Yesterday was the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. When you can only refer to someone by their last name and yet most people in the world know who you’re referring to, there must be a good reason. Gandhi is known by most for his presentation of “civil disobedience” – he called it “satyagraha” or “power force” – as a form of struggle for justice. It is also linked to the struggle for Indian independence, which was a groundbreaking event for all other British colonies, including the British Guiana at the time.
But less well known is that Gandhi was also involved in the events that led to the abolition of indentureship, as alluded to in an earlier article. Gandhi had been hired as a lawyer by a wealthy South African businessman, part of a 5000-strong mostly Indian Muslim community that had migrated there from Bombay. This community had remained a long way from the “indentured Indians” who were recruited to work on plantations – or, in the case of South Africa, also in the mines – except to sell them “goods”.
These two sets of Indians occupied separate worlds – socially, culturally and politically – and it was only when they both intersected through Gandhi’s personal experiences that their commonality of interests was briefly captured. We have recounted how Gandhi was thrown off a train at the insistence of a white Britisher shortly after his arrival in South Africa. The newly trained solicitor, trained in London, insisted that as a “British subject” he was entitled to the first class seat he had purchased. These and other actions dispelled Gandhi’s assumptions about what he had been taught about India’s “interests” in the British Empire.
Shortly after the treachery of the train, Gandhi came across the indented world. As he recounts it: “A Tamil man in tattoo clothes, headgear in hand, two missing front teeth and bleeding in his mouth, stood in front of me, trembling and weeping.” And elsewhere the “hat in hand” anecdote is repeated – obviously as a trope for his shaking premise on “Britishness”: “… Balasundaram entered my office, headgear in hand. There was a certain pathos about the circumstance that also showed our shame. I have already reported the incident when I was asked to remove my turban. A practice had been forced on the very indoor laborer and every stranger to take off his headwear when visiting Europe, whether the headgear was a cap, turban or scarf wrapped around the head. Even a salute with both hands was not sufficient. ”
The Balasundaram case revealed the inequalities suffered by indentureds, even though they were supposed to be protected by a contract – the “treaty” they sought to maintain on their side. Eventually, after a great effort, Gandhi transfers Balasundaram to another employer, but now he understood how SA institutions like the magistrates stacked against indentureds. In 1896, on a visit to Bombay, Gandhi produced a 15,000-word passage on the problems of Indians – merchants, free and internalized in South Africa. He complained bitterly that Bombay traders are called “Coolie Traders” and are not treated much better than indentureds. He gained some fame from the Whites when he returned to SA, but, at the same time, much goodwill from the interned Indians.
Between 1907, when Gandhi first launched his “satyagraha” campaign, and 1914, when he left South Africa, although most of the issues were marginalized, Indentured Indians made up the majority of the protesters. As previously stated, he briefed his mentor Gokhale at the Legislative Council of India on the conditions in South Africa. In 1912, the latter called for the complete abolition of indentureship. When this was finally achieved in 1917, Gandhi suggested that satyagraha had “accelerated the end”.
There has been a steady stream of retrospective reports of Gandhi life – including his 21-year stay in South Africa – especially as they relate to Gandhi’s relations with internalized Indians and native Africans. But we must remember that while Gandhi is ahead of his time on human rights in many respects, we cannot fully judge him by current standards.
He was “Mahatma” – a great Soul – not the “Paramatma” – the Supreme Soul.

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