Gandhi’s Life – Part 04
|June 24, 2005||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
“Hang Old Gandhi!”
Gandhi immediately mobilized the Indian community to work against the anti-democracy bill that would take away their right to vote. It was passed in spite of their opposition, but this was only the beginning. A monster petition was drawn up; ten thousand signatures were obtained in two weeks. The petition was sent to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, while a thousand copies of it were circulated in South Africa, India, and England. Gandhi knew the value of publicity. Soon the leading newspapers of India and England were backing his cause.
By then Gandhi’s month was up, but he knew he could not leave Natal. He agreed to stay and lead the fight for civil rights without a fee, if the local merchants would guarantee him enough legal work to pay for a household. The Indians offered to pay him directly for his public work, but he replied, “My work would be mainly to make you all work, and how could I charge you for that?”
To direct the agitation for Indian rights, Gandhi formed an organization called the Natal Indian Congress. All members paid fees, although the wealthier ones gave contributions as well.
Only one class of Indian did not belong to the Congress, the serfs, who could not afford the fees. Then one day an Indian laborer stumbled into Gandhi’s office, bleeding and weeping. Having just been beaten by his employer, he ran to the only person he could think of — Gandhi. Gandhi took him to a doctor and then to the courts. Since the man was a serf, the best Gandhi could do was get him transferred to a kinder employer. But the news of this small achievement spread widely among the serfs. Here was a man who would help even them.
The serfs badly needed help, for that year, 1894, the Natal government decided to discourage them from becoming free men by putting an exorbitant annual tax on any serf who did not return to India or renew his indenture at the end of his bondage. Gandhi instigated a tenacious campaign to have this tax repealed, and soon word of his efforts spread not only through Natal but echoed all the way back to India.
In 1896, with victory nowhere in sight, Gandhi returned to Rajkot to bring his wife and children to Natal to live. While in India he traveled extensively, drumming up sympathy for the plight of the South African Indians. Outrage conquered shyness, and he gave newspaper interviews, made speeches, and wrote a pamphlet which was widely distributed. A summary of the pamphlet was sent to England by the press, and a summarized summary was cabled to Natal, where the Europeans raged because Gandhi had attacked them outside of the country.
In December, Gandhi sailed for South Africa. With him, their toes squirming in unaccustomed shoes and stockings, were his wife, two sons, and an orphaned nephew. Another ship left Bombay for South Africa at the same time. Together, the two vessels carried some eight hundred Indian passengers. They reached Durban on December 18, but no one was permitted ashore. The ships were put in quarantine, not for fear of disease, but for fear of Gandhi. The whites in Durban were incensed by exaggerated reports of what he had said in India and they accused him of bringing in the eight hundred passengers to Hood Natal with free Indians.
Gandhi had said nothing abroad he had not already said in Durban, and he knew none of the passengers except for his own family. But the whites would not be calmed. Finally, after twenty-three days in the harbor, the passengers were allowed ashore. Gandhi’s pregnant wife and the three boys were driven in a carriage to an Indian’s house. Gandhi and an English attorney were to follow on foot.
As soon as Gandhi stepped ashore, some boys shouted his name and a menacing crowd surrounded him, separating him from his English protector. They threw stones, bricks, and rotten eggs at Gandhi. Growing bolder, they tore off his turban and kicked and beat him. Gandhi, who was five feet, five inches tall and never weighed much more than a hundred pounds, clung to a railing to keep himself from falling.
Just then the wife of the police superintendent came up and stood beside him, shielding him from the mob with her umbrella until the police came and took him to his friend’s house.
In the evening a lynch mob gathered at the building and demanded Gandhi’s life. The police superintendent, who was a friend of Gandhi’s, stood at the front door cheerfully leading the crowd in singing “Hang old Gandhi on the sour apple tree” while two of his men took the Indian, disguised as a policeman, out the rear door to the safety of the police station.
When passions calmed several days later, the Natal authorities asked Gandhi to identify his assailants so they could be prosecuted. Gandhi refused, saying, “I am sure that, when the truth becomes known, they will be sorry for their conduct.” His refusal to defend himself or to prosecute shamed the whites and won some of them to his side. It was one of the first victories for Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence.
END OF PART FOUR
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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