...And no doubt one of the troubles of a Government which has to deal with people who of set purpose and principle defy a particular law, is to make out which are martyrs and which humbugs. And this is a matter of more consequence than may at first appear. For it is a very dangerous thing to allow people by mere cunning and obstinacy and self-advertisement in breaking the law to rise into public fame and undermine that fabric of mutual agreement which holds society together; a nation in which any well-organised rebels could safely defy the law would soon almost cease to be a free nation. And on the other hand, a nation in which the Government seems to be forcing men into sin against their conscience, so that good people instinctively respect the prisoner and condemn the judge, has already ceased to be a free nation. You remember the old words of Gamaliel: "Lest haply ye be found to be fighting against god." It is a serious thing for any organ of material power to be found fighting against the human soul.
Let me take the present-day instance of this battle between a soul and a government, a very curious instance, because it is almost impossible without more knowledge than most people in England possess to say who was wrong and who right.
About the year 1889 a young Indian student, called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, came to England to study law. He was rich and clever, or a cultivated family, gentle and modest in his manner. He dressed and behaved like other people. There was nothing particular about him to show that he had already taken a Jain vow to abstain from wine, from flesh, and from sexual intercourse. ‘Extract from an article in The Hibbert Journal, London, Volume 16, No.2, pages 191-205, January 1918’.
The article was one of the first which helped bring Gandhi and his philosophy to the attention of British public. It contains a number of factual errors, however.
The Reverend John Haynes Holmes of New York happened to read the article and became an admirer of Gandhi; his early sermons and statements on Gandhi repeat the factual errors. He became a successful lawyer in Bombay, but he cared more for religion than law. Gradually his asceticism increased. He gave away all his money to good causes except the meagrest allowance. He took vows of poverty. He ceased to practice at the law because his religion – a mysticism which seems to be as closely related to Christianity as it is to any traditional Indian religion – forbade him to take part in a system which tried to do right by violence. When I met him in England in 1914, he ate, I believe, only rice, and drank only water, and slept on the floor; and his wife, who seemed to be his companion in everything, lived in the same way. His conversation was that of a cultivated and well-read man with a certain indefinable suggestion if saintliness. His patriotism, which is combined with an enthusiastic support of England against Germany, is interwoven with his religion, and aims at the moral regeneration of India on the lines of Indian thought, with no barriers between one Indian and another, and to the exclusion as far as possible of the influence of the West, money-worship, and its wars. (I am merely stating this view, of course, not either criticizing it or suggesting that it is right.)
Oriental peoples, perhaps owing to causes connected with their form of civilisation, are apt to be enormously influenced by great saintliness of character when they see (?) it. Like all great masses of ignorant people, however, they need some plain and simple test to assure them that their hero is really a saint and not a humbug, and the test they habitually apply is that of self-denial. Take vows of poverty, live on rice and water, and they will listen to your preaching, as several of our missionaries have found; come to them eating and drinking and dressed in expensive European clothes – and they feel differently. It is far from a perfect test, but there is something in it. At any rate I am told that Gandhi’s influence in India is now enormous, almost equal to that of his friend the late Mr. Gokhale.
And now for the battle. In south Africa there are some 1,50,000 Indians, chiefly in Natal; and the South African Government, feeling that the colour question in its territories was quite sufficiently difficult already, determined to prevent the immigration of any more Indians, and if possible to expel those who were already there. This last could not be done. It violated a treaty: it was opposed by Natal, where much of the industry depended on Indian labour; and it was objected to by the Indian Government and the Home Government. Then began a long struggle. The whitest of South Africa determined to make life in South Africa undesirable, if not for all Indians, at least for all Indians above the coolie class. Indians were specially taxed, were made to register in a degrading way: They were classed with Negroes, their thumb-prints were taken by the police as if they were criminals. If, owing to the scruples of the government, the law was in any case too lenient, patriotic mobs undertook to remedy the defect. Quite early in the struggle the Indians in South Africa asked Mr. Gandhi to come and help them. He came as a barrister in 1893; he was forbidden to plead. He proved his right to plead; he won his case against the Asiatic Exclusion Act on grounds of constitutional law, and returned to India. The relief, which Indians had expected, was not realised. Gandhi came again in 1895. He was mobbed and nearly killed at Durban. I will not tell in detail how he settled down eventually in South Africa as a leader and counsellor to his people; how he founded a settlement in the country outside Durban, where the workers should live directly on the land, and all be bound by a vow of poverty. For many years he was engaged in constant passive resistance to the Government and constant efforts to raise and ennoble the inward life of the Indian community. But he was unlike other strikers or resisters in this: that mostly the resister takes advantage of any difficulty of the Government in order to press his claim the harder. Gandhi, when the Government was in any difficulty that he thought serious, always relaxed his resistance and offered his help. In 1899, came the Boer War; Gandhi immediately organised an Indian Red Cross unit. There was a popular movement for refusing it and treating it as seditious. But, it was needed. The soldiers wanted it. And it served through the war, and was mentioned in dispatches, and thanked publicly for its skilful work and courage under fire. In 1904, there was an outbreak of plague in Johannesburg, and Gandhi had a private hospital opened before the public authorities had begun to act. In 1906, there was a Native rebellion in Natal; Gandhi raised and personally led a corps of stretcher-bearers, whose work seems to have proved particularly dangerous and painful. Gandhi was thanked by the Governor in Natal – and shortly afterwards thrown in jail in Johannesburg. Lastly, in 1913, when he was being repeatedly imprisoned, among criminals of the lowest class, and his followers were in jail to the number of 2,500, in the very midst of the general strike of Indians in the Transvaal and Natal, there occurred the sudden and dangerous railway strike which endangered for the time the very existence of organised society in South Africa. From the ordinary agitator’s point of view the game was in Gandhi’s hands. He had only to strike his hardest. Instead he gave orders for his people to resume work till the Government should be safe again. I cannot say how often he was imprisonment, how often mobbed and assaulted, or what pains were taken to mortify and humiliate him in public. But by 1913 the Indian case had been taken up by Lord Hardinge and the Government of India. An Imperial Commission reported in his favour on most of the points at issue, and an Act was passed according to the Commission’s recommendations, entitled the Indian Relief Act.
My sketch is very imperfect; but the story forms an extraordinary illustration of a contest which was won, or practically won, by a policy of doing no wrong, committing no violence, but simply enduring all the punishment the other side could inflict until they became weary and ashamed of punishing. A battle of the unaided human soul against overwhelming material force, and it ends by the units of material force gradually deserting their own banners and coming round to the side of the soul.
Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy – because his body, which you can always conquer, gives you so little purchase upon his soul.
In Gandhi’s case the solution of the strife between him and the Government was particularly difficult, because he was not content to be let alone. He thought it is his duty, God helping him, to compel a Government backed by the vast majority of the nation to change their policy. And no Government could yield, or ought to yield, to such coercion. The best it could do was probably somewhere near that which, by the advice of General Smuts, it eventually did propose to do: to purge its policy as far as possibly of all elements which were not essential to its own conviction and which did particular violence to the convictions of others.