Indentured Indians and Gandhi

Yesterday was the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. When you can refer to someone by just his last name and yet most people in the world know who you are referring to, there has to be good reason. Most know Gandhi because of his introduction of “civil disobedience” – he called it “satyagraha” or “truth force” – as a form of struggle for justice. He is also associated with the struggle for India’s independence, which was a seminal event for all the other British colonies, including the then British Guiana.
But not so well known is that Gandhi was also associated with the events that led to the abolition of indentureship, as was alluded to in an earlier article. Gandhi had been hired as a lawyer by a wealthy businessman in South Africa, part of a 5000-strong mostly Indian Muslim community that had migrated there from Bombay. This community had stayed aloof 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 the two intersected through personal experiences of Gandhi that their commonality of interests was briefly glimpsed. 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 minted, London-trained lawyer insisted that, as a “British subject”, he had the right to the first-class seat he had bought. These and other actions problematised Gandhi’s assumptions about what he had been taught about the “benefits” of India being in the British Empire.
Shortly after the train humiliation, Gandhi encountered the indentured world. As he recounted it: “A Tamil man in tattered clothes, headgear in hand, two front teeth missing and mouth bleeding, stood before me, trembling and weeping.” And elsewhere the “hat in hand” anecdote is repeated – clearly as a trope for his shaken premise on “Britishness”: “…Balasundaram entered my office, headgear in hand. There was a particular pathos about the circumstance which also showed our humiliation. I have already narrated the incident when I was asked to take off my turban. A practice had been forced upon the very indentured labourer and every stranger to take off his headgear when visiting European, whether the headgear was a cap, turban or scarf wrapped round the head. A salute even with both hands was not sufficient.”
Balasundaram’s case exposed the inequities indentureds endured, even though they were supposedly protected by a contract – the “agreement” they tried to uphold from their side scrupulously. Eventually, after a great effort, Gandhi gets Balasundaram transferred to another employer, but now he understood how SA’s institutions such as the magistracy were stacked against indentureds. In 1896, on a visit to Bombay, Gandhi produced a 15,000-word tract on the problems of Indians – merchants, free and indentured in South Africa. He complained bitterly that the Bombay merchants are called “Coolie Traders” and not treated much better than the indentureds. He earned some notoriety from the Whites when he returned to SA, but, at the same time, much goodwill from the indentured Indians.
Between 1907, when Gandhi launched his first “satyagraha” campaign, and 1914, when he left South Africa, even though most of the issues were peripheral to their plight, Indentured Indians formed the bulk of the protesters. As recounted before, he provided his mentor Gokhale in the Indian Legislative Council with information 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 “hastened the end”.
There has been a steady stream of revisionist accounts of Gandhi’s life – including his 21-year stay in South Africa – especially as they relate to Gandhi’s relations with both indentured Indians and native Africans. But we have to remember that while Gandhi was ahead of his time on human rights in many regards, we cannot judge him totally by present standards.
He was a “Mahatma” – a great Soul – not the “Paramatma” – the Supreme Soul.