Journey of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa to India

Departure from India

After graduating in Law from the University College, London at the age of 22, Mahatma Gandhi was called to the Indian bar council in June 1981. The bad news was waiting for him upon arrival, as he learned that his mother (Putlibai) had died when he was in London and that his family had chosen not to inform him. Nevertheless, he decided to start his law practice from Bombay; though, he wasn’t successful as he failed to cross-examine witnesses due to his shy nature.

Gandhi decided to return to Rajkot, Gujarat and earn a living by petitions for litigations. However, there also had to stop in the middle when he ran into conflict with an English officer named Sam Sunny.

It was in 1893 when luck again seemed to favor Gandhi. A wealthy merchant named Dada Abdullah, from Kathiawar Gujarat, with a successful shipping business in South Africa contacted him. Abdullah’s distant cousin in Johannesburg needed a counselor; someone preferably from the Kathiawar region. After inquiring about his salary he was informed that he will be paid £ 105 and travel expenses. Gandhi readily accepted and set sail to South Africa in April 1893 at the age of 23.

Arrival in Africa and the Ordeal

It was in late May 1893 that Gandhi landed in Durban. From day one of his arrival in Durban, Gandhi started experiencing racial discrimination, not only at public places but also at work. It is important to reckon that South Africa at that time was a British colony. Reportedly, on his first day in a Durban court, he was asked by a European Magistrate to remove his turban. Gandhi, however, refused to abide and moved out of the court.

Gandhi had sensed the discrimination faced by the Indian community in Africa from day one. He felt it everywhere – in public transport, in markets, and in other places. Indians were looked upon as inferiors and were deprived of many privileges, unlike an equal and democratic society.

Birth of a Reformer

An incident that occurred a week later of his ordeal in the court, stirred up something revolutionary in otherwise shy and introvert Gandhi.

A week later while traveling to Pretoria by train, Gandhi boarded the first-class compartment with a legitimate first-class ticket. At Pietermaritzburg station, a white passenger, supposedly offended by the presence of a black guy in first-class, got a railway guard to get Gandhi out of the coach.

Gandhi refused to leave and thus was thrown out, despite having the first-class ticket. The experience was bitter enough to have caused an introvert and shy Gandhi to return to India, but destiny had something else in mind on that cold night.

Trying to recover from the ordeal Gandhi receded to an unlit waiting room at the Pietermaritzburg Station. He could have easily decided to return on the ground that his employers haven’t informed him of the conditions of Indians in South Africa. But, that night, Gandhi refused to succumb to injustice but instead decided to raise his voice. The white fellow passenger, the first-class compartment and the guard all became the initiators of a change that night.

Introspecting on his bitter experience, Gandhi made a resolve to himself that he will not be another victim of racial discrimination in South Africa. He would rather raise his voice and resist rather than accepting the humiliation.

Ashy and introvert Gandhi who couldn’t counter examine witnesses in Mumbai court was transformed overnight into an assertive reformer.

 

A Month’s Extension of Stay

Gandhi’s initial days on reaching Pretoria were not much politically active; though he started educating Indians about their rights and privileges they should legally get. Gandhi had come to South Africa on a year’s contract with his employer. When the contract came to an end, Gandhi returned to Durban, ready to sail back to India.

When the day of Gandhi’s departure was just around the corner, his employer gave a farewell party in his honor. It was at the party while reading a local newspaper “The Natal Mercury”, he learned about a Disfranchisement bill, being considered by the Natal Legislative Assembly, which would deprive Indians of their right to vote in South Africa.

By this time Gandhi had been able to gain the confidence in Indians as someone who could fight for their rights in a remote land. They requested Gandhi to cancel his return to India and be their counsel.

Paying heed to the Indian community, Gandhi decided to extend his stay for a month. He was only 25 years old when he took the responsibility to fight on behalf of the Indians in South Africa. It was in July 1894.

A Gandhi who had no interest in politics and who would shy away from interactions and be overpowered by stage fear while cross-examining witnesses in India, suddenly transformed into a political campaigner in South Africa, barely aged 25.

