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ARTICLES > SATYAGRAHA / CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE > Satyagraha and its origin in South Africa

 

Satyagraha And Its Origin in South Africa

By H. S. L. Polak

As GENERAL SMUTS reminded us, in his contribution to Dr. S. Radhakrishnan's 70th anniversary volume of tributes to Gandhiji, in 1939, the Mahatma's technique of Satyagraha—or, as it was at first known, Passive Resistance—had its origin in South Africa. It was not, however, until 1906, or twelve years after his arrival there, that the flame of Satyagraha began to glow. Until then, the Indian grievances had been dealt with in the usual orthodox ways of petitions, memoranda, addresses, questions in Parliament, public speeches, and so on. But the time had now arrived when, all these having proved fruitless, new and radical methods had to be devised, their consequences considered, and redress thereby, at whatever cost to those suffering under new social, economic, and political disabilities that must no longer be tolerated, determined upon. 

That wars let loose events never contemplated in times of peace is a commonplace. It was as true of the Boer War as of the last World War, though on a smaller scale. The bitter conflict which ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging had stirred emotions that must find an outlet—either that of enduring hostility and revolutionary unrest between the two contending white peoples, or that of friendly relations and the building up of mutual confidence. It was to promote the latter rather than permit the former that led the British Government, when the new Crown Colony Administration of the Transvaal was set up in 1902, to refrain from repealing the anti-Indian legislation of the South African Republic, notwithstanding that British official spokesmen, in 1899, had declared that this form of racial intolerance was one of the direct causes of the Boer War. Racial discrimination against non-whites had been a fundamental, from the earliest days of the Republic, which could not be ignored. 

But it was some time before the defeated Boer leaders could be persuaded that Britain was in earnest in desiring to extend democratic self-government at an early date. Apparently, the main basis upon which the British-Boer edifice could be built was the recognition that the non-whites were to be excluded from the franchise and from such major citizenship rights as those of trade, residence, and land-ownership otherwise than in segregated areas. Of the non-whites. the most intelligent and prosperous, and the best organized, were the Indians, mostly Muslim traders from Western India, and already largely influenced by the Indian national movement. The status of the Indian community, from its beginnings in the Transvaal, had been degraded by the fact that the much larger Indian population of the neighbouring Colony of Natal had derived from indentured labour immigration. It was a matter of 'herren­volk', on the one hand, and of 'coolies', on the other. 

This was the situation facing Gandhi, on his recall to South Africa, after the Boer War, in which he had served as the leader of a volunteer Indian ambulance corps. He realized at once that the centre of gravity of Indian affairs had passed for the time being from Natal to the Transvaal. If the widespread denial of rights in the new Colony were not to spread to Natal, where most of the South African Indians were confined because of the immigration laws of the other three Colonies, immediate steps must be taken to stem the flow of racial legislation and of administrative restrictions then threatening. 

The newly-formed Asiatic Department was unfriendly from the first. It sought not only to prevent fresh immigration, but to exclude the entry even of pre-War residents. As a conciliatory measure, and upon the highest official assurance that this would be a final requirement, the Indian leaders, on Gandhi's advice, agreed to the administrative restriction of immigration to such residents and that the £3 residential receipts issued by the Boer Government should be voluntarily surrendered and be replaced by certificates identifying the rightful holders. A census taken in 1901 showed that, as against the admitted pre-War figure of some 15,000, the Indian population had been reduced to 10,000. Possibilities of better economic conditions had drawn some of those formerly living in outlying areas to the new prosperous city of Johannesburg. But they were compelled to reside in an overcrowded ‘location’ grossly neglected by the Municipality. When, presently, an outbreak of plague occurred there, due to that neglect, and the location was destroyed by fire after the removal of its Indian inhabitants, many of these again sought refuge in outlying towns and villages.

This created the impression, deliberately fostered by the anti-Indian European leaders (anxious to get rid of trade rivals), and by some of the officials of the Asiatic Department seeking to divert attention from their own defects and malpractices, that widespread illicit Indian immigration had taken place, in which the Indian leaders had connived. At about the same time, the Transvaal gold mines and the Orange Free State Railways were in great need of skilled labour and sought—as had happened 45 years earlier with the estate owners of Natal—to secure indentured labour from India, whose Government, under Lord Curzon, would not consent because of the refusal to remove Indian disabilities in those Colonies.

