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THAT THIN OLDER MAN in a homespun dhoti and shawl leading India toward independence from Britain-surely, that is the most well-remembered Gandhi. His image comes readily to mind, the era claims a significant place in twentieth-century world history. Yet, a less well-known Gandhi appears in Satyagraha as its seven scenes trace an early chapter in his life, his participation in South Africa's history from 1893 to 1914.|
It was during these years that Gandhi developed his ideas of non-violence, practicing them as a means for opposing European racial discrimination against Indians living in South Africa. Though this was the first large-scale and successful employment of non-violent civil disobedience, Satyagraha situates the event within an extended context. The opera's staging and text reflect the historical continuity of non-violence beginning before South Africa, coming to fruition there, reappearing in the American civil rights movement, remaining still as a methodology among present-day political activists ill-disposed to terrorism. In this way, Satyagraha suggests the persistence of an idea.
As for the years 1893 to 1914...
It may be the usual effect of any great leader to mark out a period of time as a discrete moment with its own beginning and end. It may also be well to remember Gandhi as a shy, young barrister wearing the frock coat and patent leather shoes of his profession when he landed at Durban, South Africa in 1893. That twenty-three-year-old Gandhi seems an unlikely candidate for the compelling episode of self-definition from which he emerged as a confident public figure and accomplished political organizer by the time of his departure in 1914. It is an episode somewhat eclipsed by subsequent events in his life.
Along similar lines, subsequent events in South Africa have tended to obscure the Indians' struggle and the Satyagraha movement. One could easily believe there'd never been an instance when the weight of oppression had been thrown off. Neither the Indians' success nor their methods has survived as a model. As any daily newspaper indicates, it's the instances of racial conflict that persist in South Africa.
A long history of discrimination still inhabits contemporary South Africa; its origins belong to the much earlier time of the country's colonization. So the years 1893 to 1914 can be situated within yet another extended context. Hopefully some of its interest and complexity will come across in the following picture of pre-1893 South Africa and in an amplification of the twenty-one years of history which appear in brief scene synopsis in the libretto of the second half of this book.
First, the era of colonization.
Whereas Dutch settlements in South Africa date from the early sixteenth century, significant numbers of English settlers only began arriving in the 1850's. If for no other reason than the precedent of "first come," the Dutch were not taking kindly to the new settlers' incursion into their territory. And naturally, there were other complications.
In subduing the native population, for example, the Dutch had acquired a large labor force working mainly in the area of land cultivation. Here the Dutch saw profit and success. Here, also, the English hoped to succeed. With two nations advancing similar but separate aspirations, there arose conflicts, disputes, collisions in which the Dutch rejected any dominion from the British Empire. Their response was to migrate into the South African interior, bringing about the genesis of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
In these states, they continued to flourish-developing their own language, Taal, a patois of Dutch, and becoming a curious kind of indigenous settler known as the Boers. In turn, the Boers were renowned as good fighters, a brave and practical people bent on surviving as a cultural and political entity.
In Natal, where English settlers were aspiring to grow such crops as sugarcane, tea, and coffee on a grand scale, the native population was not willing to work for this purpose. Not for money or by threat and as slavery had been abolished, the Negroes stood firm in their refusal to supply the English with a work force. To make progress in the matter, the English initiated negotiations with the Government of India, who conformed to the request for help. Government recruiting agents began soliciting among Indians and the first group of laborers reached Natal on November 16, 1860.
Their terms of agreement established a five-year period of indenture, after which they would become "Free Indians." It was a status qualified by having to travel with an official pass, having to register for permission to marry, and other "have to's" that would restrict their freedom.
At the time, such limits were unknown to Indian traders already living in Mauritius, South Africa. These shopkeepers, attracted by the prospect of doing business with the newly arrived laborers, came to Natal, often with a large entourage that included their accountants, servants, family. Consequently, by 1860, there were two classes of Indians living in Natal: the free Indian traders and the indentured laborers. Neither was looked upon favorably by the English.
They were Indians all of them and myth played its part in making them all subject to disfavor. It was "well-known" that Indians carried diseases, indulged in peculiar sexual habits, had deficient minds spoiled by mystical fancies, etc. More generally, the grounds for disfavor were simply what the English called "cultural variances"-differences too great to amend, too distasteful to condone.
By the 1870's sentiments of this kind could be aimed at a more specific target. The Indians were no longer just a tiresome or noxious presence. They were now posing an economic threat.
Many laborers who stayed on after their indenture were seeking a livelihood in agricultural pursuits. Not only did they make available a variety of vegetables previously not grown in South Africa, but also they made more abundant the usually small supply of other vegetables. They were competitors, thus a threat to the European planters' monopoly.
The traders were similarly gaining a foothold within the economy. Their customers went beyond their countrymen to include the Negroes, who until now had received little courtesy or fair dealings from European traders. Encouraged by the large population of Negroes in South Africa and the possibility of doing business with the Boers, Indian traders were enterprising to the point of taking their chances across the borders of Natal into the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
As some "Free Indians" also began taking up residence in the states adjoining Natal, the Indian community saw the natural enough development of economic growth and geographic expansion. Statistically, their population in the four states of Natal, Mauritius, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal numbered 40,000 to 50,000 free Indians and approximately 100,000 "Free Indians." But the combined effect of economic growth, geographic expansion, enlarging population-this added up to a new situation that was going against the grain of the Boers and the English vested interests.
