A South African friend once told this writer: ‘You sent us a lawyer: we gave you back a Mahatma’. That is true. In 1893, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sailed for Durban to mediate in a dispute between two Gujarati merchants.
He stayed more than two decades, working as a lawyer, friend, mentor and leader of the Indians in the diaspora. Based first in Natal and then in the Transvaal, he developed a moral and political philosophy that he then sought to apply, on a far wider scale, to India after his return in 1915.
Had he practiced law in Rajkot or Bombay (his original plan), Gandhi would scarcely have grown out of the insular, conventional, Bania world he was raised in. It was by going overseas that he learnt to appreciate the social and cultural heterogeneity of his homeland.
The merchants Gandhi first represented in South Africa were Muslims. When the Gujaratis who had originally supported his satyagrahas dropped out, his movement—and his morale—was kept going by Tamil activists, led by a remarkable man named Thambi Naidoo, whose sons and eventually also his wife courted arrest in Gandhi’s cause.
Gandhi’s social consciousness was also deepened by his encounters with European radicals. Kasturba and he shared a home in Johannesburg with a British couple named Henry and Millie Polak.
Henry was a Jew, with a natural empathy with the underdog, who assisted Gandhi in his law practice, helped run his journal Indian Opinion, and made several trips to the subcontinent to raise awareness about the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. Millie was a Christian socialist with strong feminist leanings.
She pushed Gandhi to take women’s rights more seriously, while encouraging Kasturba to be less submissive to her often overbearing husband.
South Africa was also the laboratory for satyagraha, the technique of non-violent resistance that is Gandhi’s lasting legacy to India and the world. Between 1906 and 1909, and again in 1913, he led his compatriots in movements against discriminatory laws and practices. Several thousand Indians courted imprisonment.
Gandhi himself underwent four jail terms. In the course of the struggle, he closely interacted with Indians of low caste and Dalit backgrounds.
It was in the diaspora, therefore, that Gandhi elaborated the core elements of his credo: the promotion of Hindu-Muslim harmony, the respect for linguistic diversity, the mitigation of caste and gender inequalities, the eschewing of violent methods to resist oppression.
These were the methods and beliefs he brought home to India, applying them, with uneven success, in his lifetime.
Sixty-five years after Gandhi’s death, should we still remember him? As amoral politicians stoke Hindu-Muslim violence in Uttar Pradesh, as Dalits are attacked in southern Tamil Nadu for asking for rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as Naxalites in Orissa and jihadis in Kashmir intimidate and kill in pursuit of their political programme, as male patriarchs all over India suppress and brutalize women—the life and example of Mohandas K. Gandhi remain compellingly relevant.
[Ramachandra Guha is an Indian historian and writer. His new book, Gandhi Before India, will be releasing this week.]