Whilst worthy of commemoration, the report on the 125th anniversary of Gandhi’s ejection from the first-class compartment of the train at Pietermaritzburg station (Mercury, June 7), besides containing some factual errors, exemplifies how the selective exploitation of history can nurture an image.
Unfortunate and regrettable though that train experience was, it was not the issue which galvanised Gandhi into becoming a champion of the rights of those subjected to discrimination. After spending nearly a year in Pretoria assisting his brother’s merchant firm in a legal case, Gandhi intended to return to India. It was upon arriving back in Durban in April 1894 that he read of legislation to be introduced in the Natal parliament disenfranchising Indians. That news proved a watershed in his life. For the next twenty years he remained in South Africa championing the cause of Indians.
However, the image of Gandhi as a crusader of rights is not quite as shiny as portrayed. His Natal Indian Congress, as historians Maureen Swan, Joy Brain, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed contend, reflected the interests of the Indian merchant trading elite. In their book Inside Indian Indenture, Desai and Vahid note that Gandhi distinguished between indentured labour and free immigrant Indians. He regarded indenture as an issue of contract and bargain (p. 372).
In an interview with the New Statesman on 13 November 1896, Gandhi made it clear that his notion of equality did not include all Indians and that he had no intention of paving the way for “coolies” to vote (Maureen Swan, Gandhi – The South African Experience, p. 63). As Swan points out, Gandhi’s protestations reflected a class rather than a race interest. Equally significant at that time, Gandhi and the NIC shared whites’ prejudices towards Natal Africans (p.50).
Gandhi’s selective interest in acts of discrimination was particularly evident at the time of the inquiry into human rights abuses on Reynolds Bros estates in Umzinto in 1906. Along with the rest of the colonial press, Gandhi’s Indian Opinion was silent in reporting and commenting on the appalling treatment of indentured Indians.
To remedy the credibility of politically nuanced views of Gandhi, a source worth consulting is Desai and Vahid’s book The South African Gandhi – stretcher-bearer of Empire (2016).
Sent into The Mercury and published, 8 June 2018.