THE MAKING OF A SOCIAL REFORMER : GANDHI IN SOUTH
South Africa’s Indians embodied varied regional, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Worship in temples, mosques, and churches and the celebration of religious festivals were essential parts of their identity. As immigrants, Hindus and Muslims sought to recreate the worlds they had left behind. Hindus, for example, observed eight major religious festivals, and countless smaller ones either in their homes or in temples. A few responded to traveling missionaries seeking to reform traditional Hindus ways; the greater majority held on to narrow nyati concepts to identify themselves. Muslims were equally strong in preserving their religious traditions around five major festivals. Mosques and madressas were central to the way these traditions were honored in South Africa and in the ancestral towns and villages from which Muslims hailed. Our research uncovered little about Christian Indian cultural and religious traditions, but they were likely as vibrant as those of Hindus and Muslims who created a myriad of organizations. This is the point we endeavored to convey in our detailed discussion of religious and cultural activities in chapters 3 and 4.
Appendix 1 lists close to 140 bodies organized around culture and religion. Religion was the strongest base around which the Indian migrants organized their lives. Only 25 of the bodies were secular in their orientation. Here are some characteristics of migrants during these formative decades:
Links with India:
Gujarati-speaking Hindus and Muslims made frequent return trips to India. They were given farewell receptions on their departure, and some gave their impression about developments and conditions in India on their return. They created many organizations in an attempt to maintain links with the villages, towns, or cities from which they came. Our evidence was particularly strong for Muslims who sent money to maintain mosques and madressas in India. Committees were set up to coordinate such activities for Alipor, Bodana, Dhabel, Diwa, Kathor, Karod, Kholvad, Kosambi, Panoli, and Ranvav, to name a few. Such organizations published their accounts regularly. Recently, we discovered a trust deed of Mehafil Eslam Mota-Varachha, a body created in 1905 by eight traders in Pietermaritzburg, Newcastle, and Umzimkulu who were also natives of the village in the Surat district. (See Appendix 3). All Indians, including those who were indentured, regularly remitted money through the Protector’s office.
Promotion of Traditional Values:
Many groups emerged to promote languages such as Gujarati, Tamil, and Hindi through vernacular schools. V.R.R. Moodaly, as we pointed out in chapter 3, became inspired about promoting Tamil and educating girls after visiting India, and indeed sent his own daughter to be educated in India. Others sought to encourage religious values and held weekly meetings on discourses with the help of readings from scriptural texts. Groups met weekly to read from the Bhagavad Gita, and individuals gave discourses on morality and religion. Caste organizations endeavored to inculcate cohesion. We referred to the luwana community’s participation in a Mumbai conference in 1910 about promoting education, helping the poor, and cutting back on unnecessary social functions. Among Muslims there was often spirited discussion in mosque and madressa committees about how best to provide ilm to their children. For example, a Muslim in Standerton believed religious education should start when their children were seven or eight years of age, and recommended this to the Kholvad jamat in India.
