May 30, 2020
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The Boer Battles

Historian Ramachandra Guha’s new book explores the critical formative years of Gandhi’s political life, his time spent in England and South Africa. An excerpt:

The Boer Battles
The Boer Battles
Gandhi Before India
By Ramachandra Guha
Published by Penguin/Allen Lane | Pages: 673 | Rs. 899

As a schoolboy, Gandhi befriended a Muslim classmate in Rajkot. As a law student, he shared a home with a Christian vegetarian in London. However, it was in South Africa that he more fully elaborated his unique spirit of ecumenism. This was religious—originally employed by Muslim merchants, Gandhi came to count Jews, Christians and Parsis as among his closest companions. It was equally social—a middle-class man himself, Gandhi was to identify deeply with hawkers and labourers. As the poorer Indians in South Africa were largely Tamil-speaking, he came to understand the diversity of language as well.

Gandhi was born and raised a Hindu, and he avowed that denominational label all his life. Yet no Hindu before or since had such a close, intense engagement with the great Abrahamic religions. He understood Judaism through a highly personal lens, through his friendships with (Henry) Polak, (Hermann) Kallenbach and Sonja Schlesin especially. His interest in Christianity was both personal and theological—he liked (Joseph) Doke and loved (Charles Freer or C.F.) Andrews, but whereas he was not really influenced by Jewish thought he was profoundly shaped by heterodox Christian texts, above all Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. His relations with Islam were partly personal, but largely pragmatic and political. He had read the Quran (probably more than once), but was never really moved by it in the same way as he was moved by the Bhagavad Gita or even the Sermon on the Mount. He had some Muslim friends, but what concerned him more—much more—was the forging of a compact between Hindus and Muslims, the major communities in the Indian diaspora in South Africa, as they were in India itself.

Perhaps even more striking than his religious ecumenism was Gandhi’s complete lack of bitterness towards the ruling race. The roots of this lay in those years in London, and the friendly engagements with vegetarians and others. In May 1891, just before he left England for India, he expressed the hope that “in the future we shall tend towards unity of custom, and also unity of hearts”. Some years later, when set upon by a white mob in Durban, Gandhi chose to remember not his persecutors but the whites who stood by him. Still later, when faced with the rigorous racial exclusivism of the Transvaal, Gandhi sought “points of agreement” with the oppressors, with whom he hoped to live in “perfect peace”. Years of harassment and vilification at the hands of Boers and Britons did not deter Gandhi from seeking “the unity of human nature, whether residing in a brown-skinned or a white-skinned body”.

To be sure, it was harder, and perhaps more admirable, for Europeans to befriend Gandhi. In 1904, when Boer and Briton alike were being driven to a frenzy by the prospect of Asian immigration, a meeting in Volksrust resolved that “any white person who aids, abets, assists or in any way connives, directly or indirectly, to the establishing of the Indian trader within our gates is an enemy to the advancement of the white races of the country”. (L.W.) Ritch, the Polaks, the Dokes, Kall­en­bach, Sonja Schlesin, were all happy enough to be counted as enemies by the herd—and the mob.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Parsi philanthropist Ratan Tata

Gandhi’s ability to disregard differences of race and faith was exceptional in any time and place, not least the South Africa of the 1890s and 1900s. Instructive here was his first encounter with Winston Churchill, which took place in London in 1906, at a time when they were both relatively obscure. The secretary of the British Indian Association of the Transvaal had gone to call on the under-secretary of state for the colonies. They were discussing the fate and future of the Johannesburg locality of Vrededorp. Here, Dutch burghers and Indian immigrants traded side by side, an arrangement that Churchill considered violative of tradition, custom and of human nature itself.

Churchill’s perceptions—and prejudices—in this regard had been consolidated by his experiences in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. Thus, to the plea that Indians be allowed to live and trade in Vrededorp, Churchill ans­wered that “the practice of allowing European, Asiatic and native families to live side by side in (a) mixed community is fraught with many evils....” It was an argument which could not resonate with Gandhi, who, in the same city of Johannesburg, already had as housemates a European couple, one Christian, the other Jewish.

By his mid-30s, by the time of the epic Empire Theatre meeting of 1906, Gandhi had exceeded his mentor Gokhale in the breadth of his social vision and his personal practice.

