The letters to and by these friends of his South African period illuminate Gandhi’s anxieties, struggles and relationships in rich and often unexpected ways. Yet these materials have, remarkably, not been consulted by previous biographers. This may only be because they are not printed in the Collected Works, but rest in archives in New Delhi and Ahmedabad, in Pretoria and Johannesburg, in London and Oxford, and even, in one case, in the Israeli port town of Haifa.
In 1890, in 1900, in 1910, the majority of those who lived in South Africa were Africans. Sometimes, as sharecroppers and labourers, they worked for their white masters. In more remote areas, they lived away from them as herders and hunters. However, in both city and countryside, they rarely came into daily competition with the British or the Boers. There were few African traders, and still fewer African doctors or lawyers.
Because they were better educated and better organized, some Indians could more actively challenge the facts of white domination. The rulers responded by changing the laws: by disallowing Indians from living in or opening shops in certain locations, from moving from one province to another, from seeking admission to the best schools, from importing brides from India with whom they could raise families and thus bring more Indians into the workforce. In so far as these restrictions were later extended more thoroughly to the Africans, the Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims. And in so far as it was Gandhi who led the first protests against the racial laws, he should really be more seriously recognized as being among apartheid’s first opponents.
Gandhi’s struggles in Natal and the Transvaal also shaped nationalist politics in India, as well as imperialist agendas in Great Britain. From one vantage point, Gandhi was merely a community organizer. However, since his work had an impact on the politics of three continents, it had much larger consequences. In an age when even the telephone had not come into common use, when the fax and the internet lay many decades in the future, Gandhi’s struggles thus carried connotations of what is now known as a ‘global social movement’.
Gandhi’s South African campaigns were an early example of ‘diasporic nationalism’, a nationalism later practised assiduously by (among others) Irishmen in Boston, Jews in New York, Palestinians in Tunis and Sikhs in Vancouver, who have likewise struggled both for civil rights in the land they happened now to live in and for freedom for their compatriots in the land they had left behind.
The predicament of Indians in South Africa in Gandhi’s day also anticipated the predicament of Muslims in Europe and of Hispanics and Asians in North America today. Should immigrants be allowed to practise their own faith and speak their own language? How can they combat discrimination in school and in the workplace? What forms of political organization are best suited to their needs and hopes? What are the rights and responsibilities of the host community and the migrants respectively, in maintaining social peace and democracy?
These questions are as urgent in our time as they were between 1893 and 1914, the years that Mohandas Gandhi lived in Natal and the Transvaal. Gandhi’s African years show how the first phase of globalization, with its willing and sometimes unwilling migration of groups and communities, produced difficulties and discontents not dissimilar to those produced by our own, even more globalized world.
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The New York Times has referred to Ramachandra Guha as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’. Guha has taught at Yale and Stanford universities, the University of Oslo, the Indian Institute of Science and the London School of Economics. His books include The Unquiet Woods — a pioneering environmental history, A Corner of a Foreign Field — a social history of cricket, and the award-winning India After Gandhi. He writes regularly on social and political issues for the British and Indian press, including columns in The Telegraph and the Hindustan Times, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times. He lives in Bangalore. Guha’s awards include the Leopold-Hidy Prize of the American Society of Environmental History, the Daily Telegraph/Cricket Society prize, the R. K. Narayan Prize, and the Padma Bhushan.