Invincible Might of the Unarmed Truth

Gandhi and the Second 9/11 of our Times

Continued from Previous Page

The year was 1893. Indian society was at its staid worst, reconciled for the umpteenth time in its chequered history to be ruled by foreigners, this time the British. Two Indians, unknown to each other, left that year from Bombay for destinations abroad. Destiny had beckoned them to blaze trails of epochal proportions not only for their coutry but also for mankind.

One - an obscure monk - was bound for the USA and the other was heading for South Africa: one was going to attend a conference he hardly knew much about: and other – not-too-sucessful a barrister—was going on a year-long contract to the Colony of Natal, South Africa to eke out a living. Fate, however, had decreed both to fulfil missions of their lives - far transcending their immediate agendas.

The first one was Vivekannada – dealt with in the first instalment of this essay. The second was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: the man and his mission are discussed below.

Gandhi in South Africa

Unable to set up a successful legal practice first in Bombay and later in Rajkot, Gandhi accepted a year-long assignment from Dada Abdulla & Co to represent their interests in South Africa. He arrived in British-governed Natal in May, 1893. He had come with a view to earining some money and, simutaneously, learning more about law.

It is an intriguing fact of history how in the lives of most leaders of men there is a tranforming event what changes their lives from the ordinary to the extraordinary; from one level of existence a much higher one. And such defining moments always come unexpected and unannounced. They determine their personalities and their mode of response to the situations they confront. Perhaps the true mettle of leadership is tested in such defining moments.

Gandhi had only been in South Africa for about a week when he was asked to undertake the long trip from Natal to the capital of the Dutch-governed Transvaal province of South Africa in connection with his work. The trip involved arduous travel by train and by stagecoach. During this trip when Gandhi boarded the first train of his journey at the Pietermartizburg station, railroad officials told him that he needed to transfer to the third-class passenger car. When Gandhi, who was holding first-class passenger ticket, refused to move, a policeman came and threw him off the train.

That was not the first of the injustices Gandhi suffered in South Africa. He found himself treated, like all his compatriots, as a member of an inferior race, the child of some lesser god, in Tennyson’s phrase. He was appalled at the widespread denial of elementary civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants to South Africa. As Gandhi talked to other Indians in South Africa – all of them derogatorily called "coolies" – he found that his experiences were most definitely not isolated incidents but rather, the general norm of behaviour that Indians must endure to continue staying in that country.

Imagine that bitter cold night. Helplessly, huddled on a wooden bench in the waiting room of Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa sat a twenty-four year old barrister from India, shivering and wrestling with his self to tap his spiritual reservoirs to formulate his response to the humiliation heaped on him. The insult was his being thrown out of the first class carriage because he was brown even when he carried a valid first class ticket. What should he do? Go back to India? Acquiesce into accepting such treatment that Indians were meted out day after day? Or, stand up and revolt? If so, how? Is there in this world a mode of retaliation other than violent hit-back?

After much thought, Gandhi decided that one thing was certain: he could not let these injustices continue and that he was going to fight to change these discriminatory practices. But how? He arrived at an answer. And that was the birth of an unarmed David resolving to take on the formidable Goliath of racial discrimination. In the years to come the tiny seed of a new type of social protest conceived of in that cold night sprouted into a mighty banyan tree under whose soothing shade many a protest movement ranging from India’s gignatic independence struggle to the long-due civil rights movement in the United States, took shelter, prospered and blossomed into an alternative to resolving human conflicts through means other than violent blood spilling.

Incidentally, the Pietermartizburg railway station first commissioned in 1880 is still in use. It has several plaques and markers regarding its unique connection with Gandhi’s evolution as a political leader as a result of his jouney on June 7, 1893. On South Africa’s second anniversary as a free country the Petermaritzburg-Msunduzi Transitional Local Council met on the platform to posthumously confer the Freedom of City award on Gandhi. It was received by the then High Commissioner of India Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who, incidentally, is also the Mahatma’s grandson. Speaking on that occasion, President Nelson Mandela said, “Today, we are righting a century-old wrong. This station, once one of the world’s most notorious symbols of discrimination, intolerance and oppression, today proclaims a message of dignity restored.”

