When Gandhi landed in India he was shocked to learn that his mother had passed away while he was in England. His brother had hidden the news from him for fear of the effect that it would have on Gandhi's mind and studies in England. Gandhi was deeply devoted to his mother. But he absorbed the shock and wanted to return to Gujarat to start work as a barrister. His brother, however, took him to Nasik to have a holy dip, — to wash off the sin of having crossed the seas. On his return to Rajkot his brother also organised a dinner to pacify the elders of the caste who had declared that Gandhi had lost caste. Gandhi himself had no remorse, and saw no reason for these 'Amends'. However, he bowed to his brother's wishes.
It was not easy for
Gandhi to set up legal practice at Rajkot. Though he had passed the Bar
Examination in England, he had not studied Indian laws. There was acute
competition. He would not be able to earn what he wanted. The British
Political Agent had turned down his request for help. He decided to move to
Bombay. He enrolled in the Bombay Courts, but could not get clients because
he strictly refused to take the help of touts. Finally, he got a client and
appeared in the Small Causes Court.
But when the time for
cross-examination came, he stood up, but could not find words to speak. His
head reeled. He sat down and returned his fees to the client. He then tried
to teach English in a school. The headmaster told him that he could not be
appointed since he did not have a degree from a University. Gandhi was
disappointed. It seemed to him that all doors were closed to him. How would
he earn enough to look after the family, and help his brother to repay the
loan that was taken to send him to England?
He returned to Rajkot
and started to earn a pittance by drafting petitions and memorials. This did
not give him enough income. Nor was it in keeping with the status that he
had acquired as a barrister who had returned from London. He was at his
wit's end, and could not see the way forward.
Quite unexpectedly, he
received an offer from a Muslim firm of Kathiawar that had an established
business in South Africa. They had a legal dispute with another Indian
Muslim's firm. They wanted Gandhi to go to South Africa and help their Chief
Counsel. They offered terms that appeared quite attractive. Gandhi decided
to accept the offer and go to South Africa to try his luck and to make some
money through the practice of law.
Gandhi landed at Durban
in May 1893. Abdullah Seth, who was the head of the firm that had engaged
his services, was there to receive him. Gandhi had landed on an unknown
continent. He had no idea of what was in store for him. But he did not have
to wait for long to discover that he was going to face the severest ordeals
of his life.
Gandhi was very
conscious of his status as a barrister and had insisted on travelling by
first class in the ship. He had to be accommodated in the Captain's Cabin
since there were no berths available in the first class.
Within two or three days
of his arrival at Durban, Sheth Abdullah took him to the Court. Gandhi was
wearing an Indian turban as he sat in the Court. The Magistrate stared at
him, and ordered him to remove his turban. Gandhi considered that an insult.
He declined to remove his turban and left the Court. This was his first
personal experience of the insults and discrimination that Indians had to
face in South Africa.
Both South Africa and
India were part of the British Empire in the 19th Century. The white
population of South Africa wanted to develop their plantations. They wanted
labourers who would do hard work for nominal wages. They did not want to use
black African labour. So they decided to recruit labour from India. These
labourers were recruited on a system that came to be known as the Indenture
System. Under it, Indians were recruited to work for a few shillings in the
year. They had to sign a bond that they would serve for five years. They
would not be permitted to return earlier. At the end of five years, they
could renew their contract to work for five more years or return to India.
The South African Government did not want them to stay back as free
citizens. They were afraid of the industriousness and enterprise and frugal
ways of Indians. They wanted Indians in South Africa only as bonded
labourers living in conditions of semi-slavery, not as free citizens and
competitors. So the Government of South Africa discriminated against Indians
and humiliated them at every turn. Those who wanted to stay back after
serving their term of indenture had to pay a poll tax of three pounds every
year. This was far beyond the means of the labourers whose wages were too
meagre even to make both ends meet. Most of these labourers were from Tamil
Nadu, Andhra, Bihar and UP. They were illiterate, innocent about rights,
"and helpless and leaderless.
Indians had to put up
with many other humiliating restrictions. They could not reside where they
wanted. They had to carry identity cards and subject themselves to scrutiny
by the police. They had to take licences to be vendors. In some States, they
could not walk on the pavements, or be out of their houses after nightfall.
Some Indians had gone to South Africa to trade. Some of them had built up
wealthy firms. But in most States, Indians were kept outside the pale of
social or political life.
A few days after his
experience in the Durban Court, Gandhi continued his journey to Pretoria
where the legal suit was being heard. He had to travel by train. A ticket
was booked for him in the first class, and Gandhi commenced his journey.
When the train reached
Petermaritzburg, a white passenger who entered the compartment, objected to
a 'coloured man' travelling in the first class compartment. He wanted the
coloured man, Gandhi, to be removed to the 'van compartment', which was
meant for coloured passengers. Gandhi protested. He had a first class
ticket, and he was entitled to travel in the first class. Gandhi refused to
leave the compartment voluntarily. A constable was summoned. He took Gandhi
by the hand, and pushed him out. Gandhi's luggage was taken out. He firmly
refused to go to the van compartment. The train steamed away leaving Gandhi
on the platform.
