Gandhi’s Life – Part 06
|February 26, 2004||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
Truth-Force is Born
Even while Gandhi was with the ambulance corps he began to receive pleas to return to Johannesburg where an ordinance had been proposed requiring Indians to be fingerprinted, regis- tered, and to carry identification cards at all times. Failure to do so was to be punishable by prison, heavy fines, or deportation.
The purpose of the ordinance was to prevent more Indians from entering the country by having the present residents clearly identified. But Gandhi’s reaction was, “Better die than submit.” Back in Johannesburg, he summoned the Indian leaders and explained that the proposed ordinance was degrading and only a first step toward driving all Indians out of the Transvaal. The Indians had to fight back, Gandhi said, but as yet he did not know how.
A mass meeting was held in an old theater on September 11, 1906. By then Gandhi had helped frame several resolutions containing the essence of his resistance movement. The critical proposal stated the Indians would not submit to the ordinance if it became law, and would suffer all the penalties.
Gandhi warned the Indians they would be jailed, beaten, fined, deported. “But. ..so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle, and that is victory,” he said. Every man at the meeting pledged before God he would never submit.
In this photo, Gandhi is seated (center) in front of his law office in Johannesburg, South Africa, about 1902.
Having spawned a movement, Gandhi now sought a name for it. He disliked the term “passive resistance.” To him it signified a weak and defenseless minority which would use arms if they were available. At the suggestion of a cousin he finally called his campaign satyagraha, a combination of two words meaning truth and force. Gandhi’s battle was to be fought with force born of truth and love. His soldiers were to be known as satyagrahis.
The ordinance, which the Indians called the Black Act, was passed and went into effect in July, 1907. Indians picketed the offices at which they were supposed to register, and when only about five hundred of the thirteen thousand Indians in the Transvaal complied with the new law, the authorities decided to act. They arrested one Indian as an example to the others. To their amazement he instantly became a hero and others clamored to join him in jail.
The authorities obliged by arresting the leaders of the satyagraha movement, including Gandhi, thinking this would intimidate and disperse his followers. But Gandhi, pleading guilty in the same court where he had often appeared as counsel, asked for the maximum sentence; the others followed his example.
Gandhi’s first jail term was brief. He was soon summoned by distraught officials to a conference with the Boer leader, General Jan Christian Smuts. Since there had been no time to change his clothes, Gandhi faced Smuts in his prison uniform.
Smuts offered Gandhi a compromise. If the local Indians registered voluntarily to prevent more immigrants from “flooding” the country, Smuts would repeal the offensive Black Act. Gandhi agreed, and he and the other political prisoners were released.
At a mass meeting in Johannesburg, Gandhi was asked what would happen if Smuts betrayed him. “A satyagrahi bids good-bye to fear,” he replied. “Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the satyagrahi is ready to trust him for the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed.”
To set the example, Gandhi wanted to be the first to register voluntarily, but on the way he was severely beaten by Moslems who felt he had betrayed them. But he asked that his assailants not be punished and that the blood he shed help bind the Moslems and Hindus closer together. It was a prayer he offered often and in vain.
A more painful blow awaited Gandhi, however, for Smuts went back on his word and refused to repeal the Black Act. In reply, the Indians met in the Hamidia mosque in Johannesburg on August 16, 1908, and burned over two thousand registration certificates in a giant cauldron. British reporters who were present compared the event to the Boston Tea Party. Nearly thirteen thousand unarmed Indians were boldly defying the government of the Transvaal.
The next step in Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign was to challenge legislation barring Indian immigration. He had a group of Indians cross from Natal to the Transvaal. When they were jailed, sympathizers in both colonies tried to get arrested with them. Gandhi was imprisoned for the second time and served as cook for seventy-five prisoners, for whom it was a special hardship since he cooked without condiments. “Thanks to their love for me my companions took without a murmur the half-cooked porridge I prepared without sugar,” he wrote.
Gandhi was freed in December, 1908, and rearrested for a three-month term beginning in February, 1909. He spent most of his time in prison reading, and Smuts generously sent him two religious books.
However the volumes that greatly influenced Gandhi at this time were Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience, which Thoreau had written after being jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a government he would not support, and The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy, in which the great Russian writer demanded that men live as Christ directed. Gandhi and Tolstoy corresponded until the Russian died in 1910. In his last letter Tolstoy wrote the Indian leader, “That which is called passive resistance is nothing else than the teaching of love…”
The Boers were less lyrical about it, however, and when the jails overflowed with satyagrahis, they began to deport the Indians. At one time twenty-five hundred of the Transvaal Indians were in prison and another six thousand had fled or been expelled.
The arrests and the agitation began to attract the eye of the world, and the British Empire squirmed uncomfortably. Gandhi, out of jail again, used his newspaper, Indian Opinion, to further press his cause. When he realized that the four colonies were going to be fused into the Union of South Africa, he went directly to London to lobby for Indian rights.
He won publicity and sympathy but little else. The British who tried to mediate between him and the Boers reported that the whites felt “to maintain the racial bar is a matter of principle…” While he was in England, Gandhi found time to explore Britain’s relationship with another colony, India, and on the long voyage back to South Africa he wrote a booklet called Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, which foreshadowed the campaign that would make him immortal.
Seeing no end to his struggle in South Africa, however, he searched for a home for his disciples when they were not in prison. His movement was generously financed by wealthy Indians, but one of the most faithful of his followers was a German industrialist named Hermann Kallenbach. Kallenbach bought eleven hundred acres of land near Johannesburg and gave them to Gandhi, who founded a settlement called Tolstoy Farm.
Men, women, and children, Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and Jews, lived at the farm with equal rights and equal responsibilities. Smoking and liquor were banned, and the few meat-eaters voluntarily became vegetarians. Anyone who had to go to Johannesburg walked over twenty miles each way. This saved a fortune in train fares and provided ample exercise, which pleased Gandhi, who in his medical views was a self-confessed quack. He believed a light diet, plenty of exercise, and a mud pack would heal anything.
In 1912 Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a prominent Indian leader, came to South Africa to investigate Indian grievances. He was graciously received by the Boers, who were lavish with their promises. “Everything has been settled,” Gokhale told Gandhi. “The Black Act will be repealed. The racial bar will be removed from the emigration law.” Smuts had even promised Gokhale that the annual tax on serfs who became free laborers would be lifted.
This time it was Gandhi who said, “I doubt it very much,” and this time it was Gandhi who was right. The Boers again went back on their word. The following year insult was added to oppression when a judge ruled that only Christian marriages would be recognized as legal, thereby invalidating every Hindu or Moslem wedding ceremony.
The satyagraha campaign, which had been dormant, suddenly revived. Women had never before participated; now they insisted on challenging a ruling which dishonored almost every Indian wife. Gandhi examined his armies and his weapons carefully and then laid his plans.
END OF PART SIX
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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