Gandhi’s Agni-pariksha

On August 22, 1906, the Transvaal government in South Africa under the British Empire gave notice of a new legislation which stipulated that all Indians, which then included Arabs and Turks, settled in the colony, to register with the Government. Fingerprints and identification marks on the person’s body were to be recorded in order to obtain a certificate of registration. Those who failed to register could be fined, sent to prison or even deported. Even children had to be brought to the Registrar to get fingerprinted.

This was the agni-prakisha – baptismal by fire – not figuratively, but very literally – of Barrister Mohandas K. Gandhi.

On Tuesday, September 11, 1906, Gandhi called a mass meeting of some 3,000 Transvaal Indians to find ways to resist the Registration Act. He felt the Act was the embodiment of “hatred of Indians” which if accepted would “spell absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa”, and therefore resisting it is a “question of life and death.”

Among these 3,000 odd people attending the meeting was one inconspicuous Indian bearing the name of Sheth Haji Habib, an old Muslim resident of South Africa. Deeply moved after listening to Gandhi’s speech, Sheth Habib stood up to tell the congregation that the Indians had to pass this resolution with God as witness and would never yield to a cowardly submission to such a degrading legislation. Gandhi later wrote in his Satyagraha in Africa (1928), that “He then went on solemnly to declare in the name of God that he would never submit to that law and advised all present to do likewise.”

Gandhi was taken aback by the suggestion. He later recorded, “I did not come to the meeting with a view to getting the resolution passed in that manner, which rebounds to the credit of Sheth Haji Habib as well as it lays a burden of responsibility upon him. I tender my congratulations to him. I deeply appreciate his suggestion, but if you adopt it you too will share his responsibility.”

At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg on 11 September 1906, Gandhi adopted his approach to non-violent protest commonly known as Satyagraha (loyalty to the truth) for the first time. He called on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the punishments for doing so, rather than resist through violent means.

However, the ordinance, which the Indians called the Black Act, was enacted  and became operative in July, 1907. Indians picketed the offices at which they were supposed to register, and when only about five hundred of the thirteen thousand Indians in the Transvaal complied with the new law, the authorities decided to act. They started arresting the leaders of the Satyagraha movement, including Gandhi, thinking this would intimidate and disperse his followers. But Gandhi, pleading guilty in the same court where he had often appeared as counsel, asked for the maximum sentence; the others followed his example.

Gandhi's first jail term was brief. He was soon summoned by distraught officials to a conference with the Boer leader, General Jan Christian Smuts. Since there was no time to change his clothes, Gandhi faced Smuts in his prison uniform.

Smuts offered Gandhi a compromise. If the local Indians registered voluntarily to prevent more immigrants from "flooding" the country, Smuts would repeal the offensive Black Act. Gandhi agreed, and he and the other political prisoners were released.

At a mass meeting in Johannesburg, Gandhi was asked what would happen if Smuts betrayed him. "A satyagrahi bids good-bye to fear," he replied. "Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the satyagrahi is ready to trust him for the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed."

To set the example, Gandhi wanted to be the first to register voluntarily, but on the way he was severely beaten by Moslems who felt he had betrayed them. But he asked that his assailants not be punished and that the blood he shed help bind the Moslems and Hindus closer together. It was a prayer he offered often but in vain.

A more painful blow awaited Gandhi. Smuts went back on his word and refused to repeal the Black Act. (Can the White Man be trusted?) In reply, the Indians met in the Hamidia mosque in Johannesburg on August 16, 1908, and burned over two thousand registration certificates in a giant cauldron. British reporters who were present compared the event to the famous Boston Tea Party. Nearly thirteen thousand unarmed Indians were boldly defying the government of the Transvaal.