Identification with Movements on the Indian Subcontinent:
Indians closely followed political and cultural events in India. Indian Opinion and African Chronicle kept up a steady stream of patriotic fare for their readers. Since Indians shared broadly Gandhi's faith in the imperial approach because it connected them to India, Gandhi tapped into their patriotism. Many Indians in South Africa spoke of the duty to the motherland. Swadeshi movement (1905-8) in India emerged in response to the British decision to partition Bengal, with nationalists like Surendranath Banerji (1848-1925) leading the opposition. The call for resistance extended to British rule itself. The methods used included passive resistance, boycott of British goods, and even violence. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's hymn to A Mother (Vande Mataram, I bow to you, Mother), composed in 1875, was resurrected as part of the nationalist reawakening.1 Many groups in South Africa identified with this movement. We pointed to the numerous occasions on which organizations ended meetings with this patriotic song. Gandhi strongly condemned violent methods that were being used by some in India and publicized the virtues of passive resistance in the columns of Indian Opinion. Passive resisters were lionized for their “patriotism” in South Africa, thus blurring lines of loyalty between ancestral and adopted homes. Hindus in South Africa identified with reform bodies such as the Arya Samaj founded by Dayanand Sarasvati (1824-1883) in India with the purpose of reforming Hinduism. A body calling itself Arya Pratinidhi Sabha took its name from one founded by Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842-1901) in India. In chapter 3, we referred to the activities of Professor Permanand and Swami Shankeranand who successfully won over reform-minded Hindus to their cause.2
It is less clear how strongly South Africa's Muslims identified with nationalist movements in India. A few had some contact with two movements in India, namely Aligarh, founded in 1886, and Deoband in the 1860s. The first sought to re-position Muslims favorably in relation to the Raj after the Revolt of 1857, and the second aimed at cleansing Islam of practices that were considered alien. Some Muslims sent their sons to study at Aligarh Muslim University and were likely aware of the Muslim League (founded 1906) which was to play a significant role in the creation of Pakistan four decades later. Muslims in South Africa embraced the Islamic ummah in its wider transnational context. Hence, when the Ottoman Empire was threatened, they rallied in the same way that Muslims in India did. They called the drive for funds “Hamdard” during the Tripolitan and Balkan wars, 1911-12, a name they took directly from the Urdu newspaper edited by Mahomed Ali (1878-1931) and Shaukat Ali (1873-1938) in India. The Ali brothers were prime movers in the Khilafat Movement (1919-22) that sought to preserve the caliph in the dismembered empire as the spiritual head of all Muslims. Muslims in South Africa and India accepted the caliph as their symbolic spiritual head, Mecca as the central place of pilgrimage, and the Koran as the source of the Islamic faith.3
We have little information about the religious and cultural lives of the small numbers of Christian Indians who were among the earliest to come to Natal as products of evangelical missions already active in India. There were Roman Catholics, Wesleyan-Methodists, and Anglicans who came to constitute well-established communities by the 1890s and 1900s. Well known family names included Gabriel, Godfrey, Joseph, Paul, Peters, Lawrence, Lazarus, Nundoo, and Sigamoney. They recognized the value of Indianness even if their point of reference was Western rather than Indian. Like Hindus and Muslims, their primary source of identification was likely with the church denomination around which so much of their personal and social life revolved. Organizations such as the Catholic Young Men's Society were active in progressive causes under the leadership of people like Vincent Lawrence and M.B. Lazarus, to whom Gandhi was closely connected. Christian Indians became prominent in government civil service positions, promoted public education, and engaged in politics. Indeed, Christian Indians made up a substantial part of political bodies with a colonial-born orientation. As second generation residents who felt strong ties to the country of their birth, they often spoke out for their rights as South Africans. We referred to several such individuals in our study, namely, Albert Christopher, Bernard Gabriel, George Godfrey, James Godfrey, Leo R. Gopaul, J.M. Lazarus, Joseph Royeppen, and others.4
Even though there were only isolated archival references to the religious and cultural activities of indentured Indians, we know from other sources that their participation was substantial in such popular forms of worship as Kavady and Mohurram. The early traditional Hindu temples were meant for the Hindus among them. Since indentured Indians did not feature prominently in our two main newspaper sources except as victims of the system, we are less clear about their cultural and religious activities. There is sufficient evidence in official sources to suggest that they were not simply victims of the system, but acted in protecting their interests when the need arose, as we saw in chapter 6. We referred, for example, to the "chitti" system through which they pooled their wages to share in their meagrely monthly incomes. They did not hesitate to take concerted action in the workplace when their interests were threatened. If such action did not reflect a highly developed sense of class-consciousness, it nevertheless suggested collective concern for the welfare of the group. For example, in 1895 indentured Indians attacked railway police who tried to stop them from collecting firewood. They resisted arrest, and all seventy-one were eventually arrested after reinforcements were called. At their trial, Magistrate Dillon was sympathetic to the Indians and did not punish them. He said that they had no means to light fire to cook their food for seventeen days, and likened their plight to that of the ancient Jews who were forced to make bricks without straw.5 There was another instance when 250 indentured Indians went on strike against poor rations, and marched to the Protector=s office to complain even though they were aware that they were violating the law by taking leave without permission. They also approached Gandhi to appear for them.6 Indentured Indians on some occasion preferred jail rather than work for an employer whom they did not like.7 As we underscored in chapter 6, individuals labeled as “ringleaders” during the 1913 strike showed imagination in their leadership roles. A closer and more detailed examination of their roles would yield greater insights into the communities of the contract laborers.
