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Roots of a movement

Gandhi's formative years in South Africa chronicled in absorbing biography

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2014 (1190 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 2007, eminent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha published an award-winning history of modern India entitled India After Gandhi. Reversing that title, he calls his new biography of Mohandas Gandhi, Gandhi Before India.

Its subject is the 21 years Gandhi spent as lawyer and activist in South Africa, from 1893 until his return to India in 1914. Gandhi's better-known career in India from 1914 until his assassination in 1948 will be the subject of a second volume.


In this compellingly readable biography, Guha gives us much more detail and depth than other studies of Gandhi's South African years, while adding much by way of human interest. In doing so, he draws on many new sources of information to argue that Gandhi's later career in India was "fundamentally shaped" by his years in South Africa.

Having described Gandhi's family and caste background, and his Indian boyhood and education, Guha shows him arriving in London in 1888, not quite 20, having defied his caste elders' ban on overseas travel and leaving his young wife and newborn baby with his mother, reconciled to his absence by his promise not to drink alcohol, eat meat or engage in sexual activity.

Gandhi settled into London life surprisingly quickly. He shared digs with an English medical student and took an active part in the affairs of the London Vegetarian Society, expanding his personal and intellectual horizons while making contact with a wide variety of people.

Returning to India in 1891, Gandhi struggled to make a living as a lawyer. His lucky break came in 1893, when he was hired by a Muslim merchant to work on a breach-of-contract case that required him to go to South Africa.

Once there, he quickly found himself involved in the struggle of South Africa's Indian community against the efforts of most white South Africans to deny them their rights and, if at all possible, force them to return to India.

As Gandhi quickly realized, this was more than a legal struggle to be waged through the courts; it was also a political fight that came to involve rallies, petitions, picketing, boycotts, marches, strikes and other forms of non-violent resistance. In the words of close associate Henry Polak, it was "a race fight which was of importance for the whole world" though, as Guha points out, it was a fight that largely left black South Africans on the sidelines.

Believing in what he called "the birthright of British citizenship," Gandhi initially hoped the British government would roll back the racist policies of its South African colonies, even organizing Indian medical units to serve with the British army in the Boer War and in a 1906 Zulu uprising. The British remained unmoved.

It was in this South African context that Gandhi developed the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience for which he is best known today. He called it satyagraha, often translated into English as "soul force" but which he himself defined as the "force of truth in a good cause."

Convinced it would be politically self-defeating and morally wrong to resort to violence, as some Indian activists wished, Gandhi directed his energies to persuading the Indian community that satyagraha was the key to success.

In the process he was threatened, badly beaten up twice, served three jail terms and fought countless court battles. He ran an influential weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion, maintained an enormous correspondence, offered advice and support to victims of discrimination, and organized mass campaigns of civil disobedience. As if all this weren't enough, he established two communal farm settlements run on Tolstoyan principles of self-help, the dignity of labour and simplicity of life.

All this and much more is vividly described by Guha, who also makes telling use of illustrative detail. For example, when Polak and Millie Graham decided to marry, with Gandhi as witness, the local registrar ruled that an Indian could not serve as witness at a European wedding. Undeterred, Gandhi went straight to the chief registrar, persuaded him that the law did not specifically forbid it, and the wedding went ahead.

Guha has an enviable capacity to bring the past to life. Stern-minded academics sometimes dismiss narrative history as mere storytelling, but this absorbing biography shows how powerful it can be in the hands of a skilled historian who is also in full command of his sources.


Ken Osborne is professor emeritus in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.


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Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 8:22 AM CDT: Adjusts formatting.

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