The Origins of Satyagraha


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.