Both took a dim view of the already mentioned threats in the economic sphere. Both could easily foresee problems that would cloud an already complicated picture in the political realm. They were engaged in establishing their own sovereignty, a source of conflict through the 1870's and the 1880's that eventually culminated in the Boer War of 1899 to 1902.
Seen through their political interests, the Indians appeared to the Boers and English alike as, at least, an annoyance-a large, growing population that would have to be administered and governed. Or, at worst, the Indians would be a third power jockeying for representation and greater participation in the states' affairs. Either way, it seemed imperative to take steps curbing the immigration rights of incoming Indian laborers still required by the English and restricting the civil rights of the already established Indian residents.
Different methods were devised in the various states. In Natal, agitators demanded that upon completion of their indenture all present laborers should be sent back to India, and unless they renewed their indentures, all new laborers should have a compulsory return at the expiration of their term of service. Since Natal was a Crown Colony, the Colonial Office of the Government could not suddenly acquiesce to demands for the perpetual slavery of the Indian residents. But when self-government was conferred on Natal in 1893, a new proposal was made which would effectively discourage Indians from taking up permanent residence. It called for an annual tax of twenty-five pounds to be imposed on every Indian who remained after indenture. Lord Elgin, governor-general of India, accepted the tax reduced to three pounds at the equivalent of six months' earnings on the indenture scale. It was levied on the laborer, his wife, his daughters aged thirteen or upwards, and his sons aged sixteen or upwards.
In the Transvaal, the Boers drafted Law 3 of 1885 stating that every Indian settling in the republic for purposes of carrying on trade was required to register at a cost of twenty-five pounds and that no Indian could own any land or enjoy the rights of citizenship. Again, since the Transvaal was a republic in which the British Government held power, there was an arbitration with the Boers on behalf of Indians as British subjects. Law 3 was amended in 1886 reducing the registration to three pounds. It allowed Indians to own land in special locations set apart for their residences and confined traders to conducting their business exclusively in these same locations.
In the Orange Free State, Parliament abruptly passed a law expelling all Indian traders, providing them with a nominal compensation. The same law provided that no Indian could own any property or carry on any business, be it trade or agriculture.
Around these legislations there was the gathering anti-Indian climate. The old, adverse sentiments once held in private became sanctioned in all manner of public statements-as newspaper editorials:
It is a coincidence that at the same time that British are crying out for participation in the Transvaal, the Indians are petitioning for similar privileges here. But the most prejudiced mind could not fail to see the marked distinction between the two classes. In the Transvaal the British have, through their superior knowledge and experience and by the means of vast sums of money, raised the country in the course of a few years from a state of bankruptcy and intellectual decrepitude to one of prosperity and political importance. On the other hand, the introduction of Indians here was simply an expedient for getting over the difficulty of labour supply which was caused by our timorous native policy. The main body of Indians took the place of our semi-barbarous kafirs, and the facilities which were afforded for the procuring of this labor acted as a demoralizing influence on the labor of the country. The small number of Indians of a superior class who followed gave all their attention exclusively to the objects of trade, evincing no interest in the general welfare of the country except in so far as it affected them personally.-as citizen petitions to Parliament:
These Indians have no sense of human decency. They suffer from loathsome diseases. They consider women as their prey. They believe that women have no souls. -Unsigned petition to the Transvaal Parliament, 1881.-and, as President Kruger said on the occasion of receiving a delegation of Indian traders upset with the Transvaal policy:
You are descendants of Ishmael and therefore from your very birth bound to slave for the descendants of Esau. As the descendants of Esau we cannot admit you to rights placing you on equality with ourselves. You must rest content with what rights we grant you.These statements, together with the states' legislative intentions, tell of the scope and intensity of anti-Indian feelings directed toward the community. Theirs was also to know the filtering down of adversities, the reminders in daily life: The title "coolie" expressed the European's not-so-thinly disguised contempt for the Indians. Even those with professions were "coolie lawyers," "coolie doctors,' and, as of the 1890s, they were still Indians all of them, living in the specially located worst parts of town, traveling in third-class accommodations, continuously in exile as a separate subclass.
Years of submitting to all forms of discrimination perhaps explains the failure of Gandhi's prospective employer to accurately represent the Indians' situation in South Africa. In his correspondence, Dada Abdulla wrote mainly of the lawsuit for which Gandhi was being hired. As a barrister, Gandhi would instruct the lawyers retained to conduct the case-a longstanding financial disagreement between the Dada Abdulla firm of Durban and a rival trade firm, Taib Haji Khanmamed of Pretoria. Details of his one year engagement were set forth, travel arrangements made, and Gandhi came to the port of Durban in the manner to which he was accustomed. That is, the English manner.
Well he knew their ways, having spent three years in London while studying for the bar. A good part of his experience had been one of making many English friends and becoming familiar with his host country's interest in and acceptance of him as a foreigner. The agreeable residuals of this experience went with Gandhi to South Africa. And there was that English manner-his frock coat and patent leather shoes, his first-class railway ticket to Pretoria, all befitting his profession. But he was just another Indian to the train conductor who ordered him out of his first-class compartment.
Finally thrown off the train for not accepting his proper place, Gandhi was neither prepared by years of submission, nor by any foreknowledge of discrimination on the basis of color alone. His first night in South Africa was the vivid experience of a personal affront.
