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Lessons that can't be forgotten

Mahatma Gandhi?s satyagraha, launched 100 years ago, was born as a non-violent, political and moral force. Its relevance holds just as much today.

india Updated: Sep 09, 2006 03:56 IST

The Injustice

On August 22, 1906, the Transvaal government in South Africa under the British Empire announced a new law requiring all Indians, Arabs and Turks to register with the government. Fingerprints and identification marks on the person’s body had to be recorded to obtain a certificate of registration. Those who failed to register could be fined, sent to prison or deported. Even children had to be brought to the registrar for fingerprinting. At the time, there were less than 100,000 Indians in South Africa. But in Transvaal, there was an Indian lawyer working with a Muslim company. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The Protest

On September 11, 1906, Gandhi called a meeting of some 3,000 Transvaal Indians to find ways to resist the Registration Act. He felt the act embodied ‘hatred of Indians’ which if complied with, would ‘spell absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa’, and therefore resisting it was a ‘question of life and death’. Gandhi addressed the assembled Indians: “The government has taken leave of all sense of decency. We will be betraying our unworthiness and cowardice if we cannot stake our all...” He told them they might be jailed; they might be beaten and insulted; lose their jobs, their wealth. “But I can declare with certainty,” Gandhi exclaimed, “that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle — and that is victory.”

Among the 3,000 people at the meeting was Sheth Haji Habib, an old Muslim resident of South Africa. Deeply moved by Gandhi’s speech, Sheth Habib spoke up that the Indians had to pass the resolution with God as witness and could never yield a cowardly submission to such a degrading legislation. Gandhi wrote of him later in 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.” Though Sheth Habib was known for his fiery temper, his action on September 11 was splendid, because his defiance of an unjust law spelt willingness to suffer the consequences in ‘a spiritually-endowed fight for justice in the name of God.’

Walking the Talk

The path was predictably thorny. The government’s stern punishment caused many to abandon the movement. Some resisters were deported to India with loss of property. At one time, of the 13,000 Indians living in Transvaal, 2,500 were in jail and 6,000 had fled the province. Some resisters served five prison terms in quick succession, courting a new jail sentence the moment they finished the previous one. Some were tortured, some were killed.
News of these events was cabled to India and England. There was a public outcry in India and the authorities grew alarmed. Meanwhile, as plans were made for a mass march in South Africa, in a completely separate event, white railroad employees went on strike over other issues. Gandhi immediately called off the march: “It is not part of satyagraha to destroy, hurt, humble, or embitter the adversary. Resisters hope, by sincerity, chivalry and self-suffering, to convince the opponent’s brain and conquer his heart. They never take advantage of the government’s difficulty or form unnatural alliances.” Many white people appreciated this gesture.

How Smuts’ heart smote him

The government began to change its stand. “You can’t put 20,000 Indians in jail,” General Smuts declared in defense of his new, conciliatory attitude. The laws were changed. Over 30 years later, Smuts recalled, “It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect... He never forgot the human background of the situation, never lost his temper or succumbed to hate, and preserved his gentle humour even in the most trying situations. His manner and spirit then, as later, contrasted markedly with the ruthless and brutal forcefulness that is the vogue in our day... His method was deliberately to break the law, and to organise his followers into a mass movement ...large numbers of Indians had to be imprisoned for lawless behaviour...”

The Jewel of Kismet

The fact is, Gandhi disliked the term and thought of ‘passive resistance’. Satyagraha is a combination of satya (truth-love) and agraha (firmness/force). It is the ‘the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.’ Violence and anger only create bitterness in the victim and brutality in the attacker. Instead, satyagraha is peaceful. Opponents must be converted by a demonstration of purity, humility and honesty. Converted. Not annihilated.

Appealing to the common sense and morality of one’s adversary was the key. “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow human beings,” wrote Gandhi. Satyagraha assumes there is a constant dialogue between the opponents with a view to ultimate reconciliation. Insults, threats and propaganda only serve to obstruct the goal.

First Published: Sep 09, 2006 03:56 IST