Back | Next
STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 09
Even as Gandhi was preparing himself for the struggle ahead, the Government of the State of Transvaal notified the draft of a new Ordinance on the 22nd of August 1906. The new law made it compulsory for all Indians, even children, to register themselves with their finger prints. Everyone would have to carry a certificate on his person at all times. Those who did not would lose the right of residence, and would face prison or deportation from Transvaal. The Indian community was incensed at the thought of their women being stopped and searched for certificates. So great was the indignation that some Indians threatened to shoot policemen who stopped or submitted their women to search.
Gandhi was clear that if the Ordinance became law and the Indians acquiesced, they and their honour would be wiped out. The Ordinance had to be resisted. But resistance would bring unprecedented suffering. Would his people stand up and fight? He convened a meeting of all Indians at the Empire Theatre, Johannesburg. On the 11th of September 1906, when the time of the meeting came, the hall was overflowing with people. Haji Habib read out the resolution drafted by Gandhi. It declared that Indians would not submit to the Ordinance. They would suffer the penalties that would result from defiance, but would not submit. Gandhi did not want them to pass the resolution without full knowledge of the consequences. He told them they might be arrested. They may have to spend several months in dark and dingy prisons. They might not be able to eat the food that they would be given. They would be at the mercy of African warders. They should expect no mercy. They might be assaulted, handcuffed. They might take ill and die in prison. Their families might suffer. Would they still pass the resolution and pledge resistance?
At this time, the Chairman suggested that they should pass the resolution with God as witness. Gandhi's ears stood up. In a flash, he saw a great opportunity. He asked for permission to speak again. He explained to the listeners what it meant to take a pledge or vow in the name of God. The resolution ceased to be an ordinary resolution. It became a pledge or vow before God. There could be no going back from a vow taken with God as witness. It became a spiritual obligation. Would they still take the pledge and pass the resolution? There was still time for those who were not sure, to desist. But for him, the leader, "only one course is open to me ... to die rather than submit to the law". The listeners were electrified. Some were in tears. All of them rose and took the pledge or vow in the name of God.
Gandhi said that at that moment, he did not understand all the implications of the new method of resistance that the vow symbolized. "I only knew that some new principle had come into being, which was capable of revolutionizing individual and social life." This was the birth of Satyagraha. To begin with he called it passive resistance; but this did not clearly convey the inspiration behind the fight or the nature of the fight. So the term 'Satyagraha' was coined on the basis of suggestions that came from Indian friends.
Many Indians refused to register. Gandhi was ordered to leave Transvaal. He refused. He was arrested on the 10th of January 1908. As was to become his custom later, he asked the magistrate to award him the heaviest sentence that the law prescribed, since he was the main culprit. He was sentenced to two months in prison. By the end of January many Indians were in jail. General Smuts who was the Prime Minister was perplexed. He sent Mr. Cartright, the editor of a journal and a friend of Gandhi's, with a proposal for a compromise. Cartright met Gandhi in prison and gave him the General's message. The Government only wanted to prevent further immigration of Indians into Transvaal. So, if the Indians in Transvaal registered themselves voluntarily he would withdraw the Ordinance. Gandhi was taken to meet the General.
Gandhi believed in the General's intentions and his promise to repeal the Act, and agreed to the compromise. Gandhi was released. But he found it hard to convince many of his followers who had no faith in the government. Gandhi explained his reasons and announced that he would be the first to register.
On the appointed day, Gandhi was proceeding to the office of the Registrar to register voluntarily. He was surrounded by his friends and followers. Suddenly, a Pathan who had taken the pledge of resistance stepped forward, asked Gandhi what he was about to do, and felled him with severe blows. Gandhi exclaimed 'Hai Ram' and fell unconscious. He was removed to the house of a Christian missionary, Rev. Doke. When he regained his consciousness, Gandhi made two requests. One was that Mir Alam and his assistant should not be prosecuted, but should be forgiven. The other was that he (Gandhi) should be taken to the Asiatic Registrar so that he might be the first to register. But his physical condition was such that he could not be taken to the office of the Registrar. Gandhi then wanted that the Registrar should be requested to go to his bed side. The Registrar came, but advised Gandhi to wait till he was well enough. But Gandhi would not agree. He had to be the first to register as he had promised to do. But he could not lift his swollen and bruised hand. His hand was lifted up and placed on the spot, and he signed and gave his finger prints. Mr. Channey, the white Registrar, wiped his tears as he saw Gandhi sign. This was not the last time Gandhi brought tears of affection and admiration to the eyes of his adversaries.
