Interview: Ramachandra Guha, Author Of 'Gandhi Before India' The racism Gandhi encountered in South Africa helped spark a lifetime of activism. Historian Ramachandra Guha says without that experience, "he would never have become a political animal."
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'Before India,' A Young Gandhi Found His Calling In South Africa

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'Before India,' A Young Gandhi Found His Calling In South Africa

'Before India,' A Young Gandhi Found His Calling In South Africa

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's hard to imagine Gandhi anywhere but India, but the anti-colonial agitator and social reformer spent his formative years - two decades - in South Africa. Our colleague Renee Montagne is wrapping up a reporting trip in Afghanistan. She talked with Ramachandra Guha, who chronicled Gandhi's South Africa years in a new book, called "Gandhi Before India."


That story begins in a bustling seaside city of Durban, South Africa, then under British colonial rule. In 1893, a young lawyer steps off a ship from India, eager to try his professional luck far away from home.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA: He goes to make his life and fortune in Africa, partly because he failed as a lawyer in India - not once but twice. People think that such a successful politician must have found success very early on, but he actually failed miserably to establish himself in the High Court in Bombay.

And arguably, he was saved from professional failure and historical oblivion by an invitation from an Indian merchant in South Africa to help him solve a legal dispute. It was really an accident.

MONTAGNE: And accident soon to be followed by a pivotal incident on a train that brought home to this young, smartly dressed, London-educated professional exactly where he, Mohandas Gandhi, stood as a man of color in South Africa.

GUHA: He had a first-class ticket, and he got into the first-class compartment; and ticket inspector said, This is for whites only, and he protested. He had just come from England, where - at least in London, in the 1890s - professionals who were colored did not face discrimination. So he protested but to no avail, and he was thrown out.

Clearly, he was humiliated; he was badly treated. It was a racially divided society. And once Gandhi started his legal work in South Africa, he really became the major spokesman and advocate for Indian rights. So had he not gone to South Africa in the 1890s, he would never have become a political animal.

MONTAGNE: It's interesting, though, how quickly he was, in a weird way, accepted by the white press and whites around him - not accepted as someone that they liked; in fact, terrible things were said about him. But he was treated as somebody they had to engage with.

GUHA: Yes. There was a great deal of reporting about him in the white press. He was a public figure very early on. When he was in his mid-20s, he was being written about, sometimes with appreciation, sometimes with reservations, sometimes being vilified. I mean, there were nasty, satirical poems written about him.

This is partly because Indians were seen as a threat. The Africans were mostly in the countryside. They were dispersed. They were farmers, they were peasants, they were herders, they were huntsmen; whereas, Indians were coming in direct competition with the Europeans. Indians were merchants. They would sometimes own, even, ships. They were professionals, like Gandhi. They were teachers; they could start their own newspapers.

So in that sense, the Indians came into far more direct competition with the ruling whites than the Africans did, in the 1890s. And that's why these restrictive racial laws were placed on where they could live, what they could trade, what property they could own - disenfranchising them. And that's where Gandhi comes in.

MONTAGNE: Barely 25 years old, and Gandhi had become something he never set out to be, a political leader. It was a role thrust upon him, one that eventually led Gandhi away from the British port city of Durban and into the vast interior of South Africa, ruled by the fierce descendents of Dutch settlers known as Afrikaners. There in Johannesburg, continuing his fight for the rights of local Indian merchants, Gandhi honed the methods of nonviolent protests that ultimately helped unshackle India itself from colonialism, transforming him into an iconic figure of the 20th century.

GUHA: Nonviolence for Gandhi had, from the very beginning, a moral dimension and a pragmatic dimension. And while, of course, we must not ignore or de-emphasize the moral dimension, Gandhi abhorred the taking of life. It also had a pragmatic aspect to it. Gandhi recognized that there was a profound asymmetry between the Indians and the Afrikaners.

The ruling race had the money, they had the armed might, they even had the numbers because they were much larger in population than the Indians. So a spectacular act of assassination - you know, you might get rid of one general or one official, but there'd be a brutal crackdown. So I think Gandhi very adroitly and skillfully recognized that the only way to challenge the Afrikaners was through nonviolent protest.

And of course, he first rested his faith in dialogue, and it's when those negotiations fail that he catalyzes his followers in a movement of resistance.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about the key thing that happened to him in Johannesburg - which was the heart, it should be said, of the politics of white South Africans, Afrikaners, that would become apartheid decades later.

GUHA: It's in Johannesburg that he first goes to jail. It's his first experience of struggle, of sacrifice. It's where he realizes the power he has, and the charisma he commands, in mobilizing people. And so it's in Johannesburg that he learns all the techniques and tricks of political activism. He recognized that with rulers as harsh and unyielding as the Afrikaners, persuasion would get you only so far.

If persuasion failed, you had to test them by breaking their laws and courting arrest. So Johannesburg, between 1906 and 1913, gave birth to a method of protest that has been enormously influential throughout the 20th and the 21st centuries.

MONTAGNE: In 1914 - 21 years after landing in Durban, South Africa - Gandhi leaves South Africa once and for all. He arrived as a lawyer, and he departed a mahatma; and as some translate that, a saint. How much had he been able to actually change, for Indians in South Africa?

GUHA: Well, he had changed attitudes, but he hadn't changed laws substantially. And this is a criticism that was made - and is sometimes still made - of Gandhi by Indians in South Africa; that you left without finishing the battle. What he had done, however, was cultivated the spirit of solidarity, of collective action.

He had left behind a legacy that would be carried forward; not just by Indians but by Africans and by Europeans, and everybody else. But in terms of getting the restrictive laws changed or removed, he was only moderately successful.

MONTAGNE: But he had a big vision, and it was time to go.

GUHA: Gandhi was a great man, a visionary, a person of extraordinary moral and physical courage. But he was not a man devoid of ambition, you know, that very elementary desire to make an impact. So in South Africa, he saw quite early: Here I will merely be the leader of 150,000 Indians, I will be a community leader.

But in India, where a kind of national struggle is brewing, where there's disenchantment - at least, among the professional classes - with British rule, where there's a desire for freedom and emancipation, Gandhi feels that India was a much larger stage than South Africa.

MONTAGNE: Ramachandra Guha, thank you very much for joining us.

GUHA: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Ramachandra Guha's new book is "Gandhi Before India." He was speaking with Renee Montagne, who will be back on the show next week.

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