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Anniversary of Gandhi's Return to India from South Africa in January 1915 : Lessons for Defending Religious Pluralism and Law Making Process based on Consultation

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 10, Jan 2022, 16:42 pm IST | UPDATED: 14, Apr 2022, 11:43 am IST

Anniversary of Gandhi's Return to India from South Africa in January 1915 :  Lessons for Defending Religious Pluralism and Law Making Process based on Consultation

Hundred seven years back on 9th January 1915 Mahatma Gandhi came back to India from South Africa after the successful conclusion of his first Satyagraha which lasted from 1906 to 1914. In fact in India 9th January every year is observed as Pravasi Bharatiya Day and is evocative of the arrival of Gandhi in Indian soil with a rich legacy of his non-violent struggle in South Africa on the strength of all Indians living there regardless of their faith, caste and language.
The first Satyagraha was started by Gandhi against several laws framed by the British regime of South Africa against Indians without consulting them. The Asiatic Law was one such law which imposed a three pound tax on indentured Indians who were mandated under that law to register, carry registration card and give fingerprints. Eventually because of the first Satyagraha many of those laws were withdrawn.

Legislation with Consultation

On the day of his arrival in Bombay in 1909 Gandhi in his interview to Times of India flagged one of the significant outcomes of the first Satyagraha. He stated that the South African Government of that time assured that legislations affecting the Indians would be framed by the Government after consulting them and no law without factoring their opinion would be enacted. It is worthwhile to quote his words : “One great thing which I think has been attained is that the Government have recognised that, in any legislation affecting the British Indians in South Africa, Indians should be consulted and their wishes respected as far as possible. This I think to be an advance in the right direction. This happy result has no doubt been arrived at owing to the valuable assistance afforded to our great and righteous cause by Lord Hardinge and the magnificent response made by the Motherland under the spirited guidance of my esteemed friend, the Hon. Mr. Gokhle”.

Let us juxtapose that statement of Gandhi in the context of legislative developments of the last seven years in India where legislations are being framed by the Government of India without consulting stakeholders and passed in the Parliament by dispensing discussion and that too on the basis of voice vote. As a result people are registering to protest by exercising their constitutional right and the historic year long non-violent movement of farmers against farm laws and eventual repeal of those laws by the union Government is evocative of one of the important by-products of the first Satyagraha - no legislation without consultation. The enduring spirit of the first Satyagraha upholding deliberation and consultation for framing law is a fundamental prerequisite for India in 2022.

Religious Pluralism of First Satyagraha

Just four days before his ship docked in the Bombay (now Mumbai) port he wrote to Chhaganlal Gandhi that he felt cheered up and was full of hope and his joy of returning to mother country became more intensified. He spent the time on the Red Sea in a state of spiritual bliss and regularly read Tulsidas’s chaupais for spiritual company. He read them with a new zest and added “For all I know, the Indian soil itself might act as spiritual company for me”.

The inherent spiritual attribuites of Gandhi amply manifested in his first Satyagraha employed for fightig for the rights and dignity of Indians celebrated Hindu -Muslim unity and affirmed religious pluralim. Indeed its triumph was electrifying and the spiritual force propelling it was so impactful that when he left South Africa General Smuts remarked with a sense of relief that “The saint has left our shores, I sincerely hope for ever”.

The might, majesty and spiritual beauty of the first Satyagraha can be found in its broad scope encompassing harmony and solidarity of different religions. The Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians participated in it and fought for their common rights by learning and applying the methods of self restraint, sacrifice and respect for one another’s faith. The denomination of a person instead of impeding the progress of the first Satyagraha became a cementing factor and contributed to its onward progress. During the freedom movement Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly referred to the first Satyagraha and used to say that adherence to truth and non-violence enabled the Satyagrahis to see beauty in each and every religion. In fact it is instructive to note that Muslims remained in the forefront of the first Satyagraha and like other British Indians of that time pursuing diverse faiths they never gave priority to their religious identity over their other identities and stressed on the larger cause at the heart of which remained the Indian identity. Gandhi was deeply conscious of that rich legacy of religious pluralism associated with the first Satyagraha.

On arriving in India he followed the advice of Gopal Krishna Gokhle to visit different parts of India and understand it. In an interview to the Bombay Chronicle on the day he reached India he, therefore, said
“...I having been out of India for so long, have no business to form any definite conclusions about matters essentially Indian, and that I should pass some time here as an observer and a student”.

However, he did reflect on religious pluralism and its critical necessity four days after his arrival in Bombay. While responding to a reception accorded to him on January 14, 1915 in Bombay by Gurjar Sabha, presided over by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, he recalled with anguish that in South Africa when “anything was said about Gujaratis, it was understood to have a reference to the Hindu community only and Parsis and Mahomedans were not thought of”. He, therefore, was happy to see a Mahomedan like Jinnah who was a member of the Gurjar Sabha and the chairman of that function. The sub text of what Gandhi said, a few days after his arrival in India, that an inclusive approach should be integral to embrace people professing diverse faiths.

He while adding that “With regard to the Hindu-Mahomedan question he had much to learn” stated on that occasion that “...he would always keep before his eyes his twenty-one years’ experience in South Africa”. That experience was, of course, rooted in religious pluralism and equal respect for all faiths.

He recalled on that occasion the words of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh , that “the Hindus and Mahomedans were the two eyes of Mother India and if one looked at one end and the other at the other, neither would be able to see anything and that if one was gone, the other would see to that extent only. Both the communities had to bear this in mind in the future”.

Those words of Gandhi on Hindu-Muslim issue are of contemporary relevance particularly in the context of frightening call given by Hindutva leaders for arms and genocide of Muslims of India and pronounecemnts of high functionaries of State that civil society is the new frontier of warfare. Combined with aggressive peddling of majoritarianism it adversely impacts society and poisons the whole body polity.

On 13th January 1915 Lokmanya Tilak while participating in the meeting convened by Bombay National Union to welcome Gandhi and his wife Kasturba stated that both of them fought for the honour of India in a distant land and the lesson to be learnt from them was to produce more men and women of the self-sacrificing spirit by following their example. Tilak’s words came true and Gandhi commanded attention of the whole of India and vast masses of people joined the freedom struggle because of his role in setting an example of self sacrifice and service.

Today when Hindutva elements operating State apparatus are causing divisions in our society on the basis of religion and violently targeting minorities and values of religious pluralism let us recall the Gandhi’s words after his arrival in India on 9th January 1915 and take measures to save the Idea of India and its secular ethos by defeating forces representing majoritarianism.

#The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.

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