The protest that changed the world

2013-11-29 00:00

WHEN Mahatma Gandhi embarked on what has become known as the great march of 1913, the anniversary of which is being commemorated tomorrow, his wife Kasturba and a group of other Indian women were incarcerated in the Pietermaritzburg prison.

They had been there since September and it was these women and a host of others who were the catalysts for an unprecedented general strike by indentured labourers in 1913. It was a seminal period that was to shape both the Indian and South African liberation struggles. Feminist Millie Polak, who was close to the Gandhi family, was a speaker at a meeting in Pietermaritzburg when Kasturba and the other women were released from prison in December. The prisoners were apparently pulled in a flower-strewn carriage through the streets of the city. At a meeting that followed, Polak said: “This was essentially a women’s movement, and there was no question that had it not been for the women taking the lead, there would have been no strike. When women once realised the enormous power they had they would rise up and make their own lives and the world what they wished.”

The quote above is from a recently released book, Gandhi before India, written by renowned historian Ramachandra Guha. The author’s chapter on the events of 1913 is aptly titled “Breaking Boundaries”.

By 1913, Gandhi had been in South Africa for 20 years. There was a burning issue that preoccupied much of his time — the Natal colonial government’s refusal to scrap a £3 tax, which was required to be paid annually by every Indian over the age of 16 who was freed from indenture. The tax was still in effect two years after the indentured labour system was abolished in 1911. Guha said Gandhi had written hundreds of letters, printed dozens of appeals and sought audiences with government ministers. All of this had gotten nowhere and so he and his followers were preparing to launch a passive-resistance campaign (satyagraha). This decision was reinforced by a court ruling that Hindu and Muslim marriages would not be recognised in South Africa. This ruling meant that married Indian women would have been reduced legally to the status of concubines and their children treated as illegitimate. The women and children would also lose the right of inheritance.

The passive-resistance campaign was to take the form of resistors courting imprisonment by defying the authorities and crossing the border into the Transvaal without the required permits. Kasturba was among the first group of 16 volunteers, along with three other women. They were arrested in Volksrust on September 23, 1913, and were sentenced to three months’ hard labour, to be served at the Pietermaritzburg Prison. By October, women from the Transvaal joined the protest. They were not arrested and used the time they had in Natal to mobilise workers in the coal mines of Dundee and Newcastle. According to Guha, some 2 000 striking miners assembled in the grounds of Dundee’s Hindu temple. They had been mobilised by 11 Tamil-speaking women, among them Mrs Thambi Naidoo. Gandhi was quoted in the Rand Daily Mail as saying: “The presence of these brave women who had never suffered hardship and had never spoken at public meetings acted like electricity, and the men left their work.” The women were also arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Among the group was 16-year-old Valliamma Mudaliar, who died a few weeks after being released from the Pietermaritzburg prison. The strike spread to other parts of Natal, affecting, mines, farms, factories and municipalities. At the height of the campaign, there were over 40 000 workers who had downed tools, despite extreme provocation and physical violence. Many travelled by train and walked to Charlestown to take part in the great march. According to reports, Gandhi contacted the office of General Jan Smuts, the minister of the interior, to appeal to him one last time to scrap the tax, failing which thousands of Indians would cross over into the Transvaal. Smuts replied that he would have nothing to do with Gandhi and he could do as he pleased.

Gandhi was arrested and imprisoned, and the marchers were sent back to Natal in three trains. Their spirits were not broken and they said they would continue their campaign until their leaders were released. The numbers of striking workers continued to grow as protest action spread to the sugar-cane plantations on the Natal North Coast. Guha said the army was called in while the navy was put on alert.

By early December, the government set up a commission of inquiry to look into the Indian grievances. Gandhi was released from the Bloemfontein prison on December 18, 1913, and Kasturba and her party of satyagrahis were freed on December 22.

Guha’s book is dedicated to Enuga S. Reddy, a former United Nations (UN) assistant secretary-general, who founded the UN’s Centre Against Apartheid. Reddy, who lives in New York, is writing a book on the history of satyagraha. He told The Witness that the Indian community had planned a huge procession in Durban to welcome the women prisoners, but this had to be abandoned as Kasturba came out emaciated.

Reddy said that describing the heroism of the women satyagrahis, Gandhi wrote: “The women’s bravery was beyond words. They were all kept in Maritzburg jail, where they were considerably harassed. Their food was of the worst quality and they were given laundry work as their task. No food was permitted to be given them from outside nearly till the end of their term. One sister was under a religious vow to restrict herself to a particular diet. After great difficulty, the jail authorities allowed her that diet, but the food supplied was unfit for human consumption. When this sister was released she was a mere skeleton and her life was saved only by a great effort.” According to Reddy, the “sister” Gandhi wrote about was Kasturba.

By January 1914, the tax was abolished and Indian marriages were recognised. Guha said that the scope and the scale of the strike were unprecedented. The protesters had breached the boundaries of province, class and gender. They had fully stretched the forces of law and order, and had seriously endangered the economy of Natal.

For the organisers of tomorrow’s march, the centenary deserves commemoration because the passive-resistance campaign had a major impact nationally and internationally. It paved the way for many peaceful, non-violent mass protest actions in South Africa, the United States and India. It also highlights the courage of women and the effectiveness of non-violent protest action.

• The march will be from the Charlestown Mosque to the Volksrust Prison, a distance of about six kilometres. It will start at 10 am and culminate with a mass rally at the prison.

• Project Gateway, the old Pietermaritzburg Prison, is currently holding an exhibition on the women prisoners and the events of 1913.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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