31 October 2021
Vithalbhai Jhaveri / Dinodia
Vithalbhai Jhaveri / Dinodia

ON 6 NOVEMBER 1913, protesters march through the town of Volksrust, having illegally crossed the provincial border from Natal to the Transvaal, as part of a satyagraha led by MK Gandhi to oppose legalised discrimination against people of Indian origin in South Africa.

Gandhi had campaigned for years against a system of internal passports that prevented Indians from travelling freely in South Africa. By 1913, his support among the Indian traders and professionals who had been the focus of his politics was almost all spent. He tried to rally the community against a court ruling that invalidated as “polygamous” all marriages performed according to Hindu or Muslim rites, but this had limited effect. He also took up a demand to abolish a tax of three pounds on Indians who, brought over as labourers, had served out the period of their indenture—which, in effect, forced many to re-indenture themselves or return to India. This was a sharp shift: Gandhi had earlier paid little heed to indentured labourers, despite them outnumbering traders and professionals many times over, and had described resistance to the tax as “the cause of the helpless and the dumb.”

Gandhi called on indentured workers in Natal to down tools and march into the Transvaal in defiance of the pass laws. They responded in the thousands, with sweeping strikes at mines and plantations. Gandhi was arrested at Volksrust, but, as the strikes swelled, the government agreed to negotiate. The result was the Indian Relief Act of 1914, which abolished the three-pound tax, legalised Hindu and Muslim marriages, and made provisions for Indian children to be reunited with their parents in South Africa. The internal passports remained. Gandhi declared the settlement to be “the Magna Carta of our liberty in this land” and left South Africa to make a triumphant return, via England, to India.

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