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Who was Mahatma Gandhi?

Growing up back in India, I was always very curious to know more about the founder and father of nation of Independent India Mahatma Gandhi. Those days, after talking to few learned elders about Gandhi, I couldn’t get any specific details about who Mahatma Gandhi was in real life? In my humble opinion no one really knew much about Gandhi's life, or read anything about Gandhi. Except Mahatma Gandhi successfully fought for Indian freedom from British, by not deploying any military force or any act of terrorism, rather by noble 'nonviolent resistance' or 'passive resistance' freedom struggle movement.


I was born 25 years after the assasination of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948. My curiosity about Gandhi grew over the time. Gandhi was the first world leader who proved to the world how freedom can be achieved without using any military force, or deploying terror and volence, or any revolution. India went throught a 'bloody partition' after the independence and Gandhi accused for fasting for stopping violence in India and assassinated. While growing up, these were my curious questions:


  1. Who Gandhi was really?
  2. What Gandhi did in his life?
  3. What was Gandhi’s qualification?
  4. How Gandhi got the idea of 'nonviolent resistance' freedom movement? And why?
  5. How did Gandhi single handedly united entire efforts of Indian freedom struggle?
  6. How did Gandhi able to get prominent Indian leaders at that time to follow him?
  7. How did such a simple man became the face of Indian freedom struggle and became the father of a nation of rich in culture, arts, unique belief systems, idiotic caste system, different languages, and different religions?  

The village I grew up in Kerala India, didn't had any proper library those days or I didn't know anyone who had any books on Gandhi for me to borrow and read. Adding insult to the injury, I couldn't read in English at that time. I could barely read books written in Malayalam (regional Indian language spoken in Kerala India).

No one could answer my questions and instead sadly I’ve heard lot of criticism about Gandhi. Some accused Gandhi for winning the freedom by the cost of dividing British Raj [India] into two separate countries based on religion. In any case, I always wanted to know more about Gandhi. Later as I started reading more books on philosophy and religion, I started to think more deeply about the very noble idea of Gandhi's 'passive resistance'.


Finally I decided to write an article about Gandhi. I refered collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhi Before India by Ramanchanra Guha for this article. It is hard for me to summarize stunning events of amazing life of Mahatma Gandhi. This article illustrates the details of Gandhi's early life, student life in London and his professional life in South Africa.


As a schoolboy, Gandhi befriended a Muslim classmate in Rajkot. As a law student, he shared a home with a Christian vegetarian in London. However, it was in South Africa that he more fully elaborated his unique spirit of ecumenism.


Early LIfe


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, at Porbandar, in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat. His father Kaba Gandhi was the dewan (chief minister) of Porbandar; his deeply religious mother Putalibai was a devoted practitioner of Vaishnavism (worship of the Hindu god Vishnu), influenced by Jainism, an ascetic religion governed by tenets of self-discipline and nonviolence.

At the age of 19, Mohandas Gandhi left home to study law in London at the Inner Temple, one of the city’s four law colleges. At the time Gandhi was married to Kasturbai and the couple had a son named Harilal. Before heading to London Putalibai made her son Mohandas Gandhi promise that, he would not eat meat or drink wine, or be unfaithful to his wife. After an oath to this effect was administrated, Putalibai gave her consent to her son Mohandas Gandhi to go London to study law.



Mohandas Gandhi in London (1888-1891)


London in 1888 was a great imperial city. Queen Victoria had lately observed the Golden Jubilee of her reign. London in 1888 was also a great industrial city. Its factories made lamps and chocolates, shoes and clothes, and a thousand other things besides. The products manufactured in London and the products consumed by Londoners came in and out of the port. Finally London in 1888 was a great international city. At that time, no city in the world had more people. About 6 million in all, twice the number in Paris - or more nationalities represented in them.

In London Gandhi was an active participant in London Vegetarian society. In the weekly meetings of the vegetarians of London Gandhi found a cause, and his first English friends. In those days Gandhi shared a rooms with a man named Josiah Oldfield. An Oxford graduate and barrister, now studying to be a doctor, Oldfield was an active member, and an editor of a journal of London Vegetarian Society.

Oldfield and Gandhi, the Englishman and the Indian, lived together at 52 St. Stephen’s Gardens, Bayswater, in a house overlooking a shady park. This friendship across the racial divide was singular as well as brave. Gandhi and Oldfield threw parties where guests were served lentil soup, boiled rice and large raisins. On other evening they sailed together into the world, ‘lecturing at clubs and any other public meetings where we could obtain a hearing for our gospel of peace and health’.

Two other english friends of Gandhi, an uncle and nephew respectively asked Gandhi to interpret the Bhagavad-Gita for them. He read the work with the two men, in the then quite recent translation by Edwin Arnold carrying the poetic title The Song Celestial. The englishmen, in turn, introduced him to the work of Madame Blavatsky who, after a life spent wandering around the world (including a spell in India), had settled down in London. The founder of Theosophy sought to reconcile religion with science, and Christianity with Hinduism. That her cult was so manifestly sympathetic to Indian traditions impressed young Gandhi. He met Blavatsky as well as Annie Besant, a firebrand socialist and suffragette who had recently abandoned those creeds to embrace Theosophy.

Moving further outwards from his native Hinduism, Gandhi began reading Christian texts, supplied to him by a vegetarian from Manchester. The book of Genesis sent him to sleep, but the New Testament he found compelling. The Sermon on the Mount in particular ‘went straight to my heart’. The lines about offering one’s cloak to the man who had taken away one’s coat touched him greatly. Comparing it to the Gita, he concluded that both taught that ‘renunciation was the highest form of religion’.

In December of 1890 Gandhi sat the final examinations. A month later, on 12th January 1891, Gandhi was told that he had passed successfully, coming 34th out of 109. Even though Gandhi Gandhi cleared his examinations he had to extend his stay in London to complete the academic formalities of inner Temple law college in the form of attending mandatory minimum 72 dinners.  

At this time his friend and flatmate, Josiah Oldfield, persuaded Gandhi to spend his last days in London writing for the London Vegetarian Society.

The London vegetarians provided Mohandas Gandhi with his first exposure to collective social action and with his first public platform. Gandhi’s published oeuvre covers dozens of volumes and ranges across many different subjects. It is a striking if little noticed fact that his writings of essays on the foods and festivals of India. For his Bombay Matric and his Inner Temple barrister’s certificate, Gandhi had to cram a mass of facts and bring them out in the order required by the examiners. But in crafting these articles for The Vegetarian, he had to apply his mind more intelligently; the facts within him had to be shepherded into a coherent, persuasive argument for an audience with background very different from his own.

Gandhi the cultivator of friendships across racial and religious boundaries; Gandhi the organizer and mobilizer; Gandhi the writer, thinker and propagandist - all these Gandhis were first displayed in and through his membership of that famously obscure body, the Vegetarian Society of London.           

On 10th June 1891, with those seventy-two dinners eaten - or half-eaten- Mohandas K. Gandhi was formally called to the bar. The next day he enrolled at the high court. The same night he gave a farewell dinner to his fellow vegetarians.

The following morning Gandhi took a train to Liverpool street Station to the london docks. The ship that was to carry him back to India was an Australian steamer, the Oceana, a ‘vast floating island’  weighing 6,000 tons. This took him to Aden, where he transferred to the SS Assam, which was bound for Bombay. The SS Assam carrying, among other things and persons, M. K. Gandhi, Barrister-at-Law, arrived in Bombay on 5 July 1891.


From India to South Africa


Mohandas Gandhi learned his mother Putlibhai’s demise after landing in Bombay India. The family had not wired him in London, lest the news should distract him from his studies. Mohandas Gandhi also met his spiritual mentor Raychandbai at Bombay.

At the beginning, Mohandas Gandhi had an unsuccessful career as a lawyer in the British India. His elder brother Laxmidas who come to Mohandas’s rescue when he needed money to study law in London was involved in a mishap at Diwan’s palace in Porbandar, Gujrat in India, practically ruined any chance Mohandas had as a lawyer career in Porbandar. Mohandas Gandhi granted a license in Bombay High Court, on the basis of a certificate from the Inner Temple and a letter of recommendation from a British barrister.

Every morning the young London-trained lawyer walked to the High Court, climbed its long, curving staircase, and went in and out of its rooms. As he recalled, with disarming frankness, ‘often I could not follow the cases and dozed off’. The study of Indian law was ‘a tedious business’; he found it especially hard to come to grips with civil Procedure Code. No briefs came his way, perhaps because he was an indifferent speaker, as well as an outsider to the city. However, he did fight a case in the lower courts, and also made some money drafting a memorial for a farmer whose land had been confiscated.

Failing to find regular work in Bombay, Gandhi returned home to Rajkot. He couldn’t, it seems yet argue in court, but as a well-published writer (in the journal of the Vegetarian Society of London) he had the skill to draft memorials. Gandhi set up an office in Rajkot, which began to attract a steady stream of clients. He drafted petitions on their behalf, chiefly to do with land disputes. This brought him an income of Rs 300 a month, adequate to maintain his family, which had now been augmented by the arrival of a second son, who was born on 28 October 1892 and named Manilal.