Gandhi went and sat in
the waiting room. It was night, and it was bitterly cold. The railway
authorities had taken charge of his luggage. His overcoat was in the
baggage. But he had no mind to ask for it. There he sat alone shivering in
the biting cold, on the dark and deserted platform, far away from home,
bereft of all succor, facing the biggest challenge of his life. He had been
insulted and humiliated. What was being violated was his dignity as a human
being. What was being asked of him was to acquiesce in the denial of his
human dignity, to cooperate in the conspiracy (and effort) to down grade him
into a slave or lesser human. Was he to cooperate in his own undoing? Was he
to let cowardice or greed snuff out his inherent birthright to be a human
being? Or was he to stand up and resist? If he does not fight for himself,
who will fight for him ? Was he to accept the dictum "discretion is the
better part of valour", and return to India, leaving the field of battle?
Will he save his self-respect and dignity by doing so? Or will he lose
respect in his own eyes? The answer became clear to Gandhi. He would not be
the cause of his own undoing. He would not cooperate in his own undoing. He
would fight, not flee or acquiesce. The forces ranged against him may be
mighty. But he had his own strength; the strength of his spirit, of his
will; of his ability to non-cooperate with his 'enemy'. That night Gandhi
discovered himself. That night Gandhi shed his fear. He discovered a way
that • anyone who could overcome fear, and was determined, could use. That
was the night Gandhi emerged from his shell, and came into his own. He
himself recalled it as the most creative experience of his life. The
discovery of the power within one and the power of non-cooperation had set
Gandhi continued his
journey the next day. He had to take a stage-coach from Charlestown to
Standerton. The experience of the train was repeated. He had a ticket but
was asked to sit outside, by the side of the coachman. The 'leader' or
conductor of the coach sat inside, in his place, and when he wanted to smoke
he came out and asked Gandhi to vacate his perch by the coachman, and sit on
a piece of jute matting on the foot rest. Gandhi refused. The burly coachman
pushed him and pummelled him. Gandhi clung on to the railings, but did not
give up his seat. He was being beaten and pushed down when some passengers
felt ashamed at the scene and asked the 'leader' to leave Gandhi alone.
Gandhi arrived in
Johannesburg, and went on to Pretoria. At Pretoria he established contact
with the lawyers who were in charge of Abdullah's suit. The next thing he
did was to get a leading Indian merchant to convene a meeting of all the
Indians in Pretoria. He said he wanted to get in touch with every Indian.
The meeting saw a Gandhi who was very different from the one who had sat
tongue-tied in meetings and court rooms. Gone was Gandhi's shyness,
nervousness, and hesitancy. He said he wanted to study the condition of
Indians and help them improve their situation. He placed three ideas before
them. Firstly, they should forget distinctions of religion and language and
consider themselves Indians. They should achieve unity. Secondly, they
should look into their own actions and remove all shortcomings and
weaknesses that could cause prejudice against them. Neglect of sanitation,
illiteracy, unconcern for truthfulness and the like weakened them. They
should overcome them. Thirdly, they should form an association that could
voice their views and protect their interests. Gandhi created an impact.
Those who attended promised to cooperate. Gandhi offered to teach English to
those who wanted, and to give as much time as he could find for the common
Meanwhile, Gandhi made
many friends among people of all persuasions. His letters to journals
espousing the Indian cause or drawing attention to specific instances of
injustice and the transparent absence of bitterness, untruth and
exaggeration in his writings drew appreciation from many, even among the
Gandhi busied himself
with the legal work for which he had gone to South Africa. He studied the
facts of the case. He discovered that truth could be sifted and put forward
only if he had a good grasp of accounting and book keeping. So he set
himself to the task and acquired mastery over the intricacies of
accountancy. But he always felt that the true service that a lawyer could
give was to secure justice without acrimony and hostility and the spirit of
vengeance. Justice did not require a demand for the pound of flesh. He,
therefore, believed in using law and common sense to find a settlement
outside the court, avoiding the acrimony that litigation brought.
He had succeeded in
securing the confidence of his client Sheth Abdullah. The other party to the
suit was also an Indian Muslim merchant from Gujarat. Ultimately, Gandhi's
persistent efforts succeeded, and the case involving a huge sum of money was
settled out of court to the satisfaction of all. The arbitrator's award went
in favour of Sheth Dada Abdullah, but the other party was not in a position
to pay the awarded dues in one installments. If he had to do so, he would
have become bankrupt. Gandhi persuaded Abdullah to permit Tyeb Sheth to pay
the money in installments.
Now that the assignment
on which Gandhi had gone to South Africa had ended, Gandhi prepared to
return to India. A farewell meeting was arranged. At the meeting, as Gandhi
was about to speak, his eyes fell on a copy of the Natal Mercury. It carried
a report about the impending passage of a Bill to disenfranchise all Indians
in Natal. Gandhi saw this as the thin end of the wedge. He said that if the
Bill was passed, and the Indians acquiesced in it, they would be driving the
first nail into their own coffin. Everyone felt concerned, and wanted that
the Bill should be opposed. But who was to take the lead?
Who was to organize
public opinion and bring pressure on the legislature? The younger Indians
who were educated could perhaps take up the cause. But they had other
interests. Everyone at the farewell meeting turned to Gandhi. They told him
he was the man who could save the Indian community in the hour of trial.
Gandhi was reluctant. He was anxious to go home. But the persistent demand
of the leading Indians and his own sense of duty made him agree to postpone
his return by a month. He declined to take any remuneration for public
service. He would stay back and serve them for a month. Thus began a
commitment that kept Gandhi in South Africa for two decades.