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Why This South African City Is Inextricably Linked With Mahatma Gandhi & Satyagraha

Why This South African City Is Inextricably Linked With Mahatma Gandhi & Satyagraha
India’s national flag flutters atop the Pietermaritzburg railway station. (Source – Twitter account of India’s Consul General in Cape Town)

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Why This South African City Is Inextricably Linked With Mahatma Gandhi & Satyagraha

Gandhi had gone to South Africa to practice law.

As External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled on a train to Pietermaritzburg on Thursday, it marked 125 years from the day that Mahatma Gandhi was evicted from a “whites-only” compartment here. It was this incident that catalyzed into a civil disobedience movement that would eventually be known as the Satyagraha.

Swaraj’s visit to the town came as part of a three-day commemoration organised to mark the event. She unveiled a two-sided bust of Mahatma Gandhi called “Birth of Satyagraha” at the railway station to commemorate the incident.

Why This South African City Is Inextricably Linked With Mahatma Gandhi & Satyagraha

Sushma Swaraj unveils the bust of Mahatma Gandhi. (Source – Twitter handle of the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had gone to South Africa in 1906, to practice law. He was travelling from Durban to Pretoria on the night of 7 June 1893 on a first-class ticket in connection with official work. When the train pulled into Pietermaritzburg station, a European passenger noticed him and demanded that he get out of the coach, pointing out that it was meant for whites only.

He was asked travel in the van, or third-class compartment. When he resisted, saying that he had a valid first-class ticket, he was evicted from the compartment and thrown out on the platform along with his baggage. He spent the bitterly cold night at the station’s waiting room.

Why This South African City Is Inextricably Linked With Mahatma Gandhi & Satyagraha

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi outside his office in Johannesburg in 1905. (Source – Wikimedia Commons)

Here is how Mahatma Gandhi described the turmoil in his mind in the book My Experiments With Truth. “Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults and return to India after finishing the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation”.

A plaque at the railway station recalls the incident and says that it “changed the course of his life” and he took up the fight against racial oppression. “His active non-violence started from that date,” it says. The term Satyagraha is derived from the words Satya (truth) and Agraha (insistence).

(Read – Saluting The Ahimsa And Satyagraha Of Mahatma Gandhi on Martyr’s Day)

Why This South African City Is Inextricably Linked With Mahatma Gandhi & Satyagraha

Policemen confront Gandhi has he leads the protest. (Source – Wikimedia Commons)

Among the several movements Mahatma Gandhi led and was imprisoned for in South Africa was the famous Transvaal march of 1913 to protest against a tax on indentured Indian labourers and the nullification of Hindu and Muslim marriages.

The protest, organised a year before he returned to India and began campaigning for freedom from the British, saw marchers courting arrest while crossing the border from Natal to Transvaal province. The success of this protest eventually led to the repeal of the tax and marriage laws.

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