7th June 1893  Gandhi’s First Act of Civil Disobedience

Young Gandhi in South Africa circa 1893

On this day in 1893, the twentieth century’s most famous non-violent revolutionary, Mohandas Gandhi, committed his first act of civil disobedience when the then 24-year-old Indian lawyer was forcibly ejected from a train at South Africa’s Pietermaritzburg Railway Station. Refusing to move to a third-class carriage while holding a valid ticket for the whites-only first-class compartment, the great future leader was pushed off the train in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, his luggage hastily thrown after him. The incident would change the course of his life – and that of millions of others. Gandhi later recalled:

I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s world-famous spiritual principles of satyagraha (“holding on to truth”, or “soul force”) and ahimsa (non-violence) were formed. Arriving in early 1893 to practice law under a one-year contract, Gandhi settled in the province of Natal, where Indian Muslims – mainly descendents of indentured servents – outnumbered the white European community, triggering racist legislation denying Indians the right to vote. Following his ejection from the train, Gandhi resolved to remain in South Africa to take up the struggle against these new laws. He formed the Natal Indian Congress, drawing international attention to the plight of South Africa’s Indian population. In 1906, he organised his first satyagraha, or mass civil disobedience, when the Transvaal government sought to further restrict the rights of Indians. After seven years of protest, he negotiated a compromise agreement.

For twenty-one years, Gandhi served his revolutionary apprenticeship in South Africa – one of the world’s most notoriously discriminatory and racist hot spots. When he returned to India in 1914, he was ready to fulfil his destiny as leader of his country’s independence movement.

The radical audacity of Gandhi’s theories and practices is often lost in the benign reverence his name evokes. And so, on the anniversary of the defining moment of his revolutionary life, let us pause to reconsider Mahatma Gandhi’s ingeniously effective vision:

I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try new experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could do… Those who believe in the simple truths I have laid down can propagate them only by living them.

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4 Responses to 7th June 1893 – Gandhi’s First Act of Civil Disobedience

  1. Paul Wyrd says:

    Yeah he was pretty spot on.

    A couple more quotes:

    I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

    There is more to life than increasing its speed.

    What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

    And my one of my favourites:

    What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea.

    • Anonymous says:

      Gandhi was more myth than reality. Gandhi anger about being kicked out of 1st class reserved for the british….was he was sent to area where Black South Africans were only allowed . Gandhi was a racist. In his own writing he looked at Africans as Kaffirs. He even joined the british when the Zulu revolted. He was not even first non violence movement. Research naamdhari movement and the singh sabha movement….then u will see where he lifted those ideas from. Gandhi promoted the caste system….was anti women. He even slept with his teenage neice naked in same bed (stated it was to test his celibacy). Gandhi was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler. Loved his pure race ideas. He even wrote him a letter praising him and told fuhrer that “you not the monster that the allies make you out to be”. This was after teports about gas chambers ( btw gandhi said the jews should have just commited mass suicide). India independence was delayed 40 yrs because of gandhi.

  2. William Webster says:

    Here in the good ol USA, protesters throw up Gandhi shields of non- violence refusing to look at the whole of his experience. Gandhi would have been far less effective without his militant counter part Bhagat Singh. More and more I see co-intel using his name to take any fangs out of movements that may topple power or institutions. Still, overall I admire his spiritual teaching and life. He was a great man, however looking at the State of India today who actually was freed from his inspiration?

    • Dorian says:

      Thanks for your comment, William (and yours too, as ever, Paul).

      I know what you mean about non-violent revolution being upheld by authority as some sort of cosy alternative to real dissent when, in truth, non-violent revolutionaries are no less revolutionary than those touting weapons.
      Both have had historic victories (though, as you say, ultimately how victorious have they been?).

      Bhagat Singh is remembered here at On This Deity on 23rd March.

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