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... With love from the Mahatma

Gandhi's gesture converted his sworn enemy General Smuts into an ardent admirer, writes Satyen Mohapatra.

india Updated: Jan 29, 2007 23:10 IST

This is the story of a man who had the privilege of wearing a pair of sandals made by Mahatma Gandhi.General Jan C Smuts, who used to be an adversary of the Mahatma,eventually turned an admirer of the Indian leader.

The ongoing centenary celebrations of the Satyagraha movement in New Delhi includes an exclusive panel on Smuts as part of the photo exhibition.

Referring to the interesting anecdote from history, Director of Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, Dr Savita Singh, says that the clash between General Smuts who was the administrator of South Africa and Mahatma Gandhi eventually turned out to be the triumph of the spirit of Satyagraha.

Singh says Gandhi was able to see the "compassionate" heart behind Smuts' stern exterior and change it with love.

In Pietermaritzburg prison Gandhi opted for leatherwork and made a pair of sandals. While leaving South Africa, he handed over the sandals to his secretary Sonja Schlesin, asking her to deliver them to Smuts as a gift. Smuts wore them every summer at his Doornkloof farm at Irene near Pretoria.

When Gandhi turned seventy, General Smuts returned the sandals back as a gesture of friendship. In a Gandhi memorial volume for the occasion he wrote, "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…

"That clash on the small stage of South Africa brought out certain qualities of Gandhi's character which have since become more prominently displayed in his later, large scale operations in India."

Smuts seemed deeply influenced by Gandhi's non-violent ways.

He wrote, "We had a skeleton in our cupboard. An old tax on Indians intended to induce them to return to India after their period of service on the sugar plantation had been completed. Gandhi tackled this problem and in doing so, showed a technique, which he afterwards made world famous in his political campaigns in India. His method was to break the law, and to organise his followers into a mass movement of passive resistance in disobedience to the law objected to."

"Large numbers of Indians had to be imprisoned for lawless behaviour and Gandhi himself received what no doubt he desired - a short period of rest and quiet in gaol. For him everything went according to plan. For me - the defender of law and order - there was the usual trying condition."

The adversary-turned-admirer of Gandhi went on to acknowledge his greatness when he wrote: "In gaol he had prepared for me a very useful pair of sandals which he presented to me when he was set free! I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man! Anyhow it was in that spirit that we fought out our quarrels in South Africa. There was no hatred or personal ill feeling, the spirit of humanity was the atmosphere which kept the peace between the races for many years."