Mahatma Gandhi and the Tatas
The Father of the Nation Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in the coastal town of Porbandar in Gujarat on 2nd October,1869. Armed with two most potent weapons viz. “Satya” (“truth”) and “Ahimsa” (“non-violence”),Gandhi raised human values to new, mercurial heights and demonstrated to the world at large that wars could be fought and won and colonial masters could be vanquished without any violence or bloodshed whatsoever.
On 3rd March,1839, another great son of India Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the legendary Indian pioneer industrialist and patriot who founded the awesome Tata empire, was born in Navsari, a small town in South Gujarat. He too battled relentlessly for India’s freedom from a totally different perspective, sowing the earliest seeds of industrialisation and economic self reliance in India. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru aptly described him as “one of the big founders of modern India”. His second son, Sir Ratan Tata was born on 20th January,1871 in Bombay and inherited his father’s unwavering nationalist and benevolent spirit. Sir Ratan played an extremely crucial role in India’s freedom struggle and greatly fortified Gandhi’s hands in the ultimate achievement of “Purna Swaraj” (“total freedom”), as declared by Gandhi at the Indian National Congress Session on 26th January,1930.
On 24th May, 1893, Gandhi arrived at the port of Durban at the tender age of 24 as a freshly qualified Barrister to work for Dada Abdulla and Co. Shortly thereafter, Gandhi was obliged to travel to Pretoria for an important court case. While traveling by train to Pretoria on 7th June,1893, Gandhi experienced his first taste of racial discrimination. Inspite of carrying a first class ticket, he was bodily thrown out of the train. He later wrote,“I was pushed out of the train by a police constable at Maritzburg, and the train having left, was sitting in the waiting room, shivering in the bitter cold. I did not know where my luggage was, nor did I dare to inquire of anybody, lest I might be insulted and assaulted once again. Sleep was out of the question. Doubt took possession of my mind. Late at night, I came to the conclusion that to run back to India would be cowardly. I must accomplish what I had undertaken. I must reach Pretoria, without minding insults and even assaults. Pretoria was my goal.” Today, there is a commemorative plaque at the station in Pietermaritzburg that reads – “In the vicinity of this plaque MK Gandhi was evicted from a first-class compartment on the night of 7 June 1893. This incident changed the course of his life. He took up the fight against racial oppression. His active non-violence started from that date.” Gandhi spent over two decades in South Africa, where he honed his political views, ethical standards and political leadership skills. South Africa was virtually the crucible that forged Gandhi’s own political identity. The Indian community in South Africa largely comprised wealthy Muslims, who employed Gandhi as a lawyer, and impoverished Hindu indentured workers, who accepted Gandhi as their friend, philosopher and guide. Gandhi considered them all to be Indians, taking a lifetime view that “Indianness” transcended all artificial barriers of religion, caste and economic status. He valiantly led the Indian community against the tyranny of the white racist government in South Africa and the years he spent in South Africa constitute the formative period of his most illustrious life. Gandhi himself confessed later, “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.” By the time Gandhi left South Africa for the last time in 1914, he had already earned the honorific title “Mahatma” (“high-souled” or “venerable”) for his heroic role in securing significant legal concessions for the Indian community in South Africa. And in 1915, the great Nobel laureate poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore formally bestowed the appellation “Mahatma” upon Gandhi whilst penning his monumental autobiography “My Life in My Words” after the latter hailed him as “Gurudev” (“personal spiritual teacher”).
Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress, edited the newspaper Indian Opinion and conceived his unique philosophy of non-violent “Satyagraha” (“devotion to the truth”) to resist the curtailment of the legitimate rights of Indian settlers in South Africa. In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated the draconian Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance compelling registration of the Crown Colony’s Indian population. At a mass protest meeting held at the Empire Theatre on Ferreira Street in downtown Johannesburg on 11th September that year, Gandhi unleashed his philosophy of Satyagraha for the first time with devastating effect. He urged Indians to defy the new law and to suffer punitive measures for doing so. A pivotal moment for Satyagraha was on 16th August 1908 when, outside the iconic Hamidia Mosque in Jennings Street in Fordsburg, a suburb of Johannesburg, Gandhi encouraged those present to burn their identity documents. More than 2000 documents were consigned to the flames outside the mosque. Gandhi had to stand trial for instigating Satyagraha. He was sentenced to two months in prison in the Old Fort on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The government successfully repressed the Indian protesters with a heavy hand, but the public outcry over the barbaric treatment of peaceful Indian protesters by the South African government forced the Colonial Secretary and Education Secretary in Prime Minister Louis Botha’s Transvaal government General Jan Christiaan Smuts (the indefatigable supporter of racial segregation who served as Prime Minister of South Africa from 1919 until 1924 and from 1939 until 1948 , became a Field Marshall in the British Army in 1941 and served in the Imperial War Cabinet under Sir Winston Churchill),himself a philosopher, to negotiate a workable compromise with Gandhi during which he agreed to encourage voluntary registration in exchange for the ordinance being dropped. Gandhi was consequently released from prison. Unfortunately, Smuts, in a sudden volte-face, threw the compromise to the winds and Gandhi was perforce compelled to re-launch his second Satyagraha. In 1909, he was sentenced to imprisonment for three months in Volkshurst and Pretoria jails. During the ensuing seven year struggle, thousands of Indians were incarcerated, flogged, tortured or shot for striking, refusing to register, burning their registration cards or engaging in other forms of Satyagraha.