But Gandhi's Indian critics were proved right. General Smuts betrayed Gandhi. As soon as he found that a large number of Indians had registered voluntarily, the General brought in a Bill to validate voluntary registration in the eyes of the law, and announced that the Black Act (on registration) would not be repealed. Gandhi was truly tricked. The honour as well as the future of the Indian community was in danger. It seemed as though they had defeated themselves.
Gandhi rose to the occasion. He found a dignified way of exposing the General's perfidy and vindicating the honour, intentions and courage of the Indians. He declared that the Indians would stop registering and would publicly burn the certificates of registration that had been issued to them, thus voluntarily defying the Government and inviting them to take action against them under the Act. A mammoth meeting was arranged at the grounds of the Hamidia mosque, and a cauldron was set up near the dais. An ultimatum was sent to the Government. From suffering in silence and petitioning, Gandhi had led the people to a position of fearlessness and defiance. It was they who were now issuing an ultimatum to the Government. "We regret to state that if the Asiatic Act is not repealed in terms of the settlement, and if the Government's desire to this effect is not communicated to the Indians before a 'specific date', the certificates collected by the Indians would be burnt, and they would humbly but firmly take the consequences."
The response was tremendous. There was high drama, open rebellion of the kind the world had never witnessed. The world press had assembled to witness the bonfire. The Government did not relent. It replied in the negative. As its telegram was read out at the meeting, there were cheers. Again, Gandhi declared that anyone who was afraid of consequences could take back his certificate before it was burnt. There was only one shout that rent the air : "Burn them." And as the certificates in the cauldron were about to be set fire to, Mir Alam who had been released from prison stepped forward and hugged Gandhi, and apologized for mistaking Gandhi's intentions and suggesting that he had been bought over by the whites.
The struggle against the Black Act was intensified. Gandhi found many ingenious ways of defying the Act. He inducted prominent and respected leaders of the community like Parsi Sorabji and Adajania from Natal into the struggle of defiance, to court arrest and imprisonment.
The Government had to act. They arrested Gandhi and imprisoned him. This was in 1908. He was sent to Volksrust prison. It was there, in the prison, that Gandhi read Thoreau's book on Civil Disobedience. He was happy to find that the book vindicated his views and plan of action. By now, many Indians had courted arrest through defiance or Satyagraha. They were lodged in prison. Their courage and determination were exemplary.
When Gandhi was released from prison after his third stint, in 1909, constitutional issues relating to the Union of South African states were before the British Parliament. Many Indians felt that Gandhi should use the opportunity to present the Indian point of view to the Government and Members of Parliament. He proceeded to London in the compay of a colleague. He had great faith in the fair play and sense of justice of the British nation. But he was disappointed. Indian demands met with a negative and cynical response. The visit to England, however, gave him an opportunity to secure sympathy and support from many leaders of public opinion in England. It also gave him an opportunity to meet and exchange views with many Indian revolutionaries who were advocating violent means to seek India's independence. This saddened him. He felt that they had not thought out the meaning of independence or the impact that one's methods would have on the attainment or distortion of one's goals. He was also saddened by their unthinking acceptance of Western Civilization and the cult of industrialism. He was convinced that the philosophy of greed and indulgence would destroy human civilization. To him Satyagraha was the answer. These thoughts were very much in his mind, and so, on his way from England to South Africa, he put his views down in the form of a dialogue. This book was published first in Gujarati as Hind Swaraj. It was later translated into English, and is often looked upon as a basic exposition of Gandhi's political and economic views.
It was during this visit to London that Gandhi first started corresponding with Tolstoy, the great Russian thinker and litterateur. Gandhi had read his books.
To him Tolstoy was a sage, a revolutionary thinker. He had been greatly influenced by Tolstoy's spiritual perceptions as well as his thoughts on social and economic matters.
On his return from London, Gandhi was confronted with the need to intensify his struggle. Many Satyagrahis were in prison. Many more would have to serve terms in prison. He had to find a way of looking after their families while they were in prison. He could not depend only on public funds. So he conceived the idea of setting up a farm where the families could live, work on land or crafts and produce what was needed for the community. One of his close associates, Herman Kallenbach, an architect of German stock offered him a plot of 1000 acres which had already been acquired. On this plot was set up the Tolstoy Farm. The object of the farm was to train Satyagrahis and their families to lead a life of simplicity, love and truth, and to depend on one's own labour. Kallenbach and other colleagues of Gandhi — Indian as well as Western — joined him. Everyone had to do manual work including the grinding of corn. The community baked its own bread; had its tannery and shed for shoe-making. Inmates had wooden pillows and two blankets each. Life was rigorous, but it was lived on the high plane on which the Satygrahi was expected to function. Gandhi also dealt with the need to provide education to the children of the families. His own children were part of the young community that Gandhi tried to teach and guide. Gandhi conducted his experiments with education and dietetics both at the Phoenix settlement and the Tolstoy Farm.