"I was on the horns of a dilemma. Two courses were open to me. I might either free myself from the contract with Messrs Dada Abdulla on the ground that circumstances had come to my knowledge which had not been disclosed to me before, and run back to India. Or I might bear all hardships and fulfill my engagement. I was pushed out of the train by a police constable at Maritzburg, and the train having left, was sitting in the waiting room, shivering in the bitter cold. I did not know where my luggage was, nor did I dare to inquire of anybody, lest I might be insulted and assaulted once again. Sleep was out of the question. Doubt took possession of my mind. Late at night, I came to the conclusion that to run back to India would be cowardly. I must accomplish what I had undertaken. I must reach Pretoria, without minding insults and even assaults. Pretoria was my goal. The case was being fought there. I made up my mind to take some steps, if that was possible, side-by-side with my work. This resolution somewhat pacified and strengthened me but I did not get any sleep."If Gandhi's decision that night was a personal reconciliation, it set the tone for further encounters with the Indians' lot in South Africa. For example, when required to remove his turban in court, Gandhi petitioned against the principle that denied him the right as an Indian to wear a symbol of his homeland in a foreign court. His was a small victory. Still, one from which he gained the community's respect. He had challenged authority and authority had relinquished. There was now someone who was willing to take a stand, someone who continued to respond with the vivid sense of first experiences.
Through 1893 to 1894, Gandhi continued to point out when the Government was unjust, to suggest what might be appropriate to the circumstance-"whether to take immediate action or to pocket an insult for the moment. It was nearly unheard of for any Indian to conspire in this way, with the result that besides completing his court case by year's end, Gandhi had done enough speech making and setting of behavior standards to be honored with a farewell dinner.
An arriving dinner guest produced a copy of the Natal Mercury which carried news of the Government's intention to disenfranchise Indians in a bill about to be introduced to the Legislative Assembly. In the throes of such sudden bad news, the farewell dinner went the way of a political meeting. Those present heard Gandhi propose a strenuous resistance on the part of the Indians. But here, and about to leave their midst, was the one who could best direct the resistance. Gandhi was urged to stay on for a month and, consenting he drew up a petition that same night, the first ever to be sent by the Indians to a South African legislature. Its failure to defeat the Disenfranchising Bill could not diminish the Indians' enthusiasm. Within the month 10,000 of their signatures were attached to a memorial sent to Lord Ripon, colonial secretary. Having informed the Empire of its subjects' discontent, Gandhi requested permission to leave for India. But here again the enthusiastic activists favored his presence among them. Something greater than an isolated event had occurred and someone capable had to be the guide. It was, they said, Gandhi's duty to stay on.
Ever scrupulous when it came to making decisions, Gandhi weighed the situation carefully.
First. "One may not receive a large salary for public work." Nevertheless, his staying on would mean considerable expenses, since at the time he thought he should live in the usual style of barristers, in part to reflect credit on the community. A practical solution was agreed upon; the principal traders would give Gandhi legal work and retainers for a year that would be consigned beforehand.
Second. "I also felt that it would be well if a permanent organization was formed to watch Indian interests." Even Gandhi's limited knowledge of the Indian National Congress suggested the idea of a similar organization in South Africa-a representative body to function within the regular channels of Congress. "Inexperienced as I was, I did not try to find out a new name. I was also afraid of committing a mistake. So I advised the Indians to call their organization the Natal Indian Congress." It was founded in May 1894.
Third. "Side-by-side with external agitation, the question of internal improvement was also taken up." To a degree, Gandhi's interest in the question was inspired by the Europeans' agitation against the Indians' way of life. He hoped the Indians would attain a better, more equal standing through improvements in their education and general living conditions. Yet perhaps to a larger degree and as if by an instinct, Gandhi's concern for uplifting the community was to inspire self-respect in his countrymen, to engender in their own eyes a sense of personal worth and national pride.
Contained in all three points are objectives and principles, even methods, which at this early stage in Gandhi's public life foretell of patterns he would sustain for many years to come. For the moment, one point stood out from all others-the struggle had begun. Fruits were fast forthcoming with news that Lord Ripon had disallowed the Disenfranchising Bill. With a reward behind them, Gandhi and his followers settled into the slower aspects of their work.
The Natal Indian Congress became more experienced in the ways of representational procedure. Special interest organizations were formed to administer community needs, such as the Natal Indian Education Association. Organization all-around was a large and necessary task involving hundreds of volunteer workers during 1894 to 1896. It was probably fortunate that no single, immediate issue required the deployment of activist methods or tactics as yet to be developed. Instead, there was time to address the general imposition of South Africa's colonial policy on the population of Indians only newly awakened to their plight and coming together for the first time to stand as a united front.
In Gandhi's estimation what was going on in South Africa was not some inconsequential, local affair. Still, the story had to be made known, and so in 1896, Gandhi went to India where for six months he traveled around the country spreading the word of events in South Africa and distributing over 5,000 pamphlets on the subject. His mission included meetings with high ranking officials of the British Empire from whom he sought the cooperation of the Government of India. Also in meetings with Indian Congress leaders, Gandhi hoped to find counsel and support for the countrymen in South Africa. His first visit as their representative initiated Gandhi's long-term objective of gaining a settlement for the Indians wherein the key was to attain it through a cooperative reconciliation. The key measured Gandhi's belief in the role of Indians as British subjects. Or more precisely, he believed in asserting their rights as British subjects and would do so by exhausting all existing channels before using the strikes, marches, and demonstrations of civil disobedience.
