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Mohandas Gandhi

The Making of the Mahatma

In South Africa: II

India and World War I

A number of changes in Gandhi's personal life soon impacted his growing celebrity. The first was his achievement of Brahmacharya, or the voluntary abstention from sexual relations. This was not an uncommon Hindu practice among men in their forties and fifties, who gradually cease sexual activity once they have had enough children to satisfy the demands of custom, family and caste, but Gandhi adopted the practice between 1901 and 1906, when he was in his thirties. He seems to have regarded it as part of his quest for selflessness and restraint in all aspects of life; in his writings, he suggests that as a young man he succumbed too easily to lust, and recounts how he failed to be with his father when he died because he was making love to his wife, a lapse of duty for which he never forgave himself. Whether or not Gandhi's decision was based on pure principle–amateur psychologists have speculated exhaustively about alternative motives–suffice it so say that from 1906 onward, with Kasturbai's consent (she was physically frail at this point, and may have welcomed his decision) Gandhi was almost entirely celibate.

At the same time, Gandhi read for the first time John Ruskin's book Unto This Last, which maintained that the life of labor–that is, of work done with the hands, rather than machines–was superior to all other ways of living. Gandhi was convinced by the argument, and he considered this new idea the final piece to his personal philosophy. He quickly applied Ruskin's belief to his personal life, abandoning Western dress and habits, and moving his family and staff to a farm in the Transvaal that he called the Phoenix Settlement. There he strove to live the life that Ruskin's book urged–after some time, he even gave renounced the use of an oil-powered engine and printed Indian Opinion by hand-wheel. From that point on, he conceived of his political work not in terms of a modernization of India, but as a restoration of the old Indian virtue and civilization that had been lost to Western materialist and industrialist influences. He imagined a utopia in which handlooms and spinning wheels would provide all the power, rendering engines and electricity superfluous; correspondingly, he and his extended family soon began using these traditional implements on his own farmstead.

Thus arose an unlikely religio-political celebrity–a crusader against injustice who renounced both sexual pleasure and the entire modern world. To this mix of traits was added his philosophy of political protest, which soon gained a name: Satyagraha. Taken literally, it meant "truth-force" in Sanskrit, but in practical terms, it meant a refusal to obey unjust authority. In 1906 it was put to the test within a few years of being coined, 1906 being the same year that Gandhi made his final renunciation of sex and entered fully into Brahmacharya. The Transvaal government had made plans to register every Indian over the age of eight, making them an official section of the population. The Indian community called a mass meeting on September 8 of that year, and there Gandhi asked the whole community to take a vow of disobedience to the law. He warned them that it might mean torture and death–but everyone present took the vow.

The law went into effect in July of 1907, after the Transvaal attained self- government, and the resolve of the Indian population was quickly proven. Gandhi was among the first to appear before a magistrate for his refusal to register, and he was sentenced to two months in prison. He asked for a heavier sentence– a characteristic act of Satyagraha–and devoted his time in jail to reading. After his release, the campaign went on. A compromise proposed by Jan Smuts, an Afrikaner hero in the Boer War and now Prime Minister of the Transvaal, fell apart when Smuts broke his word to Gandhi.

Indians burned their registration cards, crossed the Transvaal-Natal border without passes, and went to jail in large numbers. In 1908, Gandhi went to jail again: this time his reading included the writings of the American Henry David Thoreau, most notably his impassioned essay "Civil Disobedience," which spoke directly to Gandhi's plight. He emerged from prison resolved to continue resistance for as long as necessary.

In the end, the struggle would last until 1913. Gandhi went to London in 1909, and managed to drum up enough support among the British to convince Smuts to eliminate the odious registration law. But the Transvaal's Prime Minister, despite his growing respect for Gandhi, still wanted to relegate the Indian population to second-class status. (Possibly he did not personally desire their subjugation; however, given the views of his supporters, he had no other choice.) The final struggle was joined in 1913, with the refusal of the white government in Natal to lift the crippling poll tax, and a Supreme Court decision in the Cape Colony that made all non-Christian marriages illegal–which, in effect, made all Indian wives into mistresses and all their children into bastards. Gandhi now organized satyagraha on a massive scale: women volunteered to cross the Natal-Transvaal border illegally; when they were arrested, five thousand Indian coal miners went on strike. Gandhi took command of this "army" and led them across the Natalese border, courting arrest.

In the end, their large numbers were their triumph. "You can't put twenty thousand Indians into jail," Smuts said in 1913, and negotiated a settlement whereby the legality of Indian marriages was restored, the poll tax was abolished, and the import of indentured laborers from India (really more akin to slaves) was to be phased out by 1920. In July of 1914, Gandhi sailed for Britain: "The saint has left our shores," wrote Smuts, "I sincerely hope forever"; the statement represented Smuts's deep admiration and regard for Gandhi (for the rest of his life he kept a pair of sandals given him by "the saint"), yet also the political distress that the Indian leader caused him and his administration. And Smuts got his wish: Gandhi never to set foot in South Africa again. He was forty-five and a celebrity, known throughout India for the amazing success of satyagraha, and stepped out into a world about to change: World War I was only a month away.

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