Satyagraha, loosely translated as noncooperation, was a non-violent “alternative to conventional rebellion,” that Mahatma Gandhi constructed in response to discrimination against Indian expatriate communities in South Africa. In Gandhi’s own words, “it is a movement intended to replace methods of violence and a movement based entirely upon truth” (Gandhi & Non-Violence, 19). The term was developed in South Africa in 1907. Gandhi, founder and editor of the local Indian publication Indian Opinion, announced a small prize for an alternative to the English phrase noncooperation, which described his unique methodology and distinguished it from similar methods of Passive Resistance organized elsewhere. His nephew, Maganlal “won with his suggestion of ‘sadagraha’ or ‘firmness for the good.’ Gandhi altered the prize-winning entry to ‘Satyagraha,’ or ‘firmness for the truth’” (Gandhi, 124).
Haji Habib was, in all likelihood, the world’s first Satyagrahi (practitioner of Satyagraha). On another September 11th in 1906, the Jewish-owned Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, was overflowing with South Asians. The crowd had gathered to plan resistance to new regulations, mandatory registration, finger printing, and papers that were to be produced on demand for all Asiatics eight years and older. Habib, a long-time elderly resident, stood up to a crowd of eager activists to make a passionate plea for faith: “We must pass this resolution with God as witness…. In the name of God, [we] will never submit to that law.”
Mohandas Gandhi, yet to be Mahatma, was in the room that day. In fact, he had organized the meeting to “calmly think out” a response to the new policies. Rajmohan Gandhi provides an insightful description of the event that was conducted in English, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil and Telegu to accommodate the linguistic diversity of the members present. Abdul Ghani, the Chairman of the Transvaal British Indian Association and one of the oldest residents of the locality presided over the meeting and considered “a resolution expressing solemn determination not to submit” to the laws and “to suffer all penalties their resistance might invite.” Speaker after speaker rose up in support.
It was in this context that Habib stepped forward. “Recalling the occasion in Satyagraha, Gandhi says that he was first startled and put on his guard by Habib’s reference to ‘God as Witness,’ and by his declaration ‘in the name of God.” Then “in a moment” he “thought out the possible consequences” and his perplexity gave place to enthusiasm. As Gandhi recalls, he was struck by the importance of the ferocity of this oath as “no one ever imports the name of God into such resolutions. In the abstract there should not be any distinction between a resolution and an oath taken in the name of God. When an intelligent man makes a resolution deliberately he never swerves from it by a hair’s breadth. With him his resolution carries as much weight as a declaration made with God as witness does. But the world takes no note of abstract principles and imagines an ordinary resolution and an oath in the name of God to be poles asunder.”
Following Mr. Habib’s plea, Gandhi intervened to explain its powerful implications. He remarked that, “The God of Hindus and Muslims was one and the same. A pledge in the name of that God was not something to be trifled with. All present had to search their hearts and should take the pledge only if they were ready to carry it out.” Thus, all members took “an oath with God as witness not to submit.”
Struggles against expanding British political control in India over the past two hundred years had demonstrated that conventional violent rebellions were ineffective in the face of colonial brutality and military technology. Inspired by Habib’s faith, Gandhi identified a new way forward and began to etch out a path that would ultimately form the foundation of his unique political philosophy. So long as the people of the Indian sub-continent remained divided in pockets of small communities, effective nonviolent rebellions could not be waged. The challenge which had not been resolved until that moment was how to build the critical mass of supporters from amongst disparate groups in order to create the momentum necessary to force out imperial designs.
Certainly, Habib would have never been a Satyagrahi if it were not for Gandhi. But it is also likely that Gandhi would have never conceived Satyagraha as the powerful unifying force that it became if it weren’t for his experiences in South Africa with several key Indian Muslim community organizers (including Ghani and Habib, who taught him the importance of the power of faith and morality in powering revolution and served as harbingers for the potential of national unity across communal boundaries). The flash of inspiration presented to Gandhi through Habib’s eloquent words was the culmination of these important interactions. Between Gandhi’s own Gujarati heritage and the spiritual and religious influence of his new allies, Gandhi constructed the foundations of a veritable jihad (devotional striving) governed by the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence). Thus far, religious differences between Hindus and Muslims had historically been a major obstacle to independence that no one was able to resolve. In South Africa, at this important moment in the evolution of his thought, Gandhi was able to understand clearly that the fervent religious devotion of the masses of the subcontinent could be redirected for political purposes and thereby serve as the single most powerful tool for constructing a new unified nation worthy of independence.
This little anecdote is one amongst many, obscured in the sea of Gandhi’s writings, which demonstrate the significant impact of non-Hindu ideas on Gandhi’s philosophical frame. Furthermore, it demonstrates Gandhi’s keen ability to combine and assimilate disparate concepts. While many scholars regard Hindu traditions as the foundations of Gandhi’s system of thought, in reality his ideas form cohesive pastiche of ideas borrowed and assimilated from across many different Indian traditions, most of them non-Hindu, including Tribal, Dalit, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist concepts. Gandhi was able to bring these ideas together to construct a common ‘Indian’ frame and terms for political engagement in India. The origins of the development of Satyagraha in South Africa, amongst Indians in a foreign land who banded together despite significant communal differences to find a common devotion for a common cause is an important chapter in the story of Gandhi’s political philosophy and the birth of a nation.
Photo courtesy of WikiNut
Lakshmi Gopal practices photographer and studies political philosophy. Her interests are at the cross-section of philosophy and society. Her academic research focuses on the socio-political implications of philosophical frames and the impact of abstract frames on the creation of social orders. Her photographic practice parallels my scholarly research and seeks to provide a visual study of the social impact of dominant philosophical frames as well as a chronicle of the defiance of hegemony.