The next step in Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign was to challenge legislation barring Indian immigration. He made a group of Indians cross from Natal to the Transvaal. When they were jailed, sympathizers in both colonies tried to get arrested with them. Gandhi was imprisoned for the second time and served as cook for seventy-five prisoners, for whom it was a special hardship since he cooked without condiments. "Thanks to their love for me my companions took without a murmur the half-cooked porridge I prepared without sugar," he wrote.

Gandhi was freed in December, 1908, and rearrested for a three-month term beginning in February, 1909. He spent most of his time in prison reading, and Smuts, ironically, sent him two books—both dealing with religion.

However, the works that greatly influenced Gandhi at this stage of his life were Henry David Thoreau's Essay on Civil Disobedience, which Thoreau had written after being jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a government he would not support, and The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy, in which the great Russian writer demanded that men live as Christ directed. Gandhi and Tolstoy corresponded with each other until the Russian died in 1910. In his last letter Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi, he said: "That which is called passive resistance is nothing else than the teaching of love..."

When the jails overflowed with satyagrahis, the Boers began deporting the Indians. At one time twenty-five hundred of the Transvaal Indians were in prison and another six thousand had fled or been expelled.

The arrests and treatment of protestors began to attract the attention of the world, and the British Empire squirmed uncomfortably. Gandhi, out of jail again, used his newspaper, Indian Opinion, to further press his cause. When he realized that the four colonies were going to be fused into the Union of South Africa, he went directly to London to lobby for Indian rights.

He won publicity and sympathy but little else. While he was in England, Gandhi found time to explore Britain's relationship with another colony, India, and on the long voyage back to South Africa he wrote a booklet called Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, which foreshadowed the campaign that would make him immortal.

Seeing no end to his struggle in South Africa, however, he searched for a home for his disciples when they were not in prison. His movement was generously financed by wealthy Indians, but one of the most faithful of his followers was a German industrialist named Hermann Kallenbach. Kallenbach bought eleven hundred acres of land near Johannesburg and gave them to Gandhi, who founded a settlement called Tolstoy Farm. (The Gandhi- Kallenbach relationship is the subject of another controversy.)

Men, women, and children, Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and Jews, lived at the farm with equal rights and equal responsibilities. Smoking and liquor were banned, and the few meat-eaters voluntarily became vegetarians. Anyone who had to go to Johannesburg walked over twenty miles each way. This saved a fortune in train fares and provided ample exercise, which pleased Gandhi, who in his medical views was a self-confessed quack. He believed a light diet, plenty of exercise, and a mud pack would heal anything from a headache to heart attack.

Gokhale’s Visit

In 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a prominent liberal leader of his day – later Gandhi’s political mentor – came to South Africa to investigate Indian grievances. He was graciously received by the Boers, who were lavish with their promises. "Everything has been settled," Gokhale told Gandhi. "The Black Act will be repealed. The racial bar will be removed from the emigration law." Smuts had even promised Gokhale that the annual tax on serfs who became free labourers would be lifted.

This time it was Gandhi who said, "I doubt it very much," and this time it was Gandhi who was right. The Boers again went back on every commitment they made. The following year insult was added to oppression when a white judge ruled that only Christian marriages would henceforth be recognized as legal, thereby invalidating every Hindu or Moslem marriage.

The satyagraha campaign, which had been dormant, suddenly revived. Women had never before participated; now they insisted on challenging a ruling which dishonored Indian womanhood. Gandhi examined his armies and his weapons carefully and then laid his plans. The result was a seven-year struggle in which thousands of Indians were jailed, including Gandhi; some were even shot for striking, refusing to register, burning their registration cards, and engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance.

While the government was triumphant in supressing the Indian protesters, the public outcry stemming from the ruthless methods employed by the South African government in the face of peaceful Indian protesters, finally forced South African Government under General Jan Christiaan Smuts to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi.

Concept of Satyagraha

This is how the meeting on that fateful Tuesday, September 11, 1906, unfolded. It gave mankind a new political weapon to fight oppression. That new wapon was Satyagraha.