A family of Muslim traders from the Gandhi’s home town of Porbandar known as Dada Abdulla and Sons, established a successful business in South Africa. The business had branches in Natal, the Transvaal and Portuguese East Africa. Dada Abdulla and Sons was fighting a case in the court for an unpaid sum of £24,700. Since the merchant’s own records were in Gujarati the merchant was in need of a lawyer who knew both his language and the language of the courts, and wrote to Laxmidas Gandhi asking whether his brother, the London-trained barrister, was prepared to come out and assist him. The firm would provide first-class return fare by boat, board and lodgings, and pay a fee of £105 besides.

Laxmidas discussed the proposal with Mohandas, to whom it greatly appealed. Mohandas ‘wanted somehow to leave India’, and here was ‘a tempting opportunity of seeing a new country, and of having new experience’.

Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Durban on 24 May 1893.

Living in South Africa, and reading the newspapers, Gandhi could see that the boundaries between different social groups were clearly marked. In Johannesburg, white traders resentful of competition were seeking to move Indian merchants to locations outside the city. In the spring of 1894, the case came up for arbitration and judge ruled in favor of Gandhi’s client. Gandhi even successfully negotiated a compromise to pay a sum of £37,000 to his client by the defendant which includes outstanding cost on a fresh instalment system.

Dada Abdulla threw a farewell dinner to Gandhi, at which the discussion turned to a bill before the Natal Assembly, that would prohibit Indians from enrolling as voters. Abdulla’s guests

wanted the legislation to be fought, and Gandhi, the lawyer and English-speaker, to stay on and assist them. The Gandhi’s ‘farewell party was turned into a working committee’ to plan the resistance to the bill. So long as Gandhi stayed in Durban, said the merchants, they would pay him an annual retainer. In Gandhi’s autobiography ends with this sentence: ‘Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect’.


A Barrister and an Activist


As a London-trained lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi was the only Indian in Durban who bridged the gap between races. When Gandhi read The Kingdom of God Is Within you, of Leo Tolstoy, he was ‘overwhelmed’ by the independent thinking, profound morality and the truthfulness of this book. Tolstoy's book reinforced his own heterodoxy, his stubborn insistence on forging a spiritual path for himself regardless of churches and creeds whether Hindu or Christian. Meanwhile, Gandhi was also rereading Gita, which he saw less as a celebration of a ‘just war’ and more as a manifesto for ethical conduct, advocating indifference to love and hate, attachment and possession.

While seeking spiritual truths in private, and pursuing racial parity in public, Gandhi had not forgotten his main professional duty, which was to establish a legal practice. Here his clients were all Indians. The judges he appeared before and lawyers he argued were all Europeans. His speaking deficiencies notwithstanding, Gandhi was a prominent member of the Natal Bar. That he had a captive clientele helped: he was a lawyer of all the Indians of Natal, regardless of caste, class, religion or profession. The lawyer who failed in Bombay and Rajkot had spectacularly succeeded in Durban. Gandhi welcomed the financial security, but it appears that he welcomed the social acclaim even more. He was happy to be the lawyer of the Indians, and their spokesman and representative too.

Through 1895 and 1896, Gandhi fought cases on behalf of merchants seeking to cover dues, families seeking a share of a dead ancestor’s property, individuals harassed by constables or by plantation owners. One case was particularly resonant: he defended a Muslim who refused to remove his cap when ordered to do so in court by the magistrate. As barrister Gandhi was obliged to go bare-headed, but he would still uphold the right of an ordinary citizen to dress according to the articles of his faith.


During that time, the whites in South Africa were, in proportionate terms, more numerous than in India, yet more insecure in their position. Europeans in India knew they were a tiny minority in a well-populated land. They come to rule not to settle. On the other hand, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa was a ‘neo-Europe’, whose climate, ecology and sparse population allowed the whites to re-create the conditions of life in the mother country. Sensing that this was a country they could make their own, the British set about ensuring their permanent ascendancy.

As Gandhi was making his career in Durban, the Governor of Natal addressed a London audience on the attractions of life in the new colony. Natal had fine scenery and a pleasant climate (‘there is no such thing as malaria’, noted the Governor), abundant natural resource, and a thriving plantation industry.

The Africans in South Africa were uneducated and dispersed through the countryside. There was, however, an incipient threat to the political and economic dominance of the Europeans This came from the Indians, and more particularly the ‘passenger’ Indians. Indeed, had it not been for the Indian merchants - their number, their wealth and their visibility - Durban could passed for a European City on an African coastline. Unlike plantation labourers, Indian traders tended to be based in the towns, where they conducted their business and, increasingly, bought land and built houses. In 1870 there were 665 Indians in Durban, who between them ran two shops and owned property worth £500. By the end of the century, there were 15,000 Indians in Durban, who ran more than 400 shops and owned property worth more than £600,000. The British were alleged to be a nation of shopkeepers, but in this place at this time they were being given a run for their money.

In June 1895, the non-monastic Christians of Natal brought in a new bill aimed at Indians. This bill proposed that labourers who stayed on after the expiry of their contract pay an annual take of £3, then a substantial sum. The supporters of the tax hoped it would force Indians to re-indenture, of else go back to India.

Over the next few weeks three memorials were drafted and dispatched by Gandhi. One was to the Natal Legislative Council; a second to the Secretary of State for the colonies; the third to the viceroy of India. The Natalians were asked why it was necessary ‘to make a man pay heavily for being allowed to remain free in the Colony after he has already lived under bondage for 10 years’. The Secretary of State was reminded that it was ‘against the spirit of British Constitution to countenance measures that tend to keep men under perpetual bondage’. The Viceroy was told that the ‘special, obnoxious poll-tax’ was designed to ensure that the Indian in Natal

Must for ever remain without freedom, without any prospect of ever bettering his condition, without ever even thinking of changing his hut, his meagre allowance and his ragged clothes, for a better house, enjoyable food and respectful clothing. He must not even think of educating his children according to his own taste or comforting his wife with any pleasure of recreation.

In October and November 1895, the white colonists in Natal held many meetings in support of the Government’s Franchise Bill. The feelings against the Indians was particularly intense in the plantation and mining districts. At a meeting in Stanger, one speaker said that

The Indians were of a low caste, and not fit for the vote… They did not benefit the country, they did not lay their money out here, but they got as much out of the country as possible, and then left it. He would make a difference between black and white. He would not allow the vote to even such a man as Mr Gandhi.


In the last weeks of 1895, Gandhi published a long pamphlet on ‘The Indian Franchise’, framed as ‘an appeal to every Briton in South Africa’. Extending over fifty printed pages, it provided a comprehensive overview of the Indian question in Natal. Gandhi argued that the ‘Indian’s fitness for the equality with the civilized races’ was demonstrated by the fact that, in British India, they had served as senior civil servants, High Court judges and vice-chancellors of universities. Indian soldiers had shed their blood for the defence of realm. His countrymen were loyal and law-abiding; it was unfair to relegate them to second-class status in any part of the British Empire.

Gandhi dismissed the fear, widespread among whites, that if the Indian were allowed to vote he would soon dominate the European. Of nearly 10,000 registered voters in Natal, only 251 were Indians, mostly merchants. Gandhi believed that ‘the number of trading Indians in the Colony will remain almost the same for a long time. For, while many come every month, an equal number leaves for India’. If the Government wished they could introduce a more stringent property qualifications. But ‘what the Indians do and would protest against is colour distinction -  disqualification based on account of racial difference.’


Back in India and Publishing the Green Pamphlet


On 5th of June 1896 Gandhi sailed to India on the Clan Mcleod. After three weeks the Clan Mcleod reached Calcutta. Gandhi took a train westwards to join his family in Rajkot. He had not seen them since May 1893. His sons Harilal and Manilal were now eight and three respectively.

In India, Gandhi printed a pamphlet for Indian audience on the grievances of their countrymen in South Africa. Gandhi complained that a law in Durban specified that natives and indentured labourers required passes to go about at night. This, said Gandhi, ‘presupposes that the Indian is a barbarian. There is a very good reason for requiring registration of a native in that he is yet being taught the dignity and necessity of labour. The Indian knows it and he imported because he knows it’. Adding insult to injury, ‘lavatories are marked “natives and Asiatics” at the railway stations’.     

Gandhi’s struggle in Natal was based on a Tolstoyan interpretation of the Christian credo. ‘Our method in South Africa is to conquer this hatred by love,‘ he said. We do not attempt to have individuals punished but as a rule, patiently suffer wrongs at their hands. Generally, our prayers are not to demand compensation for past injuries, but to render a repetition of those injuries impossible and to remove the causes.

