Thursday, June 7, 2012

June 7, 1893 – Young Gandhi Jailed in South Africa

 In an influential episode of Indian leader Mohandas Karamchandand Gandhi’s young life, he was removed from the first-class carriage of a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and jailed after he struck the conductor.  Gandhi was able to plead self-defense after citing roughness on the part of the conductor and stated that he took his rights as a citizen of the British Empire seriously.  He was allowed onto a train the next day, and it was ingrained in his mind that “might makes right,” a lesson he had learned while studying law in London and a far cry from his Jainist upbringing.

Gandhi had been born October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, Bombay Presidency.  His mother, a devout Jain, died in childbirth, as had his father’s three previous wives and was common in the era before modern medicine.  His father, who largely influenced him, was a diwan in Porbandar, holding a high office with little duty, as had Mohandas’s grandfather before him.  After his arranged marriage at age 13, Gandhi was encouraged to study law so that he might one day take over his father’s position, and he traveled to University College London in 1888.  There, he found a very different world from his vegetarian, non-alcoholic upbringing.  He attempted to hold to vegetarianism, but his landlady’s bland food drove him to find dining at pubs.  As he grew accustomed to English culture, such as taking dancing lessons, Gandhi discovered a wealth of advantages being part of the British system.  Upon his return to India, he struggled to establish a barrister practice due to his shyness in court and instead worked more preparing documents.  In 1893, he agreed to a contract with Dada Abdulla & Co. at Colony of Natal in South Africa.

The Indians of wealth in South Africa were largely Muslim, while the Hindus were primarily poor indentured servants.  Gandhi, who had never cared much for religion, saw little difference, especially as both faced terrible discrimination under rule by whites.  On his journeys in South Africa, the incident on the train was one of many points where he determined he could only make “right” by finding enough “might.”  He was struck by a stagecoach driver for not making room for a white passenger; Gandhi recorded the event and later sued the driver and the company, making a name for himself.  Hotels that refused him were added to a list for boycott, later published as he helped found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 as a body actively protecting Indian rights.  When he was attacked by a mob in 1897, Gandhi individually sued each known attacker, many of them later being placed in jail.  Officials were unnerved by his dedication to the law and to the Empire, using many of their own social weapons against him in addition to acts of non-cooperation.  When Britain declared war on the Zulu in 1906, Gandhi led a volunteer Indian ambulance corps, giving Indians credence into the regular British Army.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and brought his reputation with him.  He joined the Indian National Congress and quickly became a leader.  Toward the end of WWI, Gandhi was invited to recruit Indians for the war effort.  Gandhi enthusiastically agreed and wrote in “Appeal for Enlistment,” "To bring about such a state of things we should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them...If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible despatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army."  Though the war ended soon afterward, it gave ground for a long term project of working Indian soldiers into becoming a key part of British security.

Gandhi continued working with non-violence when it was obvious that the greater “might” was held by the British whites.  In the Champaran agitation, Gandhi arrived with a team of lawyers that broke down the system of landowners forcing tenant farmers to grow indigo for a fixed price in a weakening market.  He joined the Muslim Khilafat movement in 1919 to protect Islamic religious sites and gained great following as a unified leader of Indians.  At the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, protests erupted the Rowlatt Act that extended emergency wartime powers and British and were put down violently by Brigadier-General Dyer.  Gandhi, who had been leading the hartal (protest through suspension of business) in Delhi, determined that the time had come to act.  He challenged the colonial government to spread its martial law, which it did, only worsening the unrest.  Weapons smuggled by Indian soldiers, part of which had started the reactionary massacre, were spread, and all India seemed set aflame.

The Indian Revolt raged until 1922, when India was granted dominion status at Gandhi’s urging, similarly to Ireland.  In a new political climate, Gandhi began work to transform India by erasing culture he opposed, such as child marriage, untouchability, and oppression of women.  The renewed liberalism without the drive for independence as had been seen before splintered the Indian movement.  Sectionalism returned, and violence between Muslims, Hindu, and Sikhs rose as Britain stepped out of Indian government.  Following Gandhi’s assassination in 1934, voices began anew for independence, which was granted in 1947.  Civil war broke out as lines were redrawn, the first of four wars among India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Punjabi.

Gandhi’s goals of lifting up an oppressed people were accomplished despite bloodshed, which would be seen again with the assassinations and bombings on both sides in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s and in South Africa in the 1980s and ‘90s.


In reality, Gandhi’s mother survived childbirth and raised him strongly in the Jain faith.  When he went to London, he promised her to hold onto Jain principles.  Vegetarianism proved difficult, but he was eventually inspired by author Henry Stephens Salt to join the Vegetarian Society, which put him in touch with the Theosophical Society.  Upon Gandhi’s return to India, he would join the Indian National Congress, which had been founded by Theosophical Society members in 1885.  Gandhi continued his work with non-violence and civil disobedience (even canceling protests that turned violent, such as those against the Rowlatt Act), gradually winning over a united population of Muslim and Hindu Indians and beginning the Quit India movement in 1943 that won India’s independence after World War II.  Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Mahatma (“Great Soul” in Sanskrit) Gandhi as “the father of the nation” and “the light… of our lives” in a speech following Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, by a Hindu extremist.  Gandhi served as an inspiration to many nonviolent resistance leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

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