Meanwhile, a new King was ascending the throne of England, and the British wanted to create an atmosphere of good will. They decided to amend and soften the Black Act, to make it look as though it was not specifically discriminatory against Indians. They released the Satyagrahis who were in jail. The Satygraha movement had gone on for four years or more. It was now decided to suspend Satyagraha and review the next moves.
At this time, the British Government in India encouraged the great Indian patriot Gopal Krishna Gokhale to visit South Africa. He was a highly respected figure in the Empire as a great scholar, man of integrity, wisdom, moderation and high values. He had espoused the cause of South African Indians for many years, and done so with great force and effect. Gandhi looked upon him as his political Guru. He, therefore, saw a great opportunity in the visit of Gokhale. He took personal responsibility for all arrangements and for attending to Gokhale's needs and serving him in every way. The Government of South Africa treated Gokhale with great respect. He was received by General Botha, General Smuts and other ministers. Gokhale got the impression that General Botha had agreed to repeal the Black Act and abolish the 3 pounds tax. But Gandhi knew the South African leaders better. He expressed his disbelief.
During the visit, Gokhale got an opportunity to observe Gandhi at close quarters. On his return to India, he said that Gandhi "has in him the marvellous spiritual power to turn ordinary men around him to heroes and martyrs. In Gandhi's presence one is ashamed to do anything 'unworthy', indeed afraid of thinking anything 'unworthy'." Gokhale expressed the hope that Gandhi would now be able to return to India since the struggle in South Africa was nearly over.
But soon, it was seen that Gokhale had been misled by the South African Leaders. General Smuts regretted that the proposal to abolish the 3 pounds tax and withdraw the Black Act had to be given up because of opposition from the whites.
A new challenge had been flung at the Indian community. Gandhi decided to respond with swift and decisive moves. He moved his family to Phoenix, and decided to clear the Tolstoy farm and induct all inmates into the battle. Upto now, there were two issues that had rallied the community, namely the withdrawal of the Back Act or ban on Asian immigration, and the abolition of the 3 pounds tax.
A third was now added by a judgement delivered by Judge Searle. With one verdict the Judge declared all marriages solemnized by rites outside the Christian Church invalid. By this stroke, all marriages of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs became invalid in the eyes of law, thus undermining the legal status of families, wives and children. This infuriated women and men alike. Women became as keen to fight the government as men. Gandhi realized that this one act of the government had awakened women and made soldiers and militants of them. He wanted to give women equal opportunity to take part in the struggle. He knew they were capable of great heroism and powers of endurance. These were qualities that the Satyagrahi needed. So he forged a plan of action.
But to implement that he had first to persuade his own wife Kasturba to join the struggle, offer Satyagraha and court imprisonment and prosecution. This was done without difficulty. Kasturba was ready to show Gandhi that she too was willing to suffer imprisonment or work for the sake of justice.
Gandhi formulated new plans. He would send women Satyagrahis including Kasturba across the borders of the two states. If arrested, they would gd to prison. If left free, they would go to the coal mines at New Castle, where Indian indentured labourers were working. They would tell the workers of the struggle and the government's undermining of Indian marriages and families.
Gandhi's plan worked. Women Satyagrahis crossed the frontiers. Some including Kasturba were arrested and sent to prison. Others who were allowed to go free reached the mines. Their story sent the miners into a fit of indignation. They downed their tools and came out of the pits. The response was overwhelming.
Gandhi came to know of the strike and rushed to New Castle. He cautioned the miners. They were staking their all. They would lose the huts that the employers had given them. They would lose their jobs and incomes. Their families would suffer. They should leave the mines only if they were prepared for all these possibilities.
The struggle might be long. All that he could promise was that he would "live and have my meals with them as long as the strike lasted".
The workers reaffirmed their determination and arrived in their thousands, with their women and children. Gandhi had a big problem on his hands. Surely, the workers added a new dimension to the force at his command. But where was he to house them? How was he to feed them? How was he to use them in the struggle? They had to be housed under the roof of the sky. Some Indians helped in finding grains and other requirements. One of them, Lazarus looked after their needs with all that he had, housing them in his compound and putting his stocks of grain at their disposal. But how long could thousands be fed that way?
