It was the 14th of December, 1908. Nearly, 112 years ago Tarak Nath Das, a Bengali revolutionary, received a letter from Leo Tolstoy which we know as -‘A Letter to A Hindu.’ In response to Tarak Nath’s letters requesting his support for the Indian Independence movement, Leo Tolstoy asks Tarak Nath to seek inspiration in a two-thousand-year-old Tamil book of couplets- ‘Tirukkural’. Written by a Tamil saint ‘Thiruvalluvar’, it recommends non-killing as the greatest of virtues. Tolstoy, asks Tarak Nath to look for ways of peaceful protests, such as strikes, among other means to practice non-violent resistance as an alternative to violent revolutionary methods. Though, a few years later in 1913, Tarak Nath Das along with Lala Har Dayal Singh Mathur, Rasbehari Bose, among others went on to found the ‘Ghadar Party’, a revolutionary organization headquartered in San Francisco. The organization undertook revolutionary activities in Punjab and many of the party leaders suffered brutality in the hands of the British.
Several thousand miles south-east to the US on the southern part of the African continent, in South Africa, lived a young man who came to the country to work as a lawyer for Dada Abdullah, a Muslim merchant after he finished his law studies at the University College London. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. During his stay in South Africa, Gandhi suffered discrimination due to his skin colour. After facing all sorts of abuses, including the popular incident at Pietermaritzburg when he was thrown off a train just because he was travelling first-class. Gandhi was left with two options- to return to India or to protest. He chose to protest.
For the next twenty-one years that Gandhi spent in South Africa, his initial years included fighting for Indians against their disfranchisement and forming a political group to help Indians and Asians in their fight against discrimination called the ‘Natal Indian Congress.’ In the South African War, however, Gandhi surprisingly supported the Britishers by forming Natal Indian Ambulance Corps who served as stretcher-bearers during the war. Gandhi thought this could lead the Britishers to bestow citizenships to Indians. While in the South African War the stretcher-bearers took care of only the British side, in the Zulu war the stretcher-bearers took care of the soldiers of both sides defying British orders. This suggests the transformation that was happening inside Gandhi. Though, for the most part of his stay in Africa, Gandhi fought for the cause of Indians primarily.
However, the exchange of letters between Tarak Nath Das and Leo Tolstoy had a profound impact on Gandhi. His ideology of Satyagraha was taking shape in those years. The Transvaal government that was formed after the dissolution of the South African Republic had promulgated an act that required the Indian and Chinese communities living in South Africa to forcefully register themselves. Gandhi protested against this and applied his nonviolent principles of Satyagraha. In 1909, in his book, ‘Hind-Swaraj’, Gandhi reflected upon some of the means of Satyagraha. He realized that the British government survived in India due to the co-operation of Indians. He established ‘Tolstoy Farm’ in 1910 near Johannesburg and meditated upon his principles of Satyagraha.
Gandhi had realized the powers of his nonviolent means in South Africa and knew it had the potential to mobilize masses. After returning to India, he experimented with another of his techniques in the Kheda Satyagraha, where he evolved the method of non-cooperation and asked peasants not to pay the revenues. It took five months to persuade the Britishers, but finally, they relaxed the provisions.
The khilafat movement united the Hindus and Muslims against the Britishers. It was a period in Indian history that showed the true potential of the Indians had they not fought each other as Hindus and Muslims. After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, when people had begun rioting, Gandhi advocated nonviolence and believed in its strength. He called off his non-co-operation movement after the violent incidents in Chauri Chaura when the movement was quite successful in unsettling Britishers.
Gandhi began his famous Dandi March and broke the salt law in what he called nonviolent civil disobedience. It was 24 days, 380 kilometers long march to Dandi that attracted thousands of followers and supporters. It forced the Britishers to negotiate with Gandhi that led to the Round Table Conferences. By this time, people had become fearless and ready to fill up the jails in massive numbers.
Gandhi opposed India’s participation in World War II and gave the slogan ‘Do or Die’ during the Quit India Movement. His slogan was not meant to incite violence but to non violently protest leaving all fear aside, even of death. By this, he meant people should participate in Satyagraha in massive numbers casting all fears aside. The truth he held dear was of Swaraj- self-rule.
Gandhi was an immensely brave person. His methods of Satyagraha was not for the coward. Gandhi never advocated cowardice or silence. He called Satyagraha a weapon of the strong, that the strong would not resort to violence despite facing it and yet would never give up on the truth. Nonviolence was the means and truth was the end. For Gandhi, the path was as important as the goal.
The present protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the National Register of Citizens, and setting up of the detention centers had attracted mass-scale protests for various reasons. The protesters, however, should keep in mind the legacy of Tirukurral, Tolstoy and Gandhi. There are so many means Gandhi developed such as Satyagraha, fasting, non-cooperation, civil disobedience and even accepting death in the hands of the tyrant while non-violently protesting for truth, for self-rule, for Swaraj. There is no need to burn public property when there are other proven nonviolent measures available. History teaches us that they may take time to reach the end goal but when the means are as important as the end, we are never far from the truth we seek.