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Book excerpt: The South African Gandhi can change your views

A new book on MK Gandhi’s years in South Africa dispels the widely-held notion that he believed in racial equality. The Gandhi of that era at least was intent on convincing Europeans that Indians, their Aryan brothers, were quite unlike Africans. An excerpt

books Updated: Sep 26, 2015 14:07 IST
HT Correspondent

A new book on MK Gandhi’s years in South Africa dispels the widely-held notion that he believed in racial equality. The Gandhi of that era at least was intent on convincing Europeans that Indians, their Aryan brothers, were quite unlike Africans. An excerpt...

Gandhi was twenty-four years old when he arrived in Natal in May 1893, the month in which white settlers celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Natal’s annexation by the British Crown. …

Gandhi was … struggling to establish a law practice in Bombay when the firm of Dada Abdulla & Co… offered him a year-long contract to assist in a legal matter on the southern tip of Africa. Gandhi took up the offer… There were roughly as many Indians as whites in the colony when Gandhi landed at Port Natal. Natal’s population was pegged at 584,326 in 1893. Whites numbered 45,707 (8 percent) and Indians 35,411 (6 percent). Zulus made up almost 85 percent of the population.

British settlers had established an unofficial trading station at Port Natal in 1824. Some five thousand Boers-literally ‘farmer’ in Dutch, referring to Europeans of Dutch origin-arrived at the settlement in 1838 from the Cape seeking to escape British rule. …

The Boers defeated the Zulu king, Dingane, but were unable to impose control over the indigenous Zulu who numbered around fifty thousand by 1843… The British responded to the possible Boer threat… by annexing Natal in 1843... British settlers… succeeded in growing sugar… Settlers turned to Indian indenture to address the labour crisis. In all, 152,184 indentured migrants arrived in Natal between 1860 and 1911. Their contracts were for five years, which many endured under harsh employers and ghastly barrack-like living conditions…

Central to the imperial project in this part of the British Empire was the subjugation of the Zulu…

The Zulu defeat, historian Shula Marks writes, ‘tilted the balance of power between independent African kingdoms and white settlers all over the region’…

This is the canvas against which the arrival of Indians in Natal from 1860 must be viewed. The Indian population included indentured workers… and ‘time-expired’ Indians who had… made Natal ‘home’... A steady trickle of Indians followed the discovery of diamonds to Kimberley in the 1870s and then in the 1880s the gold rush into the Transvaal (see Bhana and Brain 1990).

This dispersal of Indians across the colony, their trespassing into white trading and residential monopolies, and their ability to undercut prices and offer credit to white and black customers alike, raised the ire of many settlers. ..

The construction of whiteness

In Natal, as was the case in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, colonial expansion was accompanied by the permanent settlement of a European population which relied on succour from the metropole and which sought to establish political and economic conditions and distinct legal and social structures that were favourable to itself. This privileging was given legitimacy by the ideology of racism that favoured Europeans over indigenous peoples and Indian migrants...

The law was used as a blunt instrument to ensure that Indians did not threaten white supremacy. Each year brought more laws, restrictions and penalties around political rights, trade restrictions, land ownership, freedom of movement, and immigration as settlers, preoccupied with race and concerns about ‘degeneration’, sought to make a clear distinction between themselves and the indigenous (African) and exogenous (Indian) racial/ethnic groups.

Gandhi felt the weight of white power virtually upon his arrival in the colony. … Gandhi was thrown off a first- class train compartment at Pietermaritzburg on the night of 7 June 1893 when a white passenger protested against sharing the carriage with a ‘coolie’. Gandhi sent a telegram of protest to the railways manager and was allowed to board the train the following night…

…Gandhi was due to return to India in April 1894 when a bill abolishing Asian enfranchisement was introduced in the Natal Parliament. Indian merchants asked Gandhi to assist them in resisting …

Gandhi appealed for fair-mindedness from colonial authorities and local whites. He published the lengthy The Indian Franchise: An Appeal to Every Briton in South Africaon 16 December 1895.

Indians, as a rule, do not actively meddle in politics. They have never tried to usurp political power anywhere. Their religion (no matter whether it be Mohammedan or Hindu, the teaching of ages cannot be obliterated by a mere change of name) teaches them indifference to material pursuits. Naturally they are satisfied so long as they can earn a respectable living. I take the liberty to say that, had not an attempt been made to tread upon their commercial pursuits, to degrade them to the condition of pariahs of society ... there would have been no franchise agitation.

Gandhi argued that Indians were ‘as much civilised as a “model” European’ and that Indian villages had representative government long before the Anglo-Saxons. ‘It is true that England “wafts her scepter” over India. The Indians are not ashamed of that fact. They are proud to be under the British Crown, because they think that England will prove India’s deliverer’…

White public sentiment was against Gandhi. …

Gandhi returned to India in July 1896 to publicise the Indian plight in Natal and to bring back his family. At a speech in Bombay on 26 September 1896, Gandhi stated that whites in Natal desired to ‘degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness’… In Rajkot, he publishedThe Green Pamphlet that highlighted discrimination against Indians… Importantly, during this trip he came to the attention of Gopal Krishna Gokhale who would become his mentor…

The noose of racial discrimination and legislative control kept tightening… Indians were subject to open hostility and contempt on the streets of Natal…

Lawyer, activist and statesman Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948) addresses a farewell meeting before leaving South Africa for England, South Africa, July 1914. It was at this time that the honorific 'Mahatma' ('Great Soul') was first applied to him. (Getty Images)

Legislation to keep Asians out of Natal was part of a wider project to entrench white hegemony by subjugating Africans and redefining political boundaries in southern Africa. The Zulu king Dinuzulu was tried for treason in 1887 and exiled to St Helena and his kingdom declared a Crown colony. … The subjugation of the Zulu had its parallels across southern Africa where the Sotho, Gcaleka and Pedi were all ‘finally conquered and subordinated to settler society and incorporated into a world dominated by British capital and imperial institutions’.

