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Gandhi saw an enormous opportunity for Indians to rise

Mohandas K Gandhi was 45 when he returned to India after spending 21 years in South Africa. Discounting the three years that he spent as a student in London, his life had been divided exactly half and half between the land of his birth and South Africa.

“I was born in India”, he was to say “but made in South Africa.”

We should know, in our ‘Make in India’ times, how important it was for Gandhi and for India that he was “made” in South Africa. We should know, too, what it was that went into that “making”.

“You sent to us a lawyer”, Nelson Mandela said, addressing India and Indians, “we returned to you a Mahatma”.

Gandhi became what he became in the country of his adoption, not just because he was hurled out of a train one traumatic morning in Pietermaritzburg but because he came to meet, to get to know and to work with, in terms of exhilarating camaraderie and challenging colleagueship, in that distant land, a cross-section of the people of India. Had he lived and worked as a suburban lawyer in Bombay, he would have co-existed with their prototypes, rubbed shoulders with them indifferently on buses and trains, lived ‘back to back’ with them. But in South Africa, the dislocation, dispossession, disempowerment of immigrant life placed him in the eye of a growing storm. He saw in indenture, injustice. He saw in voicelessness, slavery, in votelessness, serfdom. He saw in racial discrimination, the very antithesis of what as a student in London he had come to value as Victorian England’s political high-ground. But in this very ‘hell’ of adversities, Gandhi saw an enormous chance for Indians to rise above their circumstances, above the ‘hollows’ and the ‘deeps’.

In the response to his appeal for political action, he saw in his fellow Indians extraordinary guts, unexpected stamina and above all, a readiness that he had not known in himself for sacrifice. He also saw that riven by caste and religious divisions and distrust, the Indian South African was being unjust to himself and to his fellow Indians. Would he, could he rise above the injustices heaped on him and the injustices he heaped on himself and his kind?

The answer he found from among the men and women he worked with was a resounding ‘Yes!’. More, he also found bursts of solidarity – inter-caste, inter-religious, inter-language – among them. He found, in other words, not just the need but the scope for what has become a cliche – Indian pluralism.

Gandhi had been ‘hired’ by a Muslim firm, Dada Abdulla Seth’s. He lodged, for various times, with a Parsi family, ‘Parsee’ Rustomji’s. He, his wife and children, became part of a Hindu Tamil family – Tambi Naidoo’s. He appeared in court for every segment of Indian society, charging nothing from the poor, charging the rich heftily.

Did he get to know, get to feel with and for the Africans of South Africa, for their future as the true ‘owners’ of South Africa? He did not, not nearly as well as he could and should have. A century after he left South Africa, this valid criticism is made by Gandhi’s critics in India and elsewhere very trenchantly but very comfortably from the vantage of political evolution. But we should hear Mandela on the subject. The greatest South African, and father of that nation in freedom, has educated us on Gandhi’s political and personal colleagueship with John Dube, the first President of the African National Congress.

Did Gandhi become a complete human being, a flawless leader, author of a perfect blueprint for India’s greatness? No, he did not. He has been criticised, with validity but not without malice, for being a domineering husband, a unilateral householder, a very self-willed leader. But on what basis? That of his own self-excoriating writings, his own self-criticism.

The Gandhi who returned to India on January 9, 1915, as one ‘made’ in South Africa, was still as fallible as any, as evolving, as ‘in the making’, as anyone in his mid-40s. But he was almost complete in two roles – that of a satyagrahi with two major disciplined, non-violent ‘mass’ campaigns under his Gujarati ‘belt’, and that of what he called himself in his ‘Farewell Letter’ to Indians in South Africa – a girmitya, ‘the community’s indentured labourer’.

He saw India’s ills beyond political servitude to Britain – her self-inflicted woes, sectarian distrust among her people, casteism, the urban-rural divide, economic disparities, sloth, squalor, superstition, and a proclivity to violence, physical, verbal, emotional. He came determined to labour for their removal. Within the very first week of his landing in Bombay, he met the foremost political leader of the time, Lokamanya Tilak, his political mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the ‘GOM of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji, the liberal leader Srinivasa Sastri, his future political counter-point Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Governor of Bombay and a future Governor General, Lord Willingdon. And saw a play – a rare occurrence for him – on the life of the Great Renunciate and spiritual inspiration for India’s future Constitution-maker, Babasaheb Ambedkar – in ‘Buddhadeva’.

Gandhi’s indentured labour for a secular and egalitarian India, committed to non-violence and human dignity began thus, this week, a hundred years ago.

That India clamours to go beyond a nationalism that benumbs its pains with the fantasy of past ‘greatness’ and the fiction of future glory in super-powerism.


The author, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, is former governor of West Bengal. He also served as the Indian high commissioner in South Africa

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