The Sanskrit term Satyagraha loosely translated means "insistence on truth"-- satya means truth and agraha means insistence. Truth force or "soul force" is a particular philosophy and practice within the broader overall category generally known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. The term "satyagraha", it is important to highlight, was coined and developed by Gandhi. He deployed the weapon of satyagraha later in the Indian independence movement – not discussed here – as he had during his struggles in South Africa for Indian rights.

Satyagraha influenced Nelson Mandela's struggle in South Africa under apartheid, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaigns during the civil rights movement in the United States, and many other similar movements.

Gandhi always insisted that satyagraha went far beyond mere "passive resistance". It is a potent force. As he enunciated in Satyagraha in South Africa: ‘Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”’

The concept of such resistance was Gandhi’s original contribution as much to political vocabulary of our times as to the armoury of weapons to resist injustices without resort to violence. In September 1935, in a letter to P.K. Rao, a member of the Servants of India Society, Gandhi disputed the oft-made proposition that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted (if not borrowed) from the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

The statement that I had derived my idea of civil disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay of Thoreau on civil disobedience. But the movement was then known as passive resistance. As it was incomplete, I had coined the word satyagraha for the Gujarati readers. When I saw the title of Thoreau’s great essay, I began the use of his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even civil disobedience failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase civil resistance. Non-violence was always an integral part of our struggle."


Gandhi always emphasised the distinction between Satyagraha and nonviolent resistance. Also, the theory of satyagraha sees means and ends as inseparable. The means used to obtain an end are wrapped up in, and attached to, that end. Therefore, it is contradictory to try to use unjust means to obtain justice or to try to use violence to obtain peace. As Gandhi wrote: “They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end...”.

Gandhi rejected the idea that injustice should, or even could, be fought against “by any means necessary” — if you use violent, coercive, unjust means, whatever ends you produce will necessarily embed that injustice.

Over a Century Later

What is the significane of Second September 11 – this time in 1906? What does it mean to the world after over a century—106 years to be precise? Just a date of history or something very special?

It means remembering that a nonviolent alternative was conceived of in a people’s fight against injustice. It means remembering that for Gandhi, it is Truth Force that both binds people together and energizes them in their course of struggle against oppression. That is why invoking God as witness in this case reflects the degree to which a person is willing to sacrifice his/her all for “Truth” or God. It also means remembering the Muslim role in fostering such an alternative at the advent of Satyagraha or Gandhi’s nonviolence.

Most importantly, “remembering September 11, 1906” means reminding ourselves how when once ordinary people decided to do something extraordinary by freeing themselves from despair they could change their world, and without resort to violence. It can be put more effectively in a verse of poet Iqbal—forget his role in dividing India

Ghulaami mein kaam aati hain na tadbeerain na shamsheerain
Jo ho zauk-e-yaqeen paida to kat jati hain zangeerain

In a state of servitude are of no avail either strategies or weapons.
Once the courage of conviction is there, all the chains are cut asunder

It was Gandhi, above all, who gave his countrymen first in South Africa and then back in India that courage of conviction to cut asunder the chains of long-endured servitude. And for that he gave Indians as much as manking a new weapon—the weapon of Satyagraha.

Cascading Effect

It would be pertinent, I think, to refer here to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It occurred when African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating. It took place from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, and is regarded as the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the US. What led to it?

On December 1, 1955, four days before the boycott began, Rosa Parks, a frail African-American woman, refused to yield her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested and fined. She had the courage to defy an unjust law that treated blacks — then called Niggers — as inferior beings. The boycott of public buses by blacks in Montgomery began on the day of Parks' court hearing and lasted 381 days. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and one of the leaders of the boycott, a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68), emerged as a prominent national leader of the American civil rights movement in the wake of the action.