When did Gandhi realize the potential of using indentured issues to further the larger Indian struggle? The transformation in Gandhi’s thinking is apparent from about 1911. The time he spent at Tolstoy Farm provided him with the opportunity to reflect on and renew his faith in satyagraha as a way of life. If he had doubt about being able to control the indentured masses, he dispelled them by 1913. His disillusionment with the authorities’ inability to protect the poor propelled him “to do something” for them. He demonstrated his ability to achieve that objective and to transform them through his own brand of politicization, padayatra (marches). The year 1913 prepared him for the role he was to play among the peasants of India. Gandhi turned his back on the West’s political and economic systems and placed his faith in indigenous solutions. His change in dress and his insistence on using Indian languages were part of his endeavor to re-appropriate Indian values.
Even as South Africa's Indians were adapting to their new environment, they sought to maintain values rooted in their ancestral traditions. Gandhi was aware of the discourses taking place among the many different Indian groups in whose midst he operated. He worked within the cultural and religious parameters set by these groups, but he sought to redefine them. Inevitably, he ran into people who disagreed with him as he worked tirelessly against caste and sectionalist distinctions. As a social reformer, Gandhi was creative in blending his message drawn from various religious traditions and strongly worked for interfaith tolerance. His unique brand of religious tolerance was the hallmark of his stay in South Africa, a great contribution in lesson to future generations of Indians. When he was assaulted by Meer Alam Khan in 1908, he pleaded with his countrymen to drop khataas (bitterness) for mittass (sweetness). In 1912, Gandhi declared that a true Muslim could not harm a Hindu, and a true Hindu could not harm a Muslim. He insisted that a true follower of God thought of religion ethically and ecumenically. His insistence that one could remain rooted in one’s own religious beliefs and still participate within a broader framework was aimed at the falsity that underpinned the claim by colonial rulers that Indians were divided by religion, caste, and ethnicity and could never develop into one nation. In India, Gandhi would devote his entire life to propagating this idea.8
Indians were silent for the most part about the oppressive conditions of the Africans. They learned to live with African exclusion, and incorporated in their worldviews White supremacists’ racist notions about Africans. In this respect, Mahmood Mamdani is correct in saying that "the colonial state tried to naturalize political differences, not only between the colonizer and the colonized, but also ... between the two kinds of colonized: those indigenous and those not."9 Natal’s political economy played a substantial role in shaping African and Indian attitudes toward each other, as chapter 2 showed. But we cannot exclude xenophobic tendencies among Indians which, as Vijay Prashad argues, were carried into the diaspora, and may have translated into South African Indians’ thinking of Africans as different and lower in scale.10 Gandhi occasionally spoke out against racism and discrimination and even commented on the abject plight of the African people, but he did not argue for equality for them. If he did not feel the need to spell out how Indians should relate to Africans, it was because he remained firmly focused on an imperial approach that put India at the center of his thinking. Yet he was keenly aware that oppression against Africans might blow up in the faces of White rulers if they did not face up to the legitimate aspirations of Africans.11
How then should we view Gandhi’s role as leader? From the beginning he understood that he had to take into account the cultural and religious orientation of the communities he was working with and for. Some like C.M. Pillay, one-time secretary of the Pretoria based Indian Congress, did not get far with the kind of name-calling he engaged in 1898 about Apolygamous Muslims," "ignorant coolies," and "Kathiwar Bunnia" who were agitating for the franchise and equal trading rights."12 There were many non-secular organizations which could and did make input in determining community matters even on political issues. An example is a petition submitted to the imperial government in 1909 to protest the indentured system, trade and franchise restrictions, segregated schools, and municipal vagrancy laws by NIC, NIPU, Anjuman Islam, Hindh Sudhar Sabha, Catholic Young men's Society, and Shri Vishnu Temple at Umgeni. Fourteen officials and 1124 others signed the document.13
