In South Africa, Gandhi Remained Indifferent to the Indentured Indian Workers

Gandhi as a volunteer with the Indian Ambulance Corps in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war

Gandhi as a volunteer with the Indian Ambulance Corps in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war

The year 1913 was certainly pivotal as thousands of Indians were mobilized from the coal mines to the plantations of Natal. While Gandhi is seen as the catalyst for the merging of indentured and non-indentured resistances, the indentured had a history of resistance that pre-dated Gandhi. When Gandhi cabled Gokhale in January 1914 that upon his release he discovered ‘that a large number of our community had shown unexpected powers of endurance and suffering, and we were astonished at the unlooked for ability shown by indentured Indians without effective leadership to act with determination and discipline’, he was writing off half a century of indentured struggle on the plantations of Natal.

The campaign of 1913 spiralled out of Gandhi’s control. Instead of a small band of satyagrahis courting arrest, mass support came from those outside of Gandhi’s ashrams. This point, ironically, was made by Gandhi’s friend, the sugar baron Marshall Campbell, in a letter to him on 30 December 1913 that the movement ‘was entirely beyond your control, and has culminated in riot, turbulence, and bloodshed’ (IO: 7 January 1914). Gandhi assured Campbell on 1 January 1914 that the ‘strike and subsequent courting of imprisonment were not intended to be a protest against the general treatment of indentured Indians, but against the Government’s breach of promise given to India’s greatest representative [Gokhale] and the injustice of perpetuating a cruel tax’.

Gandhi’s sop to Campbell, whose estate had witnessed the most callous treatment of strikers, was consonant with his general indifference to the lot of the indentured. In his farewell speech at Mount Edgecombe, Gandhi was unsympathetic to those workers who were gunned down in defending themselves against the violence of the planters and the armed militias. In front of those who had suffered years of abuse and who had witnessed family and work mates being shot, Gandhi chided the victims for bringing this upon themselves; the violence of the ruling class was forgotten. Resisters who had been mowed down in 1913 did not enter the ranks of the martyred. The only martyr of 1913 commemorated in any significant way is Valliamma, the young woman who died of pneumonia after spending time in prison. No monument has been erected in memory of those who were put to death on the north and south coasts. While Valliamma could be claimed within the confines of satyagraha, the others failed Gandhi’s litmus test of holding fast to the ideals of nonviolence, and so were not only overlooked but also blamed for their own deaths. That their resistance may have been crucial in opening the doors of compromise so hurriedly concluded by Gandhi was forgotten. In seeking a solution to the crisis, Gandhi was almost apologetic to the sugar barons on whose plantations violence broke out. This established a template. In India, too, Gandhi, according to Lelyveld, ‘regularly put the brakes on satyagraha campaigns at the first sign that the discipline of nonviolence was giving way’. Yet, not five years later, Gandhi had cause to re-evaluate his objection to the use of violence in pursuit of political goals when he actively recruited men for the defence of the British Empire. Forgotten, too, was Gandhi’s call to arms following the Bhambatha Rebellion.

There was a great deal at stake in South Africa for the British because of the repercussions in India, and as the strike turned into violent confrontations, the British Raj cajoled Smuts to the negotiating table. Gandhi, too, with one eye on India, and fearing losing control of the campaign which not only saw workers using force to defend themselves but also gave rise to local leaders managing the protests, was keen to reach a settlement. While Gandhi was shuttling between Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town with his liberal supporters from Britain, India and Cape Town, the indentured resumed their backbreaking labour, Gandhi denying them the opportunity of exposing the violence of their everyday working lives to the Solomon Commission. In his negotiations with Smuts, he assumed the right to speak for all Indians and refused to countenance discordant voices. Gandhi built into satyagraha Tidrick tells us, the idea that the chosen leader should be ‘trusted to act in everyone’s best interest’.

Loyal to the Empire

Gandhi’s strategic choices, we have shown, were underpinned by his strong attachment to Empire. As Talat Ahmed notes, ‘to be treated as a “coolie” barrister disturbed Gandhi because he believed that as subjects of the empire Indians had a right to equal treatment before the law. He had developed an immense sense of pride in being Indian, believing that as a person from an ancient and proud tradition, he was the equal of whites’. This imperial status was an advantage that Gandhi spent most of his time in South Africa seeking to exploit, and he used every opportunity to demonstrate in words and deeds his loyalty to Empire. He served in several of the Empire’s wars and urged fellow Indians to do likewise. Gandhi described any severance of relations between Britain and India as ‘a calamity’: ‘The connection between the British people and the people of India can not only be mutually beneficial, but is calculated to be of enormous advantage to the world religiously, and, therefore, socially and politically. In my opinion, each nation is the complement of the other’.

The laws that corralled Indian South Africans into narrower and narrower racial ghettoes, prevented their movement across provincial borders, denied them the right to live in the Orange Free State and made it increasingly difficult to live and trade where they wished, while maintaining the threat of repatriation—none of these was addressed in Gandhi’s agreement with Smuts. It was Smuts who dictated the place of Indians in South Africa. While Gandhi gave his agreement with Smuts a positive spin, it essentially abandoned the demand that imperial citizenship be extended to Indians in South Africa, which disappointed even his moderate backers in India. With Boer and Brit making common cause by 1910, Gandhi’s central strategy had reached a dead end as Smuts and Botha single-mindedly pursued their quest to limit Indian trade, immigration and franchise rights as part of their agenda to weld a state based on white power and privilege.

Excerpted from The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, published by Navayana and Stanford University, 2015.

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  • Vladimir Tweeterov

    Unadulterated rubbish, smug arrogance posing as historical analysis. And The Wire picked Gandhi Jayanti to run this smear piece? Way to go, guys! Classy.


    Is it fair to judge a Person who lived in 1890s with the same standards of political correctness of 2015? And remember that 1890s was a period when information deluge of today was completely absent. Stop being judgmental about MK Gandhi – Yes he had many critical flaws and need to be critiqued but to stretch it to extent that we demand MKG to comply with present understanding of human rights of 2015 is an exercise in fraud !!