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.

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.

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

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle