Three YEARS’ STAY in South Africa persuaded Gandhi that he could not now desert a cause he had so warmly espoused. He therefore took six months’ leave to visit India and bring his family back. But it was no holiday. He visited many cities in India and worked hard to interest the editors of papers and eminent public men in the unfortunate condition of Indians in South Africa. He published a small pamphlet on the subject. Though it was a very sober and restrained statement of the Indian case, a distorted summary cabled by Reuters created considerable misunderstanding in Natal which was to have unpleasant consequences later.
When plague broke out in Rajkot, Gandhi volunteered his services and visited every locality, including the quarters of the untouchables, to inspect the latrines and teach the residents better methods of sanitation.
During this visit, he made the acquaintance of veteran leaders like Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Surendranath Banerjee and the great savant and patriot, Tilak. He met the wise and noble-hearted Gokhale and was greatly attracted to him. He addressed a large public meeting in Bombay. He was due to speak in Calcutta also, but before he could do so an urgent telegram from the Indian community in Natal obliged him to cut short his stay and sail for Durban with his wife and children in November 1896.
When the ship reached to Durban, it was put into five day’s quarantine. The European community, misled by garbled versions of Gandhi’s activities in India and by a rumour that he was bringing shiploads of Indians to settle in Natal, were wild with anger and threatened to drown all the passengers. However, the passengers, including Gandhi’s family, were allowed to land unmolested. But when Gandhi came down a little later and his identity was discovered, an infuriated mob fell upon him, stoning, beating and kicking him and would probably have killed him had not a brave English lady came to his rescue.
News of this cowardly assault received wide publicity and Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of States for the Colonies, cabled an order to Natal to prosecute all those who were responsible for the attempted lynching. But Gandhi refused to identify and prosecute his assailants, saying that they were misled and that he was sure that when they came to know the truth they would be sorry for what they had done. Thus spoke the Mahatma in him.
It was during this second period in South Africa that Gandhi’s mode of living underwent a change, albeit gradual. Formerly, he was anxious to maintain the standard of an English barrister. Now he began, in his methodical but original fashion, to reduce his wants and his expenses. He “studied the art” of laundering and became his own washerman. He could now iron and starch a stiff white collar. He also learnt to cut his own hair. He not only cleaned his own chamber-pots but often his guests as well. Not satisfied with self-help, he volunteered, despite his busy practice as a lawyer and demand of public work, his free service for two hours a day as compounder in a charitable hospital. He also undertook the education at home of his two sons and a nephew. He read books on nursing and midwifery and in fact served as midwife when his fourth and last son was born.
In 1899 the Boer war broke out. Though Gandhi’s sympathies were all with the Boers who were fighting for their independence, he advised the Indian community to support the British cause, on the ground that since they claimed their rights as British subject it was their duty to defend the Empire when it was threatened. He therefore organized and, with the help of Dr. Booth, trained an Indian Ambulance Corps of 1,100 volunteers and offered its services to the Government. The corps under Gandhi’s leadership rendered valuable service and was mentioned in dispatches. What pleased Gandhi most was the fact that Indians of all creeds and castes lived and faced danger together. All his life nothing gave him greater happiness than the sight of men working as brothers and rising above the prejudices of creed, caste or race.
In 1901, at the end of the war, Gandhi felt that he must now return to India. His professional success in South Africa might, he feared turn him into a “money-maker”. With great difficulty he persuaded his friends to let him go and promised to return should the community need him within a year.
He reached India in time to attend the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress and had the satisfaction of seeing his resolution on South Africa pass with acclamation. He was however disappointed with the congress. He felt that Indian politicians talked too much but do little. He deplored the importance given to the English language in their discussions and was pained to see the insanitary condition of the latrines in the camp.
After staying for a few days in Calcutta as Gokhale’s Guest, when he went out on a tour of India, traveling third class in order to study for himself the habits and difficulties of the poor. He observed that the extreme discomfort of third class travel in India was due to much of the indifference of the railway authorities as to the dirty habits of the passengers themselves and suggested that educated persons should voluntarily travel third so as to reform the people’s habits and be in a position to ventilate their legitimate grievances. The diagnosis as well as the remedy suggested were characteristic of his approach to all social and political problems – equal emphasis on obligations as on rights.
Gandhi was not destined to work in India yet. Hardly had he set up in practice in Bombay when a cablegram from the Indian community in Natal recalled him. He had given them his word that he would return if needed. Leaving his family in India he sailed again.
He had been called to put the Indian case before Joseph Chamberlain who was visiting South Africa. But the Colonial Secretary who had come to receive a gift of thirty-five million pounds from South Africa had no mind to alienate the European community. Gandhi failed in his mission to win Chamberlain’s sympathy and discovered in the process that the situation in the Transvaal had become ominous for the Indians. He therefore decided to stay on in Johannesburg and enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme court.
Though he stayed on specifically to challenge European arrogance and to resist injustice, he harboured no hatred in his heart and was in fact always ready to help his opponents when they were in distress. It was this rare combination of readiness to resist wrong and capacity to love his opponent which baffled his enemies and compelled their admiration. When the so-called Zulu rebellion broke out, he again offered his help to the Government and raised an Indian Ambulance Corps. He was happy that he and his men had to nurse the sick and dying Zulus whom the white doctors and nurses were unwilling to touch.
It was during these marches through the Zulu country that he pondered deeply over the kind of life he should lead in order to dedicate himself completely to the service of humanity. He realized that absolute continence or brahmacharya was indispensable for the purpose, for one “could not live both after the flesh and the spirit”. And so immediately after his return from the Zulu campaign in 1906, he announced his resolution to take a vow of absolute continence to a select group of friends.
This step was taken under the influence of the Bhagvad Gita which he had been reading regularly every morning for some time and committing to memory. Another doctrine of the Gita which influenced him profoundly was “non-possession”. As soon as he realized its implications he allowed his insurance policy of Rs.10,000 to lapse. Henceforth he would put his faith in God alone.
Next to the Gita , the book which influenced him most deeply was Ruskin’s Unto This Last which his friend Polak had given him to read one day in 1904. What Ruskin preached, or rather what Gandhi understood him to preach, was the moral dignity of manual labour and the beauty of community living on the basis of equality. Since, unlike Ruskin, Gandhi could not appreciate an ideal without wanting to practice it, he immediately set about to buy a farm where such a life could be lived. Thus was founded the famous Phoenix colony, on a hundred acres of land, some fourteen miles from Durban.
But Gandhi could not stay long at Phoenix. Duty called him to Johannesburg where also, later, he found another colony on similar ideals, at a distance of twenty-one miles from the city. He called it the Tolstoy Farm. In both these ashrams, as settlements organized on spiritual ideals are known in India, the inmates did all the work themselves, from cooking to scavenging. Extreme simplicity of the life was observed, reinforced by a strict code of moral and physical hygiene. No medicines were kept, for Gandhi who had earlier read Adolf Just’s Return to Nature believed profoundly in nature cure. Every inmate had to practise some handicraft. Gandhi himself learnt to make sandals.
He foresaw that a shadow with the South African Government was sooner or later inevitable and knew from his own individual experience that no brute force could quell the spirit of man ready to defy and willing to suffer. What he could do himself he could train others to do. Individual resistance could be expanded and organized into a mass struggle in the prosecution of a moral equivalent of war. He had read Tolstoy and Thoreau’s use of the term “civil disobedience” did not seem to express Gandhi’s own concept of ahimsa as a positive force of love, nor did he like the use of the phrase “passive resistance”. The concept was now clearly formulated in his mind but the word to describe it was wanting. His cousin Maganlal Gandhi suggested sadagraha, meaning holding fast to truth or firmness in a righteous cause. Gandhi liked the term and changed to satyagraha. Thus was evolved and formulated Gandhi’s most original idea in political action.
The occasion was not long in coming. In 1907, when the Transvaal received responsible government, it passed what came to be known as the Black Act, requiring all Indians, men and women, to register and submit to finger prints. Gandhi advised the Indian community to refuse to submit to this indignity and to court imprisonment by defying the law. In January 1908, he was arrested and sentenced to two months’ simple imprisonment. He was followed by other satyagrahis.
Before the prison term was over General smuts sent him an emissary proposing that if the Indians voluntarily registered themselves he promised to repeal the Act. Gandhi agreed to the compromise. He always believed in trusting the opponent. But the other Indians were not so trusting. One burly Pathan even charged Gandhi with having betrayed them and threatened to kill him if he registered. On the day Gandhi went out to register he has waylaid and attacked by this and other Pathans and severely injured. When he recovered consciousness and was told that his assailants had been arrested he insisted on their being released.
Gandhi registered, but his disappointment was great when Smuts went back on his word and refused to repeal the Black Act. The Indians made a bonfire of their registration certificates and decided to defy the ban on immigration to the Transvaal. Jails began to be filled. Gandhi was arrested a second time in September 1908 and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment, this time hard labour. The struggle continued. In February 1909 he was arrested a third time and sentenced to three months’ hard labour. He made such good use of his time in jail with study and prayer that he was able to declare that “the real road to ultimate happiness lies in going to jail and undergoing sufferings and privations there in the interest of one’s own country and religion”.
In 1911, a provisional settlement of the Asiatic question in the Transvaal brought about a suspension of the satyagraha. In the following year, Gokhale visited South Africa and on the eve of his departure assured Gandhi that the Union Government had promised to repeal the Black Act, to remove the racial bar from the immigration law and to abolish the £3 tax. But Gandhi had his fears which were soon borne out. The Union Government went back on its promise, and to this fire was added a very powerful fuel when a judgment of the Supreme Court ruled that only Christian marriages were legal in South Africa, turning at one stroke all Indian marriages in South Africa invalid and all Indian wives into concubines. This provoked Indian women, including, Kasturbai, to join the struggle.
It was illegal for the Indians to cross the border from the Transvaal into Natal, and vice versa, without a permit. Indian women from the Tolstoy Ashram crossed the border without permits and proceeded to Newcastle to persuade the Indian miners there to strike. They succeeded and were arrested. The strike spread and thousands of miners and other Indians prepared, under Gandhi’s leadership, to march to the Transvaal border in a concerted act of non-violent defiance. Gandhi made strict rules for the conduct of the satyagrahis who were to submit patiently and without retaliation to insult, flogging or arrest. He was arrested and sentenced, but the satyagraha spread. At one time there were about fifty thousand indentured labourers on strike and several thousand other Indians in jail. The Government tried repression and even shooting, and many lives were lost. “In the end”, as an American biographer has put it, “General Smuts did what every Government that ever opposed Gandhi had to do – he yielded.”
Gandhi was released and, in January 1914, a provisional agreement was arrived at between him and General Smuts and the main Indian demands were conceded. Gandhi’s work in South Africa was now over and, in July 1914, he sailed with his wife for England where Gokhale had called him. Before sailing, he sent a pair of sandals he had made in jail to General Smuts as a gift. Recalling the gift twenty-five years later, the General wrote : “I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”