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Tarring the Mahatma

By B. R. Nanda

(In this article the author, B. R. Nanda gives us an insight into why Gandhi fought in South Africa for indentured Indians only and not for the entire black community. The article proves that Gandhi was not at all racist as is suggested by some. He worked for the upliftment of the oppressed classes throughout his life but when he was in South Africa the time was not right to fight for the rights of the blacks.)

A news item with the headline, Gandhi branded racist in South Africa appeared in the Hindustan Times (October 18). This is not the first time that such a charge has been leveled against Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It betrays ignorance not only of the conditions under which Gandhi waged his struggle against racism in South Africa a century ago, but of his contribution to the final dismantling of apartheid in the country. Some critics have asserted that he was not free from racial prejudice. They cite his initial shock at the Indian satyagraha prisoners being classed and lodged with the ‘Natives’ — blacks — in jail. Nelson Mandela’s comment on this point is pertinent. He says Gandhi was reacting not to African ‘Natives’ in general, but to ‘criminalised Natives’. He adds that in fairness to Gandhi he should be judged “in the context of the time and circumstance”, and that here we are looking at the young Gandhi yet to become the Mahatma, when he would be “without any human prejudice save in favour of truth and justice”. There is plenty of evidence in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi to indicate that if Gandhi had nurtured any such prejudice, he was fast outgrowing it. In his speech at the YMCA in June 1908, he stressed the complementary nature of various cultures and refuted the notion that differing civilizations could not coexist. Through his journal, Indian Opinion, he kept his readers informed of the problems of the Africans. He wanted each racial group to fight its own battle, but to be supportive to one another. He backed the demands of the Africans for franchise in Transvaal and Orange River Colony, and was deeply concerned about the insidious move of the whites that threatened Africans’ land rights. He denounced the jury system in South Africa.

It was not racial prejudice but political realism that guided Gandhi in limiting his agenda in South Africa to the eradication of the disabilities of his countrymen. It is difficult for us to imagine the odds against which he was fighting. It was the heyday of European imperialism, when domination over ‘coloured races’ was accepted almost as a fact of nature. In 1897, when he was 27, he was nearly lynched by a white mob in Durban. The Indians in Natal and Transvaal were a socially and economically heterogeneous community. It was not an easy task for Gandhi to infuse a spirit of solidarity into Muslim merchants and their Hindu and Parsi clerks from western India and the semi-slave indentured labourers from Madras and the Indian Christians born in South Africa. Small in number, scattered in several colonies, the Indians lived in constant dread of fresh restrictions and humiliations. They did not have the right to vote and were defenceless against a whole arsenal of discriminatory law senates by the colonial legislature. Boers and Britons, whatever their differences, were united in their resolve to preserve the white monopoly of economic and political power. The Government of India, which had permitted emigration to the colonies in South Africa, was not conversant with the true state of affairs, and the Colonial Office in London was reluctant to interfere in what was described as the ‘internal affair’ of self-governing colonies. Gandhi evolved a strategy to suit the situation facing him in South Africa. He organised the Indian immigrants, presented their case on its merits, opposed the colonial regime, but at the same time sought support of world opinion. He based his case against racial discrimination on what he claimed were the inherent rights of British Indian subjects guaranteed to them in the British Empire by the Proclamation of Queen Victoria in 1858.

If the black population did not figure in Gandhi’s campaign, it was partly because it did not suffer from the disabilities against which the Indians were protesting, such as the £3 tax on indentured labourers that turned them into semi-slaves, the restrictions on immigration from India, and the discrimination against Indian traders. Moreover, it is doubtful whether, at the turn of the century, the black population in South Africa would have readily accepted a young Indian barrister as its leader. In February 1936, Gandhi told a visitor that he had deliberately not invited the blacks to join his movement in South Africa. “They would not have understood,” he said, “the technique of our struggle nor could they have seen the purpose and utility of our nonviolence.”

There is evidence that by 1909 Gandhi had realised the inherent limitations of the Indian struggle in South Africa. The satyagraha campaign had its ups and downs, and his trip to England in 1909 had been a failure. He badly needed a successful conclusion of the struggle in Transvaal not only for its own sake, but also as a prelude to his return to India, taking satyagraha with him, to challenge British imperialism. He seems to have sensed that if European colonialism could be ended, racism would also go.

Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, but he blazed a trail that coming generations were to follow. The South Africa National Native Congress (later renamed African National Congress) had come into existence in 1912. Its constitution endorsed ‘passive action’, i.e. passive resistance or satyagraha as a means of fighting against injustice and oppression. For nearly 40 years, the ANC adhered to the principle of nonviolence. It was not until the late fifties, after the Sharpeville massacre, that the ANC abandoned nonviolence. Even after the adoption of armed struggle by the ANC, the liberation movement in South Africa received valuable assistance from students, industrial workers, religious bodies, and women’s and youth groups which organised peaceful struggles and culminated in the ‘United Democratic Front’.

All these forms of resistance may not have been consciously Gandhian. Indeed, many of those who led the resistance believed in violence, but discovered that ‘active civil resistance’ was more relevant to the conditions in which they had found themselves. The South African Gandhi, edited by South African writer Fatima Mir, provides a fitting answer to those critics of Gandhi who have sought to belittle his contribution to the struggle of apartheid. The best minds of South Africa today have no doubt about Gandhi’s immense contribution. Indeed, they are asking themselves whether Gandhi’s ideas will continue to inspire them in the coming years in facing the challenges of political and social integration and economic reconstruction.

Institute for Black Research President Lewis Skweyiya describes Gandhi as “a universal man... as relevant today as he was yesterday, as he will be tomorrow”. Justice Ismail Mahomed harks back to Gandhi’s unique ‘pulsating restlessness’ which had the power to release the spiritual potential of the people. One of the finest tributes to Gandhi in The South African Gandhi comes from an unexpected quarter. F. W. de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, argues that Gandhi highlighted the truth that governments ultimately cannot govern without the consent of the governed. He describes satyagraha as Gandhi’s greatest contribution to global politics for bringing about social change. “We have completed,” de Klerk says, “the task of dismantling the edifice of apartheid. The causes for which Gandhi fought have been won.”

[The writer is the former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and author of books including ‘Gandhi and his Critics’]

Source: Tarring the Mahatma, HindustanTimes.com November, 22