What movements are led by Gandhi

Gandhi's last riot in South Africa

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

Calendar sheet / archive | Article from November 6, 2013

100 years ago Indian immigrants protested against discrimination

From Gerhard Klas

Mahatma Gandhi in 1947. The protest march he organized in South Africa was successful, (AP archives)

On November 6, 1913, Mahatma Gandhi led a protest march of 2,200 Indian immigrants in South Africa to demonstrate against poll tax and discriminatory marriage laws of the apartheid regime. It was his last major action before returning to India.

Determined and disciplined, they stood in rows of two: 2,200 Indians, including many contract workers in the mining industry. Almost all of them were traditionally dressed in kurtas and saris, and some wore turbans. On November 6, 1913, they crossed the border from the South African district of Natal to the Transvaal. As non-whites, they were second-class citizens in the apartheid state, and crossing the border was an illegal act without official authorization.

With this act of civil disobedience began a multi-day protest march against new laws that would invalidate their marriages and would impose a poll tax on them. The immigrants, eyed suspiciously by police officers, were led by a man in a tailored suit: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who would later go down in history as Mahatma Gandhi and leader of the Indian independence movement. As a young lawyer, he had docked the ship on the South African east coast in Durban twenty years earlier on behalf of an Indian businessman. It didn't take long before he felt apartheid firsthand.

I left Durban again on the seventh or eighth day after my arrival. A seat in a first class car had been reserved for me. [..] The train arrived in Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, around nine o'clock in the evening. [..] Then a traveler came and looked me up and down. He saw that I was a 'colored man' - that disturbed his peace. So he shot out and immediately came back with an officer or two. [..] "Come with me, you have to go into the baggage car compartment!" "But I have a first class ticket," I replied. [..] "You have to get out of here or I have to call a policeman to throw you out." "Yes, you can," I replied. "I refuse to go out voluntarily." The policeman came. He took my arm and pushed me out.

Gandhi describes this situation in his autobiography. It is seen as a key experience for his future engagement against oppression and colonialism. The apartheid state shaped Gandhi's political identity; in South Africa he first developed his concept of nonviolent civil disobedience and put it into practice. He burned passports and organized illegal gatherings. He was beaten and detained several times by police officers. As was the case with the march against marriage laws and the poll tax in November 1913.

The harassment that I personally had to endure here was only superficial. It was only a symptom of the underlying disease of racial prejudice. I had to try, if possible, to eradicate this disease and take on the suffering that would result from it.

Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, which he wrote in the mid-1920s. But his fight was not about discrimination and unequal treatment of the black population in South Africa. Above all, he was outraged that the Indian minority was legally placed on the same level as the native blacks. In his weekly newspaper "Indian Opinion" he wrote in 1905:

The native [..] has a right to fair treatment, but as he is by nature he may need special legislation, which may be restrictive. However, this cannot apply to Asians.

Recent scientific work - such as that of the Gandhi researcher Dieter Conrad - has dealt intensively with Gandhi's attitude towards the black population in South Africa.

One is certainly misled if one is guided by Gandhi's own, later self-styling in his autobiographical representations, according to which the egalitarian conviction was part of his nature from the beginning and his heart was unable to distinguish between groups, religion or skin color do. [..] This is especially true for the South African phase.

The Indian protest march was successful: at the beginning of 1914 the apartheid regime had to give in - also under international pressure, because Gandhi already had excellent contacts with the British and American press at that time: Non-Christian marriages were recognized as valid again, and both poll tax and mandatory registration for Indians were repealed. It should have been the last political movement that Gandhi led in South Africa: a few months later he traveled back to India for good and was celebrated there as a popular hero.