Nothing in Johannesburg bears the remotest resemblance to what this South African city looked like more than a hundred years ago. At least, the images captured in records of the time are far removed from what we see today, as are the social and political realities that separate today’s South Africa from that which shaped the destiny and politics of an unheard of Gujarati lawyer who is now remembered across the world as Mahatma Gandhi.
As part of its discriminatory policy towards Asians (essentially Indians who had come to South Africa as indentured labour and many of whom were now established as traders) the authorities of Transvaal had decided to introduce the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance which required Indians, including children, to be finger-printed, carry passes, and live and work in segregated areas.
The proposed law also banned any fresh migration of Indians and barred those who had left the Transvaal during the South African war of 1899 from returning home.
Understandably, people were up in arms and hugely agitated. On September 11, 1906, a meeting was organised at Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, attended by 3,000 Indians and addressed by a Gujarat lawyer then simply known as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. “The old Empire Theatre was packed from floor to ceiling. I could read in every face the expectation of something strange to be done or happen,” Gandhi was to later recall in the book, Satyagraha in South Africa.
While many of the agitated Indians wanted to register their protest by taking recourse to violent means, Gandhi disagreed. He offered an alternative method that was to later take form as satyagraha, a deadly yet deeply ethical weapon of resistance against suppression and discrimination in the Empire and beyond.
It was at Gandhi’s prodding that on another 9/11, remarkably different from the one on which Mohammed Atta and his band of jihadis wreaked havoc in the US and unleashed a terrible war that continues to rage, a resolution was adopted to marshal peaceful means of protest: “Indians solemnly determined not to submit to the Ordinance in the event of its becoming law and to suffer all the penalties attaching to such non-submission.”
Elaborating on what was then an incipient concept, Gandhi told the gathering, “We might have to endure every hardship that we can imagine, and wisdom lies in pledging ourselves on the understanding that we shall have to suffer all that and worse. If someone asks me when and how the struggle may end, I may say that if the entire community manfully stands the test, the end will be near.
If many of us fall back under storm and stress, the struggle will be prolonged. But I can boldly declare, and with certainty, that so long as there are even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can only be one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”
History informs us that a day after the meeting of September 11, 1906, Empire Theatre was gutted in a mysterious fire. “Friends brought me the news... and congratulated the community upon this good omen, which signified to them that the Ordinance would meet the same fate as the theatre,” Gandhi recalled in his later years.
There was no victory in that battle as the Ordinance became law and the humiliation heaped on Indians and later Blacks turned relentless. Yet, the seed of satyagraha was sown and over the course of the next three decades become the moral underpinning of India’s struggle for independence.
When the Congress celebrated the centenary of satyagraha, it was in the company of politicians who have never demonstrated any commitment to Gandhian values or the Mahatma’s concept of ethical politics rooted in dharma. The only political party to have been left out of the celebrations, which were organised by the Congress but funded by the Government, was the then main Opposition party, the BJP.
Asked to explain the omission, a Congress worthy retorted, “This is not a town hall meeting.” The event may not have been a town hall meeting, but the one at Johannesburg that saw the launch of satyagraha was open to all.
The BJP may have forgotten that slur. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t. He remembers that exclusion and is now making up for it with extra vigour.
First it was appropriating Gandhi Jayanti for his Swachh Bharat mission, thus freeing it from the rigor mortis of the Congress. And now, Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas has been timed to coincide with the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa. Such are the ironies of history.
The writer is a senior journalist based in NCR. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta