This Week in History

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This Week in History
7 June 1893: Gandhi gets thrown out of a first-class train in South Africa, leading to his first experiment with non-violent resistance

  Anu Maria Joseph

On 7 June 1893, Mahatma Gandhi, then a lawyer in Natal, South Africa, was thrown out of a first-class train seat while travelling from Durban to Pretoria. Despite having a valid ticket, a white passenger called the railway officials to move Gandhi to a different seat naming his "coolie" race. The coolies (racial term for Indians) and non-whites were not permitted to travel in first class at the time. Gandhi refused and protested claiming his right to travel in first class. Later, he was forcibly thrown out at Pietermaritzburg station. 

While travelling to Transvaal the next day, Gandhi was forced to sit outside next to the coachman. Later, the conductor ordered him to sit on a dirty rag spread on the footboard. When Gandhi refused, the conductor started beating him. 

About the incidents, he wrote in his autobiography: "The cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered." He adds that the incident enlightened him to realise his "duty" to fight for his "rights.” The well-known train incidents changed Gandhi's life, becoming a catalyst for his idea of Satyagraha. It was also the beginning of Gandhi's nonviolent resistance against injustices in South Africa and later in India.

The Making of Gandhi in South Africa
Across Natal, Pretoria and Transval, the Indian residents were treated poorly. They were not allowed to own property except in allocated regions and travel with first-class train tickets, were subjected to curfews, had no franchise, and had to carry passes to walk on the pavement under the British colonialists.

While in Pretoria, Gandhi was influenced by Christianity. The teachings of Christ changed his view towards life and his ideals. He made his first public speech on “truthfulness in business.” It awakened Indians against the racial suppression they were suffering. He mobilised Indians to take up the issue of first-class travel in trains. Subsequently, Indians “who were properly dressed” could travel with first and second-class tickets. This was a short victory and the beginning of the making of Gandhi in South Africa. He united Indians from diverse communities, religions and languages in South Africa. However, it angered the white authority in Natal.

When self-governance was granted to Natal in 1893, anti-Indian sentiments had spread among the majority white population and authorities. Several bills were passed during the next two years restricting the freedom of Indians (Immigration Law Amendment Bill and Franchise Amendment Bill). The Immigration Law Amendment Bill demanded Indians to return at the end of a five-year indenture period and the Franchise Amendment Bill limited Indian’s right to vote. In April 1894, Gandhi converted a party, which was supposed to be his farewell, into an action committee against the bill to disfranchise Indians. The committee drafted a petition, collected signatures and filed to the Natal Legislative Assembly. Although the petition was unsuccessful, it gained widespread popularity. Undismayed Gandhi filed another petition to Lord Ripon, the Secretary of State of Colonies. His petitions and letters to authorities, politicians, lawyers, and media gained widespread attention to the oppression of Indians in South Africa. The attention went beyond the borders to India. In 1894, Gandhi was instrumental in forming the Natal Indian Congress. It was the first political organisation to protect the rights of Indians in South Africa. 

During his initial period in South Africa, he maintained the standards of an English barrister. In 1899, during the second Anglo-Boer war, although his sympathies were with the Boers, he requested Indians to support the British as Indians claimed rights as their subjects. However, during the Zulu revolt in 1906, he changed and requested Indians to join the stretcher-bearer corps to carry wounded soldiers. It was the beginning of Gandhi’s second phase in South Africa.

In 1907, Gandhi practised satyagraha in South Africa for the first time against the Asiatic Registration Law (The Black Act). According to the Act, all Indians, young and old, men and women, had to get fingerprinted and keep registration documents with them everywhere. Gandhi advised the Indians to refuse this indignity by defiance. Indians defied, organised mass nonviolent protests, and went on strikes. Indian protesters travelled from Natal to the Transvaal opposing the Black Act. Many protesters including Gandhi himself were arrested several times. Gandhi’s nonviolent protests were successful for the first time when the Black Act was repealed in June 1914. Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa ended in June 1914 with the Indian Relief Bill which conceded to major Indian demands. 

From South Africa to the launch of the Non-Cooperation Movement in British India
Despite being born in India, Gandhi always said that he was made in South Africa. He theorised and practised satyagraha in South Africa. Later, he used the same methodology in India against the British colonialism. From the Non-Cooperation Movement (1919-22) to the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34) and the Quit India Movement (1942), his idea of nonviolent resistance was significant to India’s struggle for independence.

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Satyagraha had a deep impact on South Africa’s Apartheid movement (1948-1990). South Africa’s anti-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela credited the victory of South Africa’s truth and reconciling committee to Gandhi’s ideology. Mandela once said: “Gandhi is most revered for his commitment to non-violence and the Congress Movement was strongly influenced by this Gandhian philosophy, it was a philosophy that achieved the mobilisation of millions of South Africans during the 1952 defiance campaign, which established the ANC as a mass-based organization.”

It is said that the seed of “satyagraha” was planted at the Pietermaritzburg station where he was thrown out on 7 June 1893. Every year, South Africans commemorate the incident in front of the plaque established at the station. His journey of exploring truth continues to influence many.

In the series:
06 June 1944: Allied forces land in Normandy, turning the tide in World War-II

21 May 1991: LTTE human bomb assassinates Rajiv Gandhi
20 May 1948: Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer lands in Calicut in India’s west coast
20 May 2002: East Timor becomes an independent country
30 April 1975: Saigon falls to North Vietnam troops, leading to the reunification of Vietnam
21 April 1526: The First Battle of Panipat leads to the emergence of the Mughal Empire in India
17 April 1895: The Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the first Sino-Japan War (1894-95)
17 April 1975: Khmer Rouge captures Phnom Penh in Cambodia, establishing the Pol Pot regime
16 April 1917: Lenin issues “April Theses”
04 April 1968: Martin Luther King Jr assassinated
18 March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea
14 March 1879: Albert Einstein born in Germany
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow
11 March 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

About the author

Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assosciate at NIAS.

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