Immediately upon his return from participation, as Sergeant-Major in charge of an Indian volunteer stretcher-bearer unit, in the Natal Native Rebellion Campaign of 1906, Gandhi found himself and his people in the Transvaal threatened with a draft Ordinance, introduced under this pressure, requiring all Indians (including at first even women) to surrender their registration certificates, in breach of the official pledges only three years earlier, and to apply for fresh registration, with details of identification which included the giving of a complete set of finger-impressions. The Indian community, facing this new crisis, at a public meeting held in Johannesburg took an oath, upon Gandhi's advice, after previous consultation with the leaders, not to apply for registration, but to take the consequences, whether of ruin or imprisonment. A protest and warning were lodged with the Government, on the grounds that (a) the new law, if passed, would add to the anti-Indian legislation already on the Statute Book ; (b) it would be a breach of an official undertaking that the existing registration documents would be final; (c) it would be based upon unsupported allegations of fraud on the part of the community and its leaders; (d) it would be based upon the assumption of large illicit immigration which the census figures had disproved; (e) the compulsory giving of finger-impressions was required only of convicted criminals; (f) acceptance of the new measure would eventually involve Indians in other parts of South Africa in the denial and restriction of their rights; and (g) it would be a humiliation to the Motherland which could not be tolerated.

But Gandhi's method was always that of conciliation and negotiation where possible. The Colonial Administration, however, refused to negotiate with the Indian community and pressed the measure through the Legislature. As it could not come into operation without the Royal Assent, Gandhi, as leader of a small deputation, was sent to England to prevent this, and eventually succeeded, largely with the help of prominent retired officials from India and Lord Ampthill, former Governor of Madras and acting Viceroy.

In the meanwhile, steps had been taken, by agreement between the British and Boer leaders, to establish responsible government in the Transvaal, and it became operative in 1907. The first Bill of importance, rushed through all its stages in the newly elected Legislative Council by the Government of General Botha, in which General Smuts held the portfolio of Asiatic affair, was the very measure which had already been rejected upon the advice of the Colonial Office. Now, however, in spite of Indian protests, it was found impossible, since no protective reservations had been embodied in the Transvaal constitution, to interfere with a Colony enjoying self-government, and the Bill became law. Accordingly, the oath taken by the Indian community came into operation, after due notice to the Government. Thus was born the Satyagraha movement, which continued for the next seven years, with occasional suspension.

In his contribution above referred to, General Smuts, in self-defence, says: 'I must frankly confess that his (Gandhi's) activities at that time were very trying to me. Together with other South African leaders I was then busily engaged on the task of welding the old colonies into a unified State, of consolidating the administration of the new national structure, and of creating out of what was left after the Boer War, a new nation. It was a colossal work which took up every moment of my time. Suddenly, in the midst of all these engrossing preoccupations, Gandhi raised a most troublesome issue.' But that does not exonerate the distinguished South African statesman for the several times when he failed to fulfill his and his Government's formal pledges to Gandhi and the Indian community, when politics triumphed over statesmanship.

It is of interest here to note that Gandhi's second visit to England during the Satyagraha campaign took place at the time when Generals Botha and Smuts were there to conduct the negotiations with the British Government which resulted in the acceptance of the Union constitu­tion by the British Parliament. Writing later of its true character, he expressly recognized the independent character of Dominion status, as evidenced by the position of South Africa under its new constitution. 'South Africa obtained full self-government… It is no exaggeration to say that South Africa is completely independent. The British Empire cannot receive a single farthing from South Africa without the consent of its Government. Not only that, but British ministers concede that if South Africa wishes to remove the Union jack and to be independent even in name, there is nothing to prevent it from doing so.'

There is hardly any manifestation of the technique developed in later years that did not have its first expression in that long drawn out campaign. For Gandhi, Satyagraha meant something active and dynamic. It was the power of Truth that must prevail. Personal suffering on the part of Satyagrahis, endured in a spirit of nonviolence and even of positive love, involving, it may be, the martyrdom of individuals, must in the end appeal to the better conscience of the opponent and result in the removal of the disability.

In the course of his experience during those plastic years, Gandhi came to realize that he must renounce his legal practice, partly because of his unwillingness to earn a livelihood from a profession which resorted to force to maintain the decrees of the Courts; partly because he had already, under the influence of Ruskin's "Unto This Last", adopted the ‘simple life’ of the farmer and the craftsman; partly in order to devote himself entirely to the service of his people. At the same time, he renounced the family-life and adopted brahmacharya. Four times a prisoner sentenced to hard labour, he wore the non-white convict's headgear, which later became known as the 'Gandhi Cap'. He was already, largely in consequence of Tolstoy's writings on `Non-Violence', a votary of ahimsa as the weapon of the strong. He was encouraged in his view that that imprisonment of the body left the spirit free by Thoreau's argument on the duty of 'Civil Disobedience', where a question of the citizen's conscience was involved.