South Africans felt there was already disobedience enough that ought to be punished. Such were the feelings awaiting Gandhi and the 350 Indian passengers on board the SS Courland as it sailed from India, bound for Durban.
It was Reuters reports that had stirred things up. Their accounts of Gandhi's activities in India did indeed make it seem like this was not some inconsequential, local affair. The attention of a large part of the world had been drawn to South Africa-perhaps a Gandhi goal but definitely a sore point to the awaiting citizens of Durban.
After the Courland has been held in a bogus quarantine for twenty-three days, Gandhi left ship to make his way through the angry mob. Shouts, blows, stones, these he withstood as best he could until chance brought him safety in the form of a lady's parasol. It belonged to the wife of the police superintendent, Mrs. Alexander out for an evening walk. Under her parasol's symbolic protection, she led Gandhi away from the crowd until he could safely continue to the home of Parsi Rustomji, a movement co-worker. Though the Indians with Gandhi at their lead were now troublemakers of an unacceptable dimension, the Boer War provided them an opportunity to demonstrate good will and cooperation. Gandhi's decision to participate in the war followed the usual line of his standards. A purely political choice might have found the Indians siding with the Boers who seemed likely at the outset to be the victors. But Indian participation logically resolved itself in their duty as British subjects. Their action, in keeping with the principles of non-violence, would be a volunteer ambulance corps. With war-time work, the Indians contributed a valuable service, denying their pariah myth in the process. The occasion came up again in the Zulu Rebellion of 1906 and, in 1914, Gandhi organized still another ambulance corps from the ranks of Indian students living in London at the outbreak of World War I. Such consistency over years speaks of Gandhi's fondness for practicing, re-practicing an ideal. And at the close of the Boer War in 1902, he addressed his followers with a personal goal. He wanted to take leave of South Africa and continue his life of public service in India.
By now there were others, capable and experienced, who could lead the way. There were guidelines to follow, including the idea that Indians would pursue attainment of civil rights as British subjects-more probable now that the British had won the war. Had their conviction been less firm, Gandhi could have saved the trouble of taking his family all the way home, setting up a new practice in Bombay. It was all for nothing. In 1903 an urgent telegram recalled him to South Africa. The post-war policy toward Indians was, if anything, worse than ever.
At least there was the Asiatic Department, an official Government organization through which the Indians could negotiate. Except here they learned anew just how very slow the work cut out for them would be. It was no easy task getting old laws off the books, no matter if they were racial in character, designed to impose a color bar. The channels could be clogged with complicated evasions. The dragging of bureaucratic heels could mean two years of little progress. Could it be that the only issue charging the air was renewed resistance to Indian immigration, sounding very much like President Kruger's statement of 1881? Only now, as General Smuts of the Transvaal said,
"Some public speakers may like to inflame the Europeans by finding fault with Indians, but political thinkers believe and say that the very qualities of Indians count for defects in South Africa. The Indians are disliked in South Africa for their simplicity, patience, perseverance, frugality and otherworldliness. Westerners are enterprising, impatient, engrossed in multiplying their material wants and in satisfying them, fond of good cheer, anxious to save physical labour and prodigal in habits. They are therefore afraid that if thousands of Orientals settled in South Africa, the Westerners must go to the wall. Westerners in South Africa are not prepared to commit suicide and their leaders will not permit them to be reduced to such straits."General Smuts' statement was made with regard to the situation in the Transvaal where administrators wanted to restrict the entrance of new immigrants, while controlling the movements of Indians already in residence. Lionel Curtis of the Asiatic Department came up with the plan: new registration cards would be required containing the signature or thumb print of the holder, along with a photograph. Under the Peace Preservation Order, a quasi-legal instrument for keeping law and order, Indians would be required further to carry their cards at all times.
With negotiations failing to dissuade the campaign for new registration, the Indians decided upon a fresh tack. Though not legally bound to comply, the community would consent as a body to changing their old permits for new ones. "The Indians believed that if they behaved toward the Government with such courtesy, it would treat them well, show regard to them and confer fresh rights upon them."
Instead, Lionel Curtis drafted the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance to be introduced into the Legislative Council. As Mr. Curtis inadvertently precipitated a turning point in the Satyagraha movement with his ordinance, it is worth quoting Gandhi's summary of it at length.
