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Gandhi’s Struggle Against Apartheid

Mazhar Kibriya, in “Gandhi’s Struggle against Apartheid,” has succeeded in relating the complexity of Mahatma Gandhi’s theory and practice into a simple and highly readable book. What emerges is not a life that was written in the stars but the growth and development of an ordinary man who, in confronting the dehumanization of colonialism and apartheid in India and South Africa, became extraordinary himself. Trying to remember how famous a man was before he became famous can be an irritating exercise. This is so because their image as paragons of human perfection precede them. To see them apart from that acquired image seems almost sacrilegious. For one thing, it is seen as reflecting badly on the contemporaries of the great man. You want to kick yourself for having been unable to observe the qualities that subsequently became obvious to the whole world.

We read in Luke 4:24 of the New Testament that “no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” So it was with Gandhi. Gandhi’s transmogrification was not a Damascus moment. Mazhar Kibriya helps to walk us through this extraordinary but immensely human journey. We can see this London-trained but tongue-tied barrister who could not utter a single sentence to defend his client in his first court case in Bombay. Of course, with hindsight, we can say he was in good company. God sent Moses to reveal His purpose despite his being inarticulate.

As Mazhar Kibriya puts it, “He had no skill to conduct a case as he was not well conversant with Indian law, Indian history, and above all, human nature. After this incident, he left legal practice until he went to South Africa. Gandhi arrived in Durban in May 1893. A few weeks after his arrival, he boarded a train to Johannesburg at the service of Dada Abdullah and Company to settle a lawsuit in Pretoria. He had a first-class ticket provided by the company, befitting his middle-class status as a professional barrister-at-law. On reaching Pietermaritzburg, he was told by a railway official to move to a third-class carriage after an objection by a fellow white passenger. When he objected, he was pushed out of the train.

It was one of the coldest winter nights. ” He had encountered the dreaded disease of colour prejudice. He had to make a choice: abandon his task in South Africa and go back to India, or embark on a struggle against colour discrimination.

“My active non-violence began from that date.” (Mazhar Kibriya, p.10)

 Gandhi held a strong belief that “if we take care of the facts of a case, the law will take care of itself” (ibid., p. 14). He, therefore, imposed on himself the lifelong habit of studying the facts of each situation and speaking and acting based on complete mastery of the facts. This belief “strengthened his faith in persuasion, appeal, arbitration, and a reciprocal compromise on the grounds of facts and truth” (ibid., p. 15).

Some six years after Gandhi’s sojourn in South Africa, the Anglo-Boer war broke out between 1899 and 1902. Three personalities who were to become world statesmen in the 20th century participated in this war in different capacities.

These were:  General Jan Smuts as a war general

Winston Churchill as a journalist and prisoner of war

Mahatma Gandhi was a Stretch Bearer and Humanitarian

In an ironic twist of fate, the Gandhi statue in London stands alongside that of Winston Churchill, who once referred to Gandhi as a half-naked fakir, and that of General Jan Smuts, who imprisoned Gandhi several times in South Africa. It was while in prison in South Africa that Gandhi learned to make sandals. General Smuts was given a pair of these sandals by the then-South African Prime Minister. Smuts wore these sandals at his farm in Irene, eastern Transvaal. As Gandhi acquired fame later, General Smuts returned the sandals, saying he was not worthy to wear the sandals crafted by the hands of Gandhi.

As a stretch bearer who also tended to the wounded as a volunteer, Gandhi was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in 1915. However, on August 4, 1920, Gandhi returned the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal granted to him for his humanitarian work in South Africa and the Zulu war medal granted for services in charge of the Indian Volunteer Ambulance Corps in 1906 and as Assistant Superintendent of the Indian Volunteer Stretcher-bearer Corps between 1899 and 1900.

 But why participate in the war at all?

Firstly, the best chance for freedom from discrimination for Indians in South Africa was seen as located within what was referred to as the “British sense of fair play. The service of Indians in the war was a practical sign of their loyalty to the British Empire.

“But just after the end of the war, their services were forgotten altogether. Britain was tending Boer wounds and did not intend to wound Boer susceptibilities by redressing Indian grievances.”

Choices were being made that would shape the political development of South Africa and India for the next century and beyond. About three thousand (3000) Indian people gathered at a mass meeting led by Gandhi at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg to protest against the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance that was to be introduced in the Transvaal Legislative Council, which was effectively forced Pass laws on Indians. This meeting took place on September 11, 1906. A solemn oath was individually taken by all those in attendance not to submit to this tyrannical law and choose imprisonment. At first, Gandhi referred to this movement as “passive resistance, “one kind of mass-yet-individual opposition to government unfairness,” with a solemn vow in the name of God.

 Gandhi, however, had misgivings about a God-based struggle being articulated only in English. He, therefore, called for proposals for a more fitting name from the people for this resistance movement. Maganlal Gandhiji, a second cousin to Gandhi, proposed the name “Sadagraha,” which was amended by Gandhi to “Satyagraha”.

“The word Satyagraha was coined with the help of Gujarati words, Satya and Agraha. According to Gandhi, Satya, meaning truth, implies love, and Agraha, meaning firmness, implies force. Thus, satyagraha implies the force that is born of truth and love, or non-violence. Thus, Satyagraha means “Firmness in Truth or Firmness in Love. In other words, it may be said to be a “truth force,” “love force,” or “soul or Soul Force. A person practising this method was to be called Satyagrahi. In this way, the term Satyagraha came into existence, and the Indian movement of non-compliance began to be known as the Satyagraha movement, or simply Satyagraha.

Gandhi left South Africa for India in 1914. Already, his reputation preceded him. He was to lead the freedom movement, perfecting Satyagraha as a preeminent method of struggle until India attained its freedom in 1947. Gandhi is deservedly known as the Father of Freedom in India. Satyagraha was mutatis mutandis implemented in the Civil Rights struggle in the US and in the anti-colonial struggle in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Mazhar Kibriya In “Gandhi’s Struggle against Apartheid,” Gandhi presents all those fighting against all forms of oppression with highly readable source material.