Gandhi printed 10,000 copies of what quickly became known as the green pamphlet (on account of the colour of its cover). He posted them to newspapers editors across India, and carried copies with him to Bombay, where he spent much of August and September 1896 lobbying the leading public men of India.

The lobbying had an effect, the Times of India carrying a long leader based on ‘Mr Gandhi’s able and striking pamphlet’. The paper provided some examples of ‘gratuitous oppression and persecution’ as documented by Gandhi: the exclusion of Indians from trams, the consignment of Indians to third-class railway carriages, the harassment of even ‘respectable Indians’ under a harsh vagrancy law.

From Bombay, Gandhi proceeded to Poona. Here he met the two rising stars of nationalist politics, the liberal Gopal Krishna Gokhale and the radical Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Both promised to help set up a public meeting.

From Poona, Gandhi took a train further south, to the city of Madras. From Madras, Gandhi wrote to Gokhale about the struggle in South Africa. He was encouraged that the older man had taken a ‘very warm interest in him when they met in Poona. In the last week of October, Gandhi travelled up the Coromandel coast to Calcutta. Gandhi planned to sail from Bombay before the end of November 1896.

Mohandas Gandhi, Kasturba, Harilal and Manilal Gandhi left Bombay for Durban on 30th November by the SS Courland. With them was Gandhi’s sister’s son Gokuldas, who had been placed in his care. Their passages were free, since the ship was owned by the patriarch’s friend, client and fellow community activist, Dada Abdulla.


Got beaten upon arrival back in South Africa


While Gandhi was away in India, the whites of Natal had become further agitated about the Indian question. In August 1896, the Tongat Sugar Company asked the Government’s help in importing some thirty bricklayers, carpenters, fitters and blacksmiths from India. The company said they would pay three times the wage of an indentured labourer. ‘We are not particular as to whether they are Madras or Calcutta men’, said the company, ‘but, of course, we want good men’.

Private entrepreneurs, motivated by production and cost efficiencies, wished to import skilled labour from wherever they could find it. This rational, capitalist impulse however fell foul of racial and national prejudices. How dare a Natal entrepreneur transport Asians to do jobs that whites could as well undertake? And so the Tongat Sugar Company’s application was leaked to the press, prompting ‘an indignation meeting of European artisans’ in Durban, worried that Indians would take over trades previously in white hands.

In the third week of December 1896, SS Courland arrived off the coast of Durban. Gandhi had become a hate-figure among the whites of Natal, on account of what he was supposed to have said in his travels in India. On 23rd December, the Natal Advertiser printed a plea urging swift action against the ‘great Gandhi [who] has arrived at the head of the advanced guard of the Indian army of invasion - the army that is to dispossess us of our country and our homes… We must be up and doing, and make our arrangements so as to be able to give the invaders a fitting reception’.

The anger against Gandhi and company was compounded by a paranoia about the gems they allegedly carried. The doctors who came aboard the two ships said they could not yet allow them to land; in their view, plague germs took three week to incubate, and it was better to wait and watch. The ship ’captains were instructed to have the decks washed and cleaned daily with a mixture of water and carbolic acid. Sulphur fires were kept burning day and night to cleanse the passengers and their possessions of any remnants of the dreaded germs.

The ship had been moored offshore for some twenty days. In Durban, a ‘European Protection Association’ was formed to resist the Asiatic invasion. The Association’s first meeting was held on 10 January. When one speaker said that the ‘mouthpiece’ of the Indians ‘was a gentleman of the name of Gandhi [sic]’,a voice from the crowd interjected: ‘Don’t say a gentleman’.

On 12 January 1897, the authorities finally allowed the ship from India to send their passengers ashore. The captain of Courland was asked to commence landing operations the next morning. The decision was prompted by appeals by the Viceroy in India and the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, who warned that the agitation in Natal had put a question mark on imperial harmony in the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Through the day, boats carrying passengers from the ship came over the sandbar into the harbour. Kasturba and the children were now safely ashore, but Gandhi was still on the ship, where he had been joined by his friend, the Durban solicitor F.A Laughton. The Attorney-General of Durban had sent word that it might be better for Gandhi to come ashore after dusk, but Laughton did not like the idea of Gandhi ‘entering the city like a thief in the night’.

The boat carrying Gandhi and Laughton came ashore shortly before five in the afternoon. As their boat was landing, some white boys loitering about recognized the Indian barrister. Laughton and Gandhi hailed a rickshaw and were about to step into it, when the boys laid hold of the wheels. The barristers tried to get into another rickshaw, but, sensing the mood, the driver was unwilling to take them. Gandhi and and Laughton decided to walk on with their luggage. From the victoria Embankment they walked northwards on Stanger Street, with a crowd of ever greater numbers following them, hissing and jeering. Then they took a turn towards West Street. When they neared the Ship’s Hotel - as its name suggests, a place favoured by seamen - Gandhi and Laughton were surrounded, and the former set upon. The Indian became ‘the object of kicks and cuffs, while mud and stale fish were thrown at him. One person also produced a riding-whip, and gave him a stroke, while another plucked away at his peculiar hat’.

Gandhi was beaten, but not bowed. Blood was flowing down his neck, but ‘eye-witnesses state that he bore himself stolidly and pluckily through the trying ordeal.’ He was rescued from the mod by a white lady, who used her parasol to keep away the attackers. She was the wife of the long-serving Superintendent of Police, R.C Alexander.

Three and a half years before the attack on him at the Point in Durban, Mohandas Gandhi had been thrown out of a first-class carriage at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station. The latter episode is well known - perhaps too well known. If there is one thing anyone anywhere knows about Gandhi in South Africa, it is this incident. One book and one film largely account for this. In 1951, Louis Fischer published The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, which drew on the author’s acquaintance with his subject in the last decade of his life. This personal intimacy and the evocative prose make for a compelling narrative, and the book has always been in print since its first publication.

Fisher termed Gandhi’s ejection from the first-class carriage the most ‘creative’ experience in his life; ‘that bitter night in Maritzburg’, he claimed, ‘the germ of social protest was born in Gandhi.’ Gandhi’s account, in his own autobiography, was embellished in one intensely charged paragraph, where, imaginatively putting himself in the shoes of the victim, Fischer writes:

Should he return to India? This episode reflected a much larger situation. Should he address himself to it or merely seek redress of his personal grievance, finish the case, and go home to India? He had encountered the dread disease of colour prejudice. To flee, leaving his countrymen in their predicament, would be cowardice. The frail lawyer began to see himself in the role of David assailing the Goliath of racial discrimination.



Established Lawyer from India 


Gandhi’s skill in court were admired by the Europeans who opposed him. In a case of bankruptcy, he represented one creditor, while a white lawyer named R.H Tatham represented another. When Gandhi’s proposal to sell the debtor’s business was accepted over an alternate proposal offered by Tatham, the latter jokingly remarked: ‘Gandhi’s supreme. The triumph of black over white again.’

The young lawyer’s work made an impression on two visitors from overseas. In March 1897, the traveller and soldier Francis Younghusband came to Natal. He met Gandhi, whom he described as ‘the spokesman of the Indian community and the butt of the [white] agitators’. He found him a ‘particularly intelligent and well-educated man’.




The following year, when the Gandhis were well established in Durban, they were visited by Pranjivan Mehta. The two had been close from their student days in London, the bond made more solid by the fact that it was the Mehta’s home in Bombay Gandhi met the jain seer and his spiritual mentor Raychandbhai. Mehta was now based in Rangoon, running a jewellery business, in the summer of 1898 he visited Europe, and on his way back stopped in South Africa to see Gandhi. Disembarking at Cape Town, he found at once that he ‘was in a place where the colour of the skin counted for everything and [the] man nothing’. He was denied rooms in several hotels, and also treated discourteously on the long train journey from the Cape eastwards to Durban.



The Boer War


While based in Natal, Gandhi was also drawn into the Indian question in the Transvaal. Here, the ruling race were the Boers, who spoke Afrikaans and were largely of Dutch extraction. When, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the British took firm control of the Cape, the Boers commenced their ‘great trek’ inland. They established themselves beyond the Vaal and Orange rivers, displacing the Africans and taking control of vast areas of fertile land. Their economy, and their sense of self, was founded on farming, herding and hunting. While British coveted the coast - which provided access to their jewel in the east, India - the Boers had possession of these inland territories. In the 1850s they formed two, semi-autonomous, republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal (the latter also known, from the 1880s as the South African Republic).

Racial politics in the Transvaal were more complicated than in Natal. The Boers had come here to carve a space separate and independent from the British. For many decades their Utopia lay safe, until the discovery of gold near Johannesburg in 1886 prompted a massive and mad rush of immigrants. By the time Gandhi first visited the city in 1893, English-speaking migrants outnumbered the Afrikaans-speaking Boers by two to one. The workers in the mines were mostly African, but the managers, supervisors and owners were largely English. And as Johannesburg boomed, it was English, rather than Boers, who ran the new hotels, restaurants, hospitals, clubs, theaters and other accoutrements of a bustling modern city.

