When the American missionary Dr John Mott visited Mahatma Gandhi at his Sevagram Ashram in central India, he asked him, “What have been the most creative experiences in your life?”
Gandhiji replied, “Such experiences are in multitude. But as you put the
question to me, I recall one experience that changed the course of my life.”
Then he related the Meritzburg incident.
He was a young barrister of twenty-four at that time. He was not successful in
Mumbai as a lawyer. In the meantime, an offer came from Dada Abdulla & Co. to
help their case in South Africa. So, he went to Durban. After a week he was sent
to Pretoria by Abdulla Sheth.
A first class ticket was booked for him and he boarded the train. The train
reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about nine in the evening. Another
white passenger entered the compartment. He hesitated on seeing the presence of
a ‘coloured’ man. He went out and summoned one or two railway officials. They
did not say anything. Then, another official came in. He ordered barrister
Gandhi to go to the van compartment.
“But I have a first class ticket,” said Gandhi.
“That does not matter. I tell you to go to the van compartment.”
“I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban and I
insist on going on in it.”
“No, you won’t,” said the official. “You must leave this compartment or else I
shall have to call a police constable to push you out.”
“Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily,” young
Gandhi replied with firmness.
The constable came. He took him by the hand and pushed him out. He refused to go
to the other compartment and the train left.
Gandhi then went and sat in the waiting room, keeping his hand bag with him and
leaving the other luggage where it was. The railway authorities had taken charge
It was winter and the winter in the higher region of South Africa is severely
cold. His overcoat was in the luggage. But Gandhi did not dare to ask for it.
What if he should be insulted again? So, he sat and shivered. He began to think
of his duty. “Should I fight for my rights or go back to India? Or should I go
on to Pretoria without minding the insults and return to India after finishing
the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my
obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial, only a
symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to
root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.”
He then decided to take the next available train to Pretoria.
Gandhiji told to Dr Mott, “Now the creative experience comes here. I was afraid
for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the
room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty, I asked myself. Should I go back to
India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper, and face whatever was in
store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non -violence began from
Jawaharlal Nehru believed that fearlessness was his greatest virtue. Actually,
Nehru himself was fearless, so why not would he appreciate it? But, according to
him, Gandhiji’s fearlessness was so tremendous that it went on to the people and
atmosphere around him too and made them less afraid.
The root of Gandhiji’s fearlessness was in his universal love for all. A man
fears a man. But, he who feels the presence of no one else, other than the
Almighty Rama, will not fear others. On the contrary, a flow of love will be
released from his heart towards the others.
In that cold night, the fear of timid young Gandhi disappeared as his active
love for humanity took charge of his heart. The wonderful qualities of a total
sacrifice, to suffer for others were born in his heart. No one was his enemy
then and he had spite for none. At that very moment the potent weapon of
Satyagraha was born.