M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 20

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CHAPTER XX

PASSIVE RESISTANCE

The idea of Passive Resistance as a means of opposing evil is inherent in Indian philosophy. In old time, it was called "to sit dharna." Sometimes the whole community would adopt this method towards their Prince. It has been so in the history of Porbandar; then trade was dislocated and force helpless before the might of Passive Resistance.

Bishop Heber wrote of it many years ago in his journal: "“To sit dharna”, or mourning, is to remain motionless in that posture, without food, and exposed to the weather, till the person against whom it is employed consents to the request offered, and the Hindus believe that whoever dies under such a process becomes a tormenting spirit to haunt and inflict his inflexible antagonist."

He tells how, at one time, Passive Resistance was resolved on, and how "accordingly, the news flew over the country like the fiery cross in the “Lady of the Lake,” and three days after it was issued, and before the Government were in the least apprised of the plan, above three hundred thousand persons, as it is said, deserted their houses, shut up their shops, suspended the labour of their farm, forebore to light fires, dress victuals, many of them even to eat, and sat down with folded arms and drooping heads, like so many sheep, on the plain which surrounds Banares."

This familiarity with the idea of Passive Resistance, no doubt, accounts to some extent for the comparative readiness with which it has been adopted by the Indians in the Transvaal. Probably, too, it affected insensibly their leader. Mr. Gandhi himself attributes the birth and evolution of this principle, so far as he is concerned, to quite other influences.

"I remember," he said, "how one verse of a Gujarati poem, which, as a child, I learned at school, clung to me. In substance it was this:—

"If a man gives you a drink of water and you give
him a drink in return, that is nothing.
Real beauty consists in doing good against evil."

As a child, this verse had a powerful influence over me, and I tried to carry it into practice. Then came the “Sermon on the Mount”."

"But," said I, "surely the Bhagavad Gita came first?"

"No," he replied, "of course I knew the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit tolerably well, but I had not made its teaching in that particular a study. It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the "Sermon of the Mount" such passages as "Resist not him that is evil but whosoever smiteth you on the right cheek turn to him the other also," and "Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you, that ye may be sons of your Father which is in heaven," I was simply overjoyed, and had my own opinion confirmed where I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression, and Tolstoi's "The Kingdom of God is Within You" gave it permanent form."

Undoubtedly Count Tolstoi has profoundly influenced him. The old Russian reformer, in the simplicity of his life, the fearlessness of his utterances, and the nature of his teaching on war and work, has had a warm-hearted disciple in Mr. Gandhi. I think, too, very probably, the Count's representation of the Christian Church has had its weight with him, and his own experience of Christian Churches has not been sufficiently happy to withstand it. But Tolstoi's teaching on some questions notably on governments, has not won his assent. Ruskin and Thoreau have both had some share in forming his opinions, Ruskin's "Crown of Wild Olive" being an especial favourite. Last, but not least, the Passive Resistance movement in England with regard to education has proved an object lesson, not only to him but to but to his people, of singular force and interest.

Some months ago, a prize was offered by "Indian Opinion" to competitors in South Africa for the best essay on "The Ethics of Passive Resistance." I was requested to act as judge. What surprised me most in all the essays by Indians was the familiarity which the essayists showed with the education controversy in England. Dr. Clifford's name was as familiar to them as to me.

But, as may be imagined from the seed-thought planted by the Gujarati verse in Mr. Gandhi's mind, his ideal is not so much to resist evil passively; it has an active complement—to do good in reply to evil. "I do not like the term 'passive resistance,'" he said, "it fails to convey all I mean. It described a method, and gives no hint of the system of which it is only a part. Real beauty, and that is my aim, is in doing good against evil. Still, I adopt the phrase because it is well-known, and easily understood, and because, at present, the great majority of my people can only grasp that idea. To me, the ideas which underlie that Gujarati hymn and the 'Sermon of the Mount' would revolutionize the whole of life."

