The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Celebrating the centenary of satyagraha is sheer tokenism

Indians love anniversaries so much that they invent them. Historians are agreed that there is not a shred of evidence to declare September 7, 2006 to be the centenary of Vande Mataram. But someone — nobody is owning responsibility — decided that a centenary of Vande Mataram was needed, and thus the nation was sent into a tizzy.

Another centenary is about to be celebrated, albeit with far less fanfare. Saturday’s newspapers — or at least some of them — carried an advertisement in the name of Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti which is an autonomous body under the ministry of culture. This advertisement announces that September 11, 2006 marks the hundred years of satyagraha. The history behind this claim needs to be narrated since it is not too well known.

On August 22, 1906, the Transvaal Government Gazette Extraordinary published a new ordinance affecting the lives of Indian settlers in the area. By the new ordinance every Indian, Arab and Turk of eight years and above entitled to reside in the Transvaal would have to register his or her name with the Registrar of Asiatics and take out a certificate of registration. Failure to comply would result in a fine of 100 pounds and imprisonment and even deportation. Further, the new ordinance gave the police extraordinary powers. The police could enter private houses to inspect the certificates. They could challenge people anywhere and ask them to produce certificates. Refusal or failure to produce the certificates would be deemed an offence punishable by fines or imprisonment.

Gandhi, as a leader of the Indian community in South Africa, was convinced that such an ordinance would threaten the very existence of Indians in the Transvaal. He decided to mobilize public opinion against the ordinance. He translated the draft ordinance into Gujarati and published it in Indian Opinion, the journal he had founded in 1904. A conference was held of the leading Indians, and it was resolved there to agitate publicly against the proposed ordinance. Gandhi also met the colonial secretary to present the views of the Indian community. The colonial secretary replied that these views and suggestions would be considered. On September 4, the bill was introduced in the assembly.

On September 11 — the date which is being commemorated on Monday — a mass meeting of Indians was held at Johannesburg at the Jewish Empire Theatre. More than three thousand people were present at the meeting. The most important resolution to be passed in the meeting was the one by which those present resolved not to submit to the ordinance and to suffer the consequences that would follow from such non-compliance. Through Gandhi’s unique intervention, the resolution became a solemn pledge. The message of the meeting spread swiftly and in meetings held across the region, men and women took pledges of resistance.

It is important to underline here that what happened in September 1906 was the taking of a pledge of resistance. The resistance had not started because the law had not been passed. As Gandhi was to write in 1908, “An oath was taken in September 1906 not to submit to the law. Submission to the law was the only issue at that time. The regulations made under it in July 1907 did not then exist.” Yet Gandhi dated the beginning of what he in 1906 called “passive resistance” to the Johannesburg meeting of September 11, 1906.

In terms of activity, Gandhi concentrated on the legal means to subvert the new ordinance. He approached the government with petitions and memorials, and led a delegation to London to convince the British government to intervene. He preferred to exhaust the legal channels even though he knew that there was little chance of the law being withdrawn.

Gandhi was right in his reading of the situation. In March 1907, the ordinance became an act which received the royal assent in May. The act would come into effect from July 1, and Indians were required to register under it by July 31. In response, Gandhi established the Passive Resistance Association which began to organize meetings in the open and to administer oaths to resisters.

Indians were asked to boycott the permit offices the government had set up in the various Indian localities. Volunteers moved from house to house urging people not to register. Each and every permit office was picketed. Volunteers, with badges, were placed on the roads to persuade those who were going to register. The volunteers were not to use any coercion on those who wanted to register. The process allowed volunteers to identify the handful who did register. The volunteers, led by a captain, were instructed to surrender to the police if they were beaten up or arrested. Gandhi and the other leaders were arrested at the end of December 1907. This was Gandhi’s first arrest, more than one year after September 11, 1906.

Gandhi was thus using the same techniques that he would use on a much greater scale in India during the mass movements he led in the Twenties and the Thirties.

The term satyagraha grew out of the movement. Gandhi found the term “passive resistance” inadequate to describe the nature of the struggle. He wanted a term that conveyed a moral force; he wanted an Indian name. A small prize was announced in Indian Opinion for the best suggestion. Maganlal Gandhi suggested sadagraha (firmness in a good cause). Gandhi liked the word but he felt it did not capture the idea in its totality. He altered it to satyagraha, “the force which is born of truth and love or non-violence”. The term was probably first used sometime in late 1907 on the pages of Indian Opinion, the journal that had become synonymous with satyagraha in South Africa.

This narrative events about the beginnings of satyagraha creates problems about its 100th anniversary. Is it correct to call September 11, 1906, the birthday of satyagraha since on that day only a pledge to resist was taken, the satyagraha was not launched' If this logic is accepted, should the birth of India’s independence be pushed back from 1947 to the year the Purna Swaraj resolution was adopted'

The other option is to use the date when the satyagraha was actually launched, i.e. some time in July 1907. Or, as some purists could argue, the date on which Gandhi first used the term satyagraha as distinct from passive resistance.

These points are more than factual quibbles. The bigger issue that needs to addressed is the meaninglessness of anniversaries. This is specially true for Gandhi, a man who hated tokenism. What else is the celebration of an anniversary concerning Gandhi but tokenism' India as a nation and as a society has turned its back in every possible way on the man it has placed on the pedestal of father of the nation' How does the date of an anniversary matter when the man and his message have ceased to matter'

How long are we going to mock a frail man in a loincloth'

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