On 14th March, 1913, Mr. Justice Malcolm William Searle of the Cape Supreme Court ruled that all marriages not celebrated according to Christian rites were invalid. Overnight, all Hindu, Muslim and Zorastrian marriages were set at naught and the ruling struck at the very foundation of Indian society! All Indian women were reduced to the status of concubines and all Indian children were rendered illegitimate and deprived of their lawful inheritance rights. On 29th October,1913, Gandhi launched his third Satyagraha by leading a historic march (a forerunner to the famous Dandi March or Salt Satyagraha in 1930) of 127 women, 57 children and some 2000 men, comprising mostly striking Indian miners, across the Transvaal border from Newcastle in Natal against the official policy of gross racial discrimination. Gandhi was imprisoned and subjected to brutal third degree treatment. He was, however, released unconditionally by the South African authorities in December,1913 in the hope of an early compromise. For much of the rest of the time Gandhi spent in South Africa, Smuts tended to prevaricate on the “Indian Question” and defy Gandhi with impunity. It was only in 1914 that Gandhi was able to negotiate a lasting compromise with Smuts which culminated in the path breaking Smuts-Gandhi agreement on 21st January,1914. The Gandhi-Smuts agreement led to the passing by the South African Parliament, six months later, of the Indian Relief Act,1914 which acceded to most of Gandhi’s demands. In an act of supreme generosity, Gandhi presented Smuts a pair of stout leather sandals, which he had crafted with his own hands at the Tolstoy Farm (a sprawling 1,100 acre farm which had been donated to Gandhi by his close German-Jewish architect friend Hermann Kallenbach on 30th May,1910 at Lawley near Johannesburg). In his internationally acclaimed biography “Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World”, the well known Jewish-American journalist Louis Fischer observed that “Smuts wore the sandals every summer at his farm and then returned the sandals to Gandhi on Gandhi’s seventieth birthday.” In a tribute to Gandhi, Smuts himself remarked, “I have worn these sandals for many a summer … even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man. It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect….He never forgot the human background of the situation, never lost his temper or succumbed to hate, and preserved his gentle humour even in the most trying situations. His manner and spirit even then, as well as later, contrasted markedly with the ruthless and brutal forcefulness which is the vogue in our day.“
During the course of Gandhi’s movement in South Africa, Sir Ratan Tata came in close contact with Gandhi and helped him carry on with the struggle against abject racial discrimination in South Africa. The genesis was in November,1909 when Gandhi received a cheque for Rs 25,000 from Sir Ratan to assist him in his non-cooperation movement in the fight for the rights of the Indians in South Africa. In a cable to Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his political guru and the founder of the Servants of India Society, Gandhi said,”Pray thank Mr Tata for munificent timely help. Distress great. Prisoners’ lot hard. Religious scruples disregarded. Rations short. Prisoners carry slop-pails; for refusing, put on spare diet. Solitary confinement. Prominent Moslems, Hindus, Parsis in jail.” On 5th December, 1909 at the Johannesburg Mass meeting, a resolution was passed stating – “This meeting of British Indians of the Transvaal places on record its thanks to Ratan Jamsetji Tata, Esq. for his munificent and timely donation of Rs 25,000 in aid of the struggle.“In the Indian Opinion, dated 11th December, 1909, Gandhi wrote, “That India has been roused is evident from the generous gifts of Mr Ratanji Jamsetji Tata. By his big donation of Rs. 25,000 he has given a powerful impetus to our movement. He will probably be followed by other Indians.“Gandhi further wrote, “Parsis are known the world over for their generous gifts. Mr Tata has been true to that spirit of generosity. We have had many generous donations from him. For us, therefore, Mr Tata’s gift is no matter for surprise…Mr Tata has laid the entire community under obligation, what is the way to repay it ? Our courage must increase tenfold after what has happened. The money has been given in the faith that we shall carry on the struggle to the bitter end. It is up to us to prove that we are worthy of such confidence…If Mr Tata’s gift is a matter for satisfaction, it also calls for a warning. In this world a gift can rarely be turned to good account. Only a few know how to put to good use money got as a gift. Such money makes people weak-willed and selfish. Our fight is on self-help and is intended to bring about our own regeneration. Therefore, should Mr. Tata’s gift lead people to relax their efforts. It may do more harm than good. We would urge the Indian Community not to slacken in its duty in South Africa, regardless of this gift.“