First Political Campaign and Formation of Natal Indian Congress (NIC)

Gandhi’s first campaign in South Africa was against the passage of the bill depriving Indians of their right to vote. He personally drafted petitions addressed to the Natal Legislature and the British Government and the petitions were signed by hundreds of fellow Indians.

Though he was unsuccessful in deferring the passage of the bill and the Disfranchisement Bill was passed; nevertheless, Gandhi’s campaign successfully got enough press coverage and the plight of Natal Indians was now known to people in India and England.

Once again, his month’s extension coming to an end, Gandhi was ready to sail back to India. He was again requested by his companions to stay back and fight for their rights. The request was more assertive this time in the wake of the passage of the bill. Few of the merchants also proposed to remunerate for his stay and work. This time again Gandhi agreed to stay back.

 

Gandhi’s Political Strategy

Gandhi was of the opinion that Indians in South Africa need an active and permanent political organization that would provide a voice and leverage their demands. Thus, he formed one and named it “Natal Indian Congress”. Gandhi chose the name to honor the Dadabhai Noroji, 1893 President of the Indian National Congress.

Though inspired by the Indian National Congress, the Natal Indian Congress was quite different in its functioning than the former. It wasn’t an organization of only elite class as the congress had been.

From the beginning, Gandhi had made it very clear that they will be fighting for the rights of Indians in Africa and he would personally accept no extravagance by anyone in his organization. Gandhi’s idea of a political party was completely aloof from others. While in other political parties, members chose to stick with the party in either right or wrong; Gandhi deferred and accepted no foul play or extravagance. He was both the driving force behind the Indian Natal Congress as well as its greatest critique.

He also understood well the social structure of Indians in South Africa. Muslims from India were mostly merchants and Parsis were employed as clerks while Madrasis and Natal are born Indian Christians were mostly employed as laborers. He professed that there is an urgent need to develop solidarity and communal as well as cultural harmony among them.

The strategy of Gandhi and his inexhaustible work ethics had made Natal Indian Congress a success. The organization and its campaigns got enormous press coverage and were regularly mentioned in newspapers like The Times (London), the Statesman, etc. The governments in the British colony of India as well as England were now aware of the grievances of Natal Indians and the works of the Indian Natal Congress.

A Brief Return to India and Comeback

  • Gandhi returned to India in 1896 to garner support for his campaign in South Africa and also to fetch his wife and children.
  • While in India he did everything he could to gather support for Natal Indians and to popularize their grievances. By the time he came back to India, Gandhi was already a renowned name in Indian political circles, making him easy to leverage his efforts.
  • He met Indian politicians, mainly from the Indian National Congress, telling them about the Natal Government’s Disfranchising Bill and the humiliating condition of the Indian community there. He gave interviews to newspapers and drew statements and opinions from Indian politicians.
  • Finally, Gandhi succeeded in giving enough voice to his cause, so much so that the situation got embarrassing for the Natal Government and it stepped back on Disfranchising Bill, stopping its passage.
  • The news of Gandhi’s campaigning in India was regularly reaching South Africa and his statements often distorted and understood as anti-British, caused unrest and rage among the local British and European population.
  • Gandhi had to cut short his stay in India, due to a telegram send by his compatriots in South Africa, summoning his return, possibly because of the growing anti-Indian sentiments there.
  • Gandhi sailed back to Durban with his wife and children on 30th November 1896. However, the comeback was not very pleasing as the ship which he was upon was held under siege for 23 days. There were rumors afloat in South Africa that he is bringing a huge populace of Indians to permanently settle in Durban. This rumor enraged African whites and filled them with hatred for Indians and Gandhi.
  • Gandhi was also assaulted and narrowly escaped being mob lynched by Europeans. The news of the ordeal of Gandhi reached India and England, causing, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, to immediately issue an order to the Natal Government to prosecute those involved in cowardly lynching attempt.
  • Once again Gandhi displayed his generous nature by not pressing charges against those involved in the assault. He said that they were possibly misinformed and misled and will shed the vengeance once they understood his real intentions.

