Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa

It was a shock to Gandhi to find that in South Africa he was considered a “coolie”—in India the word is reserved for a manual laborer.

Gandhi, center, at his law office in Johannesburg, 1902.

A relevant (and longish) excerpt from Anita Desai’s review of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India; in The New York Review of Books. Desai starts with Lelyveld’s decision to start the book with Gandhi’s South African years. Lelyveld is a former New York Times correspondent in South Africa:

At the outset Lelyveld dispenses with the conventions of biography, leaving out Gandhi’s childhood and student years, a decision he made because he believed that the twenty-three-year-old law clerk who arrived in South Africa in 1893 had little in him of the man he was to become …

Having accepted the brief of assisting as a translator in a civil suit between two Muslim merchants from India, Gandhi presented himself in a Durban magistrate’s court on May 23, 1893, just the day after his arrival, dressed in a stylish frock coat, striped trousers, and black turban, and was promptly ordered to remove the turban. He refused, left the courtroom, and fired off a letter to the press in protest. This was his first political act, predating the incident of being thrown off a train by an Englishman who objected to traveling with a “colored man” made famous by Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi and Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha. Remarkably for an Indian, this seems to have been his first encounter with colonial arrogance and in his autobiography he said it made him resolve to stay and “root out the disease” of “color prejudice.” It was the start of what Erik Erikson was to call his “eternal negative” but it is also a simplification, Lelyveld points out, of a much more convoluted attitude toward race, color, and caste that he brought with him from India.

It was a shock to Gandhi to find that in South Africa he was considered a “coolie”—in India the word is reserved for a manual laborer, specifically one who carries loads on his head or back. In South Africa the majority of Indians was composed of Tamil, Telugu, and Bihari laborers who had come to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years on the railways, plantations, and coal mines. They were known collectively as “coolies,” and Gandhi was known as a “coolie barrister.”

Still, he had a touching faith in Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 that formally extended British sovereignty over India and promised its inhabitants the same protections and privileges as all her subjects, voicing her wish that her Indian subjects “be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our service.” So when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899 and later the Zulu rebellion of 1906, he led the Indian community—he had joined the Natal Indian Congress—in offering its service to the colonial power “as full citizens of the British Empire, ready to shoulder its obligations and deserving of whatever rights it had to bestow.” He was proud of his command of the unit of Indian stretcher-bearers—not, one would think, a likely start for one who came to be regarded as the man who inspired India’s struggle, and struggles elsewhere in the world, for freedom.

It was when the so-called Black Act was passed in 1906, forcing Indians living in the Transvaal to register, that he held meetings and urged his fellow men to burn the permits they were required to carry and found himself being marched off, as he wrote, “to a prison intended for Kaffirs…. We could understand not being classified with the whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. It is indubitably right that the Indians should have separate cells. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.”

Africans could hardly ignore Gandhi’s disparagement of them: Zulu newspapers took note that the Indians volunteered to work for the “English savages in Natal” and even an Indian publication in England called Gandhi’s readiness to serve the whites “disgusting.” It was only much later—and with the judicious addition of hindsight—that Gandhi claimed that “my heart was with the Zulus” and claimed that the cruelty he had witnessed against them was “the major turning point of his life spiritually,” the one that made him turn to nonviolence as a strategy for resistance. This came to be known as satyagraha, which translates literally as “truth force” or “firmness in truth.”

This was the strategy he used in 1913 when he launched a campaign against the so-called “head tax,” the payment required of every Indian who had completed the terms of his agreement and wished to remain in the Transvaal. It did not involve the native population at all but it ignited a rebellion by indentured labor, a turn unforeseen by Gandhi himself. Indians walked off plantations, railroads, mines, and whatever services employed them in the cities, creating a strike on a scale that made it the first significant event in Gandhi’s career. “I was not prepared for this marvelous awakening,” he said. Becoming “a self-propelled whirlwind,” Lelyveld writes, he traveled by rail from one rally to another, exhorting the strikers to allow themselves to fill the jails to overflowing. (Africans were to take note and use the same strategy of passive resistance in their own struggle to come.) General Jan Smuts called out the army to suppress the strike, which it did with ferocity.

When the strike was called off, Gandhi was hailed by crowds of thousands and now saw himself as the representative not only of Indian settlers of the merchant class but of the lowest of castes, the indentured laborers he had once ignored. He had found his vocation but the outcome—the Indian Relief Act of 1914—fell far short of what the agitation had called for. Lelyveld points out, as did critics at the time, that Indians still had no political rights in South Africa—and did not for another century. The system of indentured labor eventually ended, but that had not been one of Gandhi’s demands.

While these huge public turmoils were taking place, Gandhi was experimenting with personal and domestic changes as well: first by establishing a small, self-reliant, rural commune near Durban, Phoenix Farm, with his family and a few friends. Here they were expected to share equally in all duties—editing and printing his newspaper, Indian Opinion, as well as working on the land. He set forth his principles of the ideal life—vegetarianism, nature cures for all ills, home schooling for his children, extreme austerity in all spheres of life. “Meagerness” was the standard by which diet was to be measured, a full meal being “a crime against man and God.” He decided that “no man living the physical or animal life can possibly understand the spiritual or ethical” and took the vow of celibacy; his wife concurred.

Gandhi did not follow the traditional Indian formula: his ashram was based not on religion but on universal humanistic thought. How had this come about? Lelyveld believes that “if there is a single seminal experience in his intellectual development,” it was reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You. The Hindu revolutionary Sri Aurobindo went so far as to say, “Gandhi is a European—truly a Russian Christian in an Indian body.”

Lelyveld found that he now more or less abandoned his wife and children in Natal for months at a time, despite bitter complaints of neglect from his wife and eldest son Harilal. (“He feels that I have always kept all the four boys very much suppressed…always put them and Ba last,” Gandhi wrote dispassionately.) When Gandhi’s brother Laxmidas complained that he was failing to meet his family obligations, he replied serenely, “My family now comprises all living beings,” and proceeded to assemble a surrogate family made up of mostly European Theosophists who shared his enthusiasm for Tolstoy and Ruskin. He lived for a while with the young copy editor Henry Polak and his wife Millie, then moved in with the East Prussian Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach. Together they created another rural “utopia,” Tolstoy Farm, southwest of Johannesburg, and Gandhi seems to have been happier there than he had been anywhere—enjoying bicycle rides and picnics and the friendship of Kallenbach.

This friendship was close—even romantic, Lelyveld suggests—and Kallenbach would have followed Gandhi when he left for India in 1914 if World War I had not broken out, barring him from entering British territory. All Gandhi’s efforts to obtain a visa for him failed, and the two were not to meet again for twenty-three years, by which time Kallenbach had become a Zionist and joined a kibbutz in Israel …

Source: The New York Review of Books.

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