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The march that made Gandhi the Mahatma

One hundred years ago, Gandhi launched the decisive 1913 campaign that was to transform him into a figure of international stature. Later this year, we commemorate it.

New Statesman
Gandhi leading the Salt March in protest against the government monopoly on salt production. Image: Getty

One hundred years ago, Gandhi launched the campaign that was to transform him into a figure of international stature. By 1913 he had spent the previous twenty years in South Africa – first as a lawyer, then as a community leader. But years of protest against racist laws had exhausted his support among the country’s 150,000 strong Indian community. Most had been brought from India as indentured labourers, but as the years went by, many had prospered. The tradesmen and shop-keepers had been the bedrock of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns, but they had finally run out of patience with him.

Gandhi had used every tactic he could think of, but support had ebbed away. Yet the need for reform was more urgent than ever. A court ruling had effectively removed state recognition of polygamous marriage, while the government refused to lift a crippling tax. As the historian, Maureen Swann observed, victory against the South African government was more important than ever for Gandhi for personal as well as political reasons: “The movement in the Transvaal was in a state of collapse, the deputation to London a failure…He wanted a successful end to satyagraha (passive resistance) in the Transvaal not only for its own sake, but also as the necessary prerequisite for returning to India, taking satyagraha with him, making it the basis for Indian nationalist politics.”

On 13 September 1913, despite waning support, Gandhi called on the community to rise to the challenge: “The fight this time must be for altering the spirit of the Government and of the European population of South Africa. And the result can only be obtained by prolonged and bitter suffering that must melt the heart of the Government and of the predominant partner. May the community have the strength and the faith to go through the fire!”

On 15 October 1913 Gandhi gathered his supporters at Phoenix, his farm near the port city of Durban, to begin the long march to the Natal border with the Transvaal. When they got there they would cross without permission – knowing that this was illegal.  Just 16 protesters, including his long-suffering wife, Kasturba, answered his call.

For a moment it appeared that Gandhi’s entire South African mission would end in failure; that he would have to leave for India with little to show for years of resistance. Staring defeat in the face, Gandhi reversed a long-held position and turned at last to the one group he had previously ignored: the poorest of the poor. He called on the indentured labourers on the sugar plantations and coal mines to support his cause.  

The result was extraordinary. Thousands downed tools and joined the protest. By 6 November the march had reached Volksrust, on the border with the Transvaal. Whites in the town threatened to ‘shoot the Indians like rabbits.’ Still they pressed on and the border was crossed without violence.

By the end of November the towns in Natal were at a standstill, troops had been rushed from the Eastern Cape and Pretoria and the mines had been turned into temporary prisons.  Strikers were bludgeoned, beaten and intimidated; some died. Gandhi and his closest supporters – including several whites – were imprisoned. Yet still the protests continued.

News of the action reached India via the Reuters newsagency, and carried in every newspaper. There were angry meetings across the sub-continent. Fearing that the situation might spiral out of control, the Viceroy came out in support of the protest. Speaking in Madra, Lord Hardinge said that the South African Indian community had violated the law “with full knowledge of the penalties involved, and ready with all courage and patience to endure those penalties.” But, he went on: “In all this they have the sympathy of India – deep and burning – and not only of India, but of all those who like myself, without being Indians themselves, have feelings of sympathy for the people of this country.”

For an Imperial ruler, like Lord Hardinge, to openly attack another government within the Empire was almost unprecedented. He came close to losing his job, receiving strong letters from the Colonial Secretary and the King. But so positive was the response in India itself that London backed down and he remained in post.

On 11 December, under acute pressure from both home and abroad, South Africa’s Minister of the Interior, Jan Smuts, finally took the step that broke the impasse. He announced a Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the strike. Gandhi was freed from jail. On 16 January 1914 Gandhi and Smuts met and negotiated a deal, ending the tax and allowing polygamous marriages. By July Gandhi had left South Africa, in triumph. Little wonder that when he finally learned that Gandhi had left South Africa nearly 100 years ago, Smuts declared: “The saint has left our shore. I sincerely hope forever."

He travelled to England and then on to India, where he was greeted, for the first time, as Mahatma, or ‘great soul’; the title by which he was to be known for the rest of his life. Gandhi took with him the strategy of non-violent resistance he had perfected in South Africa. He was to use it with extraordinary effect against the British, until in 1947 London finally conceded defeat granted Indian independence.

Gandhi is still venerated in South Africa. His final, decisive 1913 campaign is due to be commemorated later this year. Events are being planned by his a group working with the Mahatma’s grand-daughter, Ela Gandhi, a peace activist and former Member of the South African Parliament.