Every Indian, man, woman or child of eight years or upwards, entitled to reside in the Transvaal, must register his or her name with the Registrar of Asiatics and take out a certificate of registration. The applicants for registration must surrender their old permits to the Registrar and state in their applications their name, residence, caste, age, etc. The Registrar was to note down important marks of identification upon the applicant's person, and take his finger and thumb impressions. Every Indian who failed thus to apply for registration before a certain date was to forfeit his right of residence in the Transvaal. Failure to apply would be held to be an offence in law for which the defaulter could be fined, sent to prison or even deported within the discretion of the court. Parents must apply on behalf of their minor children and bring them to the Registrar in order to give their finger impressions, etc. In case of parents failing to discharge this responsibility laid upon them, the minor on attaining the age of sixteen years must discharge it himself, and if he defaulted, he made himself liable to the same punishments as could be awarded to his parents. The certificate of registration issued to an applicant must be produced before any police officer whenever and wherever he may be required to do so. Failure thus to produce the certificate would be held to be an offence for which the defaulter could be fined or sent to prison. Even a person walking on public thoroughfares could be required to produce his certificate. Police officers could enter private houses in order to inspect certificates. Indians entering the Transvaal from some place outside it must produce their certificates before the inspector on duty. Certificates must be produced on demand in courts which the holder attended on business, and in revenue offices which issued to him a trading or bicycle license. That is to say, if an Indian wanted any government office to do for him something within its competence, the officer could ask to see his certificates before granting his request. Refusal to produce the certificate or to supply such particulars or means of identification as may be prescribed by regulation would be also held to be an offence for which the person refusing could be fined or sent to prison.In response to the proposed ordinance, a public meeting was held at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg on September 11, 1906, attended by Indian delegates from all across the Transvaal. There can be little wonder of the emotional atmosphere in that crowded room. Fingerprinting associated Indians with common criminals. Rights to the entry of homes sanctioned harassment. As a first step toward hounding Indians out of the country, it was not lost on anyone that passage of the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance would set a precedent for states other than the Transvaal, seriously jeopardizing the entire Indian community. Speeches were made and resolutions framed, most notably the Fourth Resolution which determined that the Indians would not submit to the ordinance if it became law and would suffer any penalties for their non-submission. Then unexpectedly the level of commitment escalated in the speech of Sheth Hajo Habib. "He was deeply moved and went so far as to say that we must pass this resolution with God as a witness and must never yield a cowardly submission to such a degrading legislation."
No ordinary resolution observed in public life imparts the name of God. Somewhat surprised to hear the idea, Gandhi quickly seized upon the implication. He already knew in his personal life the meaning implicit in taking a vow, but a solemn pledge taken in public matters held forth the possibility of sealing in practical actions what might appear as only theoretical ideas. A vow would implement for the movement what Gandhi held to be personally true-that a union could be made between the normally separated spiritual and political worlds. Here, then, was a turning point.
The delegates had to recognize the seriousness of taking a vow in the name of God, of keeping the pledge in the face of all odds, even death, even if they were the only one left. Gandhi and other speakers elaborated the idea, and finally, everyone present took an oath with God as witness. They would not submit if the ordinance became law.
Just what would be the Indians' methods in action began in a reappraisal of their movement. By now the community, mostly confined to Natal and the Transvaal, had a greater awareness and understanding of their situation. It was partly to accomplish this goal that Gandhi had founded the newspaper, Indian Opinion, which also served to inform the world community. Developing the pen as a movement tool was largely in the hands of Gandhi who wrote the majority of the paper's articles and editorials. Its weekly production was overseen by Henry Polak, one of several Westerners who were to play major roles in the Indians' struggle. And with the work being accomplished at Phoenix Farm in Natal where men, women, and children lived in a communal setting based on mutual cooperation, the newspaper was an early example of how a partnership could be formed between daily life and movement objectives.
While Indian Opinion was a vehicle for informing the community and was, thus, a kind of organizational force, the time had come for recognizing other kinds of forces at work. The Black Act, as the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance was known, had brought on this situation. It was the first specific issue toward which the movement was rallying resistance. The movement needed definition.
Until 1906, no one had seriously questioned what was exactly meant by the phrase "passive resistance." It had been used in a familiar sense to designate principles Gandhi had brought to the struggle, principles drawn from such sources as the Bhagavad-Gita, Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, and John Ruskin's Unto This Last. But the taking of vows in Johannesburg had altered the familiar course of passive resistance, denying any possibility that in the last resort the principle would give way to armed resistance.
So, in Indian Opinion, Gandhi offered a small prize for a new designation, one that would reflect the principle of non-violence unto death and permit the great struggle to be known by a non-foreign phrase. "Shri Maganlal Gandhi was one of the competitors and he suggested the word "Sadagraha," meaning "firmness in a good cause." I liked the word, but it did not fully represent the whole idea I wished it to connote. I therefore corrected it to "Satyagraha." Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement "Satyagraha," that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth or Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase "passive resistance" in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word "Satyagraha" itself or some other equivalent English phrase."
In the newly-named movement, Satyagrahis did not abandon the former premise which directed their resistance toward first exhausting all appropriate constitutional remedies. To stay the Black Act from becoming law, they approached the local government through written memorials and meetings with officials. Second, they elected to send a deputation to England made up of Gandhi and Haji Ojeer Ally, who had much experience in public affairs and was a member of the Transvaal British Indian Association. During a six week stay in England, Gandhi and Ally met with as many Parliament members as possible, with the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, all with the same intention of seeking their cooperation irregardless of party affiliation.
Lord Elgin, secretary of state for the colonies, also heard their case and promised to do all he could. And en route home to South Africa, Gandhi and Ally received a reassuring telegram sent by an English co-worker. It contained the surprising news that Lord Elgin had declared his inability to advise His Majesty the King that the Transvaal Asiatic Ordinance should be brought into operation.