Cultural and political lines often became blurred, as this study has shown. For Gandhi, there were no clear lines of demarcation between politics and religion since action had to have a moral foundation. Gandhi’s insistence on truth and transparency was based on religious morality. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was able to work with individuals whose primary interest could best be defined in religious and cultural terms. If he disagreed with individuals, it was not because of their specific affiliation to a cultural or religious body, but rather because of their interpretation on broad issues. Among Hindus, people like Bhavani Dayal, Pragji K. Desai, Odhav Kanjee and Bhana Parshotam, C.P Luchiram, V.R.R. Moodaly, C. Nulliah, Latchman Panday, Babu Talwantsingh, Ambaram Maharaj, and many others were prominent in religious and/or cultural organizations. Among Muslims, people like Imam Abdul Kader Bawazeer, Dawad Mahomed, and Sheik Mehtab acted similarly. Parsee Rustomjee was one of Gandhi’s strongest supporters. We focus on a select few to show their strong cultural and religious affiliations even as they supported Gandhi.
Bavani Dayal was an active member of the Germiston Hindu Yuvak Mandal. He established the Indian Prachini Sabha with the purpose of conducting adult education classes. He became a strong supporter of passive resistance and played an important role in encouraging indentured Indians to strike in October 1913.14 Pragji K. Desai supported Gandhi strongly. He started out as an influential member of the Tongaat Hindu Dharma Sabha actively promoting the building of a temple and school to preserve Hindu values and traditions. In 1908, he expressed support for swadeshi; and in endorsing satyagraha in 1910, he outdid Gandhi in his call for sacrifice. His passion for patriotic values was reflected in an imaginary dialogue he wrote in December 1910 between Britain Devi and Hind Devi. He was one of the six educated individuals selected by Gandhi in 1911 to test Transvaal’s immigration law, and he courted arrest in 1913 by engaging in illegal hawking. When the Searle judgment was announced in 1913, Desai asked Indians to protect their religion with their lives if necessary. He was a frequent contributor to Indian Opinion.15
Odhav Kanjee, one of the founders of SHA, had a hand in the creation of the Durban Indian Fruiterers Association, which supported the NIC in 1908 and the strikers in 1913. Kanjee actively raised money and foodstuff for the strikers.16 Bhana Parshotam who was also a member of SHA and was affiliated to, among others, organizations such as Indian Chamber of Commerce, Hindu Samshaan Fund, and Sanathan Dharma Sabha in Durban. In 1912, he launched a fund to raise money for the Nadiad Hindu Anathashram in India. Like Kanjee, he raised money and foodstuff to support strikers in 1913. Parshotam was also a member of the Tavdikar Bhajan Mandal, which honored in 1914 Rev Charles F. Andrews (1871-1940) who had been sent by Gokhale to support Gandhi.17
C.P. Luchiram established the United Hindu Association in Cape Town and created a body with a similar name when he moved to Johannesburg. He used this organization to support the passive resistance campaign during Hindu religious festivals like Diwali.18 V.R.R. Moodaly was a founding member of HYMA in Pietermaritzburg who devoted his energies to promoting the Tamil language. While we are not sure how he related to Gandhi’s political movement, his wife was an active member of the Durban Indian Women’s Association which identified with it. Charlie Nulliah, who came as an indentured Indian, was a member of HYMA and the Sanatan Ved Dharma in Pietermaritzburg. As a rich landowner, Nulliah supported NIPU and was active in promoting civic rights and privileges for Indians living in the city.19 Lutchman Panday, who served with Gandhi in the Indian Ambulance Corp in 1899 during the South African War (1899-1902), was a member of the Vishnu Temple in Durban. Later, he joined NIPU and CBIA. He and C.R. Naidu were the first South Africans to present the Indian case before the INC meeting in Lahore in 1909. In 1911, Panday became a member of the Durban Institute for Higher Education.20 Babu Talwantsingh was closely associated with the Gopala Mandir in Verulam and participated in a panch in 1910 to resolve a dispute between a husband and wife. He supported satyagraha in 1910 and encouraged indentured Indians not to re-enlist for work under contact.21
