Wednesday 1 September 2010

Gandhi's turning point

From A. Pushparajan, "Gandhi's Non-Violence: Significance for Christian Philosophizing", Violence and its Victims: A Challenge to Philosophizing in the Indian Context, ACPI Papers vol. 11, ed. Ivo Coelho, forthcoming:  

Mohandas K. Gandhi was not a born genius. He was indeed a most ordinary man, physically weak and frail. As a student he was ‘mediocre.’ By nature he was timid and shy. In the beginning of his career, he was unsuccessful as a lawyer, and an escapist in many respects.[1] If such an ordinary person could turn out to be a warrior of social justice, spending the whole of his life in leading so many non-violent movements, it was mainly because of a turning point in his life.
The turning point was an incident in a train which led Gandhi to realize that he had a mission towards the victims of racial violence. Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893 on a yearlong contract to lend such services as translating vouchers into English and presenting them to the attorney and thus being helpful in the court case of certain Sheik Abdulla, a Gujarati merchant in South Africa. After landing in Durban, a port city, Gandhi was supposed to reach the place of his destination by train. He travelled first class the whole day long. At about 9.00 p.m. the train reached Pietermaritzburg and an Englishman entered the compartment. He expected Gandhi, as per convention, to vacate the compartment and go to the third class. Unaware of the local customs, Gandhi claimed his right to continue travelling in the compartment because he possessed a first class ticket. Disturbed by this grave ‘act of impoliteness,’ the white man brought in the railway officials and a police constable who simply took Gandhi by the hand and pushed him out of the train, throwing out his luggage. Gandhi was thus left all alone on the platform, in an unknown land, at an ungodly hour.
After a while the puzzled young man went to the waiting room and sat down. It was winter and already bitterly cold. A cold wind gushed into the room through a broken glass-pane. He had an overcoat, but it was in his luggage, and the station master had taken charge of it. Gandhi did not have courage to ask for it lest he be insulted again. He spent a sleepless night sitting alone in that room, brooding over what had happened to him. From this enforced meditation three questions cropped up again and again: Should he go back to India? Should he put up with insults? Or should he stay and fight? In the process, he was endowed with deeper insights into the social issues involved. The insult he got was not due to any fault of his own. Nor was it the result of a personal grudge or animosity of those white men against him; they did not even know who Mohandas was. It was simply an instance of systemic evil, social violence wrought by the people of the ruling class over the coolies. Further, the hardship that Gandhi was subjected to was only superficial, merely a symptom of the deep-rooted disease of colour prejudice. While the indentured labourers thought it discreet to put up with insults, Gandhi could not. It was against his self respect. He could not return to India as he had already come on a contract. So he deemed it his duty to try to root out the problem, if possible. The resolve set in so firmly that it was like “iron entering his soul.” He had turned into an altogether different man.
The shy and timid man became so bold that he went to the station master without any hesitation and insisted on his right to lodge a complaint against the Railway Board. He also managed to send a long telegram to Sheik Abdulla and another to the General Railway Manager, who in turn instructed the Station Master to arrange for Gandhi’s safe journey to his destination. Accordingly Gandhi could travel in the train without any problem. On reaching Charlestown in the following morning, he had to travel on a stage-coach up to Johannesburg. He was eligible to take the coach with the same ticket. But the problem for the coach-agent was how to accommodate a coloured man inside the coach with the white passengers. Finally the agent offered his own seat near the coachman’s seat, outside the coach-box, while he himself sat inside the coach. This was not the usual thing for him. Around 4 o’clock in the evening, he felt like a smoke and so wanted to sit in his usual seat. He came outside the box and asked Gandhi to vacate his seat and sit on the footboard. This was evidently an insult, too much for Gandhi to bear.
It was time to put his resolve into practice. So now, though in fear and trembling, Gandhi firmly said: “It was you who seated me here, though I should have been accommodated inside. I put up with the insult. Now that you want to sit outside and smoke, you would have me sit at your feet. I will not do so, but I am prepared to sit inside.” Even as Gandhi was struggling through these words, the man came down upon Gandhi, boxed his ears, seized him by the arm and tried to drag him down. Gandhi would not vacate the seat on his own. He clung to the brass rails of the coachbox, determined to keep his hold even at the risk of breaking his wrist bones. The man was swearing at Gandhi, dragging and belabouring him, while Gandhi remained calm. Meanwhile the other passengers, moved to pity, intervened and said that Gandhi was not to blame. They even pleaded for his being seated inside with them. At this the coach agent was somewhat crestfallen. He stopped beating Gandhi and left him alone, though swearing at him a little more.
This incident gave Gandhi a little insight into the method of fighting against injustice. One should never yield to injustice on one’s own. One should protest it firmly, but be ready to suffer patiently and willingly all the consequences of the protest. The aim of such a protest was to move the heart of the evil-doer to realize his mistake, moving at the same time the other innocent persons who would prevail upon the evil-doer to change. Fighting for justice need not necessarily mean dealing violently with the oppressor. On the contrary if the oppressed deals with the oppressor with love and sympathy, and yet remains strong in refusing to yield, he would be able to change the evil. Hence Gandhi initially gave the name ‘Passive Resistance’ to his method of non-violence.


[1] A. Pushparajan, “Universal Spirit and Indigenous Leader,” Vaiharai: The Dawn 3/1 (1998) 36-55.

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