Thursday, June 7, 2012

Gandhi’s First Disobedience

Gandhi as a young lawyer in Natal, 1885

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had just arrived in Natal, a British colony in southern Africa.  He was at the time a 33 year old upper caste Hindu lawyer educated in England. 

Despite excellent credentials, his attempts to start a practice in his native India had failed because he was too shy to address the court.  After being reduced to drafting legal documents for the poor for tiny fees, he had been offered a contract to serve a Muslim owned business in Africa.

At the time many Indians were enticed to the British colonies to serve as laborers—native blacks were often regarded as “unsuitable” for hard labor.  Most of the laborers were Hindu.  A largely Muslim elite established themselves in business, often brokering the importation of low caste Hindus and other trade.

Conditions in his new home were startlingly different than he had known either in England or in an India that he had become somewhat cultural estranged from.  Not the least of the differences was the rigid racial barriers he encountered.

On June 7, 1893 Gandhi was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from the first class accommodations that he had paid for.  After lodging a protest, he was allowed to travel in first class the next day.  However after transferring to a stagecoach, he was beaten by the driver and once again thrown off.  In later years he would look back on these incidents and consider his refusal to be displaced in each case represented his first, instinctive, acts of civil disobedience.

They would not be his last.  He was soon in trouble for defying a judge in court who ordered him to remove his turban.

Gandhi remained in South Africa for another 19 years, until 1914.  His experiences there as he rose to leadership of the Indian community and began his campaigns of civil disobedience and passive resistance were the crucible in which his whole philosophy came to maturity.  It is also where he came to grips with his Indian identity.  Importantly, he came to consider being an Indian as something that transcended the rigid divisions between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, although he personally came to fully embrace the Hinduism to which he had once been indifferent.

In 1894, just a year after arriving and his first humiliating experiences, Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress to unite all natives of the sub-continent. Within a few years it was a powerful political and social organization willing and able to confront injustice whether at the hands of exploitative employers or colonial authorities.

By 1897 his efforts were so resented by Whites that he was attacked by a mob in Durbin and had to be saved by the efforts of the wife of the local Police chief.  Despite his experience, he refused to press charges against the identified leaders of the attack, establishing his principle of never relying on the courts for redress of a person injury.

Early in 1906 colonial authorities in Natal declared war on local Zulus in rebellion over being taxed.  Gandhi had not yet become totally estranged from British rule.  He felt that if Indians served the British during the conflict in non-combatant roles, it would soften the hearts of authorities to the plight of his community.  Gandhi organized and commanded a corps of Indian stretcher bearers for the Ambulance Service.  He was only in active service for two months and it is somewhat unnerving to see his photograph in a military uniform with a jaunty broad-brimmed hat pinned up on one side.  The experience did teach him that military resistance to the overwhelming power of the British was futile.  And he quickly realized that neither he nor his people were recognized or rewarded for their service.

His influence was spreading beyond Natal.  Later in 1906 he helped organize Indians of the Transvaal, a former Boer republic which had only recently and with great brutality been brought under British rule.  Attempting to ease tensions with its bitter former foes, the British colonial administration introduced a measure calling for the registration of all Indian, a measure supported by the Boers.  Gandhi organized a mass protest meeting in Johannesburg, where he outlined his strategy based on his evolving philosophy of Satyagraha, the “devotion to truth.”  He asked his followers to defy the law and accept the resulting punishment.

That set off a seven year struggle marked by brutal repression of the Indian community including beatings, shootings, and mass arrests.  Gandhi himself was jailed on numerous occasions.  But despite the repression the demonstrations remained resolutely non-violent.  As Gandhi expected, the image of repeated brutality toward peaceful and unarmed Indians eventually raised enough public outrage that Jan Christian Smuts, the powerful ex-Boer general who had become prime minister of the new Union of South Africa, was forced to negotiate with his old opponent and reach a compromise favorable to the Indians.  The result was the Indian Relief Act of 1914. Gandhi had shown that his policy of non-violent resistance could produce dramatic results.

Later that year Gandhi returned to India, where he would soon apply what he had learned to the long struggle for Indian Independence. 

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