As it happened, Lord Elgin was capable of dealing many different hands. It was late in 1906. Self-government was to be conferred on the Transvaal on January 1, 1907. Therefore, according to Lord Elgin, if the new Transvaal legislature was to pass a measure identical to the original Asiatic Ordinance, it would meet with royal assent. This was his assurance to Sir Richard Solomon, then representing the Transvaal as a Crown Colony in England. The deal between Lord Elgin and Sir Solomon insured a new chapter in the Indians' struggle to resist the Black Act.
Here is a chronology of events in the Transvaal following on the heels of the conferring of self-government; its first Parliamentary act was to pass the budget:
MARCH 21, 1906-Passage of the Asiatic Registration Act, a replica of the original ordinance, to take effect on July 1. All Indians were to apply for registration by July 11.
END OF JUNE, 1907-The calling of a meeting in Pretoria attended by 2,000 Indians who were urged by representatives of the Transvaal government- to go along with the Ordinance and register. Representatives of the Indians reply: "Never."
BEGINNING OF JULY, 1907-Government opens registration offices, picketed by Satyagrahis. When the Government could get only 500 Indians to register, it demonstrated its disapproval in the token arrest of Pandit Rama Sundara, a well-regarded resident of Germiston, who was serving as a picket captain. Hundreds of Indians acknowledged the development by jamming the courtroom during Rama Sundara's trial, and upon his release from jail after one month, they escorted him to a celebration dinner.
DECEMBER, 1907-Government sends notices to leading community members, including Gandhi. They were to appear before the Magistrate by December 28 to show cause why, having failed to register, they should not be ordered to leave the Transvaal.
DECEMBER 28, 1907-The Transvaal Court of Johannesburg orders recipients of deportation notices to leave within forty-eight hours, in some cases, and seven to ten days in others.
JANUARY 10, 1908-Expiration date of the court order. Gandhi and community leaders appear in court for their sentencing: two months in jail. Immediately, Indians begin courting arrest. This was the first use of the Satyagraha tactic of filling the jails in sympathy and support, and for the added purpose of disarranging the Government's legal and jail systems. Within a few days, one hundred-fifty arrested Indians had been jailed in Johannesburg.
JANUARY, 1908-Gandhi visited in jail by Mr. Albert Cartwright, editor of the Transvaal Leader, a Johannesburg daily. In representing General Smuts, Mr. Cartwright presented the Government's desire for a settlement: if Indians agreed to register voluntarily, the Black Act would be repealed.
JANUARY 30, 1908-Gandhi meets with General Smuts who said: "I assure you that I will repeal the Asiatic Act as soon as most of you have undergone voluntary registration." (Gandhi and other prisoners set free as of this date.)
FEBRUARY 10, 1908-Voluntary registration begins. There had been considerable disagreement and debate over the issue, during which Gandhi maintained that the Indians must show their good faith to the Government through voluntary registration.
For those who had disagreed, those who feared a breach of Government faith-General Smuts proved worthy of doubt. The Black Act was not to be repealed and a new act would go into ordinance mandating registration according to the original Black Act terms. Unmoved by appeals from Mr. Cartwright and the Indians, General Smuts was delivered an ultimatum from the Satyagrahis. After reminding him of their compliance with the settlement of voluntary registration in return for repeal of the Black Act, it continued: "We regret to state that if the Asiatic Act is not repealed in terms of the settlement, and if Government's decision to that effect is not communicated to the Indians before a specific date, the certificates collected by the Indians would be burnt, and they would humbly but firmly take the consequences."
The "specific date" was August 16,1908 when thousands of Indians assembled at Hamida Mosque in Johannesburg Park. Until the last moment they waited for some word from the Government. A telegram finally did arrive, saying in a word the Government was holding its line. So, too, the Indians. A fire was lit in a giant iron cauldron and one by one 2,300 Indians filed by, tossing their registration certificates to the flames. Their "baptism in fire," as Gandhi called it, was a symbolic indication of the position being taken. Being also of real consequence, the day's gesture left 2,300 Indians without their legal permits to exist in South Africa.
In the absence of immediate reprisals, the movement went forward to face formidable blocks which had been put in its way. For, in General Smuts, Satyagraha had found a formidable adversary, a man still honored as a hero in South Africa, a champion of Western civilization. General Smuts could state his beliefs simply. "Western civilization may or may not be good, but Westerners wish to stick to it. They made tireless endeavors to save the civilization. They have shed rivers of blood for its sake. They have suffered great hardships in its cause. It is therefore too late for them now to chalk out a new path for themselves."
Simple beliefs. In them was an unspoken territorial privilege. This was at the heart of the matter when General Smuts struck in the most effective area- immigration. His Transvaal Immigration Restriction Law of 1907 is reminiscent of the 1885 legislation in Natal; its restrictions designed to make the Indians' residency a small, regulated favor; its literacy requirements meant to hamper new Indian immigration already impaired by color bar clauses in the Black Act.
Satyagrahis paused to consider whether the Immigration Restriction Law ought to be added to their resistance. Some of the more inspired activists would have embraced any and all anti-Indian laws, the pre-movement laws included. It was for Gandhi to point out the idea of continuing as they'd begun; of directing their resistance toward specific issues; of staying with the 1906 Black Act and only taking on new laws as they subsequently arose. Once convinced of the value in such a policy, Satyagrahis limited themselves for the moment to two principal goals: the appeal of the Black Act and the Immigration Restriction Law.