Ambaram Mangalji Thaker, more popularly known as Ambaram Maharaj, presents a unique study of a religious leader responding to Gandhi’s political movement in his own way. He held weekly meetings of the Durban Sanathan Dharma Sabha, of which he was president, at which he engaged in religious discourses based upon the Bhagavad Gita. Occasionally he invited guests that included the Theosophists. The sabha considered establishing a dharmasala for Hindus and consulted Gandhi about it. He was also the vice president of the Natal Brahman Mandal. Ambaram Maharaj had a flair for writing poetry, and won a competition organized by Indian Opinion. The learned priest sang kirtans, which he had composed at public meetings and started a library at the Durban Hindu crematorium. Ambaram Maharaj spoke in support of satyagraha. He sang a song composed by himself at a meeting organized by KAM to honour those who had been jailed or deported. In 1910, he said that it was the right, honor, and duty of Indians to fight oppression. Ambaram Maharaj wrote a twenty-four-line poem on unity; the returning deportees were greeted with stirring poetry, "Chalo lewa Point..." (Let's Go to the Point to receive them); and, he recited poetry praising Polak at a KAM meeting. He also composed a poem on satyagraha and lionized Mrs. Sodha who had been arrested when she tried to join her husband in the Transvaal. Many of the poems and songs he wrote were reproduced in Indian Opinion. They reflected heavily his deep grasp of Hindu philosophy and teaching. Arre Musafir Chetje (Beware Traveler) is an eighty-five line poem, sung in Rag Dhirana, about following a spiritual path.22
Imam Abdul Kader Bawazeer enjoyed an honored position as a leading member of HIS and identified himself strongly with the passive resistance movement right from the beginning. As imam, he led the prayers at the Jumma masjid in Johannesburg. In July 1908, he courted arrest for hawking without a license. Over the next fifteen months, he was arrested and jailed three more times. Bawazeer was not entirely happy with the Compromise of 1908 and was among the first to question the decision in Indian Opinion. His letter in Indian Opinion pointedly raised the question: Did Indians fight for sixteen months only to say to the government, "Please open the offices, we want to register"?23 Still, he put aside his reservations and worked to prevent greater division among Indians on sectional lines, becoming in the process one of Gandhi’s strongest supporters. Bawazeer chaired the Johannesburg committee of thirty-six that welcomed Gokhale in 1912, and on January 25, 1914, he chaired the NIA mass meeting in Durban at which 3000 supporters endorsed Gandhi’s leadership. As we pointed out earlier, he shared Gandhi’s broad approach on spiritual matters and moved with his family to the Phoenix settlement where he used to read from the Koran as well as participate in singing bhajans. The imam joined Gandhi at the Sabarmati ashram in India.24
Dawad Mahomed was NIC president from 1906 to 1913. Throughout these years, he strongly supported Gandhi and the passive resistance movement. Together with three other individuals, he crossed into the Transvaal in 1908 to test his domicile rights and suffered yearlong imprisonment. While elements within the NIC opposed Gandhi’s broadening of the campaign to include the £3 tax, he remained firm in his support. When, therefore, a split occurred in October 1913, he broke away with Gandhi and others to form the NIA of which he became president. As a Muslim, he was active in Durban’s Anjuman Islam and went to Mecca for haj. Gandhi’s farewell remarks reflected his assessment of Mahomed as a broadly tolerant and charitable person.25 Mahomed was present at the home of Bhana Parshotam who had a reception for Swami Shankeranand in 1910 at his Tollgate home. He allowed his son, Hoosen, to study with Gandhi at the Phoenix Settlement and to proceed to London for his law studies.26
