International day of Non-Violence: Let all remember

October 25, 2021 10:55 AM

We were reminded by the Indian High Commissioner to South Africa, Satyabrata Pal, that 2007 marked the centenary of the launch of Satyagraha by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in South Africa in 1907.

mahatama gandhiGandhi returned to India at the request of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, on 9 January 1915, and led India’s non-violent struggle for freedom.

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan, 

This is still October, a month when we remember the Mahatma. In the year 2007, I was Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with Africa. We were reminded by the Indian High Commissioner to South Africa, Satyabrata Pal, that 2007 marked the centenary of the launch of Satyagraha by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in South Africa in 1907. I was called upon to draw up a calendar of events to observe the Centenary of an event that marked the turning point not only in the life of Gandhi, but also of India.

One of the action points in the calendar was that the Prime Minister of India would undertake a State visit to South Africa, after a gap of 10 years. I accompanied the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ji to places in South Africa connected with Gandhi. The ceremonial reception was held at the State buildings of the capital city of Pretoria. I must say, coming as we did from the ramparts of the Raisina Hill flanked on both sides by the majestic North and South Block, I was wonderstruck at the uncanny resemblance with the State buildings in Pretoria! The architect was the same, Baker!

Among other things, a grand banquet was laid out by the hosts in honour of the Indian Prime Minister and his delegation. Mrs Gursharan Kaur, spouse of PM accompanied. It had been only 15 years since diplomatic relations had been established between India and South Africa, after the release of Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. Until then, the Indian passports were ‘not valid for travel to South Africa…’ Such was our commitment to the cause. Not surprisingly, in the early decades after our independence, India was feted all over Africa as the leader of the worldwide movement against Colonialism, imperialism and apartheid, and post-apartheid South Africa was no exception. In Pretoria, we were sharing tables and breaking bread with those who we had provided moral and material support in their freedom struggle. Some of them were given Indian passports to allow them to travel to beat sanctions. Also, I recall, as a junior officer, paying bills for utilities and rentals of the premises of the African revolutionaries on exile in India!

Could the centenary celebrations of Satyagraha be complete without the pilgrimage to the (in) famous Pietermaritzburg railway station where a young Gandhi was thrown out of his compartment as he was not the right color? To recall, as a barrister, Gandhi arrived in Durban, South Africa, in 1893. He was travelling to Pretoria for a legal case on June 7, 1893. A white man objected to his presence in a first-class carriage. Gandhi, who was carrying a first-class ticket, naturally, refused to move. The train meanwhile reached Pietermaritzburg station and Gandhi was unceremoniously thrown from his carriage onto the platform by the authorities.

In response Gandhi formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 in protest of the oppressive treatment against the native Africans and Indians. Inspired by the English artist John Ruskin’s book Unto This Last, Gandhi set up the Phoenix farm near Durban, where Gandhi would train his cadres on non-violent Satyagraha or peaceful restraint for truth. While Phoenix farm is considered as the birthplace of Satyagraha, it was at the Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi’s second camp in South Africa, where Satyagraha was molded into a weapon of protest. In September 1906, the first Satyagraha campaign was organized. It was in June 1907 that Gandhi held the first Satyagraha against the Black Act. Gandhi returned to India at the request of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, on 9 January 1915, and led India’s non-violent struggle for freedom. He went to South Africa as Gandhi and returned to India as Mahatma.

Every year, on 9 January the Government of India holds the Indian Diaspora Day or Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas in India and abroad.

The rail journey to Pietermaritzburg station was quite eventful. The platform and the compartment were choc-a-bloc. In the melee, luckily for me, then Deputy High Commissioner in Pretoria, Vikas Swarup, who was hanging from the window sills of the train so he could be visible, pushed me into the compartment. The VIPs were separately taken care of. The train looked very spic and span. But the seats were anything but comfortable; they were too narrow even for my slight frame. Obviously, it was a very old model.

As we alighted at the Pietermaritzburg station, I found the gap between the lower end of the train and the platform too wide and too perpendicular. There was no way one could have stepped on to the platform; one had to first throw one’s bags down and then jump with every risk of falling! It is on this platform that history was made over 128 years ago. A trip there is bound to make any patriotic Indian emotional. This nondescript quiet railway station is now famous worldwide as the birthplace of Satyagraha. The circumstances leading up to Gandhi’s ouster from the train are well detailed in the waiting room of the station where Gandhi spent the night mulling over prejudice and freedom. ‘I was born in India but was made in South Africa’, commented Gandhi once. There is a statue and a plaque in honour of Gandhi. It has been more than 128 years since that night, but the statue and the waiting room leave Indians teary eyed even to this day.

Another point on the agenda of the centenary celebrations was that India would host the International Conference on Satyagraha. Invitations were sent out to all the world luminaries. Somewhere down the line, the then ruling party decided to make it a party event. Eventually, we received very nice-looking invitations to the Conference. However, the next day, the Minister of External Affairs circulated a note that while the invitations had been received, we were not expected to attend!

Be that as it may, one of the major decisions of the Conference was that the Ministry of External Affairs would approach the United Nations General Assembly to introduce a Resolution to declare October 2, the Mahatma’s birthday, as the International Day of Non-violence. Which we did. An overwhelming majority of the member states of the United Nations co-sponsored the Resolution. The Resolution was passed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly. Since then, all Indian Embassies abroad mark the day not only as Gandhi Jayanti but also as the International Day of Non-Violence. This resonated widely when we held the worldwide celebrations of Bapu@150 in 2018-19.

As we see our own country today and the world around us, the principles of Satyagraha and non-violence stand out as relevant today as over a century ago when these were propounded. Let’s all remember.

(The author is a former ambassador and a former Joint Secretary dealing with Africa in the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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