Gandhi hit upon a plan that would meet many of his objectives. He would take the workers to the Tolstoy Farm where they could work and wait to participate in the struggle. If they were arrested at the frontier of the State, Government would take responsibility for them.
It was no easy task to take thousands of hungry illiterate men, women and children on a long march. They had to get food on the way. A white baker came to the rescue. He agreed to make bread available at the stages of the march on the appointed days. Everyone would get Vi lbs. of bread and half an ounce of sugar. That was all. Gandhi himself had to serve the rations, since no one else could deal with the men who were angry and hungry. The rules of the march were read out. The marchers had to be disciplined. They should be non-violent.
They should do nothing to provoke the white men in the areas through which they passed. They should observe good sanitary habits. Otherwise they may cause epidemics.
They would cover the 200 miles from Charlestown to the Tolstoy Farm in eight days, walking 24 miles a day. Kallenbach, Polak and others helped him to organize and conduct the march. The long march was perhaps the first long march in recorded history. It started on the 6th of November 1913 at the break of dawn. It bore witness to the heroism and determination of the Indians. While the marchers forded a river at one point, a child perched on the hip of a mother slipped into the swirling waters of the river. The mother did not wait to wail and mourn, but kept up the march with others.
There were no incidents involving the white population or the Police till the marchers reached the frontier. There Gandhi was arrested at night and removed, but released on bail. He and his leading colleagues were arrested, released on bail and rearrested when they resumed the march.
At Balfour, three special trains were waiting. The marchers were arrested. But now something unexpected happened. The workers were not taken to prison. Instead they were taken back to the mines. The mines were declared part of the premises of the prisons of New Castle and Dundee. The white managerial staff of the mines were vested with the powers of jailors. Workers refused to go down the pits. They were whipped. They refused. They were forced down and beaten with iron chains. They refused to pick up tools and work. They persisted in their defiance. Wherefrom did these indentured labourers who were condemned as cowards and slaves get the iron will to resist without raising their arms?
The news of the atrocities that followed shocked the capitals of the world, and sparked off 'hartals' and strikes by Indians all over South Africa. The Government inducted mounted military police. They were ordered to shoot at sight. There were many scenes of heroic nonviolent defiance all over South Africa.
Gandhi went on a fast. This was the first of his many fasts for public causes. In utter identification with the indentured labourer, who was derisively called a 'Coolie', Gandhi gave up his European dress. He cut his hair short like the coolie, wore a lungi and discontinued the use of footwear.
When reports reached England, there were a deep sense of shame and waves of indignation. In India, people were shocked and enraged. Gokhale and other Indian leaders wanted an immediate end to atrocities and discrimination. India was on fire. The British Viceroy himself was moved to make a speech at Madras, in support of the Satyagrahis and their cause. Gokhale sent two prominent Englishmen to help Gandhi and to act as intermediaries. One of them was the great leader, educationist and missionary, Rev. C. F. Andrews.
The British Government was in a quandary. They brought pressure on the South African Government to appoint a commission to enquire into Indian grievances and demands. Gandhi was not satisfied. There was no Indian on the Commission. The Commission might turn out to be an eye wash. He, therefore, prepared to restart the struggle.
But an unforeseen development took place. The workers of the South African Railway System went on a nation-wide strike. This caused great hardship to all South Africa. Gandhi immediately suspended Satyagraha, explaining that it was against the tenets of Satyagraha to exploit the distress of the adversary.
This had a disarming effect on General Smuts and the whites. They did not know how to fight and hate Gandhi in the face of such love and generosity. They realised the truth of what Gandhi had claimed from the very beginning : that he had nothing against the white population of South Africa; all that he wanted was the removal of injustice. Love and suffering had melted the intransigence and resistance of the whites. The Government decided to accept all the three demands of the Indians, — abolition of the poll tax, validation of marriages and abolition of restrictions on travel and residence. The Satyagraha came to a successful close.
Gandhi had discovered a new weapon. He had demonstrated the power of the weapon — a weapon or power that every human being had within himself. He had shown the power of love and suffering. He had taken his people from the depths of helplessness to the peaks of victory: from contempt and ridicule to respect; from fear to fearlessness and bravery.
He felt he had completed his work in South Africa. He decided to return to the wider theatre of the motherland to serve his people and to further demonstrate the power of Satyagraha.