In the 1890s, the main question of Transvaal politics was the conflict between Boer and Briton. But there was a secondary problem, namely the contamination of the Boer dreamland by an even less wanted group of immigrants, the Indians. With the mining boom in the Rand their numbers rapidly increased. They set up shops in the main towns, and also opened stores in the countryside. Hawkers with less capital at their disposal sold goods on the streets. In 1894 Boer politicians, worried that the number of Indians were now in the thousands rather than dozens, sought to implement a law making it impossible for ‘so-called Coolies, Arabs, Malays and Mohammedan subjects of the Turkish Empire’ to buy property. Notices were issued that traders who were not white would be sent to designated areas known as ‘Locations’, within which they had to conduct their businesses.

In desperation, the Indians sought an interview with the President of the Transvaal, the crusty and dogmatic old general, Paul Kruger. Kruger came out to meet them with a Bible in hand. The Indians set out their grievances. The Christian warrior, consulting his Book, answered that they were descendants of Esau and Ishmael, and hence bound by God to slavery. Kruger and his Bible went back to their house, while the Indians retreated, bewildered.

The Indians now approached the British to intervene. An agreement signed in London in 1884 guaranteed the rights of Her Majesty’s subjects to trade and live where they pleased in the South African Republic. Indian traders asked only that this clause be honoured. 1898, a group of thirty merchants wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in alarm. If implemented, the court’s judgement ‘would mean practical ruin to the Indian traders  in the Transvaal’.

By 1898, more than a quarter of the world’s supply of gold came from Transvaal. Egged on by the imperial adventurer Cecil Rhodes - who had vast business interests in South Africa - a group of conspirators planned to overthrow Kruger’s regime by force. An officer named Jameson was to cross the border into the Transvaal with a force of 1,000 men; meanwhile, the English residents in Johannesburg would start an insurrection. However, the Transvaal authorities had advance warning of the ‘Jameson Raid’ and tracked it from the moment it crossed the border.

The collapse of the ‘Jameson Raid’ intensified the rift between Boer and Briton. The pro-imperial party was led by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, and the High Commissioner in Cape Town, Lord Milner believed that control of the Transvaal was central to Great Britain’s mission in Africa and the world. In 1899 the British were shipping large numbers of troops to South Africa. Ten thousand soldiers came from India and the Mediterraneans; several thousand more from England itself. In October 1899 the Boers asked that troops sent since July of that year be withdrawn. When the British refused, they crossed into Natal, and the war had begun.

One consequences of the war between Boer and Briton was the flight of Indians from the South African Republic. As British subjects, they were identified with the enemy. The Indians streamed into Natal, seeking refuge among their compatriots in the colony. Gandhi and the Natal Indian Congress helped raise money and find homes for them.

The Indians in Natal were merchants and labourers. Few had any military experience. However Gandhi thought that as subjects of the British Empire they should show support for their side. He had been volunteering with a hospital in Durban, run by Reverend Dr Booth. Now, with Dr Booth’s encouragement, he offered to raise a corps of Indian ambulance workers to care for the sick and the wounded.

The Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 is usually seen as a ‘white man’s war’. This is not strictly true. While a handful of Indians served as ambulance workers, many black Africans - Zulus, Xhosas and others participated as armed combatants. One historian estimates that perhaps as many as 30,000 blacks fought on British side. Others worked as scouts, spies, servants and messengers. Like Gandhi these Africans volunteers believed - or hoped- that’s a British victory would bring about an extension of political, educational and commercial opportunities for black people.  


Return to India


In May 1901, Gandhi learnt that his preceptor Raychandbhai had died, at just thirty-three. A few months after Raychand’s death, Gandhi decided to return home to India. There were many farewell parties arranged for the ‘champion of Indian cause in Natal’. Gold chains, valuable gold locket and large gold medals was presented to Gandhi. Gandhi decided to return all the gifts he received on his farewell parties. The Gandhis left Durban in the third week of October 1901.

The Gandhi family reached Bombay in the last week of November 1901. After settling Kasturba and the children in Rajkot, Gandhi took a train across the subcontinent to attend the seventh session of the Indian National Congress, held that year in Calcutta. Gandhi got a warmer reception and his work in South Africa was now more widely known; besides, Gandhi had an influential patron, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who had taken him under his wing. Gokhale was only three years older than Gandhi, but vastly more experienced in public affairs. Teacher, writer, social reformer and Member of the Viceroy’s Council, he was one of the best-known Indians in India.

On 19 January 1902, Gandhi was the main speaker at a meeting in Albert Hall, off College Street in north Calcutta. He was introduced by Gokhale, who praised his ‘ability, earnestness and tact’, and professed a ‘profound admiration’ for his work in South Africa. He said that ‘Mr Gandhi was a man made of the stuff of which heroes are made.’ If ‘Mr Gandhi settled down in this country, it was the duty of all earnest workers to place him where he deserved to be, namely, at their head’.

Gandhi returned to Rajkot in early February. He chose to send his eldest son, Harilal, to a boarding school in the nearby town of Gondal. Chhaganlal taught the other boys, while Gandhi sought to establish a law practice. However Gandhi found it hard to establish a legal practice in Rajkot. In several months he acquired only three briefs. Mohandas Gandhi was now a failed lawyer in Rajkot, where his father Kaba Gandhi had once been, as Diwan, the second most important man in town. In July 1902, Gandhi moved to Bombay, to make one more attempt at establishing himself in the High Court.

Meanwhile in South Africa, the last roaming bands of Boers had surrendered. On the last day of May 1902 the warring parties had signed a treaty at Vereeniging, by which the Boers recognized the British monarch as their sovereign. South Africa was now under British control was a source of gratification to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain. He planned a trip to the new dominions in the New Year. Hearing of this, the Natal Indian Congress wrote to Gandhi asking him to return. He was needed to secure their rights under the new dispensation. Gandhi agreed at once.

Kasturba and the boys decided to stay in Bombay. Harilal was in the boarding school in Gondal, while other boys were in the care of their mother and their elder cousin Chhaganlal. As in 1893, this time too Gandhi would travel alone in search of better prospects in South Africa.

Gandhi sailed from Bombay in the last week of November 1902 with his nephews Maganlal and Anandlal, who had decided to try their luck in South Africa. Their ship reached in Durban in the third week of December 1902.


Indian Opinion


In the last week of March 1903, Gandhi asked to be enrolled as a practising attorney in the Supreme Court of the Transvaal. He attached a certificate from the inner Temple and proof that he had practised both at the High Court of Bombay and the Supreme Court of Natal. On 14 April his application was approved. A few months later, he found office space at the corner of Rissik and Anderson Streets, and a room to live in the same block.

The Indians in Johannesburg lived chiefly in two suburbs - Fordsburg, to the west, and Vrededrop, to the north-west. Mohandas Gandhi, however, worked and slept in the very heart of the city, within a stone’s throw of its stock exchange, its main post office and its law courts. As in Natal, Gandhi’s law practice was conducted side-by-side with his public work. There was a British Indian Association in Transvaal and after the war, the Transvaal had been constituted as a ‘Crown Colony’. The Governor Lord Milner was the head of its administration.   

In the third week of May 1903, the Association sought an appointment with Lord Milner. When Gandhi met Milner, on 22 May, he told the proconsul that Indians ‘needed rest from the constant changes of passes and permits’. Milner answered that it was ‘no use forcing the position here against the overwhelming body of white opinion’. He defended the policy of creating Asian-only bazaars, arguing that ‘it would be a distinct advantage to the Indian community to occupy them instead of causing general opposition to themselves by settling down here, there, and everywhere, among people who do not want them.

Ten days later, when Milner met members of of an organization named ‘White League’, they told the Governor they were opposed to Asians whether as merchants or labourers. As for indians, ‘coolies are traders, not producers’. The Indians held a meeting to counteract the White Leaguers. The BIA chairman, Abdul Gani, complain that the Crown had betrayed them. If the soil of the Transvaal was ‘watered with the blood of Englishmen, have not the Indians, too, done their share?’

In 1897-8 when Gandhi was based in Natal, he had thought of starting a newspaper focusing on the Indian question in South Africa. Now, in the summer of 1903, he reactivated the idea, and found two men willing to help him. The first Mansukhal Hiralal Nazar was a widely travelled Gujarati who had studied medicine in Bombay and run a business in London before migrating to South Africa. The second, Madanjit Vyavaharik, was a former school teacher who owned a printing press in Grey Street in Durban. Both Vyavavharik and Nazar were active members of the Natal Indian Congress.

In 1903 there were fourteen printing presses in Durban. All were owned and staffed by whites - with the exception of the press run by Vyavaharik. The journal was named Indian Opinion. The first issue, appearing on 4 June 1903, announced itself as the voice of the Indian community, now ‘a recognized factor in the body politic’ of South Africa. The ‘prejudice’ against them in ‘the minds of the Colonists’ was based on an ‘unhappy forgetfulness of the great services India has always rendered to the Mother Country ever since Providence brought loyal Hind under the flag of Britannia’.  An article in the same issue qualified this loyalism, noting that in South Africa, ‘If an European commits a crime or moral delinquency, it is the individual: if it is an Indian, it is the nation.

