The rise of Mahatma

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a young 24-year-old barrister, arrived in South Africa in 1893 to represent an Indian trader.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2006 11:56 IST

"You sent us a Mohandas Gandhi and we returned to you a Mahatma."


Most Asians in South Africa have descended from indentured Indian labourers who were brought by the British from India in the 19th century, mostly to work in what is now the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Thousands of poor and illiterate Indians were enticed to go to South Africa with promises of attractive wages and repatriation after five years or the right to settle in Natal as free men.

Starting from 1860, over 152,000 Indians arrived in South Africa until 1911 when the Indenture System came to an end.

After some time, the whites faced serious competition from the Asian labourers who became successful market gardeners after the expiry of their indenture.

They began an agitation to make it impossible for Indians to live in Natal except in semi-slavery as indentured labourers.

The Indian traders who had settled in the Boer Republic of Transvaal were also subjected to similar discrimination, while Indians were excluded from the Orange Free State.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a young 24-year-old barrister, arrived in South Africa in 1893 to represent an Indian trader in Natal in a civil suit against an Indian trading firm in Pretoria.

Within days, he encountered bitter humiliations such as being pushed out of a train and being assaulted for walking on a footpath.

The experience made him all the more strong: He decided never to accept or be resigned to injustice and racism, but to resist.

In 1894, Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress to agitate for Indian rights. In 1896, he began to teach a policy of passive resistance to, and non-cooperation with, the South African authorities. All this subsequently led to the birth of Satyagraha.

As Nelson Mandela puts it:"Indeed it was on the South African soil the Mahatmaji founded and embraced the philosophy of Satyagraha".

It was in 1906 that Gandhi declared that he would go to jail or even die before obeying an anti-Asian law. Thousands of Indians joined him in this civil disobedience campaign.

He organised strikes on the coalfields and sugar plantations and led a march of Indians from Natal to the Transvaal to protest the measures put in place by the Immigration Act. He was arrested several times.

In 1914, the government of the Union of South Africa made important concessions to Gandhi's demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them.

First Published: Sep 30, 2006 11:56 IST