Already convinced of the common basic truths of all the great religions by the teachings of Theosophy and discussions with Theosophical and other friends, he had no difficulty in persuading his countrymen, of all communities, high and low alike, to join in the great sacrifice for the Motherland. His observation that, of whatever status (including Gokhale himself during his visit in 1912), Indians were generally regarded and segregated as ‘untouchables’, together with his own practice of sanitation and nursing the sick, gave him a deep understanding of the qualities, the needs, and the sufferings of the 'depressed classes'. His work as a farmer and his contact with the indentured labourers drew his sympathy for the peasant and his love of the village life, so that, at the end of his South African career, he was already dressed as a peasant. His knowledge of its disastrous economic consequences to the ex-indentured labourers resulted in his advocacy of the repeal of the £3 tax upon them and their children as the price of 'free' residence in Natal, and, when the Botha Government's pledge thereof to Gokhale was flagrantly violated, in his making the repeal part of the Satyagraha objective, his urging the Indian coal-miners to strike in protest, and his leading the great march of thousands into the Transvaal (forerunner of the Dandi march) in order to court arrest en masse. His realization of the evils of the indenture system led to his initiative in getting it prohibited, through Gokhale’s activity, at first for Natal, and later, on his own return to India, throughout the Empire.

The public burning of foreign cloth was anticipated by the burning of the voluntary registration certificates after Smuts's repudiation of his pledge to repeal the Black Act of 1907. It was in South Africa that he refused, even under pressure by his colleagues, to extend the Satyagraha campaign to include previous disabilities, in order to restrict its scope to the particular objective and thus secure the removal of the special grievance with the minimum of suffering and sacrifice. Except where the masses were directly concerned, as in the case of the £3 tax, and they could be assured of effective and disciplined leadership, he refused to countenance mass agitation, limiting the activity to the individual Satyagraha of chosen followers and well-tried associates.

It was in South Africa, too, that he refused to be persuaded to launch a new campaign at a time when the opponent was embarrassed by other critical commitments, as when, having announced the resumption of the march and the revival of the struggle to take place on January 1, 1911, in protest against the Union Government’s refusal to repeal the £3 tax as promised, he held up the march when the Government became involved in a widespread railwaymen's strike. The effect of this on the mind of General Smuts was to open the way to direct negotiations between the two men, the resultant settlement of the seven years' old straggle, and Gandhi's final departure for India. The General's attitude was reflected in his secretary's statement, when negotiations were resumed: ‘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 through self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limits of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness.’

Gandhi's famous fasts had their origin in his first fast, in South Africa, for self-purification and by way of penance for the sins of others. Even his renunciation of cow's milk took place there in order to free himself from the lower passions. Renunciation, abstinence, continence, self-sacrifice—all derived from an urgent desire to practise the essential doctrines of the Bhaagavad Gita—had their stimulus during the formative years of the Satyagraha campaign in South Africa. Even the murderous attack upon him that resulted fatally on January 30 last, the very day of his first interview with Smuts, in 1908, was anticipated forty years earlier by a similar assault in Johannesburg by some misguided countrymen who had misunderstood his motive and action in setting an example to the Satyagrahis by applying for voluntary re-registration with the giving of finger-prints without legal compulsion, after General Smuts had undertaken to repeal the Act of 1907. All of these experiences helped to crystallize the character of the man who was to become the Father of Indian freedom and the greatest of his age.

Nor was it South Africa alone whose status towards complete independence grew during these creative years. When Lord Curzon, in refusing to permit an extension of the indenture system to the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, in response to unanimous Indian opinion, he struck a new line of independent action by the Government of India. So eight years later Lord Hardinge, in his historic Madras speech, became the spokesman of Indian sentiment at another great crisis in the South African situation, when unprecedentedly, he openly denounced the policy and methods of the Union Government and announced his ‘deep and burning’ sympathy with the suffering Satyagrahis, whose action he wholeheartedly defended and whose civil disobedience of unjust and invidious legislation he supported. It was at a moment when thousands of indentured and ex-indentured labourers in the Natal coalmines and sugar estates had become prisoners there, under constant threat of violence to compel them to end the strike against the £3 tax and return to work; and when a number of Indian women, including Mrs. Gandhi, had gone to jail in protest against the refusal of the Union Government to amend the law which had been interpreted by the Chief Justice of one of the Provincial High Courts as denying the legality of all except Indian Christian marriages, thus branding non-Christian Indian wives as concubines and their children as illegitimate. When the public in India learnt of all this, embitterment spread throughout the country, and it was a reflection of this feeling that appeared in Lord Hardinge's demand for a Commission of Inquiry, which was shortly afterwards appointed.

When, with the help of Sir Benjamin Robertson, as official mediator on behalf of the Government of India, and of C.F. Andrews. as unofficial mediator between Gandhi and Smuts, the struggle was brought to an end by the passing of the Indians Relief Bill, in 1914, Viscount Gladstone, the Governor-General of the Union, announcing at a public meeting the Royal Assent to the measure, after signing the Act, pointed out that it indicated that a free, responsible South African Government was not inconsistent with the discharge of Imperial obligations. The Commission's report and recommendations, he said, had unified public opinion and enabled the Government to find a satisfactory solution. The new measure was not only an act of justice, but in the Imperial interest an urgent necessity. No true South African interest had been subordinated to Imperial considerations, but the Imperial responsibility was recognized.

Source : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Gandhi Memorial: Peace Number, 2 October 1949