Reflections: Ela on Gandhi

Ela Gandhi writes for us in this reflection on Mahatma Gandhi whose legacy lives on 145 years later. Indianspice salutes the ‘Great Soul’ who led us to our first wave of freedom.

Guru Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Our leader of the ages to come

The year 1906 was a significant year in the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a young lawyer, 37 years of age, in South Africa.  He arrived in 1893 and his transformation began through a multitude of events culminating in some significant changes he decided to make to his life style.  His first test was during the Bambatha uprising in 1906.  He led an ambulance corps to assist the wounded but soon realized that what the white government called a rebellion was in fact a cruel attempt at genocide or at best punishment to an unarmed people.   He wrote in his autobiography,

The Zulu “rebellion” was full of new experiences and gave me much food for thought.  The Boer War had not brought home to me  the horrors of war with anything like the vividness that the “rebellion” did.  This was no war but a man-hunt,…To hear every morning reports of the soldiers’ rifles exploding like crackers in innocent Hamlets, and to live in the midst of them was a trial.  But I swallowed the bitter draught, especially as the work of my Corps consisted only in nursing the wounded Zulus.  I could see that but for us the Zulus would have been uncared for.  This work, therefore , eased my conscience. In a word, I could not live both after the flesh and the spirit.  On the present occasion, for instance, I should not have been able to throw myself into the fray, had my wife been expecting a baby.  Without the observance of brahmacharya service of the family would be inconsistent with service of the community.  …Man is man because he is capable of, and only so far as he exercises, self-restraint.”

This therefore was the turning point in his life.  A time when he made the conscious decision to throw himself body and soul into the service of humanity.  But it is on 11 September 2006 (9/11) that South Africa in particular and the world in general will be observing the centenary of the birth of Satyagraha.  It all started at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg when at a meeting convened by Mahatma Gandhi who lived in South Africa for 21 years and during this period transformed from a young lawyer to a Great soul- the Mahatma,  that Satyagraha or non-violent action was born.

South Africa must claim that important legacy.  In opposition to a proposed new legislation in 1906 imposing pass laws on the Indian community in South Africa, (some of who had already been in the country since 1860) Mahatma Gandhi and his colleagues in the Congress movement mobilised the community to oppose this Bill.  Accordingly a mass meeting was convened at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg on 11.9.1906.  Gandhiji writes about that day,  “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.  Mr Abdul Gani, Chairman of  the Transvaal British Indian Association, presided.  He was one of the oldest  Indian residents of the Transvaal and partner and manager of the Johannesburg branch of the well-known firm of Mamad Kasam Kamrudin.  The most important among the resolutions passed by the meeting was the famous Fourth Resolution by which the Indians solemnly determined not to submit to the Ordinance in the event of its becoming law in the teeth of their opposition, and to suffer all the penalties attaching to such non-submission…The resolution was duly proposed and seconded and supported by several speakers one of whom was Sheth Haji Habib.  … He was deeply moved and went so far as to say that we must pass this resolution with God as witness and must never yield a cowardly submission to such degrading legislation.

He then went on solemnly to declare in the name of god that he would never submit to that law, and advised all present to do likewise.” Gandhiji then explained in detail the consequences that they may face if they supported  such a resolution, as he wanted people to understand fully what they were supporting.  He  goes on to write, “all present standing with upraised hands, took an oath with God as witness not to submit to the Ordinance…. I can never forget the scene.”   Later he wrote, “None of us knew what name to give to our movement,.. a small prize was therefore offered in the Indian Opinion to be awarded to the reader who invented the best designation for our struggle.”

Thus the word Satyagraha was coined.   Gandhiji explains, “Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force….the Force which is born of Truth and love or nonviolence.” Since then the use of Satyagraha as a mode of opposition to oppression has been utilised by many leaders through out the length and breadth of the world.

Satyagraha has been recognised as the most formidable but also the best way of dealing with conflict whether in the home, in society or in International affairs.  More and more people are opting for non-violent solutions rather than the wanton destruction of violent action.  But at the same time in the world and in our country violence has increased and we need to take some systematic action to curb the violence.  One way is to popularise the efficacy of non-violence.

First published on Indianspice July 15, 2010.