Gandhi’s ecumenism was most forcefully stressed in an unpublished memoir by one of these housemates. Henry Polak thus wrote of his friend and leader that while he was “a Vaishnava Bania by birth, he is by nature a Brahmin...the teacher of his fellow-men, not by the preaching of virtue, but by its practice; by impulse a Kshatriya, in his chivalrous defence of those who had placed their trust in him and look to him for protection; by choice a Sudra, servant of the humblest and most despised of his fellow-men. It is said of (the seer) Ramakrishna that he once swept out the foul hut of a pariah with his own hair, to prove his freedom from arrogance towards and contempt for the untouchable outcast. The twice-born (i.e. upper-caste) prime minister’s son has been seen...with his own hands to purify the sanitary convenience of his own house and of the gaols in which he has been interned”.

Having spoken of Gandhi’s ability to be of all castes and of no caste at all, Polak then stressed his ecumenism of faith: “Religion implies, for him, a mighty and all-embracing tolerance, and a large charity is the first of the virtues. Hindu by birth, he regards all men—Mahomedans, Christians, Zoro­astrians, Jews, Buddhists, Confucians—as spiritual brothers. He makes no differences amongst them, recognising that all faiths lead to salvation, that all are ways of viewing God, and that, in their relation to each other, men are fellow human beings first, and followers of creeds afterwards. Hence it is that men of all faiths, and even of none, are his devoted friends, admirers, and helpers....”

Many years later, reflecting on his South African experience, Gandhi remembered that the residents of Phoenix and Tolstoy farms were, in religious terms, Hindus of different castes, Sunnis and Shias, Protestants and Catholics, Parsis and Jews. The professions they had previously practised included architecture, journalism, the law and trade. They now submerged their faiths and their qualifications in the common work of printing, gardening, carpentry and house-building. And so, as Gandhi recalled, the “practice of truth and non-violence melted religious differences, and we learnt to see beauty in each religion. I do not remember a single religious quarrel in the two colonies I founded in South Africa...labour was no drudgery, it was a joy”.

The settlements at Phoenix and Tolstoy were a meeting place, a melting pot, where, as the settlers lived and lab­oured together, social and religious distinctions were made insubstantial and even irrelevant.

Clockwise: The combative Millie Polak; her husband Henry Polak; Hermann Kallenbach who wrote a biography of Gandhi; his secretary Sonja Schlesin

Gandhi’s ability to transcend his class, religious and ethnic background was greatly in advance of his contemporaries within India. The Indian National Congress was set up in 1885 as a sort of “Noah’s ark of nationalism”, see­king to represent all sects and tribes. The practice fell far short of the ideal. For the first 30 years of its existence, the Congress was essentially middle-class and city-bound. Doctors, lawyers, editors and teachers turned out in numbers for its annual meetings. Peasants and proletarians were absent and remained unrepresented. Muslim leaders also drifted away, as did intellectuals and reformers from the lower castes. And, of course, the Congress remained a solidly male body.

Gandhi’s political mentors, Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, were conspicuously free of sectarian bias. Both were Indian rather than Parsi and Gujarati or Hindu and Maharashtrian respectively. Gokhale was one of the first Congress leaders to call for an end to caste discrimination. However, in their everyday life, both Nao­­roji and Gokhale remained confined to the urban, professional, privileged male milieu in which they were born and educated. Neither counted labourers (or even traders) as their friends or co-workers.

In a speech delivered in 1897, Gokhale’s mentor, Mahadev Govind Ranade, had urged on his largely Brahmin audience a “new mode of thought...cast on the lines of fraternity, a capacity to expand outwards, and to make more cohesive inwards the bonds of fellowship”. He asked high-born Hindus to “increase the circle of your friends and associates, slowly and cautiously if you will, but the tendency must be towards a general recognition of the essential equality between man and man”.

Gandhi was then in South Africa, and never heard the speech and probably never read it either. But in his practice and his conduct, he fulfilled Ranade’s injunction more fully (and nobly) than any other high-born Hindu. By the time he was in his mid-30s, by the time of the epic Empire Theatre meeting of September 1906 (if not earlier), Gandhi had exceeded his own mentor, Gokhale, in the breadth of his social vision and (especially) his personal practice. He had successfully reached out to compatriots of other religions and linguistic communities, and of disadvantaged social backgrounds. Impressive, too, was the involvement of women in the struggles led by Gandhi, as supporters and cheerleaders in the first satyagrahas and as resisters and jailbirds in the last. Speaking to a group of women students in Lahore in July 1934, Gandhi remarked: “When I was in South Africa, I had realised that if I did not serve the cause of women, all my work would remain unfinished.”

