Thanks to blogger mediawatcher for highlighting Victor Lal’s article from the wknd media.
Fellow bloggers, this is an excellent food-for-thought as we begin another week. Keep safe.
Read on …
On the night of 7 June 1993, one hundred years to the night when a 23-year-old young Indian lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown out of the first-class whites only compartment of a South African train in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, because of his colour, I found history repeating itself.
I was refused entry into a predominantly white frequented restaurant in Pietermaritzburg because of my colour. And it coincided on the day of my birthday, 7 June. The restaurant incident brought home to me the lingering power of race hatred and man’s inhumanity to man (not to mention woman’s inhumanity to woman).
I had been invited by the University of Natal to deliver a keynote conference speech to the centenary anniversary of that historic train incident to an international group of “Gandhi scholars” gathered in Natal, and the title of my presentation was “South Africa: Gandhi’s baptism to Mahatmaship”.
What I told the conference was lost to what happened to me, with the Natal Witness (which had been reporting on Gandhi since his first day in that British colony in 1893) carrying the banner headline: “Lesson from Gandhi: History Repeats Itself.” The incident was reported in all major South African newspapers, especially when the country was on the cusp of holding its first post-apartheid general election, which would later see Nelson Mandela become the President of South Africa.
When questioned by the South African newspapers, I told them that it was a tragedy that some people in Pietermaritzburg have a habit of repeating history. “In this man’s (the restaurant manager) behaviour I could see the images of the train conductor who ejected Gandhi off the first class carriage at Pietermaritzburg railway station,” I told The Natal Witness, adding that the centenary celebrations had done little to educate people in the ways of non-racism, and reminded them of the Fijian version of apartheid that was in existence in Fiji following the 1987 coups.
However, I assured the South African newspapers that I would not buckle from that sorry episode, for I had suffered other racist excesses in that country during periods of research on Gandhi. I assured them that I would continue to fight for human rights and justice for all the oppressed peoples of the world but pointed out that they would not find a statue of me outside the infamous restaurant, similar to a statute of Gandhi in Church Street, Pietermaritzburg, which was unveiled in our presence on 6 June 1993 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
One inscription from Gandhi reads on the statute: “My life is my message.” And neither do I accept the label foisted upon me by the 2006 coup apologists in Fiji, who have been describing me as “Mahatma Lal”.
After the conference I remained in South Africa to give further lectures on Gandhi’s South African period, and carried out further archival research for a series of Gandhi related projects that I had been working on for a number of years: The Rule of Law in the Making of the Mahatma: Gandhi as a human rights lawyer in South Africa, 1893-1914; The Indian Coolies: Gandhi’s Outcastes Within the British Empire, 1834-1920; Bittersweet Encounter: Gandhi and South African Jews; Gandhi and the Non-Conformist Baptists in South Africa; The Hindu Gandhi in South Africa; Gandhi as a Journalist and Publisher in South Africa; An Indian Nationalist or a Misguided Racist in South Africa: Gandhi and the Africans; and The Fateful Encounter: Henry Polak (A Jewish Idealist) and Mohandas Gandhi (An Indian Nationalist) in South Africa. The last is a full length biography of Polak who, with C. F. Andrews and A. D. Patel and others, fought for the rights of the Indians in Fiji.
On 25 April 1997, Pietermaritzburg Local Council met on the railway platform and posthumously conferred upon the late Gandhi the Freedom of the City. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopalkrishna, then India’s high commissioner to South Africa, in accepting the award, in the presence of Nelson Mandela, said: “Here in Pietermaritzburg today, here at this railway station the question may well be asked: Who was the man that was flung out; who was it that fell? Again, who was it that rose from his humiliation – somewhere here – on two very different feet?
The question may be answered, thus: When Gandhi was evicted from the train, an Indian visiting South Africa fell; but when Gandhi rose an Indian South African rose. The Indian and the South African merged in him that instant he fell. Doubtless, with astonished disbelief. This must have turned, the very next instant, to fury.
But in an alchemy that was uniquely his own, it turned also into something totally different, something creative, something redemptive, something that changed shock and fury into a transformational resolve. Gandhi fell with a railway ticket no one honoured; he rose with a testament none could ignore; he fell a passenger but rose a patriot; fell a barrister but rose a revolutionary; his legal brief became a political cause; his sense of human decency transformed itself into a passion for human justice. The personal died within him that moment and turned public; ‘mine’became ‘thine’.”
Why am I talking of the South African component of Gandhi’s life and my personal experience of racial discrimination in that country? I am talking because I found it extremely disturbing to read a few of the recent praises of Gandhi and his lessons for Fiji and her leaders, specifically by those who claim to be the Mahatma’s admirers and yet have endorsed the past and recent coups in the country, which indirectly and directly has impinged on the human rights of the people of Fiji, especially their right to vote, and to be governed by a party or parties which they had voted into power in the last general election.