Role in the Anglo-Boer War

The second Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899. The war was between Boer Republics in Africa and the British Empire.

Despite being sympathetic towards Boers, Gandhi supported the British in the war. He also asked fellow Indians to support the British in this situation, because it is as British subjects that they claim their own rights.

During the war, Gandhi along with one Dr. Booth trained around 1100 volunteers in providing emergency medical care to British soldiers, and named it “The Ambulance Corps”. The works of the Ambulance Corps were highly appreciated when the war drew to end in 1901. This eased out a little the position of Indians in Africa.

First Satyagraha in SA

After the second Anglo-Boer war, Gandhi started practicing Satyagraha, by abstaining from physical and psychological manifestations. He briefly returned to India to attend the session of the Indian National Congress and was pleased with the passage of his resolution on South Africa. Shortly after that he was once again called by the Natal Indian community.

In 1906 the Transvaal government in South Africa published an ordinance making it mandatory for Indian citizens to register themselves. This was quite humiliating for Indians who had been living in South Africa for decades or were either born there.

Indians gathered at Johannesburg in a mass meeting under the leadership of Gandhi and resolved to defy the ordinance if it culminated in a law. This was the beginning of a new form of protest without involving a speck of hatred and violence.

In the ensuing eight years, the principles and techniques of Satyagraha were more evolved under the personal guidance of Gandhi. Thousands of Indians in South Africa stood their ground of peacefully protesting against the humiliating and oppressive discriminations.

With each passing year, the protest became more patriotic and by 1913, hundreds of Indian men and women voluntarily faced imprisoned and physical atrocity. This barbarous conduct by the Government of South Africa was hugely criticized by the British Government in India and England, forcing the South African government to go easy on Indians.

The almost eight years long Satyagraha culminated in success with the South African Government materializing Gandhi-Smuts agreement, mostly under international pressure. Not all the issues of Indians were addressed, the first was racial discrimination. Nevertheless, it proved to be the harbinger of setting up South Africa as a democratic republic.

Gandhi and Black Africans’ Rights

During his initial years in South Africa, Gandhi committed himself to crusade only for the rights of the Indian community there.  He was of the opinion that native Africans were a different race from Indians and Britishers. Many historians argue that opinion of Gandhi on Africans was made clear by his statement, while addressing Natal Indian Congress in 1895, for seeking voting rights; he is known to have quoted racial history and European scholars than by saying “Anglo-
Saxons and Indians are sprung from the same Aryan stock or rather the Indo-European people. He further stated that Indians should not be included with Africans.

Gradually as the years progressed Gandhi became more vocal about the rights of Indians as well as black Africans. He and his followers had also nursed the sick Africans whom the European doctors and nurses refrained from. Many historians believed that what Gandhi did in Africa, provided a stable ground and a methodology of protest through Satyagraha to the native Africans.

When the British declared war on Zulu in 1906; Gandhi with his group of volunteers again formed an ambulance corps especially to help injured black Africans. He was of the opinion that this expression of solidarity was essential for the Britishers to change their minds on racial discrimination.

Gandhi established an idealistic community with his friend Hermann Kallenbach at Johannesburg called “Tolstoy Farm”. It was formed to profess Gandhi’s policy of peaceful resistance.

In 1994 when black South Africans got the right to vote in South Africa, Gandhi was proclaimed a national hero. The statues of Gandhi were erected in several places in South Africa.

Return of Mahatma Gandhi to India

The fame of Gandhi’s struggle, policies and successes had spread quickly to India. He was contacted by the social reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale to return to India. Gokhale had sent a message to Gandhi through C.F. Andrews who was also a social reformer. Gokhale understood the fact that Gandhi had evolved into an international face of Indian nationalism and wanted to use this fact for asserting Indian causes.

On the request of Gokhale, Gandhi returned to India in 1915. He was received as a national hero at Mumbai port. He joined Indian National Congress and was introduced to the Indian political status by Gokhale.

The Gandhi who had returned was completely changed from the Gandhi who had left for South Africa 23 years back. The shy and introvert barrister had transformed into an assertive and vocal national hero.