three thousand Indians, both Hindu and Muslim,
‘free’ and indentured, gathered at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg to
voice their outrage.
called on all present to pledge non-cooperation with the proposed law,
irrespective of what
penalties they might face—civil disobedience (the term coined by Thoreau
that Gandhi would later
describe their novel method). Then a Muslim merchant, Seth Haji Habib,
sprang to his feet and declared that
the resolution must be passed “with God as a witness” that Indians would
never yield in cowardly submission
to such a law. The implications of such a solemn oath took
Gandhi aback. While no
stranger to vows in his
own spiritual development, he realized that invoking God in a political
struggle would demand an unswerving
fight until the end. He was personally prepared to take on such a duty
but would the community follow him?
Twenty years later he recalled the memorable scene:
The meeting heard me word by word in perfect quiet. Other leaders too
spoke. All dwelt upon their own
responsibility and the responsibility of the audience… and at last all
present, standing with upraised hands,
took an oath with God as witness not to submit to the Ordinance if it
became law. I can never forget the scene,
which is present before my mind’s eye as I write. The community’s
enthusiasm knew no bounds.
Satyagraha was born. The struggle was to last eight years. There were
many ups and downs and more than
one bitter occasion when only
Gandhi’s vision kept
resistance alive, but in the end it conceived a new
relationship between Indians and whites in South Africa—and a new method
of struggling against violence.
What is Satyagraha?
The term was coined after the Johannesburg meeting, when the Indians
realized that the prevailing
expression for the campaign they sought to wage, ‘passive resistance,’
failed to convey the active vitality of
their method and could also lead to fatal confusion (as passive
resistance, in the manner the term was used at
the time, did not rule out the use of violence). Satyagraha literally
means ‘clinging to truth.’ But ‘truth’
(satya) has broader meanings in the Indian languages than it does
in English. It does mean truth as opposed to
falsehood; but it also means ‘the real’ as opposed to the unreal or
nonexistent, and the ‘good’ as opposed to
‘evil.’ The tremendous work
Gandhi would go on to
launch in India was based in this vision.
Satyagraha is a kind of force. It changes people for the better through
nonviolent persuasion. No matter how
brutal and dehumanized people become, the capacity for what
Gandhi calls reason (or
a kind of personal
sensitivity) is always there.