To pursue the latter, they set about testing the Law. There were living in Natal traders, among them Sheth Daud Mahomed and Parsi Rustomji, who had previous rights of domicile in the Transvaal. Likewise were there men whose English educations gave them the law's "educated" status, the equivalent of an entry right. Five of these men and the two traders volunteered to challenge the Law by traveling to the Transvaal border with groups of Indians for purposes of gaining entry. When all were duly arrested they had, in Satyagraha terms, met with success. When sentenced with a fifty pound fine or three months in jail with hard labor, the Satyagrahis saw no choice. Serving time was honorable and was, in this instance, part of a larger plan. The jails began to fill.
But the courting of arrest and the filling of jails was wearing thin with the Government. There were signs. Prisoners' food got worse, their treatment harsher. Longer sentences and the deportation of offenders signaled the Government's taking of a harder line, not without effect.
The long, cold winter in jail, the fear of deportation-some Satyagrahis began to lose heart. Some left the ranks causing divisions in the community. New word of commiseration between the Boers and the English for forming a union of South African colonies didn't help build morale. And help was scarce in London where, on a second deputation, Gandhi met with English officials now sympathetic to the Indians' position only to the point of listening. Then they offered cozy homilies like "everyone must make compromises." The compromises now being considered by the Boer generals, Botha and Smuts, came down to accepting minor Indian demands. In the event of a Union, both generals agreed: the Asiatic Act would not be repealed nor the Immigration Restriction Act amended. The color bar set up in the law of the land would be maintained.
The whole "Indian problem" was small stuff compared to the Union negotiations General Smuts was conducting in London. And in town at the same time was Gandhi, discouraged, disheartened, somehow still convinced that the Indians' struggle was of the greatest world importance. He said as much in a letter written on October 19, 1906, at last communicating with his greatest of mentors-Count Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy's reply encouraged a second letter from Gandhi written just before taking leave of those bleak London days. Just a few letters back and forth between Tolstoy-old, sick, near the end-and Gandhi, only seven years into a life's work that would continue for another thirty-seven.
Oddly enough, on board ship back to South Africa, Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), the one book out of all his voluminous writing which he most consistently defended through all those thirty-seven years. Whatever was his discouragement en route home, Gandhi remained inspired. Too inspired for the many detractors of Hind Swaraj. In its twenty dialogues between an "Editor," representing a non-violent position, and a "Reader," representing terrorism, Gandhi denounced the enduring problems of modern government, argued for the virtues of village life over industrialization. What Gandhi considered to be the Indians' future was a throwback to his detractors. For them, the village as the center of Indian life was a return to times better lost and forgotten; or to idyllic times that may never have been and could have no place in the modern world's complexities; or maybe it was just one man's personal beliefs and inspired indulgences being projected onto a whole civilization.
For the particular situation in South Africa, the village concept had its place. Gandhi was returning to a divided community knowing that the once formidable adversaries were looking insurmountable. "On the one hand there were the Boer generals determined not to yield even an inch of ground and on the other there was a handful of Satyagrahis pledged to fight unto death or victory." The pledge. That was in Satyagraha's favor and, in Gandhi's eyes, that was still a force defying measurement.
He saw, too, the purely practical dilemma of a movement now facing a struggle of indefinite length. From Ratanjamshed Tata, the industrialist and philanthropist, there came a twenty-five thousand-rupee windfall forestalling the immediate financial dilemma. Regarding the longer road, Gandhi's solution lay in plans for a cooperative community where Satyagraha families could live and work together as a self-reliant commonwealth.
Luck was with the movement in having Hermann Kallenbach among their ranks. A German by birth, a successful architect, Kallenbach had early on become active in the Indians' cause, his involvement taking him to jail like any other Satyagrahi. On May 30, 1910, he purchased a 1,100 acre farmat Lawley, twenty-one miles outside Johannesburg, making a rent-free loan of it to the movement. It was called Tolstoy Farm, a place where Satyagrahis could learn a new, simple life "side-by-side "with their resistance.
For the time being, village life was at the center of the movement. Stated simply, Tolstoy Farm was a refuge for all the comings and goings of Satyagrahis in and out of jail. Of the new life there-its daily regimes became the occasion for training the mind, the body, the spirit. As it was Gandhi's practice to bring all aspects of living under scrutiny, his followers came to know the extent in their diet, dress, hygiene habits, farm sanitation, children's education, etc. With men and women living in separate quarters, work was equally shared with the goal of self-reliance in mind.
Movement goals were given new hope with the arrival of the great Indian leader, Gopal Krishna Gokhale. As a member of the Vicory's Council, Gokhale had full powers to negotiate. Normally slow and painstaking in his dealings, he emerged from his meetings with General Smuts to announce enthusiastically the end of the Asiatic Law, Immigration Act, and Three Pound Tax within twelve months.
Upon Gokhale's departure, General Smuts evaded his promise in a statement to the effect that the Europeans in Natal objected to the repeal of the Three Pound Tax. Therefore, Union Government was unable to pass legislation to renounce it. Here then was a third issue for Satyagraha to take on, though hardly a turning point. Another broken promise, another double-deal, and long gone were the sparks that had flown in former times. If the great Indian struggle was coming down to just a test of wills, then Government could make failure built-in. If Satyagrahis courted arrest, they could be deflected-acquitted or deported. Power could sit there ignoring the Indians and maybe they'd go away.