How did this realisation come about? In terms of his upbringing, Gandhi was a typical Hindu patriarch. He first began to shed some of his prejudices while living with the Polaks in Johannesburg in 1906. Kasturba was brought up to revere and follow her husband; but Millie (Polak) was under no such constraints. She argued with her husband Henry, and now she would argue with their housemate as well. The word of men, to her, had always to be tested against both reason and justice.

Button up A successful lawyer in Durban, 1898
Only just behind Millie in making the lawyer more open-minded in this regard was his secretary, Sonja Schlesin. Her indomitable spirit comes through in a letter she wrote Gandhi not long after he had left South Africa. Municipal elections had just been held in the Transvaal—while the voters and candidates were all white, for the first time women were allowed to stand for election. Miss Schlesin reported that as many as 11 women had won their seats and become councillors. Conveying further news of “the nobler sex”, she told Gandhi of a woman doctor being appointed a medical inspector of schools. If the “civilisation of a country is measured by the position it accords to women”, she said pro­udly, “you see how high the Transvaal stands in the scale of nat­ions!” After the results were in, Miss Schlesin phoned a prominent male politician and advised him “that so long as he allowed himself to be guided by the woman councillors it would be alright”.

Like the feminist Millie Polak, Sonja Schlesin greatly admired Gandhi; yet she too would not follow him always or all the way. Her independence of mind and her physical courage made Gandhi see more clearly the ways in which women could and must take charge of their lives. Then, on visits to England in 1906 and 1909, he was struck by the commitment of the suffragettes. The influence of these European women was consolidated by the Tamil women of Johannesburg, who were absolutely selfless in their support of the first satyagrahas, and absolutely fearless in joining the final struggle of 1913-14. Indeed, Henry Polak wrote of these Tamil ladies that “when the women could show such courage...the men dared not prove themselves weaker than the women”. Their example animated and challenged their Tamil husbands and sons, but it inspired and moved the Gujarati lawyer Gandhi too.

Indian men, in India, did not at this time cultivate friendships with women. They knew women as wives, sisters, daughters; but as friends, no. Once more, it was context as much as character that explains Gandhi’s departure from the norm. Had he not lived in South Africa, he may never have outgrown the conventional, confined views of Indian men of his class and his generation.

Gandhi’s ability to reach out to different classes and communities was admired among Indians in South Africa. But it also became known among Indians in India. Not the least of the many surprises in researching this book was the depth of contemporary interest that I found, within the subcontinent, in the satyagrahas led by Gandhi in Transvaal in 1907-11 and in Natal in 1913. That in an age before television and the internet, a man who lived across the oceans and who had not been in the motherland for a full decade was so widely and appreciatively spoken of, was a striking revelation indeed.

The interest in those early satya­grahas was manifest across British India, and in some princely states too. Newspapers in languages Gandhi did not speak, indeed at this stage had barely even heard, carried long reports on the sacrifices made by him and his fellow satyagrahis. Meetings of solidarity were held in towns Gandhi could not place accu­rately on the map. This support cut across linguistic and geographic lines and—what may be even more notable—across religious lines as well. The All India Moslem League and the Bishop of Madras were among the institutions and individuals who recognised the moral force and political salience of Gan­dhi’s campaigns in South Africa. And, as speakers in several meetings feelingly observed, Gandhi’s campaigns had broken new ground in not being led or staffed by men alone. At a time when Indian women of all castes and creeds were confined to the home, or in purdah, that Kasturba and her colleagues went to jail in protest against discriminatory laws was a fact—or achievement—noted with not a little admiration.

Gandhi’s capaciousness was not complete, however. It was constrained in one fundamental sense. While he had Indian and European friends of all castes, classes and faiths, he forged no real friendships with Africans. He knew and respected the educationist John Dube. He met, and possibly influenced, the political pioneer Pixley Seme. And he labou­red alongside some Africans in Tolstoy Farm. That was the extent of his personal and professional relations with the original inhabitants and majority community of South Africa.

That said, over the 20 and more years he lived in the land, Gandhi’s understanding of the African predicament steadily widened. At first, he adhered to the then common idea of a hierarchy of civilisations—the Europeans on top, the Indians just below them, the Africans at the very bottom. Everyday life in Durban and Johannesburg alerted him to the real and structured discrimination that Africans were subject to. In 1904 and 1905, Indian Opinion carried reports of laws and practices that bore down heavily on them. In a speech of 1908, he looked forward to a “commingling” of the races in a future South Africa. By this time he was prescribing satyagraha as a cure for the predicament of Africans, too.

(Excerpted with permission from Ramachandra Guha and Penguin)

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