USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Gandhi and the Satyagraha Movement

Gandhi called his movement Satyagraha. He was quick to differentiate this movement from the Western practice of passive resistance, which at the time was bound up in the popular imagination with the movement for women’s suffrage in England. Whether Gandhi accurately captures the state of the women’s movement is another question entirely, which we will not address directly in this chapter. In his account of Satyagraha from the 1920s, he writes: 
We are only concerned to note the distinction between passive resistance and Satyagraha, and we have seen that there is a great and fundamental difference between the two. If without understanding this, those who call themselves either passive resisters or Satyagrahis believe both to be one and the same thing, there would be injustice to both leading to untoward consequences. The result of our using the phrase “passive resistance” in South Africa was, not that people admired us by ascribing to us the bravery and the self-sacrifice of the suffragists but we were mistaken to be a danger to person and property which the suffragists were, and even a generous friend like Mr. Hosken imagined us to be weak. The power of suggestion is such, that a man at last becomes what he believes himself to be. If we continue to believe ourselves and let others believe, that we are weak and helpless and therefore offer passive resistance, our resistance would never make us strong, and at the earliest opportunity we would give up passive resistance as a weapon of the weak. On the other hand if we are Satyagrahis and offer Satyagraha believing ourselves to be strong, two clear consequences result from it. Fostering the idea of strength, we grow stronger and stronger every day. With the increase in our strength, our Satyagraha too becomes more effective and we would never be casting about for an opportunity to give it up.
Again, while there is no scope for love in passive resistance, on the other hand not only has hatred no place in Satyagraha but is a positive breach of its ruling principle. While in passive resistance there is a scope for the use of arms when a suitable occasion arrives, in Satyagraha physical force is forbidden even in the most favourable circumstances. Passive resistance is often looked upon as a preparation for the use of force while Satyagraha can never be utilised as such. Passive resistance may be offered side by side with the use of arms. Satyagraha and brute force, being each a negation of the other, can never go together. Satyagraha may be offered to one’s nearest and dearest; passive resistance can never be offered to them unless of course they have ceased to be dear and become an object of hatred to us. In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardships entailed upon us by such activity; while in Satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.
In 1907, shortly after gaining self-governing status from the British crown the Transvaal enacted the Asian Ordinance, the so-called Black Act, the draconian measure that Gandhi had been working to resist and which had inspired the birth of Satyagraha, which is translated literally as “the force of truth.” During the struggle over the Asian Ordinance, the position of Indians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State continued to deteriorate. Between 1907 and 1909, when South Africa became a unified and basically independent state, the Afrikaner-controlled regions of South Africa passed a slate of discriminatory legislation against Indian and native African populations. These laws included limitations on the freedom to move in and out of different territories, a ban on sexual intercourse and marriage between “whites” and “colored” people, a law which defined a worker as “white” and thus blocked Africans and Indians from claiming any type of worker’s compensation or rights. Laws forbade Indians and Africans from owning firearms and taking out mining permits. In the Transvaal, laws prohibited Indians from living in townships as free citizens or independent merchants. They could do so only as domestic servants. From 1907 until the outbreak of war in 1914, Gandhi led the Satyagraha movement against these discriminatory measures, culminating with a "great march," during which he led thousands of striking workers in protest. When war broke out in 1914, Gandhi was on his way to England to continue his struggle. He broke off his mission. His time in South Africa had come to an end.

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