In starting Indian Opinion, Gandhi was setting himself up as a knowledge-broker and bridge-builder. The journal would carry news of Indians in South Africa, of Indians in India, and general articles on ‘all subjects - Social, Moral, and Intellectual’. It would ‘advocate’ the Indian cause, while giving Europeans ‘an idea of Indian thought and aspiration’. Each issue of Indian Opinion ran to eight pages.


New Friends in South Africa


It was barely five years since Gandhi had been attacked by a mob that spoke for the white population of Durban. Gandhi met several liberal whites and became close friends. like the lawyer F.A laughton and the policeman R.C Alexander in Durban; lay preachers like A.W Baker in Pretoria.

Gandhi met Henry Solomon Leon Polak, a thin, lean, intellectually-minded jew. Gandhi and Polak  shared an admiration to Leo Tolstoy and also more obscure authors, such as Adolf just, author of Return of Nature. Polak visited Gandhi at his law chambers, and as the friendship developed they both discussed various subjects.

Gandhi also came into contact with Hermann Kallenbach, also a jew. Born two years after Gandhi, and originally from Lithuania, Kallenbach grew up in Prussia and qualified as an architect. He was a beneficiary of the construction boom in Johannesburg, designing large building that went up in the heart of the city. Like Polak, he was part of a substantial wave of Jewish emigration to South Africa, with the population of Jews multiplying tenfold between 1880 and 1904. Kallenbach’s office was very close to Gandhi’s law chambers.

Kallenbach recommended Sonja Schlesien for Gandhi’s secretary job. He described her as honest and clever, but mischievous and impetuous.

When Gandhi sailed for Durban in November 1902, his hopes in British justice were largely intact. Two years later he was less naive. He had once hoped to unite Indians with the British against the Bores; now after the war, the British were uniting with Boers against them. South Africa was not England, where brown men could be elected to Parliament; or even India, where they could become judges and Imperial Councillors. Here, the bonds of race would always trump Imperial loyalties and obligations. The Indian situation in the Transvaal was now uncertain, fraught with difficulties. When, in September 1904, Lord Milner rejected the compromise Gandhi offered him, Gandhi felt he had to stay on. So he asked his wife and children to join him in Johannesburg.

Kasturba arrived in South Africa towards the end of 1904. The eldest son, Harilal, now sixteen, had stayed back in India. He was keen to sit the Bombay Matriculation that his father had taken back in 1887. However, the other sons came out with their mother, as did two nephews, Gokuldas and Chhaganlal.

Gandhi rented a house in Albemarle Street, in the east of Johannesburg district of Troyeville, to accommodate the whole family. Theirs was the only Indian home in a white neighbourhood. The two-story house was spacious, with eight rooms, balconies and a garden. Gandhi had warned Kasturba that he would spend little time with her in Johannesburg, and so it turned out. He rose early, helped his wife to grind flour for the day’s meals, then walked the five miles to his office in Rissik Street, carrying a packed lunch of wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a selection of seasonal fruits. His days were spent taking cases, drafting petitions to government and writing for and supervising, long-distance, the production of Indian Opinion.

Indian Opinion had now expanded from eight pages to thirty-six. The text was printed in three columns instead of six. The end pages were taken up with advertisements. The reports in the expanded Indian Opinion covered a wide range of topics. The rise of other Asian nations was noted and appreciated. Indian difficulties in Natal and Transvaal were written about, but so also was the situation of the other communities in South Africa.

Henry Polak had persuaded his family to permit him to marry his ‘lady love’ Millie Graham. Gandhi played a hand here: when Polak’s father claimed that the girl was not robust enough for marriage, Gandhi wrote that if Millie was indeed fragile, ‘in South Africa, amidst loving care, a beautiful climate and a simple life, she could gain the physical strength she evidently needed.

Millie Graham arrived in Johannesburg in the last week of December 1905 from London. The next day, Henry and Millie went with Gandhi to be married by the Registrar of European Marriages. Gandhi hoped to bear witness to this union of Jew and Christian; the Registrar thought this was not permitted by law. He asked them to come back the next working day. But the next day was Sunday, and the day after that, New Year’s Day. And Millie and Henry had waited long enough already. So Gandhi went across to the office of the Chief Magistrate, to whom the Registrar reported. He convinced him that nothing in the law debarred a brown man from witnessing a European marriage. The Magistrate, remembered Gandhi, merely ‘laughed and gave me a note to the Registrar and the marriage was duly registered’. The deed done, the couple moved into the Gandhi’s home on Albemarle Street.       

Clockwise: The combative Millie Polak; her husband Henry Polak; Hermann Kallenbach who wrote a biography of Gandhi; his secretary Sonja Schlesin    

Living with the Gandhis, Millie concluded that with regard to marital relations at least there was a fundamental difference between East and West. Indian husbands were allowed periods of rest and contemplation, but their wives had to work, work, work. ‘The East has made [woman] the subject of man,’ Millie told Gandhi. ‘She seems to possess no individual life.’ Gandhi answered that she was mistaken: ‘The East has given her a position of worship.’ As proof, he mentioned the legend of Satyavan and Savitri. When Satyavan died, Savitri wrested with the God of Death for the return of her beloved. ‘She had a hard battle to fight’, said Gandhi, but after showing ‘the highest courage, fortitude, love and wisdom’, eventually won her husband back to her side.

Millie answered that this story actually proves her point. In Indian mythology, it appeared ‘woman is made to serve man, even to wrestling with the God of Death for him’. In myth and in reality (seeing how Gandhi treated Kasturba), Millie found Indian women ‘always waiting on the pleasure of some man’.

There were also arguments between Polak and Gandhi. The Englishman thought the Indian too even tempered - when he was slandered in the press, he should write back polemically rather than ignore the matter. Polak, an ardent socialist, found Gandhi to be wholly without interest in economic theories; and far too absorbed in questions of religion.

Polak was now working part-time on Indian Opinion. His involvement increased when, in January 1906, the editor, M.H Nazar, died in his sleep at Phoenix, a copy of the Gita by his side. Polak took charge of the English columns, editing and reading proofs, and regularly contributing articles himself. He was an enthusiast for Swadeshi movement, seeing echoes of the search for dignity in Ireland, Poland and other oppressed nations.

In 1905, for coloured couple and a white couple to live together would have been unusual in an English city like London, or in an Indian city like Bombay. In the context of South Africa it was revolutionary. The prejudice against the mixing of the races was perhaps greater there than anywhere else in the world. For Gandhi to befriend Polak, Kallenbach and company was an act of bravery; for them to befriend Gandhi was an act of defiance.


Zulu Revolt


In April 1906, a Zulu revolt broke out in Natal. The Government had imposed a poll tax of £1 per head on every male African, aimed at raising revenues and at forcing Zulus into paid employment. The tax caused widespread resentment. Several chiefs sent word to the Natal Government that villagers could not afford to pay tax. The complaints were disregarded. When the police came to collect the tax by force, the Zulus exchanged non-compliance for armed resistance. The uprising (known as the ‘Bambatha Rebellion’ after its main leader) quickly gathered momentum, and spread throughout Natal.

The question before the Indians of Natal now was - what position, if any, should they take on the revolt? Gandhi, mindful of making a good impression on the rulers while the Indian community’s fate in the Transvaal hung in the balance, told the readers of Indian Opinion that ‘it is not for me to say whether the revolt of the Kaffirs is justified or not. We are in Natal by virtue of British power. Our very existence depends upon it. It is therefore our duty to render whatever help we can… That is, if Government so desires, we should raise an ambulance corps.’ The ‘nursing of the wounded,’ said Gandhi, was ‘just as honourable and necessary as the shouldering of a rifle’.

In the first week of June, twenty Indians were recruited as volunteers. Gandhi’s was the first name; the others included several Tamils and a few people from North India. The Gujarati merchants provided goods in kind, such as flour and plates, as well as money, which went to buy overcoats, caps and socks.

It had cost the state nearly £1 million to suppress the rebellion. Thirty-one combatants on the Government side lost their lives, as against nearly 4,000 Africans, in a war ‘carried out with machine guns against spears and shields’. While loyal to the British flag, the Indian ambulance corps tended to the wounded regardless of colour. As an early historian of the rebellion pointed out, ‘the whites had no desire to minister to wounded Zulus; without Indian stretcher-bearers of Africans who had been sentenced to flogging. The Indians ministered to Zulus festering sores.‘


Vow of Brahmacharya or Celibacy



It was in the late South African summer of 1906 that Gandhi took the vow of brahmacharya. Gandhi would now eschew all sexual relations with his wife. By his recollection, the idea had been brewing in his head for some time. Kasturba and Gandhi began to sleep in separate beds. The decision was helped by the fact that both agreed that they did not want any more children.

