New Delhi: Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated by the country, had learnt his first lessons in non-violence and satyagraha in South Africa where he practised law.
Before returning to India to lead the Independence movement, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was inspired by John Ruskins' book 'Unto This Last' and had set up the Phoenix Farm in Durban.
In this farm, Gandhi trained his cadres in non-violence and peaceful restraint against aggression. Later, he set up the 'Tolstoy Farm', where he developed non-violence as a tool of protest.
In South Africa, he came across the worst kind of apartheid when he was thrown off a train despite possessing first class ticket. The reason was that a white man had complained to authorities that an Indian was sharing the compartment with him.
After this incident, a new Gandhi was born. Gandhi had arrived in Durban in 1893 and became a leader of the Indian community in South Africa after forming Natal Indian Congress in 1894.
This organisation used to agitate and protest for the rights of the native people and Indians living in the country. He came back to India in 1896 and took around 800 people with him to work for the people of that country.
Upon arrival in South Africa, he faced violence and was injured. But his organisation organised non-violent protests.
During the Boer war, he organised volunteers to support the British. He also set up Indian Ambulance Corps as he thought "The authorities may not always be right but as long as the subjects owe allegiance to the state, it is their clear duty to accord their support".
There too, he faced ethnic discrimination. In September 1906, the first satyagraha was organised to protest Transvaal Asiatic Ordinance that was against local Indians. In June 1907, he protested against the Black act.
Between 1908 and 1913, Gandhi fought against the British and was sentenced to jail for organising the non-violent movements, first in 1908 and then in 1909.
But after the intervention from General Smuts, he was released but Smuts broke his commitment. After a brief time, he was again imprisoned in Pretoria in 1909 for three months for protests, which he called satyagraha.
Gandhi also led a movement against the nullification of non-Christian marriages in 1913. Later General Smuts said that "men like Mahatma Gandhi redeem us from a sense of commonplace and futility and are an inspiration to us not to weary in well doing."
A critical analysis of Gandhi's stay in South Africa has been done by some writers. Ashwin Desai, Professor at University of Johannesburg and Ghoolam Vahed, Professor at University of Kwazulu Natal, wrote a book titled 'The South African Gandhi-Stretcher Bearer Of Empire.'
The book, in a sense, is controversial as it presents an argument that Gandhi was fighting for Indians and not for Africans.
As per the book, Gandhi described native Africans as "raw and savage" and living a life "of nakedness" as he tried to prove to the Britishers that the Indians in South Africa were superior to native Africans.
The author, in his book, claims that the first issue against which Gandhi fought in South Africa was about separate entrances for whites and blacks at post offices in Durban.
The book says Gandhi objected that Indians were "classified with the native Africans". The book says in a letter to the Natal Parliament in 1893, Gandhi wrote:
"I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa.
Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir." Despite these arguments in the book, Gandhi is revered as an inspiration in South Africa for showing the path to freedom.
Nelson Mandela, while accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1994, had said that he owed his success to Gandhi.