The Method of Nonviolence Is Born
Nonviolence first entered Gandhi's mind as the result of one particular incident. He would later read and be influenced by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau's ideas on civil disobedience.
By age twenty-four, Mohandas Gandhi was a barrister. He passed the London matriculation examination, and after three years, he returned to India. However, he knew nothing of Indian law and because he was shy, was not suited to argue cases in court. In 1893, he agreed to assist a South African firm in a case.
As he set out for Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal in South Africa, Gandhi looked the part of a fashionable dandy, dressed in a frock coat, pressed trousers, shining shoes, and a turban. First-class accommodations were purchased for him, and he boarded the train at Durban for the overnight journey. But he had not counted on the reaction of his fellow passengers, all of whom were of European descent.
From 1860 to 1890, some 40,000 laborers had come from India to serve European landlords in South Africa. Following their period of servitude, many Indians settled in South Africa. White rulers imposed petty restrictions and heavy taxes on them. Jingoistic newspapers perpetuated the stereotype that Indians were a dirty, uncivilized people. They didn't enjoy freedom of movement on the railways, nor could they stay at hotels reserved for Europeans.
Gandhi's train pulled into Martizburg, the capital of Natal, and Gandhi related that a white man entered his compartment and “looked me up and down” and “saw that I was a colored man.” This disturbed the man, who charged out of the compartment and returned with two officials. Gandhi was ordered to the third-class compartment. He refused to leave, protesting that he had a first-class ticket. The official persisted, Gandhi dug in his heels, and eventually a constable was summoned to forcibly remove Gandhi and his luggage from the train.
It was winter, and bitterly cold in the waiting room at the train station. Gandhi sat shivering through the night and drifted into philosophical reverie. He examined the very nature of his life and his duties in it. He decided he must press on to Pretoria, and in the morning his employer used his influence to get Gandhi reinstated as a first-class passenger. He suffered more abuse on the way to Pretoria. On one leg of the journey, he had to travel by stagecoach, but was not allowed to sit inside with the other passengers. Instead, he had to sit on the coach box and was humiliated when the coachman asked him to stand on the footboard. The ordeal gave Gandhi a sense of the conditions of Indians in South Africa and strengthened his resolve to do something about it.
Gandhi decided that being thrown off the train to Pretoria for sitting in a “white only” section was “only a symptom of the disease of color prejudice” and that “I should try if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.” It was the beginning of his struggle for the rights of ordinary Indian citizens.
A Leader for Civil Rights
Within a week of his arrival in Pretoria, Gandhi had summoned all the Indians of the city to a meeting. He was twenty-four years old, and was making his first public speech. The audience consisted of Muslim merchants interspersed with a few Hindus. His goal was “to present to them a picture of their condition.”
At this time, the Natal legislature was taking up a bill to deny the vote to Indians. The Indian community wanted Gandhi to lead the opposition to this bill. He could not stop the bill from passing, but he drew attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. In 1894, he formed the Natal Indian Congress to fight for the rights of Indians, which became a great force in South African politics. In 1897, he was attacked and nearly lynched by a white mo
At the beginning of the South African War (better known as the Boer War) in 1899, Gandhi thought Indians must support the war effort to legitimize their claims to full citizenship. Thus, he helped organize an ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 laborers. But when the war ended in 1902, conditions for the Indians had not improved.
In 1906, the Transvaal government passed a measure compelling the colony's Indian population to register. This included a strip search of women in order to identify any birthmarks. In Johannesburg that year, Gandhi held a mass protest. For the first time, he articulated his philosophy of satyagraha or “truth force,” asking his fellow Indians to oppose the new law using nonviolent methods. Over a period of seven years, Gandhi was imprisoned several times, and many other Indians were jailed, beaten, or shot for defying the registration order.
Until the time of the voter registration law, the thought of civil disobedience had never struck Gandhi, but he realized that by being a nuisance and opposing the law peacefully, he could engender change in the opposition. The British government was forced to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi because of the negative publicity the campaign had generated against them.
Gandhi's years in South Africa were pivotal for his political and spiritual development. He resided there from 1893 until 1914; he was twenty-four when he arrived and forty-five when he left. He studied the Bhagavad Gita, and he corresponded with and was influenced by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), who cultivated his own interest in Indian philosophy. In addition, he pored over the writings of a philosophical predecessor and kindred spirit, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau (1817–1862) had been an American transcendentalist and literary figure in the nineteenth century. His suggestive essay “Resistance to Civil Government or Civil Disobedience” shaped Gandhi's own philosophy of resistance to government.
Indians Against the British Occupiers
By 1914, at the outbreak of the World War I, Gandhi returned to India to bring his political ideas to bear on the Indian struggle for independence. At first, Gandhi supported the British effort in World War I and the effort to recruit Indians into the British army. But that changed when the British passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919, a measure that allowed the government to imprison Indians without a trial. Gandhi launched his first call for satya-graha, or nonviolent disobedience, on Indian soil.
On April 13, 1919, the British answered the show of civil disobedience with violence, in what has become known as the Amritsar Massacre. General Dwyer of the British Army gave the order to fire into a large crowd of people who were listening to a speech. The British machine guns killed 379 Indians and wounded 1,137. The firing would have continued, but the British ran out of ammunition.
The violence shocked Gandhi, and he halted any political agitation, but the larger point was that he had succeeded in getting Indians to stand up against British rule. His star was on the rise.