While Dawad Mahomed played a crucial supporting role, given his position and stature in the Muslim community, a Muslim like Sheik Mehtab used his talents in a different but nevertheless important way. Gandhi and Mehtab were friends from childhood, which suggests that there was nothing unusual for Hindus and Muslims in India to relate closely to each other. In South Africa, they renewed their friendship, but it was an uneasy one.27 Still, Mehtab gave a ringing endorsement of the movement and its leaders through his poetry and ghazals. At a KAM meeting in July, Sheik Mehtab read "Satyragrahioni Tarif while his many poems appeared regularly in Indian Opinion.28 He wrote a ninety-two-line ghazal paying tribute to over twenty individuals who were directly or indirectly involved in satyagraha ending with gratitude to Amohandas.29 Mehtab was a natural entertainer who sought to please his audience. Two-thirds into the ghazal, he introduced three lines, which, while they must have caused amusement, also showed familiarity with Fanagalo:
Ookala chelile zonke mulungu
Manje chela funa Indian-ku
Parsis made up a small handful of South Africa’s Indians but thought of themselves as part of India’s bailiwick as much as Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi’s Diwali message in 1910 touched upon that theme. Instead of taking to Western ways, he said, Indians should honour Muslim, Parsi, and Hindu new years. "We are of course a single nation of brothers as among ourselves. We should regain that consciousness... This will betoken our fraternal relations and prove that we have become one nation."30 Parsis came to have great influence on Gandhi. This was largely through the activities of one man, Parsee Rustomjee, with whom Gandhi developed a deep and personal relationship from the first year that he arrived in South Africa. As a businessman of some means, Rustomjee supported many charitable causes without regard to religious affiliation. There were numerous occasions when his home became a center of one event or another. In the early years, he strongly supported Gandhi through the NIC, of which he was a founding member, and later the NIA when it was created at his residence in October 1913. Parsee Rustomjee was among the sixteen individuals who launched the last phase of passive resistance by crossing into the Transvaal in 1913, and he served in jail for this.
While Gandhi knew and understood the cultural and religious world of his compatriots, he was not well acquainted with the Jewish religious background of two of his closest confidantes, Kallenbach and Polak. His relationship was one of mutual trust and admiration, and this is reflected in his correspondence with them. Gandhi was so close to Polak that Mrs. Gandhi used to say that he was like her husband’s first-born. Gandhi called Polak “Chhota Bhai.” Gandhi considered Albert H. West as the “hope of Phoenix”, a “silent doer.” As we argued in chapter 6, some Indians saw them merely as “Whites” in whom Gandhi’s faith was misplaced. This issue created tension and seriously undermined Gandhi’s leadership in 1913 and was one of the causes for the split. Gandhi stood by them illustrating his insistence that personal qualities were superior to religious, ethnic, and racial considerations when judging individuals.31
In South Africa, Gandhi’s experimentation in communal living at the Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm became the basis of ashram life in India. At the ashrams Gandhi insisted on truth, nonviolence, chastity, palate control, non-stealing, non-possession, physical labor, swadeshi, and the removal of untouchability. His concern for the masses in 1913 would develop into programs for India’s villagers in which he attempted to combine ethical universalism with particular nationalism.32 It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed these views. The ethnic, caste, religious, and cultural make-up of the Indian communities in South Africa offered Gandhi a laboratory in which to experiment, work out, and develop his ideas. Indeed, as Sushila Nayar has said in her assessment of Gandhi, there was “not a single new idea that he was inspired with after leaving South Africa. He developed his ideas and his techniques further in India but he had formulated them all in South Africa.”33