"How did you begin this movement among your people?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "some years ago, when I began to take an active part in the public life of Natal, the adoption of this method occurred to me as the best course to pursue, should petitions fail, but, in the then unorganised condition of our Indian community, the attempt seemed useless. Here, however, in Johannesburg, when the Asiatic Registration Act was introduced, the Indian community was so deeply stirred, and so knit together in a common determination to resist it, that the moment seemed opportune. Some action they would take; it seemed to best for the Colony, and altogether right, that their action should not take a riotous form, but that of Passive Resistance. They had no vote in Parliament, no hope of obtaining redress, no one would listen to their complaints. The Christian churches were indifferent, so I proposed this pathway of suffering, and after much discussion, it was adopted. In September, 1906, there was a large gathering of Indians in the old Empire Theatre, when the position was thoroughly faced, and, under the inspiration of deep feeling, and on the proposal of one of our leading men, they swore a solemn oath committing themselves to Passive Resistance."

Since then, this course has been bitterly attacked by many politicians, chiefly because they imagine that it places a new weapon in the hands of the natives. Mr. Gandhi has frequently replied to this. His arguments, briefly, are these:—

(1) If the natives of any crisis adopt this method of meeting what they believe to be injustice, rather than resort to force, we ought to be devoutly thankful. It would mean that the gun and the assegai would give place to peaceful tactics. Men who see far believe that the problems which are connected with the natives will be the problems of the future, and that, doubtless, the white man will have a stern struggle to maintain his ascendency in South Africa. When the moment of collision comes, if, instead of the old ways of massacre, assegai, and fire, the natives adopt the policy of Passive Resistance, it will be a grand change for the Colony.

2) Passive Resistance can only be carried to a successful conclusion if the cause be just. The acceptance of suffering, instead of the infliction of it, requires such moral power in those who adopt this that no community could successfully use it in an unjust cause. Injustice and Passive Resistance have no affinity.

3) When the native peoples have risen sufficiently high in the scale of civilisation to give up warfare and use the Christian method of solving a dispute, they will be fit to exercise the right to vote in political affairs. This will be the resolution of questions connected with Passive Resistance. The one triumphant way of meeting such combinations is to deal justly with the ????, and to give them, directly or indirectly a ???? the settlement of those questions which concern their welfare.

4) True Passive Resistance never tends to be effective resistance. It recoils, of necessity, from methods of violence or those advocated by anarchists. It is at the opposite pole from the spirit of ???f, then, the natives accept the doctrines which are so prevalent amongst the Indian community, ??? Africa need not fear the horrors of a racial ????sing. It need not look forward to the necessity of maintaining an army to keep the natives in awe. The future will be much brighter than its past has been.

These arguments which the Indian leader ???? whenever the great question is discussed. "Passive Resistance," he says, "has come to stay; well, thank God for that—it is the herald of peace."

Those who ponder these things think that they will see, with the Indian Dreamer, a brighter day coming across the veld. Why should not the sword be turned into the ploughshare, and the spear into the pruning-hook? Why should not men learn war ???ore? And who can tell but that this long drawn Indian agony may be the beginning of that experience of profound peace?

In view of the unrest at present so apparent in India, I invited him to send a message through these ???? to the young men of his native land. His ??? in writing lies before me:—

"I am not sure that I have any right to send a message to those with whom I have never into personal contact, but it has been desired and I con?????. These, then, are my thoughts:

The struggle in the Transvaal is not without its ??? for India. We are engaged in raising men who will give a good account of themselves in any part of the world. We have undertaken the struggle with the following assumptions:—

1) Passive Resistance is always infinitely superior to physical force.

2) There is no inherent barrier between Europeans and Indians anywhere.

3) Whatever may have been the motives of the British rulers in India, there is a desire on the part of the Nation at large to that justice is done. It would be a calamity to break the connection between the British people and the people of India. If we are treated as, or assert our right to be treated as, free men, whether in India or elsewhere, the connection between the British people and the people of India can not only be mutually beneficial, but is calculated to be of enormous advantage to the world religiously, and, therefore, socially and politically. In my opinion, each Nation is the complement of the other,

Passive Resistance in connection with the Transvaal struggle I should hold justifiable on the strength of any of these propositions. It may be a ???? remedy, but I regard it as an absolutely sure remedy, not only for our ills in the Transvaal, but all the political and other troubles from which people suffer in India."