Gandhi’s Life – Part 07
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
Victory in South Africa
First, a group of women from Tolstoy Farm courted arrest by crossing from the Transvaal into Natal. Although this was illegal, they were not halted. Soon after, a group of women from the Phoenix settlement in Natal crossed the opposite way, into the Transvaal, and were arrested. Among them was Gandhi’s wife Kasturbai. At first he had been unwilling to ask her to sacrifice herself, but she complained, “What defect is there in me which disqualifies me for jail?” and so Gandhi relented.
Then the women who had crossed into Natal without having been arrested followed Gandhi’s instructions and marched to the coal mInes at Newcastle. There they incited the Indian miners to strike against the annual tax on free laborers. At this point the women were imprisoned, and the cauldron started bubbling.
Free Indians were outraged at the sight of the women they so carefully protected being tossed into jail. Serfs sympathized with the miners. Gandhi hurried to Newcastle to organize the strike. He suggested the men abandon the mines and return with him to the Transvaal and to prison. They agreed.
In one day, about five thousand men, with Gandhi in the lead, marched to Charlestown, the Natal village nearest the Transvaal border. Fed and sheltered by local Indians, they camped for several weeks as strikers came and went and Gandhi plotted his next move. He tried to arrange a peaceful settlement and called Smuts’ office, telling the General’s secretary, “If he promises to abolish the tax I will stop the march. Will not the General accede to such a small request?” The secretary checked with Smuts and replied, “General Smuts will have nothing to do with you. You may do as you please.”
At 6:30 on the morning of November 6, 1913, Gandhi set out with 2,037 men, 127 women, and 57 children. One mile from Charlestown they crossed the Transvaal border and headed in the direction of Tolstoy Farm. Earlier, some white men had threatened to shoot them on sight but while many stared at the strange army, no one attacked. After they had set up camp the first night and Gandhi was preparing for bed, a police officer approached. “I have a warrant of arrest for you,” he said.
“When?” asked Gandhi.
Gandhi roused one of his aides and told him to continue the march without him. But he was freed on bail and returned to the miners the following day. On November 8, as he was distributing bread and marmalade to the marchers, he was again arrested, this time by a magistrate. “It seems I have been promoted,” he said wryly.
Again he was released on bail and returned to the march. The authorities in the Transvaal began to grow uneasy. They had expected Gandhi’s arrests to disorganize his followers, but no one panicked. The police waited for violence which they could return with violence, but under Gandhi’s teaching, the men remained determinedly peaceful. “How long can you harass a peaceful man?” wrote Gandhi. “How can you kill the voluntarily dead?”
On November 9, Gandhi was arrested for the third time in four days. The following day the marchers were halted, put aboard trains, and shipped back to Natal. On November 11, Gandhi was sentenced to nine months at hard labor. Three days later he was found guilty on another charge and sentenced to another three months. His chief aides were imprisoned with him.
The miners, however, were not jailed, for their labor was needed in the mines. They were imprisoned behind wire-enclosed stockades at the mines, and their supervisors became their guards. But neither orders, threats, nor floggings could force them to return to work.
The news of Gandhi’s jail terms and the vicious treatment of the miners rebounded around the world. The chief British representative in India, the Viceroy, attacked the South African government and demanded an inquiry. All over South Africa Indian serfs struck in sympathy with the miners. At one time there were fifty thousand men on strike and thousands more in jail. Soldiers who were sent to force the strikers back to work fired on the mobs, killing and maiming. The world watched with horror, and money and help for the oppressed Indians began to flow in.
The South African government, observed Gandhi, was in the position of “a snake which has taken a rat in its mouth but can neither gulp it down nor cast it out.” A thoroughly discomfited Jan Christian Smuts appointed a commission of inquiry. The Indian community demanded that the satyagraha prisoners be released, and Gandhi and some of the others were freed. But when the Indian leaders asked that the commission include at least one Indian or pro-Indian member, Smuts refused.
In reply, Gandhi announced he would lead a massive protest march from Durban on January 1, 1914. By coincidence, however, there was a major railroad strike that paralyzed the nation. Gandhi refused to take advantage of it. He postponed the march and by his forbearance won more than by continued pressure. One of Smuts’ secretaries said to Gandhi, “You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you took to violence … and then we would know how to dispose of you. But you desire victory by self-suffering alone … and that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness.”
Smuts now agreed to see Gandhi. There were several meetings and several letters were exchanged. The satyagraha campaign was suspended as the major Indian grievances were eliminated. The annual tax was abolished and non-Christian marriages were recognized. Other minor matters were also resolved. Gandhi had won his crusade.
The Indians in South Africa wanted Gandhi to stay until all their demands were met, but Gandhi felt he had done all he could. After twenty years in South Africa it was time to return to India.
He had gained specific relief for the Indians, but more important, he had evolved a new means for dealing with evil. He had proved that under certain circumstances the force of truth, or satyagraha, was a priceless and matchless weapon. In South Africa it had eliminated the worst of the anti-Indian abuses. In India it was to crumble an empire and create a new nation.
Just before Gandhi left South Africa he gave Jan Christian Smuts a pair of sandals he had made while in prison. Years later Smuts said, “I have worn these sandals for many a summer … even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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