The first civil disobedience movement to which the Freedom Convoy owes a debt
With the Freedom Convoy protest making waves in Canada and the likelihood of similar movements springing up across the world, the act of civil disobedience is once again in the spotlight. It, therefore, makes sense to revisit the earliest organized civil disobedience moment in modern history.
It was in 1893 that a 24-year-old Indian attorney by the name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi landed in South Africa.
Gandhi had lived a privileged life in India, and like most men of affluence, he was educated in England, where he trained to be an attorney. When he returned to India, he set up a practice in India but had sparing success.
During this time, he was presented to a case based in South Africa, a dispute between two brothers.
South Africa was the first occasion in life he experienced discrimination.
In court, Gandhi was ordered by the magistrate to take off his turban. Gandhi pleaded that it was customary for Indian lawyers to wear turbans in courts under British rule but to no avail. Gandhi left the court in anger. What also irked him was that Muslims and Persian individuals were permitted to wear religious headgear.
Next, Gandhi was traveling to meet his client by train in the first-class compartment when the ticket inspector unceremoniously threw him out because non-white people were not allowed by law to travel first class. He had a similar experience while traveling by a horse-driven carriage: he was compelled to sit outside the carriage with the cab driver because non-white people were not allowed inside.
When he studied in England and when he lived in British-ruled India, he was treated equally, as a subject of the Empire. His privilege led him to be insulated from the discrimination in India suffered by the working class. Hence, his experience of racism in South Africa was a shock.
Gandhi soon learned about the institutionalized discrimination in South Africa against Indians.
In certain provinces, Indians weren't allowed to own property. The laws mandated that Indians submit their fingerprints and register with the government and carry passes that could be checked anytime by authorities. Laws were proposed that would deny Indians voting and even subject Indians to random inspections of their properties without reason. An unfair tax was levied specifically on Indian businesses.
Different people react differently to discrimination. Some individuals swallow their pride and focus on earning a living. Some just escape to a safer place for a better life. Most people live for themselves and their families; they usually have no time or patience to strive for the greater good.
A rare kind among the affronted chooses to react to discrimination in the form of protests. Among those who organize protests, few find sustained supporters. Usually, even sustained movements fail to bring about any change. But the rarest among the rare kind not only organize sustained protests but also manage to bring about real change.
Gandhi led such a movement.
But Gandhi wasn't an overnight success. His first few speeches to the Indian community in South Africa were fiascos. He was an abominable public speaker and could barely muster words. The audience was understandably disengaged.
But he gradually learned the art of rabble-rousing by using emotions to get the public charged. Instead of giving spiels about laws, he made it personal as he cited specific instances of discrimination owing to South African laws that offended the religious sensibilities of Indians.
Gandhi also learned the importance of symbolism. At one point, he held an outdoor gathering where the discriminatory mandatory passes were burned.
But most importantly, Gandhi developed his philosophy of passive resistance and civil disobedience, where he innovated peaceful measures for expressing dissent.
The small Indian minority in South Africa participated in demonstrations, boycotts, marches, and sit-ins. They gave up their livelihoods and even participated in strikes to protest against discrimination and government mandates that treated them as second-class citizens.
The South African government and their agents branded Gandhi and the protesters as troublemakers and traitors.
Gandhi also knew that if the protests were to be restricted to just South Africa, they would probably be ruthlessly crushed. Hence, he founded a newspaper, Indian Opinion, to spread his message. He took aid from the international media, which were restricted to newspapers back then; like-minded groups; and religious leaders to spread his message against discrimination.
Since Gandhi's stay in South Africa was extended, he went back to India to bring his family to South Africa. The South African authorities attempted to block Gandhi's entry into South Africa, citing the plague that had hit India, from where his ship had sailed. When he stepped on land, he was subjected to violence by local thugs.
Gandhi and his allies were frequently imprisoned during the struggle. During the last phase of the struggle, thousands of Indians, including women, were imprisoned. Indian laborers, who had struck against their workplaces, were flogged, and some were even shot. It was a terrible ordeal.
Despite his activism against British-ruled South Africa, Gandhi led a stretcher-carrying service called the Indian Ambulance Corps to aid British troops during the Second Boer War. Gandhi himself was awarded medals by the British for his brave and selfless work on the frontlines.
In the end, after two decades of struggle led by Gandhi, there were many triumphs. The laws pertaining to discriminatory passes were repealed and so were the tax laws. The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) was founded, which marked the birth of the first permanent political organization to strive to maintain and protect the rights of Indians in South Africa. These were the earliest steps toward dignity for Indians in South Africa.
It has to be remembered that Gandhi and the Indian community in South Africa were a small minority. This was a time when the British ruled in countries across Asia, South Africa, the Middle East, and even North America. The influence of the British Establishment was considerable.
Yet a few hundred Indians managed a unique struggle of civil disobedience and managed to win back their human rights. It was the triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable challenges. In the end, tyranny and oppression were defeated without a single punch or firing a single bullet.
Gandhi wrote about his struggles in detail in his autobiography. Gandhi is regarded as the founder of civil disobedience, and the likes of MLK regarded him as their inspiration.
The Freedom Convoy in Canada and similar other movements around the world find themselves in a similar position during the initial phases. They are a minority against the might of and tyranny of governments. But it is impossible to repress all the people all the time. If more people join the civil disobedience movement against mandates, at some point, the establishment will capitulate, and freedom will win.
Gandhi famously said, "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always."
Gandhi in 1931 (public domain image).