow satyagrahis, set out for the registration office. But on the way Mir Alam attacked him with a heavy stick. Gandhi fell down unconscious. Mir Alam and his associates went on beating him until he was rescued. When Gandhi recovered consciousness, he found himself on a couch in the house of an Englishman whom he hardly knew.

Struggling to sit up, Gandhi requested that Mir Alam not be judged too harshly for not understanding Gandhi’s stance about the registration.  Then he insisted that a clerk from the registration office should come to take his thumb impression and make out his certificate. In this way Gandhi was duly registered. Many Indians followed Gandhi by registering voluntarily.

But General Smuts, reneged on the deal and did not repeal the “Black Act.” The Indians, disappointed at the Government’s attitude, demanded a return of their applications for voluntary registration. The Transvaal government did not budge. Gandhi, who had by then recovered from his injuries, gave the government a very firm ultimatum: If the Black Act is not repealed before a fixed date, the certificates collected by the Indians will be burnt. When the Government ignored this threat, Gandhi started another satyagraha movement. A big bonfire was lit and more than two thousand certificates were burnt. Many Indians openly crossed the border into the Transvaal, where their presence was illegal. Gandhi and many of his compatriots were imprisoned several times in the course of the agitation. When Gandhi came out of jail for the third time, the Indians held a meeting and decided to send a deputation to England to acquaint the British Government with the real situation in South Africa.

Gandhi and Seth Haji Habib were asked to go to London and present the grievances of the Indians. Accordingly they went, but accomplished nothing as the British government favored the British domiciled in South Africa. They returned with grim determination to fight to the bitter end. Gandhi then made a big decision. He gave up his practice as a lawyer. He felt it was a conflict of interest earning his living by law while defying it. Hermann Kallenbach, a white farmer, was so impressed with the peaceful way of life at Phoenix that he offered Gandhi his own big farm near Johannesburg to start another colony. He suggested that all those who had lost their jobs and homes by their participation in the satyagraha could settle there. The new colony was established in 1910 and named “Tolstoy Farm” after the Russian writer whom Gandhi much admired.

Here people who were different in nationality, religion, and color lived together like one family. They worked hard and shared the fruits of their labor. Gandhi spent much of his time at Tolstoy Farm. He was engaged in teaching the children and in other constructive activities.

Gandhi’s efforts to persuade General Smuts to change the attitude of the Government towards the Indians had failed. Meanwhile, the struggle continued against the Black Act and the poll-tax. And now hundreds of Indian women, including Kasturbai, joined the movement.

Meanwhile a recent court decision in South Africa holding that the law did not recognize Indian marriages, drew much unhappiness amongst the Indian women who could not stand this attack on family ties. They openly broke the law and were imprisoned in large numbers. In the coalmines at Newcastle, in Natal, Indian workers went on strike protesting against the repression. News of 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 satyagrahis were beaten and flogged, and some lost their lives.

Gandhi, who felt intensely the humiliation his people suffered, took a triple vow of self-suffering. He decided to dress like a poor laborer, to walk barefoot, and to have only one meal a day, till the poll-tax and other injustices were abolished. But Gandhi found the Government relentless. There was no solution in sight. He knew he had to take further drastic measures for any chance of change benefitting the Indians and people of color in South Africa.

— To be continued next week