In the Jain tradition, celibacy occupied an exalted place. Sexual activity involved passion, and was hence injurious to the soul. Jains also thought that sexual intercourse destroyed a number of animate objects dwelling in the female body. Celibacy was thus part of the pursuit of pure ahimsa, or nonviolence. A gradualist approach was recommended - the practitioner was first told to not have sex during the day, preparing himself in stages for the achievement of complete abstinence. The aspiring brahmachari had to stop wearing expensively tailored clothes, and stay away from soap, scents, jewellery and other means of enhancing his attractiveness.

The decision to stop having sex led to a wider reconsideration of this respective calling. When the Bambatha Rebellion broke out, Gandhi had to rush to Natal to raise the ambulance corps. He decided that in his absence Kasturba and the children would be better off at Phoenix, where they would have friends and relations around them, than in the anonymity of an ever larger city. This meant the dismantling of a spacious, well-furnished, smoothly functioning home in Johannesburg. In its classical, so to say Brahmanical version, a man’s raising of a family was followed by a stage where he retreated from social life altogether, by moving to a forest, or vana, where he contemplated the meanings and mysteries of life. In Gandhi’s case, however, he detached himself from the family in order to more actively engage in society.

In taking the vow of brahmacharya in 1906, Gandhi may also have been influenced by Tolstoy’s prescriptive essay, ‘The First Step’, the Russian sage whom the Indian lawyer so greatly admired wrote, ‘No good life is thinkable without abstinence. Every attainment of a good life must begin through it; - and then continued:

Abstinence is a man’s liberations from the lusts… But there are many various lusts in man, and for the struggle with them to be successful he must begin with the basal ones, those on which other, more complex ones have grown up… There are complex passions, as the passion for adorning the body, games, amusements, gossiping, curiosity, and many others; and there are basal passions, such as gluttony, idleness, carnal love. In the struggle with the passions it is impossible to begin at the end, with the struggle with the complex passions; we must begin at the end, with the struggle with the complex passions; we must begin with the basal ones, and that, too, in a definite order. This order is determined both by the essence of the thing and by the tradition of human wisdom.


By tradition and upbringing Gandhi was not a ‘glutton’ - by which Tolstoy meant a man who fears largely or exclusively on animal flesh - nor consumed by idleness. As a lifelong vegetarian, and a disciplined, hard working professional, the one basal passion he had to confront and overcome was that of ‘carnal love’. And so he decided to take the vow of brahmacharya or celibacy.

Once Gandhi had settled Kasturba and the children at Phoenix, he returned to Johannesburg, moving into a smaller house, which he shared with Millie and Henry Polak.

Millie Polak disagreed with Gandhi’s frugal lifestyle, one for not having of good home furnitures and decorations, and giving up sugar, onion and milk. However, she retained a healthy respect for her Indian friend. She particularly struck by how hard he worked. He attended to his clients all day, including Sunday. The Polaks became accustomed to Indians coming in at all hours, seeking the counsel of their lawyer and leader.


A Father and a Son


Gandhi’s first born Harilal was a poor student, and failed to settle down in any of the several schools he studied in. This concerned Gandhi - perhaps because he had once been an indifferent student himself. He asked Kasturba to bring all their sons to South Africa. However Harilal stayed behind, ostensibly to appear for his Matriculation.

The relationship between father and son deteriorated further when Gandhi learned of Harilal’s  love for Chanchal, the daughter of his friend Haridas Vora. Gandhi thought the couple too young to get married, but his brother Laxmidas, who was in Rajkot, sanctioned the wedding, and the marriage took place on 2 May 1906. When the news reached Gandhi, he wrote to his brother saying that ‘it is well if Harilal is married; it is also well if he is not. For the present at any rate I have ceased to think of him as a son.

The harshness of the tone is only partially extenuated by the fact that Harilal was guilty of, as it were, serial disobedience: of not studying properly, of not joining the family in Johannesburg, of not writing letters regularly, and worst of all, of not listening to his father’s advice not to get married. Kasturba was deeply worried about the estrangement between father and son. As an (Indian) mother she was perhaps more forgiving of Harilal’s transgressions. She also saw the Gandhi’s behaviour was not above reproach: that he had alternated between being grossly neglectful and somewhat overbearing. Seeking a rapprochement, she persuaded Harilal to come to South Africa.

Now in mid-thirties, Mohandas Gandhi was no longer interested in becoming a successful, prosperous or famous lawyer. He would work to earn a living, and to subsidize his other, to him more significant, activities. Obligations to his family were likewise undertaken more out of duty than conviction. He could not entirely and permanently separate himself from his children; however, in times of political tension or controversy they took second place.


The Asiatic Ordinance



In August 1906, even as Gandhi was seeking to reconcile with Harilal, the Transvaal Government introduced a new ‘Asiatic Ordinance’. This required every Indian resident in Transvaal to register afresh, regardless of age or gender. The certificates of registration had to be carried at all times, and produced on demand. Those not carrying them were liable for arrest, imprisonment and even expulsion from the province. Also Indians could not vote and could not own property. They were subjects rather than full-fledged citizens.

The Ordinance had been drafted by Assistant Colonial Secretary of the Transvaal, Lionel Curtis, a protege of Lord Milner’s, educated at Oxford. The Ordinance was intended by Curtis to ‘shut the gate against the influx of an Asiatic population’, and thereby ‘guard the Transvaal as a white reserve’.

In a letter of 25 August, the British Indian Association said that to make all Asians aged eight and over, of either sex, undergo fresh registration would ‘needlessly violate female modesty, as it is understood by millions of British Indians’. An editorial in Indian Opinion characterized the new bill as ‘abominable’. It threatened to ‘invade the sanctity of home life’, and appeared to have been drafted ‘with the deliberate intention of injuring the Indian community’.

On 1 September, a delegation led by Gandhi travelled to Pretoria to meet the Colonial Secretary, Patrick Duncan. They told him ‘that the Asiatic Act would be unacceptable to the Indian community under any circumstances and that re-registration would simply not take place’. The Secretary refused to consider the withdrawal of the legislation. Indian Opinion now compared British rule in the Transvaal to the regime of the autocratic Tsar of Russia. While the Russian state ‘murder[s] people openly and directly’, it said sarcastically, the British in Transvaal ‘kill[s] them by inches’.

At their meeting, Gandhi told Duncan that if the legislation went through, the Indians would refuse to abide by its regulations, even if it meant courting arrest. He said he was prepared to be the first to got to jail. Later Gandhi’s friend the Pretoria lawyer R. Gregorowski told Gandhi that the penalties for failing to register were severe imprisonment with hard labour and perhaps stiff fine too. He advised the Indians to send a deputation to London, to lay their case before new Liberal Government. Gandhi accepted the advice.

Thus far, the movement to get the Indians a fair deal in South Africa had followed a strictly legalistic route. Letters, petitions, court cases, delegations - these were the means by which Gandhi and his fellows had challenged laws which bore down unfairly on them. Now, however, they were threatening to defy this new Ordinance and go to jail.

It has been sometimes assumed that this resolution of 11 September 1906, mandating a move from petition to protest, was influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s classic tract on civil disobedience, first published in 1849. There is no evidence to support this conjecture. At this time, Gandhi had not read Thoreau. Another speculation, offered by the respected Gandhi scholar James D. Hunt, is that he was influenced by protests by Nonconformists against the Education Act in England, which forced Anglican instruction on state-aided schools. Baptists, Wesleyans and Congregationalists had courted arrest rather than allow their children to be indoctrinated in the official faith of the state.

The term ‘passive resistance’, used by Gandhi was one made popular Nonconformists, although it also had a more distant origin in the term ‘non-resistance to evil’, made famous in a book Gandhi knew well, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within you.


A Lobbyist in London


On 2 October 1906 Mohandas Gandhi entered his thirty-eighth year. The SS Armsdale carrying Gandhi and Haji Ojer Ally the deputation of the British Indian Association of South Africa docked at Southampton on 20 October.  

Gandhi gave two interviews to the press. Speaking to the London correspondent of an Indian newspaper, he said the act proposed by the Transvaal Government was ‘much more rigorous and severe’ that earlier legislation. ‘Mr. Gandhi stated that the Indians are greatly stirred over the matter,’ noted the reporter, ‘and are prepared to go to gaol rather than submit.’

In London Gandhi visited the family of his friend Henry Polak. In London Gandhi lobbied very effectively by meeting Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Elgin, Liberal MPs Harold Cox, and Henry Cotton. Both Cox and Cotton raised a series of questions in Parliament on the harassment of Indians in the Transvaal. They were answered by the Under-Secretary of State, Winston Churchill, a man noticeably sympathetic to the idea that white and brown could never mix. One question related to an eviction notice issued to about a hundred Indian traders in the Johannesburg locality of Vrededorp. The traders had been there for years, and their vested property was valued at £20,000. When Cotton asked why the Indians were made to vacate their stands, Churchill said that there were also Boer traders operating in the market, and ‘it is very desirable to keep the white and coloured quarters apart, as the practice of allowing European, Asiatic, and native families to live side by side in [a] mixed community is fraught with many evils, and, is injurious to the social well-being of all three. On 27 November, Gandhi and Ally met the Under-secretary of State Churchill at his office.

Gandhi’s energetic lobbying in London alarmed the Transvaal Government. As the deputation sailed back to South Africa, the colony’s Lieutenant-Governor wrote to his boss grumbling that ‘His Majesty’s Government have evidently been greatly impressed by the representation of Messrs. Gandhi and Ally. Gandhi returned to South Africa in the third week of December 1906.

The ‘Asiatic Ordinance’ of 1906 made in the law at the Transvaal Assembly on 20 March, 1907 by newly elected Government. The Transvaal elected the party of Boers, Het Volk, won a majority. General Louis Botha was sworn in as Prime Minister. Another former General, J.C Smuts, was appointed Colonial Secretary.


To Gaol



Indian Opinion’s leader for 11 May 1907 was headlined ‘To the Goal!’ Now that Asiatic Act had been sent for royal sanction, ‘the goal for British Indians in Transvaal is the Transvaal gaol.’ In September 1907 the name of Henry David Thoreau appeared in the columns of Indian Opinion for the first time. Gandhi had only recently become acquainted with his tract of civil disobedience. The jail-going resolution of 11 September 1906 had been invented on the spot; in later weeks and months, Gandhi sought precedents in Indian traditions of boycott and protest. Gandhi began using the term ‘passive resistance’.

On 1 October 1907, the Permit Office - which Indian Opinion had taken to calling the ‘Plague Office’ - opened in Johannesburg. Gandhi warned picketers any intimidation or violence. ‘A watchman’s duty is to watch, not to assault… Our whole struggle is based on our submitting ourselves to hardships, not inflicting them on anyone else, be he an Indian or European.’

Meanwhile, a white-owned newspaper warned Indians not to listen to Gandhi, a ‘mischief-monger’ who, after the current conflict was over, would ‘pick up his briefcase and go elsewhere’. That warning was disregarded. The picketing in Johannesburg was largely successful.

Gandhi heard of the arrest warrant against him on the morning of 27 December. The Police Commissioner told him that he was at liberty for twenty-four hours, but had to appear in the court next day. The same evening, a meeting was hurriedly convened in the Hamidia Hall. Here Gandhi termed the legislation under which he faced imprisonment as ‘the savage Act of a… Government that dares to call itself Christian. If Jesus Christ came to Johannesburg and Pretoria and examined the hearts of General Botha, General Smuts and the others, he thought he would notice something strange, something quite strange to the Christian spirit.

The case of M.K Gandhi versus the Transvaal Government came up for hearing for hearing in Johannesburg’s B Court on the morning of 28 December 1907. Many friends of the accused were present, mostly Indians but also Henry Polak. The Judge, H. H. Jordan, gave his order, if Gandhi did not leave the colony within seven days, he would be sentenced to a month in prison for not possessing a valid permit. If he stayed on in the colony for more than a week after that sentence expired, he would be sentenced next time to six months in prison. The newspaper report on the case continues:

Mr Gandhi, interrupted the Magistrate, asked him to make the order for 48 hours. If they could get it shorter even that that, they would be more satisfied.


Mr JORDAN: If that is the case, I should be the last person in the world to disappoint you. Leave the colony within 48 hours is my order.

Immediately after he was sentenced, Gandhi defended the others accused of violating the law.

One time Tamil rival of Gandhi C.M Pillay, asked why he did not register, said he believed ‘that any self-respecting man would not comply with the provisions of the Act, as it simply places our liberty in the hands of the Registrar of Asiatics who, in my humble opinion, is not [a] fit and proper person to hold this post’.

Gandhi defended another prominent Indian leader, and a most loyal colleague of Gandhi Thambi Naidoo. Thambi Naidoo, for his part, told the judge that he ‘objected to registration as it placed him lower that Kaffir, and it was against his religion.’ Then it was the turn of two Chinese resisters to speak. One, a Mr Easton, said ‘he was not permitted by his religion - Taoism - to give any impressions’; the other Leung Quinn, said ‘he did not take out a permit because it was a law disgraceful to himself and his nation.’

On New Year’s Day, 1908 ,way past Gandhi’s order to leave the country within 48 hours, a Baptist minister named Joseph J. Doke walked into Gandhi’s chambers at the corner of Anderson and Rissik Street. Mr Doke found a crowd of Indians already there. Later he sketched the scene from memory: men in turbans, standing; women in saris, squatting, some with children in their arms.

Doke went past the secretary’s room into the lawyer’s office, which he found, was ‘meagrely furnished and dusty’. As for the man himself, the minister had expected to find ‘a tall and stately figure, and a bold, masterful face, in harmony with the influence he seemed to exert in Johannesburg.’ To his surprise, Gandhi turned out to be ‘small lithe, spare’, with a dark skin and dark eyes. His hair was black, with a sprinkling of gray.

Seeing the white minister enter, the Indians who were already there silently left the room. Doke immediately asked Gandhi a direct question: ‘How far are you prepared to make a martyr of yourself for the good of the cause?’ and received an equally direct answer: ‘It is a matter with me to complete surrender… I am willing to die at any time, or to do anything for the cause.

On 3 January, Gandhi defended two passive resisters in court. They were former soldiers of the Indian Army, both Pathans, who had seen action and suffered wounds in the Anglo-Boer War. These facts their lawyer successfully impressed on the magistrate sentencing them. A few days later, Gandhi told the Star newspaper that Indians were actually worse off now that under the Boer regime.

Composing that week’s ‘Johannesburg Letter’ a Indian Opinion, Gandhi noted that of the several suggestions for an Indian equivalent to ‘passive resistance’, one was described as ‘not bad’. This was sadagraha, which roughly translated as ‘firmness in a good cause’. The suggestion came from Maganlal Gandhi. His uncle, the leader, took a the liberty of refining it further, to satyagraha, or the ‘force of truth in a good cause’. ‘Though the phrase does not exhaust the connotations of the word “passive” ’, remarked Gandhi, ‘we shall use satyagraha till a word is available which deserves the prize.

On 10 January, this particular passive resister - or satyagrahi - was called to appear before a judge for not complying with the sentence to leave the colony. Gandhi reached the court by 10 a.m., with many supporters in tow. The hearing had however been postponed to the afternoon.

After lunch, the accused and his associates proceeded to court. It had begun to rain, so an admirer held an umbrella for Gandhi to walk under. A rush of Indians entered the courtroom, before the police barred the rest. Inside, Gandhi pleaded guilty to the charge of disobeying the order to leave the Colony within forty-eight hours. He asked for the ‘heaviest penalty’ under the law, which was six months in prison with hard labour and a fine of £500. The judge the same H. H. Jordan, declined to meet his request, instead sentencing him to two months without hard labour.

Gandhi was taken to the Fort Prison, sited on Hospital Hill, a great mound of earth overlooking the cricket and rugby grounds known as ‘The Wanderers’. Built in the 1890s, the prison had separate quarters for whites and natives. As an Indian, Gandhi could not be placed with the former, so he had perforce to be put in with the latter. As a free man he had lived pretty austerely. Although his forefathers had served kings, his own homes were modest. Even so, his new place of residence must have seemed confining, a narrow, dark, ‘native block’ that contained some seventy-two prisoners.


A tolstoyan in Johannesburg


When, on 10 January 1908, Gandhi reached Johannesburg’s Fort Prison, he was undressed and weighed, and his fingerprints were taken. He was given a set of prison clothes, consisting of trousers, shirt, jumper, cap, socks and sandals. Then since it was already evening, he was sent off to his cell with 8 ounces of bread for his evening meal. The cell was labelled with ‘For Coloured Debtors’, and Gandhi had to share it with a dozen others. They slept on wooden planks, with ‘an apology for pillow’.  The meals were dominated by what was known locally as ‘mealie pap’, a porridge made of maize, which he found difficult to digest. When he protested (in writing), he was given an extra helping of vegetables.

The day after Gandhi’s arrest, many Indian stores in Natal and Transvaal closed in honour of their leader. Gandhi got permission to to call in a barber and have his moustache and head shaved in order to avoid scabies. On 14 January, Gandhi was happy to welcome into jail his friends Thambi Naidoo and Leung Quinn, president of the Chinese Association. During the course of the week more passive resisters joined them. They include Tamils, Gujarati Hindus and Muslims. As more Indians came pouring in, the wanders were compelled to erect tents in the yard.

In the third week of January, Gandhi was visited by Albert Cartwright, editor of the newspaper Transvaal leader, a liberal-minded Englishman who had experienced terms of imprisonment himself (for opposing the way the war against the Boers had been conducted). Cartwright was in touch with General Smuts about negotiated settlement between the Government and the Indians. The General was now worried about the pressure on the jails. As he told a meeting of whites, he had ‘sent every leader to prison, and hundreds more, and it had had no impression.’ There was not enough jails to house all the Indians in the Transvaal. To ‘take 10,000 men by the collar’ and put them in prison was ‘not only physically but morally impossible’.

The prison authorities had agreed to place a table in Gandhi’s cell, and to provide pens and an ink-pot. Gandhi alternated between reading and writing. He had brought the Bhagavad-Gita with him, as well as some books by or about Tolstoy, Socrates and Ruskin. From the prison library he borrowed the works of Thomas Carlyle and a copy of the Bible, whose contents he discussed with Chinese prisoner.

Pressure was also being exerted on the Colonial Office by the India Office, who had been alerted by the Viceroy of ‘the existence of a vary strong and bitter sentiment amongst the educated and articulate section of the native community throughout Indian on the subject of the disabilities imposed on their countrymen resident in South Africa. The Viceroy had been forwarded an anguished, breathless telegram received by the Anglican Church in India, which read:

Barrister merchants traders hawkers agents clerks interpreters Government officials colonial born married South African children born here [all] arrested… many families left mercy community some merchants twenty years standing including greybeards others gaoled include youth tender years 2 old soldiers bearing medals several campaigns also leaders ambulance corps boer war stretcher corps Natal rebellion…


Cartwright and Gandhi had two meetings, after which the editor drafted a document wherein the resistors offered voluntary registration in exchange for the dropping of cases, the release of prisoners, the reinstatement of Government employees who had become satyagrahis, and a discussion of the repeal of the Asiatic act. The paper was signed by Gandhi, Thambi Naidoo (on behalf of the Tamils) and Leung Quinn (representing Chinese).

On 30 January, Gandhi was taken by a posse of policemen to meet General Smuts in Pretoria. They discussed the terms of the compromise, with Smuts asking that those Indians who had been loyal to the Government not to be harassed. That same evening Gandhi was released.

Extremists on the European side were unhappy with the compromise. Gandhi should have been exiled from the province, they argued. A meeting of White League, held in Johannesburg on 1 February, asked its members to ‘passively resist the Asiatics by securing pledges from the white people not to deal with the Orientals’. A co-operative society of whites to replace the trade of Indian hawkers and proposed. These colonists ‘want[ed] the Asiatics out of the country, and will have nothing to do with them.  

Before Gandhi was admired for his professional qualifications and skills - for being only British-educated English-speaking Indian lawyer in Natal and the Transvaal. After his arrest, gave him an altogether different glow. He was now admired not so much for his education and privilege, as for his courage and conviction. The dignity with which he bore imprisonment, and with which he faced his tormentors, greatly impressed Tamils and Gujaratis, Hindus as well as Muslims.

April of 1908, Henry Polak enrolled as an attorney of the Supreme Court of Transvaal. Polak had completed three years as a clerk in Gandhi’s office, and also passed the necessary examinations.

In the last week of April, three new bills were introduced in the Natal Legislature. The first sought to stop the import of indentured Indian labour after June 1911; the second to suspend the issuing of new trading licences after August 1908; the third to terminate existing Indian licenses after ten years, subject to the payment of compensation equivalent to three years’ profit. Gandhi welcomed the first bill, for he too wished to see the ending of the harsh, dehumanizing system of indentured labour. But, he wrote, ‘the other two Bills are as ignorant as they are tyrannical.’ If not rescinded, they might have to be fought ‘with the sword of satyagraha’.

These bills were a complete reversal of the terms of compromise reached by Gandhi and General Smuts on 30 January 1908. In early May , Smuts decided that the window of voluntary registration would be open for three months altogether. Former residents coming back to the colony after 9 August would have their cases examined under the notorious (and still unrepealed) Asiatic ordinance act of 1907.

Government was turn down Gandhi’s repeated requests to repeal the Asiatic ordinance act. The insensitivity of the Government was answered by the hardening of the Indian position. In the last week of May Gandhi wrote to Montford Chamney asking him to return the papers submitted with his application for the voluntary registration based on the 30 January 1908 compromise. Lenug Quinn and Thambi Naidoo, his fellow signatories to the pact with Smuts, likewise wrote asking for their papers. Both insisted that ‘the only reason we accepted the compromise was in order to bring about the repeal of the Act’. Hundreds of Indians and Chinese followed their leaders in demanding the return of their papers.

Gandhi and General Smuts met three times to discuss repealing of Asiatic ordinance. The discussions proved fruitless. In a statement issued to the press, Gandhi charged the General with having ‘wrecked a whole compromise to avoid the possible accession to the Asiatic population of the Colony of two thousand Asiatics as an outside figure’. He recalled that when, back in January, he had commenced talks with the Government, some colleagues had warned that the rulers were not to be trusted. They argued that the repeal of the 1907 Act should have preceded voluntary registration. Gandhi had told them ‘that was not a dignified position to take up’; now, it seemed, his critics had been vindicated.

Smuts expressed his own frustration to the businessman William Hosken. While other concessions were possible, said the General, ‘the repeal out and out of the Asiatic Act’ was out of the question. The ‘white population is becoming daily more exasperated and demanding even more stringent legislation’. By making fresh demands, Gandhi had ‘thrown away’ a ‘golden chance for a final settlement’.

The next issue of Indian Opinion, warned that in view of the impasse, satyagraha might now have to resume. Gandhi reminded his readers that ‘in any great war, more than one battle has to be fought’.

Henry and Millie now had children of their own, and needed space. Gandhi moved out of the house he shared with the Polaks into Kallenbach’s house. Among the things that brought Gandhi and Kallenbach together was a shared admiration for the works of Leo Tolstoy, who at this time was certainly the most famous writer in the world. Tolstoy was admired for his novels and stories, and in some quarters, even more for his attempts at simplifying his life. In his early fifties he had a conversion experience, following which he gave up alcohol, tobacco, and meat.

The experiments of Gandhi and Kallenbach in Johannesburg were of a piece with this worldwide trend. Both were from middle-class backgrounds; both practised professions that brought them close to circles of wealth and power. Reading Tolstoy was for each an educative and even  epihansic experience. For the lawyer, it consolidated the non-attachment to worldly possessions so exalted in the Hindu and Jain traditions; for the architect, it provided an encouragement to embrace a life of austerity and abstinence that his own, jewish, tradition did not mandate and (at least with regard to celibacy) perhaps did not comprehend.

Gandhi had already taken a vow of celibacy; Kallenbach, under the influence, joined Gandhi. Gandhi was contemplating leaving South Africa in 1908 to study medicine in London. Hermann Kallenbach was deeply devoted to Gandhi. The Indian was to him a combination of elder brother and moral preceptor.

In early July, writing his weekly ‘Johannesburg Letter’ for Indian Opinion, Gandhi explained what the coming satyagraha was about. It was for the rights of those Indians who held Boer certificates of residence, for those past residents of the Transvaal who were presently outside the colony, and for educated Indians. The methods it would follow were the burning of registration certificates, and the refusal to give signatures or fingerprints if asked to by the police. If traders or hawkers were denied licences because they would not sign or provide fingerprints, they would continue trading. Imprisonment on account of any of these breaches of the law would be immediately accepted. To the resisters, Gandhi would provide legal assistance ‘free of charge as usual.

The proposed ‘satyagraha’ was vastly covered by both domestic press in South Africa and International press in India and Britain. The British Indian Association now scheduled a mass burning of certificates for Sunday 12 July 1908, by then agreed to postponement at the request of Albert Cartwright and William Hosken. These white liberals still hoped a settlement would be struck.

With no possibility of a settlement, the protests resumed. From July 1908, Indians began courting arrest by hawking without a license. They carried baskets of fruit on their heads, went from door to door, and waited for the police to arrest them. Gandhi defended these resisters in court. The sentence for hawking without a license was normally on week in prison. Some satyagrahis became serial offenders, among them Thambi Naidoo.

On 28 July, Gandhi defended six Indians charged with hawking without license. Gandhi was now appearing in court two or three times a week for the same purpose. This case was somewhat different, however, for among the accused was Harilal, his eldest son. Harilal, who had just turned twenty, was living at Phoenix, with his mother, his brothers and his wife Chanchal, who had recently joined him from India. He had been persuaded by his father to join the satyagraha. Entering Transvaal from Natal, he was detained at the town of Volksrust for not having a valid certificate, and told to apply for one in Pretoria. Instead, he proceeded to Johannesburg and immediately began to hawk fruit. Harilal was fined one pound or seven days hard labour; like the others, he opted for imprisonment.

The conviction and incarceration of the younger Gandhi generated a wave of sympathy among the Indians of the Transvaal. The imprisonment of his son provoked a complex set of emotions in Gandhi. ‘I want every Indian to do what Harilal has done,’ said Gandhi in a letter to Indian Opinion. ‘It will be part of Harilal’s education to go to gaol for the sake of the country.’ By going to prison the boy had, in a sense, substituted for the father.