When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called for a nationwide Satyagraha to protest against the Rowlatt Act in 1919, he was already 50. As a 24-year old barrister, he had begun the struggle of Indians against racial discrimination in South Africa.
Gandhi, the young barrister, had been engaged by a Gujarati businessman in 1893 to fight a legal case there. Before Gandhi’s arrival, many Indian indentured labourers were working on plantations there. The Indians there were used to racial discrimination as part of life. Even if they wanted to challenge it, they had little knowledge of how to do so for they knew little English, the language of the White rulers. But the young Gandhi was not used to racial insults to make a living. He was the son of a widely-respected Dewan (Minister) of Kathiawad. Further, he had studied law for 3 years in London. He had never seen the kind of racial discrimination which he did in South Africa.
His journey from Durban to Pretoria was a series of racial humiliations. Apart from the famous incident in which he was bundled out of a first-class compartment by a White and left to spend the shivering night in the waiting room, he was made to sit in the driver cabin despite having a first-class ticket. On reaching Johannesburg, he found that all the hotels declined accommodation because he was a black, according to the "White" rulers.
In Pretoria, where he had to begin work, he immediately called a meeting of all Indians. He raised his voice through the Press also. Even though he had no plans of settling there, he tried to rouse the Indians in Pretoria and persuade them to resist all racial discrimination.
Having settled the legal suit, he prepared to leave for India. But on his departure, he raised the issue of the bill to disenfranchise Indians which was being passed by the Natal Legislature. The Indians there pleaded with him to stay back for a month and organize their protest as they were uneducated and knew little about those things. So, he gave into their pressure and agreed to stay for two months. But actually he stayed there for 22 years.
His being the only Western-educated Indian put on his shoulders the great responsibility of leading the struggle against racial discrimination. Wealthy Indians appointed him their leader because he was the only one who knew the rulers’ language, who understood the legal intricacies, who could draft petitions, create their organizations to represent them before their rulers.
From 1894-1906, he focused on petitioning, sending memorials in the belief that the British sense of justice and fair play would be aroused. He organized the Natal Indian Congress also and had started a newspaper called Indian Opinion. Having failed in this, he was convinced that these things would not lead anywhere.
The second phase in 1906 was marked by passive resistance or civil disobedience, which he called Satyagraha. It was first used by him when the Government made compulsory for Indians to take out registration certificates with their finger-prints. It was essential to carry them on person always. The Government remained adamant and so was he. Gandhiji formed the Passive Resistance Association. Many passive resistors were jailed and the fear of jail had disappeared and it was popularly known as King Edward’s Hotel.
General Smuts’ talks with Gandhiji yielded nothing. Another law on Indian immigrants was strongly opposed by Gandhiji. In 1909, Gandhiji set up the Tolstoy Farm there to support the families of Satyagrahis. Tolstoy Farm was the pre-cursor of the later Gandhian Ashrams that sprung up in many parts of India. Still another law made at that time made all non-Christian marriages illegal. This infuriated Indians and was obviously resisted.
Finally in 1913, through talks with the White rulers, all major demands of the Satyagrahis were accepted. Non-violent civil disobedience had tasted its success in a distant land. It had forced the opponents to come to the negotiating table and accept the demands. This experiment was now to be repeated in India on a much wider scale. In a way, it prepared Gandhiji for the leadership of the Indian struggle. He had had the invaluable experience of leading poor Indian labourers and of seeing their capacity for sacrifice. South Africa provided him an opportunity to evolve his own brand of politics and leadership, try out new methods of struggle and lead the diverse masses for achieving political goals.
He returned home in 1915 to a warm welcome. By that time, he had gained tremendous popularity in India and people flocked to have his darshan. However, he did not plunge into national politics immediately. Under Gokhale’s guidance, he spent his time studying the situation, travelling and organizing his ashram in Ahmedabad with his devoted followers. He was convinced that satyagraha was the only viable method for conducting political struggles in India.
During 1917 and 1918, he led three localized but significant struggles --- In Champaran (The Indigo or Tinkathia Movement) in Bihar, in Ahmedabad (The Textile Mills Case) and Khera (No Revenue Payment Case) in Gujarat. The common thread binding these three was that they were localized movements affecting peasants (Khera and Champaran) or industrial workers. Champaran, Ahmedabad and Khera served as demonstrations of Gandhiji’s style of politics to the country. He also earned the respect and commitment of many political workers, who were impressed by his identification with the problems of ordinary Indians, and his willingness to take up their cause.
This goodwill encouraged him in February 1919 to call for a nationwide protest against the unpopular Rowlatt Act. The Act severely curtailed civil liberties in the name of curbing terrorist violence. The Act was hastily passed in the Legislative Council despite people’s protests. This was treated as an insult by the Indians, as it came at the end of the War when substantial concessions were expected.
The constitutional methods having failed, Gandhji decided to launch a satyagraha to compel the British to revoke the draconian law. A nationwide hartal accompanied by fasting and prayer was to be observed. The 6th April was fixed for the start of the satyagraha. But due to some confusion, Delhi observed a hartal on March 30. The country was up in flames and it was increasingly becoming difficult for the government to control the infuriated people.
Events in Punjab took a tragic shape when on the Baisakhi Day, 13th April, the army opened fire on innocent, unarmed people in the Jallianwala Bagh, which had no escape route. Thousands of people had gathered there to attend a public meeting. General Dyer, enraged that his orders had been disobeyed, ordered his troops to fire on the gathering without any warning. The Government estimate of the dead was 379, while unofficial reports put the toll much higher.
The incident stunned the entire nation. For now, no response would come. Repression was stepped up, Punjab put under martial law and people made to crawl on their bellies before Europeans. Gandhiji, overwhelmed by the violence, withdrew the movement on 18th April. But he had lost faith either in himself or his methods. A year later, he led a nationwide movement, much bigger and much more intense. The wrong inflicted on Punjab was a major reason behind it.
The Mahatma’s "Indian Experiment" had begun.