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Mahatma Gandhi with co founders of Natal Indian Congress, South Africa, 1895 Jayan Mitra / Dinodia Photos
01 August, 2023

On 22 August 1894, MK Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress in colonial South Africa to combat discrimination against Indians in Natal Colony and Province. Dada Abdulla became the first president, with Gandhi as honorary secretary. 

Gandhi arrived as a lawyer in 1893, for a legal assignment. A year later, at his farewell dinner, he came across the Natal Legislative Assembly’s plan to disenfranchise Indians. He urged his fellow Indians to resist the attack on their rights. They agreed and asked Gandhi to spearhead the struggle and postpone his departure.  He drafted a petition the same night and set up a temporary committee. A month later, the petition was presented to Lord Ripon, and eventually the British government halted the bill. But a similar bill was passed in 1896, disqualifying non-Europeans, without mentioning Indians specifically. Gandhi’s temporary committee later became the Natal Indian Congress. 

The NIC under Gandhi's leadership was highly averse to cooperation with other racial groups.  He had consistently asserted that Indians and Europeans had common Indo-Aryan origins. Gandhi argued that Indians deserved better treatment than Black Africans by the British. However, dissatisfaction grew among trade unionists in the 1930s, leading to the emergence of a more progressive group called the Natal Indian Association, challenging the NIC’s parochial approach. In 1943, the NIA merged back into the NIC, but it was now filled with new energy. At the NIC’s 1945 conference, the Nationalist Bloc, led by Monty Naicker, successfully ousted the moderate leadership. Naicker became the new president, and paved the way for an era of activism against apartheid.

The NIC faced increased state repression in the 1960s, leading to a period of dormancy. However, in October 1971, the NIC was revived, continuing its fight against apartheid through boycotts and other nonviolent means.