The way of the Satyagrahi

On April 27, 1911 Jan Smuts began negotiations with Mahatma Gandhi on the repressive policies employed against Indians in South Africa.

Published - April 26, 2018 05:00 pm IST

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a 23-year-old law graduate, set sail for Africa on a temporary assignment, and ended up spending 21 years there. When he left, he was known as the Mahatma, for his work with the local Indian population and his fight against apartheid.

The beginning

Indians arrived in Natal, South Africa as early as 1860, and worked as indentured (bonded) labourers. By 1911, 1,52,000 Indians had migrated from Calcutta and Madras. They worked in sugar estates, railways and in coal mines. Many moved to Transvaal. Soon, they began to open shops or trade as hawkers and this was perceived as a threat by the Whites. This led to the government passing laws discriminating against Indians, requiring them to undergo literacy tests, keep accounts in English, and denying them the right to vote. They were also required to pay tax after their bond had been served, to enable them to remain in the country. This was done to send them back into indentured labour or to make them return to India.

These measures decreased opportunities for Indians, and many were in debt. They were required to carry passes and after 1898, were forbidden from walking on pavements. With the victory of the British in the Anglo Boer war Indians in Transvaal hoped their lot would change. But instead, they were subject to more humiliation. Indians were now required to register with local authorities, fingerprinted and recorded. Mahatma Gandhi felt that the law singled out Indians and the concept of Satyagraha or passive resistance took root.

Mahatma Gandhi organised a a mass meeting on September 11, 1906 at the Imperial Theatre in Johannesburg, where 3,000 people pledged to defy the law. This was the first passive resistance campaign. He travelled to London to get the Black Act abolished.

With no hope on the horizon, Indians embarked on their campaign on May 11, 1907. They refused to register themselves and Gandhiji and many others were jailed. In jail, he was approached by Albert Cartwright, editor of the Transvaal Leader , on behalf of Jan Smuts (he was a prominent British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher). Cartwright promised that if Gandhiji and his supporters registered voluntarily, the Black Act would be repealed. Gandhiji met with Smuts on January 30 and the agreement was formalised and he was set free. The others were released the next morning.

The Indians wanted the act repealed before they would register, but Gandhiji saw the move as the way of the Satyagrahi.

However, the promised changes did not take place. In 1907, yet another Act was passed. The Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act placed restrictions on Indians entering the Transvaal from other provinces.

By 1911 the resistance movement had dwindled as the government had come to negotiate with the Satyagrahis. On April 27, 1911 Gandhiji met with Smuts and agreed to suspend the campaign.

The campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi affected the country and the rest of the world.

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