Gandhi’s incarnations will for ever keep aloft the torch of Satyagraha as non-violent protest against injustice. Satyagraha theory has influenced-- and will for all time continue to influence – many other movements of civil resistance. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his autobiography about Gandhi's influence on his developing ideas regarding the civil rights movement in the United States:

Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. ... It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.

Gandhi's combination of renunciation of violence with active acceptance of suffering also received support from Jewish thinkers, many of them survivors of the infamous Holocaust. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, both Holocaust survivors, confirmed Gandhi's experience that individuals who neither submit passively nor retaliate to violence find in themselves a new sense of strength, dignity, and courage.

Validity of Gandhi’s Way

India is among the countable countries and, perhaps, the first one to disown the Mahatma and his concepts of the struggle based on truth and non-violence. It took only a few months of independence for Gandhi to realize that he and his ideas were not relevant to the rulers who were once upon a time supposedly his followers.

‘Do not throw the baby with the bath water’ is wisdom though clichéd. The practitioners of Indian democracy made a conscious choice: they threw out the baby (Gandhi’s legacy and his philosophy) and kept the bath water (politics and corruption). And the tub gets dirtier and dirtier but no one wants to throw the water out. Does it mean Mahatma Gandhi was a failure in his very success?

Novelist-thinker Raja Rao put a question to himself: Was Gandhi defeated? He then gives his answer. Without Socrates, there can be no modern world.

The English novelist and popular philosopher, Arthur Koestler – a respected figure in twentieth-century intellectual life—was a fierce critic of Gandhi. In a famous essay, originally written in 1969, he discussed what he called the "disastrous aspects of Gandhi's life and philosophy.” He scoffed at many a fad of Gandhi and his philosophy. Yet he conceded how Gandhi invented an entirely new and humane technique for the liberation struggle of an oppressed people and carried it out with the greatest energy and devotion.

The moral influence which Gandhi has exercised upon thinking people through the civilized world may be far more durable than what appears likely in our present age, with all its exaggeration of brute force. All said and done, the work of statesmen is permanent only in so far as they arouse and consolidate the moral forces of their people.

The Swiss sociologist, Mark Juergensmeyer claims in “Gandhi’s Way” that for every conflict, between individuals, nations, religious communities and political parties, there is a Gandhian solution based on his concepts of non-coercive struggle, double advocacy and recognition of truth in the opponent’s point of view.

Karl Popper, adopts this very concept for the progress of all sciences. He said there was only one way to get towards truth – every argument should begin with the two contestants declaring ‘I may be wrong and you may be right’. He declared that every accepted scientific truth could only be a partial truth, “a move from a lower hypothesis to a higher hypothesis”. In his stress on the means adopted in various struggles, the Mahatma made the same point. “If we take care of the means, sooner or later, we are certain to reach the ends”.

It is no secret that Gandhi’s ultimate dream did not fructify – an independent united India. Does this mean that "the method" failed? Gandhi believed "the method" could never fail since it was a method of truth and love. If anything failed, he admitted "…I did." In his life-long search for truth he, like any other human beings, made mistakes and attracted criticisms. Even if these criticisms were all true, does that negate what Gandhi did for India and humanity?

There is a great deal of practical wisdom to be found in what Mahatma spoke, wrote and did. The things that so passionately concerned and motivated him need to be taken seriously. If one is interested in forging a link between private principles and public justice, the Mahatma is always there as an unfailing guide.

Without the Second 9/11 and a Gandhi there can be no world of tomorrow either for India or the world. Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote: “It can be forecast with some confidence that Gandhi’s effect on human history is going to be greater and lasting than either Stalin’s or Hitler’s”. He said this six decades ago. Those two names are already on the way out of contemporary history’s pages. What do you conclude? What’s your guess, dear readers, which name in the list of contemporary leaders, will still be around a hundred years hence?

Continued to "Your Jaw for My Tooth: The Third 9/11 of Our Times" 


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3424      Comments: 1

Comment The stories of these giants so admirably told here need to be told over and over again, specially at times of moral degeneration like the present.

kumud biswas
15-Oct-2012 23:55 PM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.