The importation of indentured labour from India … resulted in a ‘triangular relationship’ involving European settlers, the indigenous Zulu peoples, and exogenous Indian others… the introduction of indentured labour undermined the negotiating power of the Zulu vis-à-vis white settlers. …

The relationship between the indentured and Africans was marked by distance. Where they did meet, it was just to touch at the fingertips. Exacerbating this was the way in which Gandhi decided to challenge the afflictions facing Indians.

In The Green Pamphlet Gandhi objected to the fact that ‘Indians are classed with the natives of South Africa-Kaffir races’. For example, Indians had to use the same entrance as Africans at the post office in Durban. ‘We felt the indignity too much and ... petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans.’ Gandhi was irate that ‘the sons of this land of light [India] are despised as coolies and treated as Kaffirs’...

The Aryan moment

Gandhi… emphasised the Aryan connection of Indians in his “Open Letter” to the Natal Parliament on 19 December 1893:

I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan.... This belief serves as the basis of operations of those who are trying to unify the hearts of the two races, which are, legally and outwardly, bound together under a common flag. A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.... The Indians were, and are, in no way inferior to their Anglo-Saxon brethren, if I may venture to use the word, in the various departments of life-industrial, intellectual, political, etc.’…

The ‘Aryan moment’, as the historian Colin Kidd calls it, was associated with the nineteenth-century theory of language, which postulated that there existed an Indo-European language family that comprised Sanskrit spoken in North India, Persian and the languages of Europe. Kidd adds that philologists argue that the language is ‘expressive of the mental state of a people’… Ballantyne writes that ‘British Orientalist knowledge’ was central to the new nationalist and Hindu ‘identities fashioned by South Asian elites.... The Aryan community... was a vehicle for some for stressing kinship with the British rulers and praising the gifts of the Raj’… These Orientalist ideas, according to Raychaudhuri, were received with incredible enthusiasm. The belief that the white masters were not very distant cousins of their brown Aryan subjects provided a much-needed salve to the wounded ego of the dependent elite. A spate of ‘Aryanism’ was unleashed. The word ‘Aryan’ began to feature in likely as well as unlikely places-from titles of periodicals to the names of street corner shops...

This discourse emphasised the racial superiority of Indians vis-à-vis Africans and produced a strong Hindu national consciousness. Other Indians used the Aryan theory for cultural revival. The Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj movements were two important manifestations of this. Even Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak, leader of the radical faction of the INC, and co-founder of the Indian Home Rule League during the First World War, ‘tried to synthesise Indian and western tradition to create a history that established the sophistication and superiority of Vedic India’ in his 1903 study,The Arctic Home of the Vedas…

This biological outlook was stretched into an ideological outlook that sought to make common cause with a marauding British colonial power in South Africa. Gandhi was partial to the idea of Indo-Aryan bloodlines. The Black African stood outside and below these civilised standards. This echoed a broader global context in which race had become a dominant theme in Western intellectual life in the nineteenth century…European industrial progress and the conquest of black peoples were seen as the empirical evidence of racial science which offered Europeans a clear validation of their superior place in the world. …

During his African years Gandhi showed a reluctance to let go of the idea that his so-called British Indians were naturally the allies of whites, just another kind of settler…

The Gandhian vision sought to embrace diasporic Indians and claim affinity with Europeans as (civilised) Aryans and imperial citizens. This vision was conspicuous in its exclusion of Africans. Gandhi’s newspaper Indian Opinion, for example, had little to say about Africans. Hofmeyr writes that ‘Gandhi had neighbours like John Dube with whom he wanted little to do’…. While Phoenix, where Gandhi opened a settlement in 1904, was in close proximity to Dube’s Ohlange Institute, ‘the leaders of these two remarkable communities kept their distance and met rarely.... Both expounded different versions of “race pride” with Dube involved in redeeming “Africa” and Gandhi in nurturing “India”’… Hofmeyr adds that Gandhi and Dube, ‘each involved in creating his own miniature “continent”, defined themselves in opposition to each other, admiring each other’s projects from afar but deprecating each other’s “people”...’…

John Langalibalele Dube… was the first president of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which was founded in 1912 and became the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923. He launched the Zulu language newspaper Ilanga Lase Natalin April 1903, two months before Indian Opinion was established…

What we have in this period was ‘a deliberate distancing of each other by Gandhi and John Dube, a recognition on rare occasions, that they might have common interests but a determination to pursue them separately’ .

The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire

Ashwin Desai, Goolam Vahed

Navayana

Rs 595; pp 343