On 10th January, 1910, Sir Ratan wrote to Gandhi from Bombay, “My warm appreciation of the noble struggle our countrymen are waging and I am gratified to find that the beginning thus made by me (Rs 25,000 in donation) has been followed up. I need hardly add that I shall watch the progress of the struggle with great interest and sincerely hope that these brave efforts for the vindication and upholding of the country’s honour and dignity will soon be crowned with the success they deserve.“Along with the same letter, Sir Ratan remitted a further donation of Rs 25,000 to Gandhi. In the Indian Opinion dated 17th December, 1910, under the heading “Tata and Satyagrahis”, Gandhi wrote, “By donating another sum of Rs 25,000 for the Satyagraha Campaign, Mr Ratan Tata has demonstrated that he has utmost sympathy for us and that he fully appreciates its value. Including his earlier donations, a total of Rs 125,000 has been offered in India…His letter is as inspiring as his gift is generous. Mr Tata knows very well that this is not a struggle to secure our own narrow ends, but that it is for the honour of India. He has said, in so many words, that the effects of this struggle will be felt in all parts of the world under British rule, and that is exactly what will happen…Even a man like General Smuts has stopped talking of racial discrimination. His two Acts show that in law at least all citizens must have the same status. Fortunate, indeed are those Indians who are taking part in a campaign of such remarkable power…His letter and the help he has given have doubled the burden of our responsibility. Satyagrahis ought to remain staunch; even those who cannot afford to go so far (as to offer satyagraha) ought to give, as a matter of duty, whatever they can.” On 1st April, 1912, Gandhi addressed a public letter to Sir Ratan in which he said, “I am ashamed to have to own that I am only now able to fulfill the promise I made, to you and to myself, in my letter acknowledging your second generous contribution of Rs 25,000 towards the expenses of the great Resistance struggle, that I should write a public letter to you, in which I intended to incorporate an account of receipts and expenditure.” In an article entitled “Mr Tata’s Munificence” that appeared in the Indian Opinion on 10th August, 1912, Gandhi wrote, “Mr Ratan Tata has outdone himself. At the Sheriff’s meeting held at Bombay on the August 31, 1912, it was announced that Mr Tata had given a third contribution of Rs 25,000 to the Transvaal passive resistance fund. The total given by Mr Tata, therefore, amounts to £5,000 – a fortune in itself…He has made the lot of passive resisters easy; and the fact that there are at the back of the struggle such distinguished Indians, encourages those who are engaged in it, and probably brings them nearer their goal. The moral effect of such help on those who, from prejudice, are opposed to us, is also obvious.” Gandhi also later wrote, “The paper, Indian Opinion, has never been in a position to pay its way. The paper would have been in dire straits if Mr Tata’s generous help had not been drawn upon to meet its needs.“
Last but not the least, in a speech which Gandhi delivered on 8th August,1925 in Jamshedpur, the bustling metropolis in Jharkhand named after Sir Ratan’s father Jamshetji, he publicly acknowledged the stellar role played by Sir Ratan in India’s freedom struggle, “’In all humility I may say that I have come here also as a friend of the capitalists-a friend of the Tatas. And here it would be ungrateful on my part, if I do not give you a little anecdote about how my connection with the Tatas began. In South Africa when I was struggling along with the Indians in the attempt to retain our self-respect and to vindicate our status it was Sir Ratan Tata who first came forward with assistance.”
It is the grand fusion of such great personalities as Gandhi and Sir Ratan that has not only transformed India into the world’s largest working democracy and a truly formidable nation to reckon with but has made each and every Indian proud of the golden pages of India’s history which were fashioned to such an indefinable extent on the hallowed soil of South Africa.
Advocate, Supreme Court of India
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org