Or power sometimes moved suddenly. On March 14, 1913, Mr. Justice Searle of the Cape Supreme Court ruled that all marriages not celebrated according to Christian rites were invalid. Overnight all Hindu, Musalman, and Zorastrian marriages were nullified. Unlike General Smuts striking in the effective area of immigration, the ruling took a swipe at the foundation of Indian society-marriage. Suddenly, all Indian women became concubines, all children illegitimate and deprived of the right to inherit their parents' property.
Probably like many Indian women, Gandhi's wife was horrified to learn of her changed status. Seldom one to make suggestions to her husband, Kasturbai stated the most obvious way out of the degrading predicament, "Then let us go to India." But no, Gandhi would say, "That would be the cowardly way." And an insult made to stand as law was hardly approachable through memorials and appeals, the former first ways. When denied their beliefs and dignity, Satyagrahis would always wage a non-violent war. So Gandhi felt and so began the building of an army.
Women would lead the way. A group from Phoenix in Natal would cross the border into the Transvaal. Another group from the Transvaal would cross into Natal, and if not arrested, they would continue to the mining town of New Castle and encourage indentured laborers to go on strike. As yet, laborers had not involved themselves in the struggle. Together with drawing on their numbers to fill the ranks, a strike meant treading on the government's power to ignore.
Gandhi stayed behind the scenes as the Transvaal group headed for Natal, otherwise the border guards would have automatically made arrests. Instead, guards allowed the women to pass and the strategy began to come to a head. Workers striking in response to the Satyagrahis' presence in New Castle began to come by the hundreds once the women were in jail for their actions. Eventually 2,000 sympathizers left the mines and were encamped at New Castle. An army had come forward and Gandhi decided, the army would march. His ostensible goal was to cross the thirty-six miles into the Transvaal and see everyone "safely deposited in jail." Or if allowed to go free, they would continue to Tolstoy Farm and prolong the strike.
The New Castle March began on November 6, 1913, heading for the border villages of Charlestown on the Natal side, Volksrust in the Transvaal. Meanwhile the mine owners had no workers, and the government had little patience with the spectacle of 5,000 men, women, and children on the march. Repeatedly arrested, Gandhi and his leaders put up bail and returned to the march. But on November 11, Gandhi along with his co-workers Polak and Kallenbach found themselves being held at Volksrust jail. Sentenced to three months imprisonment and separated, Gandhi went to Bloemfontein jail in Orangia, Kallenbach to Pretoria, Polak to Germiston jail. The army's laborers were being returned on special trains to Natal. Too many for the jails, they became prisoners of the mines, sentenced to work. They refused, were punished, continued to refuse. Once more, there was a stalemate of will.
The attention of the outside world finally broke through, as if to say, this is no longer an internal affair. General Smuts and General Botha were outraged to hear that Lord Hardinge, viceroy of India, has spoken in this vein. The idea of intervention prompted them to demand the Viceroy's recall. But as the Viceroy's opinion was shared by the British Cabinet, its members meant to make a more realistic suggestion. Everyone settled on a commission of inquiry. Everyone except Gandhi who protested that no Indian sat on the commission and three commissioners were noted for their anti-Indian bias, including the leader of the demonstration against the SS Courland. Gandhi refused to give evidence before the commission. Furthermore, he let it be known that if less biased members were not appointed to the commission, the Satyagrahis would start a new march and resume the struggle. An odd moment to retrench?
The moment could be made to seem ripe with the prisoners released from jails and General Smuts supposedly in a conciliatory mood. Plus, with British and Indian envoys in town to pave the way for negotiation, it may have been the eve of a breakthrough. Yet the Indians had everything to lose should they come into a new development cast in the same old role-unrepresented, the humble objects of color prejudice; the old, unequal Indian coming for small favors from high hands that still only passed things down. Thus, the question of retrenching was simple to answer: no Indians on the Commission, no cooperation. No-the movement would not give up its principles just to get on with a ripe moment.
Gandhi would prefer to make his own moment, an unexpected shift. Outside the heat of movement events, European railway workers were planning a Government railway strike. General Smuts was informed that the resumption of the Indians' march was being postponed in light of Government's pending problems. From out of left field, the movement had come in offering its disarming principle of cooperation. As one of General Smuts' secretaries put it: "I do not like your people, and do not care to assist them at all. But what am I to do? You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you took to violence like the English strikers, and then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limits of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness."
In short this was what Gandhi had always been counting on-that Satyagraha, Truth Force, would disarm the adversary. He would persevere, as if the principle were a long matter of time. Or, if a fortunate juncture appeared, Satyagraha could make its own timely move-Gandhi's gesture to General Smuts-and the door to negotiation opened. For the first time since 1908, Gandhi and General Smuts sat down for a meeting, and without the commission of inquiry between them.
Subsequent meetings and correspondence throughout January 1913 achieved the suspending of Satyagraha and the formulating of a provisional agreement between the Indians and the Government. It was early June before repeals of the Three Pound Tax and the Black Act were passed through Legislation as the Indian Relief Bill. Sworn to amending color bar clauses in the Immigration Act, Gandhi administered the safeguards in further correspondence with General Smuts: protection for the status of educated Indians who had already entered South Africa and for the future rights of entry. With the last objective of Satyagraha set aright, Gandhi departed from South Africa on July 18, 1914-twenty-one years since that first cold night.
-Constance Dejong January 1980