Initial years

The story of MK Gandhi started in 1893 when a 25 yr old barrister began a struggle of Indians against racial discrimination.

The 1890 was a period when Indian labor to South Africa had started. The laborers were called to work in sugar farms, following them were Indian merchants and traders. A third group who lived was ex laborers whose contract had ended and they lived with their children. All of them had no access to education.

It was at this time that MK Gandhi an English educated barrister came to South Africa. Young Gandhi hadn’t faced overt racism at any point in his life either in India or England. But when he was in South Africa he had tolerate racism from hotel owners, railways and even other South Africans.

After reaching Pretoria he called a meeting of all Indians there and asked them to protest against oppression. He also tried to arouse the Indians to a sense of own dignity and persuade them to resist all types of racial discrimination.

After settling the law suit for which he had come he was about to leave when the South African government passed a law to disenfranchise Indians. He was asked by the Indians there to stay for a month and draft their petitions. He went on to stay for 25 yrs. He being English educated demanded many facilities as a matter of right which the other Indians didn’t.

They felt that they were being discriminated as they weren’t westernized but Gandhiji showed them that the real reason was assumption of racial superiority by the South Africans. Many of the senior merchants of the Indian community chose him as the leader as he alone could speak to the rulers in their language.

Highlights of the struggle by Gandhiji: Return to India

Phase I: Moderate Methods

From 1894-1906 Gandhiji’s methods followed the moderate methods of petitioning and debating. He was convinced that by putting forward all evidence to the rulers the British sense of fairplay and justice would rouse and intervene. He also started newspapers to consolidate all sections of the society and publicize the demands of the Indian community. By 1906 Gandhiji was convinced these methods won’t work.

 Phase II: Satyagraha

The phase of passive resistance or civil disobedience called Satyagraha by Gandhiji had begun. It was first used when the government enacted a legislation declaring that all Indians must carry the registration certificate bearing their fingerprints at all times. Gandhiji and his supporters refused to obey the law as it was discriminatory and were sent to jail. Others followed them and the numbers increased to 155. Finally General Smuts called Gandhiji for talks and agreed to make registration voluntary. Gandhiji agreed to call of the agitation and became the first to register.

However Smuts had tricked him by ratifying voluntary registrations under the law. So Gandhiji and others decided to publicly burn their certificates.

Government brought in under law to control immigration and as opposition to this Indians marched from natal to Transvaal to break the immigration laws. They were arrested and deported. But the struggle continued. Soon there were signs of fatigue as the workers had no resources to continue. Hence Gandhiji started Tolstoy farm with help from his friend kallenbach where satyagrahi's could stay and sustain themselves.

Talks between Gandhiji and the British government bore no results and government and satyagrahi’s were at an impasse. At this stage a new agitation was started to stop the poll tax on poor indentured laborer. This agitation saw entry of indentured laborers on large scale as the agitation was for their rights. Indian leaders and parties too supported the South African Indian community in their struggle.

Fuel to fire was added when the Supreme Court of South Africa ruled that all marriages of Indian community were unrecognized. This inflamed the entire community and the hunger for struggle had been inflamed again. Women too participated in this struggle by crossing over to Transvaal from natal. The brutal repression by the police incensed the Indian community in other parts of South Africa and they went on lightening strikes. The public sympathy of Indians and even the Viceroy of India Lord Hardinge was high for the South African Indian community.

At this stage a meeting was called between the General Smuts and Viceroy Harding, Gandhiji and British government representatives and a solution was proposed. Majority of the demands of the Indian community were accepted viz. poll tax, registration certificate, recognition of marriages etc.

The non violent civil disobedience was first applied in South Africa and this great experiment would now be needed in the Indian subcontinent. The title of Mahatma was given to him by his friend Pranjivan Mehta.

Return to India and Local Movements

Champaran Satyagraha:

The European planters forced the cultivators to grow indigo on 3/20th of their land. As synthetic dyes emerged and the value of indigo fell, the planters increased their rents and illegal dues to release the cultivators from the contracts. It was here that Gandhiji’s help was sought. Gandhiji reached the village but was asked by the local government to leave immediately. Gandhiji refused to obey this unjust order [this was a novel way as even veteran leaders like Tilak and Besant followed orders even though they were unjust!].

Gandhiji and fellow satyagrahi’s went from village to village interrogating people to ensure the information was correct. The government had appointed a commission of inquiry with Gandhiji as a member. All evidence collected by Gandhiji was presented to the committee and the committee ruled in the favor of the cultivators. Planters were asked to refund the illegal dues collected by them.

Ahmadabad mill strike:

The mill owners and the workers were in a dispute regarding the plague allowance. The owners wanted to withdraw it as the epidemic had passed. But the workers argued that the allowance was a compensation for the rising cost of living. Gandhiji persuaded the owners and the workers to decide matter by arbitration. But the owners withdrew from the promise and offered a 20% hike of allowance and threatened to dismiss those who wouldn’t accept this. Gandhiji then advised the workers to go on strike and as the time prolonged the workers resolve was weakening and Gandhiji himself started a fast. This had an effect on the owners and they too joined the tribunal. The tribunal awarded a 35% hike to the workers.

Kheda Satyagraha:

The peasants of Kheda were appealing for an exemption from land revenue as the crops had failed. Gandhiji investigated these claims and found them to be justified. Gandhiji was aided by Vthalbhai Patel who toured the villages and advised the peasant to not pay the land revenue and stand firm against the government’s repression. A secret government notification was given directing the authorities to collect revenue only from those who can pay.

First Major Application of Satyagraha: Rowlett Satyagraha

The government had passed the Rowlett bills on recommendation of a committee chaired by Rowlett. The civil liberties of people were to be curbed. This was seen as a backstabbing attempt by the government as the world war had ended and several concessions were expected. Gandhiji gave a call to the people to start a Satyagraha a constitutional protest had failed.

Members of the home rule league were contacted and they eagerly joined the movement. Finally the movement was launched. 

Jallianwala Baug Massacre

But it was observed that the Satyagraha was followed by violence. Gandhiji personally visited these places and urged people to be calm. In Punjab there were several incidents of violence and the state was handed to general dyer.

Dyer ordered a ban on all public gatherings. But on baisakhi day in jallianwala bag thousands had gathered to attend a public meeting. General Dyer opened fire on unarmed crowd without warning them and in this situation thousand s lost their lives. This incident stunned the nation. Seeing the atmosphere of violence Gandhiji withdrew the movement.

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