Updated: April 27, 2010 15:42 IST

From Mohandas to Mahatma

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Gandhiana is marked by a preponderance of the Mahatma. Literature on the younger Mohandas and his experiences in South Africa is relatively less.

The book aims to make this up, with the tireless diarist Gandhi himself as the chief source.

The young barrister's experiences in South Africa, where he was on a year's contract with a firm, were anything but encouraging. He was thrown out of a first-class compartment in the Pietermaritzburg station in spite of having a valid ticket; denied entry into the dining hall of a hotel; and refused accommodation with the Europeans inside a coach and asked to sit at the foot of the attendant. He was also ordered out of the court for not removing the pheta (turban). Alongside, Mohandas also saw the abject slavery of the g irmitiya — Indian indentured labourers under bondage. Protests against colour discrimination as the first ‘coolie' advocate invited ridicule and humiliation. The worse the local conditions, the more it steeled his resolve to stay on. He also came across quite a few instances of English nobility coming to his rescue when ill-treated, although after giving the impression of acquiescence.

The four issues that agitated Gandhi were: The Asiatic Act which required every resident's finger-print or thumb impression; the restrictive provisions in the Immigration Act, limiting access; the three-pound poll tax that hardly anyone could afford; and the marriage law that made registration compulsory and declared all unregistered weddings void. The last one was so revolting even to Kasturba that she volunteered to join the protest and courted imprisonment.

Satyagraha as weapon

Mohandas invented the weapon of ‘Satyagraha' to further the struggle. While ‘passive resistance' allowed scope for hatred of the enemy, satyagraha was all love and the attempt was to effect a change of heart in the oppressor by stoic suffering. Mohandas taught the affected to give up fear, resist evil by truth, never to yield and strive to attain the full stature of manhood. General Smuts would agree to withdraw the Act, accepting Mohandas' offer of voluntary registration of fingerprints; but betrayed the trust later.

The locals felt cheated and even suspected a sell-out by Gandhi for money and one of them attacked him causing grievous hurt. But Gandhi would not complain against him. Gandhi's team offered medical service in the Boer and Zulu wars and also established the Phoenix Farm and the Tolstoy Farm to try the experiment of common ownership of property and trusteeship — ideas Gandhi had gathered from John Ruskin's Unto this Last.

This voluntary dispossession of private property entailed stoppage of remittances to home and Gandhi earned his elder brother's displeasure. The coal-miners' strike brought about a united front, as never before, and the British rulers were at their wits' end to tackle it. Then came imprisonment and premature release twice to facilitate talks.

A perceptive query by the local host ‘Do we ever fight back at home?' set an agitated Gandhi thinking about his home. Gokhale kept him abreast of the developments back home. By this time, the groundswell of resentment was rising fast in South Africa and Viceroy Hardinge appointed the Solomon Commission to enquire into Indian grievances. The Commission conceded the Indian demand in substance. By this time, Kasturba's health deteriorated fast and Gandhi sailed back home; he was “destined for even greater things,” as Gokhale prophesied in their very first meeting.


One cannot but sympathise with the harassed Kasturba. Her religion, ritual, and caste were all to be subsumed under Gandhi's concept of ‘public service'. Her protests, “Am I your wife or a girmitiya?” went unheeded throughout. Her jewels had been sold to fund Gandhi's London education. Nor could she retain the jewellery gifted during the farewell. Gandhi donated it to the Natal Congress. Once she was thrown out of the house for refusing to do menial service to unknown guests. Worse, she was overruled and children would not be educated, for there were only English medium schools around. For all his greatness and goodness, Gandhi comes across as an exasperatingly contumacious husband. On his part, Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach “Marriage is a curse for those who want to take the vow of service.”

Of Gandhi's transformation during his years in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi”. None could be more terse and true.

THE GIRMITIYA SAGA: By Giriraj Kishore; Translated by Prajapati Sah, Niyogi Books, D-78, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase I, New Delhi-110020. Rs. 995.

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