The History of India: The Birth of Satyagraha: Gandhi's Fight for Indian Rights in South Africa The History of India: The Birth of Satyagraha: Gandhi's Fight for Indian Rights in South Africa

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Birth of Satyagraha: Gandhi's Fight for Indian Rights in South Africa

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
The Gandhian era is divided into two parts - (i) From 1893-1914 (South Africa) & (ii) From 1915-1948 (India). The twenty years of struggle in South Africa were Gandhi's first experiment in political field and had long term impact on his philosophy and leadership.

In 1890-91 some 150,000 emigrants were settled in South Africa,most of which resided in Natal district.The white population resented their presence and the British government there encouraged the xenophobia by a series of oppressive measures designed to prevent the immigration of Asiatics.Through systematic persecution the life of the Indians were made intolerable.They were burdened with overwhelming taxes and subjected to most overwhelming police ordinances and exploitation of all sorts. In 1893 Gandhi arrived in Pretoria to deal with an important case. He was not familiar with the situation in South Africa but from the very beginning he started experiencing the difference between European society and the particular African sociey. In Natal and particulary in Dutch Traansval he was thrown out of hotels and trams, insulted, beaten and kicked.He could have returned to India but was bound by a contract of one year. But when he was about to leave he learnt that the South African Government was planning to pass a Bill depriving the Indians of their franchise.The Indians were helpless as they were unorganized and leaderless. Gandhi felt that it was his duty to defend them. He decided to continue his stay for another month, however he remained there for twenty years fighting for the rights of the Indians.

Then began an epic struggle between courage on one side and governmental power and brute force on the other.As a lawyer he took up the task to prove the illegality of the Asiatic Exclusion Act from the point of view of law and despite stiff opposition he won the case. Gandhi wanted to establish the principle that Indians were citizens of the British Empire and therefore entitled to equality under the law. Finally the Natal Act that was passed in 1897 met his demand of equal electoral rights for British subjects including Indians. This was his first victory on the African soil. He formed an association for educating the Indians known as Indian Congress in Natal. In 1904 he founded the  Phoneix Ashram near Durban. It was an agricultural colony built on Tolstoian lines where the inmates led a simple life and renounced materialism.

In 1906 was planning to draft a bill that that would spell absolute ruin for the Indians.The proposed ordinance required all Indian men,women and children over eight ,to register with the authorities,submit to finger printing and accept a certificate which they had to carry with themselves all the time. A person who failed to register could be imprisoned,fined or deported from Transval. This was highly objectionable to all the Indians and Gandhi decided to oppose it with all his strength. However in due course Transval adopted the Asiatic Registration Act on 31st July 1907.The Indians termed it as Black Act and prepared to offer satyagraha.They refused to get themselves registered failing which they were served notice to register or leave Transval. Refusing to do either, they were arrested and and brought before a magistrate in 1908.This was Gandhi's first term in jail. As a leader he asked for heaviest sentence from the judge as he was the leader of the movement. For the finance of the resistance movement Indians and Europeans in South Africa and Indians from India contributed considerable sums. Suggestions poured in on Gandhi to raise the entire question of Indian disabilities in South Africa and to mobilize the whole Indian community of the continent. But he decided that it was against the principles of Satyagraha to expand or to shift one's goal in the middle of the battle. The issue was of the right of the Indians to live in and enter the Transval only. Gandhi's sentence ended in 1908,but since civil resistance against the registration and emigration continued he was again sentenced to three month imprisonment on  25th February 1909.

Without relenting the Government was planning to extend the act to other parts of South Africa and the satyagraha movement was gaining ground.Gandhi decided to lobby in London.His trip to England made the South African Indian question a major imperial concern.

However,a third issue was added to the whole scenario when on 14th March 1913,a Justice of the Cape Colony Supreme Court ruled that only Christian marriages were legal in South Africa.This invalidated Hindu,Muslim and Parsi marriages and turned all Hindu wives into concubines without rights.This was highly unacceptable and a direct onslaught on the vanity of all Indian women. For the first time large number of women joined the resistance movement. The struggle grew in strength and the satyagraha was being seen as highly successful. Finally showing a reconciliatory gesture the government opened it's doors for negotiations. General Smuts and Gandhi finally exchanged letters after prolonged negotiations on 30th June 1914 which stated that Hindu,Moslem and Parsi marriages are valid, Indians could move  freely from one province to another and that three pound tax on unindentured labour in Natal was abolished.The settlement was a compromise which satisfied both the sides. Gandhi regarded the agreement as the Magna Carta of South African Indians. The victory was vindication of civil resistance. It was the victory of the moral force. "It is a force which if became universal,would revolutionize social ideals and do away with despotisms", Gandhi wrote in Indian Opinion.

The purity of Gandhi's methods made it difficult for General Smuts to oppose him. Victory came to Gandhi not when Smuts had no more strength to fight him but when he had no more heart to fight him.
Thus ended an era which taught the world the importance of civil disobedience and removed fear of governmental authority from people's mind. Mahatma Gandhi's credentials as a leader became well established and the scene of his fight against oppression and colonialism shifted to India.

Written by:
Shama Sonali
Asst. Professor, Dept. of Political Science,
Ranchi University,

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