As we celebrated Gandhi’s 139th birth anniversary on 2 October, those reminding us of the lessons to be learnt from the great freedom fighter failed to tell us that the genesis of his “baptism to mahatmaship” did not lay in his being chucked out of the train (which was a factor) but on his learning on the eve of his departure to India in 1894 that his Indian countrymen in Natal were to lose their right to vote in the Natal legislature – a right which the 2006 coupists and their shameless apologists have treasonously robbed the people of Fiji, with the ring leader Frank Bainimarama telling the world: no charter, no election.
When Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893 to act in a lawsuit between two Indian trading merchants, the Indians comprised three distinct group: indentured Indians who were under contract; free Indians who had completed their period of indentureship, and who elected to remain in South Africa, and passenger or Arab Indians, as they wanted themselves to be called, who came to South Africa at their own cost to supply the needs of the indentured Indians. The “Arabs” enjoyed the same citizenship rights as Whites until was changed, provoking, in fact, Gandhi’s entry into Indian and South African politics. Gandhi remained in South Africa from 1893 to 1914.
In Gandhi, considered by the Whites as an “Unwelcome Visitor”, the Indians found him both a champion for their cause and their message. In 1894, on the eve of his departure to India, he learned that the Natal Indians were to be deprived of the vote, and decided to remain and try to prevent the disenfranchisement of the Indians.
In May 1894, he initiated the formation of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and thereafter in his capacity as its general secretary campaigned, petitioned, and protested against racial disabilities imposed on his fellow Indian community. The first foretaste of what later came to become a routine form of protest was an open letter Gandhi wrote to the Natal Advertiser in response to an editorial in that paper which disparaged Indian traders and their supposedly “filthy” lifestyles.
He failed to win European support or sympathy. But his increasing high public profile as the spokesman of the Indians divided he white community, especially when ten days later he took up the subject of Indian franchise in Natal.
One colonial newspaper, The Natal Witness, welcomed his entry into the debate, explaining that, “What we want is a European Gandhi to come forward and put life and movement into the dry bones of our political ideas. It is all the more necessary that we should have something of the kind, when we have an example like the Indian Congress before us.”
In the Natal legislature the response was mixed. Gandhi was accused of political opportunism. “He is a discredited person,” one representative stated, “among the class which he is seeking to benefit, and beyond that he loses if he failed to fight the battle which he fights, consequently whether he wins or loses, he has everything to gain by fighting”.
In 1896, the Natal Legislature passed the Franchise Bill in a slightly amended form, leaving the Indian community disenfranchised. It also obtained Royal Assent on the grounds that the Bill was an internal matter for Natal which had been granted self-government in 1893.
On 5 June, Gandhi left for India, after an absence of three years, to settle domestic affairs and to bring back his wife and children to Durban. The NIC decided that he should, if possible, acquaint prominent individuals and organisations of the position of Indians in South Africa.
In compliance with the request of the Natal Indians, Gandhi published, during his short visit to India, a pamphlet, issued under the caption, “The grievances of British Indians in South Africa – An Appeal to the Indian Public”. The pamphlet, known as the Green Pamphlet, because of the colour of its cover, contained a catalogue of indignities suffered by the Indians in South Africa.
Besides the Green Pamphlet, which ran into two editions after the first ten thousand copies of the first edition were sold out, Gandhi also gave interviews to Indian newspapers, addressed meetings, and opened up contact with some of the leading Indian nationalists of the time: Gokhale, Mehta and Tilak. On 29 November 1896 he sailed for South Africa with his family.
In his parting message he stressed that he would prefer the South African Indians followed the policy of non-violence in their struggle for justice. He also hoped that the Government of India would demonstrate responsibility towards them.
It was the first time that India had learnt of the grievances of an overseas Indian community. He had also set in motion an agitation on the conditions of Indians in South Africa. While the Indians were still pondering a response, a representative of the Reuters news agency cabled a summary of the Green Pamphlet to the Natal Government. When Gandhi returned to Natal in January 1897, he was nearly lynched to death by a frenzied European mob in the streets of Durban. He was kicked, whipped, stale fish and misses were thrown at him.
The Natal press declared Gandhi innocent of the charges against him, and condemned the mob. He wrote, “Thus the lynching ultimately proved to be a blessing for me, that is, for the cause. It enhanced the prestige of the Indian community in South Africa and made my work easier”.
In India, the attack on Gandhi was severely denounced, and Gokhlae wrote a scathing article in his newspaper, India (June 1897), characterizing the episode as a tale “which no right-minded Englishman ought to read without a feeling of deep shame and indignation”.
Six months later the Anglo-Boer war broke out, and a temporary truce was declared, with Gandhi now acting as a sergeant-major in the Indian Ambulance Corp, on the side of the British. Although sympathetic to the Boer cause, “a small nation fighting for its very existence”, he felt that as British subjects the Indian South Africans must prove themselves worthy of the part they aspired to play in the life of South Africa.
After the end of the war, he would resume his fight for voting rights on behalf of the South African Indians.
TO BE CONTINUED:
Victor Lal is the co-winner with Russell Hunter of the 2008 Robert Keith-Reid Award for Outstanding Journalism. E-mail: email@example.com