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Monday, January 30, 2017

I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same god.

Back in 1908, Gandhi was released from the first of his many imprisonments in South Africa.  He'd been arrested essentially for refusing to register per the Asiatic Registration Act (only about 500 of 13,000 Indians complied).  His trial on January 10 was quite a circus:

The eastern side of Government Square presented an extraordinary scene of excitement this afternoon. All through the lunch hour there was a big gathering of Indians, and at two o’clock precisely a continuous stream of Indians indicated the approach of the leaders. Mr. Gandhi was the first to appear. It was drizzling, and his ardent admirers sheltered him with umbrellas as he walked along slowly reading the first edition of The Star. The Indians kept pouring on to the Square, and the public entrance to the Court was blocked.

The Magistrate, Mr. Jordan, was seen walking through the crowd, and of course he attracted considerable attention. At ten minutes past two the lock was heard in the door, and the press outside became greater. The doors were flung open and the crowd was met by Captain Potter, Superintendent Vernon, and two police. The officer ordered the entrance to be cleared and considerable confusion followed. The dense mass swayed backward, and when it was possible for egress to be obtained by a few people at a time, people were allowed to pass in.
Mr. M. K. Gandhi was first called, and he pleaded guilty to the charge, which was one of disobeying the order of the Court to leave the Colony within 48 hours.

Mr. Fred Klette, clerk in B Court, went into the witness-box and produced the records in the case Rex v. Gandhi heard in that Court on the 28th of December. Defendant was on that occasion ordered to leave the Colony within 48 hours. Witness served a written order personally on the accused.

On being asked by the Magistrate if he had any questions to ask, Mr. Gandhi replied:

No, Sir.

Superintendent Vernon, B Division, said that at 2 p.m. that afternoon he arrested the accused for failing to comply with the order. He had seen the accused repeatedly from the date the order was made until today.

Mr. Gandhi had again no questions to ask.

Mr. Schuurman intimated that this was the case.

Mr. Gandhi asked leave to make a short statement, and, having obtained it, he said he thought there should be a distinction made between his case and those who [sic] were to follow. He had just received a message from Pretoria stating that his compatriots had been tried there and had been sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour; and they had been fined a heavy amount, in lieu of payment of which they would receive a further period of three months’ hard labour. If these men had committed an offence, he had committed a greater offence, and he asked the Magistrate to impose upon him the heaviest penalty.

MR. JORDAN: You asked for the heaviest penalty which the law authorizes?

MR. GANDHI: Yes, Sir.

MR. JORDAN: I must say I do not feel inclined to accede to your request of passing the heaviest sentence, which is six months’ hard labour with a fine of £500. That appears to me to be totally out of proportion to the offence which you have committed. The offence practically is contempt of Court in having disobeyed the order of December 28. This is more or less a political offence, and if it had not been for the defiance set to the law I should have thought it my duty to pass the lowest sentence which I am authorized by the Act. Under the circumstances, I think a fair sentence to meet the case would be two months’ imprisonment without hard labour. Mr. Gandhi was then removed in custody

It was around this time that Gandhi's fundamental concept of nonviolent struggle was formed:

The principle called Satyagraha came into being before that name was invented. Indeed when it was born, I myself could not say what it was. In Gujarati also we used the English phrase 'passive resistance' to describe it. When in a meeting of Europeans I found that the term 'passive resistance' was too narrowly construed, that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred, and that it could finally manifest itself as violence, I had to demur to all these statements and explain the real nature of the Indian movement. It was clear that a new word must be coined by the Indians to designate their struggle.

But I could not for the life of me find out a new name, and therefore offered a nominal prize through Indian Opinion to the reader who made the best suggestion on the subject. As a result Maganlal Gandhi coined the word Sadagraha (Sat=truth, Agraha=firmness) and won the prize. But in order to make it clearer I changed the word to Satyagraha, which has since become current in Gujarati as a designation for the struggle.

General Smuts let Gandhi out of jail after they'd reached a tentative compromise about the legislation, but the struggle continued for many years.  Even throughout their disagreements, Gandhi viewed Smuts through the lens of common humanity (as Howard Thurman always advised decades later):

[F]or much of the rest of the time Gandhi spent in South Africa, Smuts tended to prevaricate on the "Indian Question", continually disappointing Gandhi. It was only in 1914 that Gandhi was able to negotiate a lasting compromise, the Smuts-Gandhi agreement. While not resolving all the issues plaguing South African Indians, it lead to an amelioration of previous laws, passed under the name of The Indian Relief Bill of 1914.

Nevertheless, they never lost respect for one another. As can be seen in the passage below, Gandhi tried, at all times, to look for the positive in Smuts, even according him a "high place among the politicians of British Empire and even of the world". At other times, however, Gandhi could not shake his concerns about Smuts’s duplicity.

By 1914, however, the relationship between Smuts and Gandhi came to something of an end. In an act of supreme generosity, Gandhi presented Smuts with a pair of sandals (which he had learnt to make at Tolstoy Farm), which Smuts was to use late into his life.

Sadly, not everybody got the message, which is why he was killed exactly 40 years after his first release from satyagrahic confinement.  His last words?

A few days after Mahatma Gandhi died, his secretary, Pyarelal, wrote a detailed account of the assassination, including the following: "At the first shot, the foot that was in motion, when he was hit, came down. He still stood on his legs when the second shot rang out, and then collapsed. The last words he uttered were 'Rama Rama'."

A different exclamation, "Hey, Ram!", is normally attributed to him. (An American scholar has suggested that this version is due to Gurbadu Singh.) In the 1960s his niece, Manu, who was near him, recalled his last words as "Hey Ram, Hey Ram." According to one of the conspirators who was in the crowd, he produced only an inarticulate guttural rasp.

At least some of the witnesses seem to have heard what they expected or wanted to hear. The "guttural rasp" version, for example, might well be dismissed as hostile. However, the fact that two of the other three accounts imply that he said more than just "Hey Ram" once - which a devout Hindu might be assumed in principle to say - suggests that this "normal" version is probably also incorrect.

"Rama, Rama" would beautifully express surrender to Rama's will, whereas "Hey Ram, Hey Ram" would more likely express an un-Gandhian sense of helplessness. However, the mere existence of so many contradictions makes it seem likely that he was heard indistinctly. And indeed, he was frail and old and two bullets had just entered his chest.

In this light it may be of interest that nine months earlier, Gandhi in one of his talks after a prayer meeting suggested unequivocally that his very last words, if he were assassinated, would be "Rama, Rahim": "Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully."

Thus he was finally released from service to India and nonviolence.


January 30, 2017 in Conscience, PaxLives | Permalink


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