Mahatma Gandhi September 11, 1906


A brief history of September 11, 1906: the Birth of Satyagraha
Adapted by NP volunteer Derek Mitchell & NP staff from the writings of Professor
Michael Nagler, Professor emeritus and founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies
program at University of California, Berkeley.
“During my half-century of experience, I have not yet come across a situation when I
had to say ... that I had no remedy in terms of non-violence.” — Mahatma Gandhi
One hundred years ago a historic meeting took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, that would change
human history. Mohandas K. Gandhi, at the time a struggling lawyer, had arrived in South Africa in May of
1893 to serve as legal adviser for an Indian merchant. He quickly ran headlong into “man’s inhumanity to
man” in the form of a racism that was shameless in the African colonies. He was thrown off a train scarcely
one week after his arrival for presuming to sit in a first-class compartment for which he had a valid ticket. The
affront precipitated “the most creative night of his life,” as he struggled with his feelings at the cold, mountain
station of Pietermaritzburg. During that night, Gandhi overcame both his impulses to run back to India and to
fight the railway company. He decided instead to turn his attention—his anger—to the much larger questions
of racial prejudice, injustice and exploitation directed against his fellow Indians by the European colonists.
Gandhi launched a careful, stepwise campaign to rescue the dignity and the rights of the 100,000 ‘free’ and
indentured Indians in South Africa, who up to that time had borne the abuses heaped on them with helpless
resignation. He oversaw the establishment of the Natal Indian Congress, organized the first petition ever
submitted by Indians to a South African parliament, and founded Indian Opinion, the first of several
newspapers that would be the communication organs of his movements. Then, in September 1906, the
Transvaal Assembly introduced the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, intended in effect to reduce Indians
and Chinese to a semi-criminal status. On September 11
three thousand Indians, both Hindu and Muslim,
‘free’ and indentured, gathered at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg to voice their outrage.
Gandhi first called on all present to pledge non-cooperation with the proposed law, irrespective of what
penalties they might face—civil disobedience (the term coined by Thoreau that Gandhi would later borrow to
describe their novel method). Then a Muslim merchant, Seth Haji Habib, sprang to his feet and declared that
the resolution must be passed “with God as a witness” that Indians would never yield in cowardly submission
to such a law. The implications of such a solemn oath took Gandhi aback. While no stranger to vows in his
own spiritual development, he realized that invoking God in a political struggle would demand an unswerving
fight until the end. He was personally prepared to take on such a duty but would the community follow him?
Twenty years later he recalled the memorable scene:
The meeting heard me word by word in perfect quiet. Other leaders too spoke. All dwelt upon their own
responsibility and the responsibility of the audience… and at last all present, standing with upraised hands,
took an oath with God as witness not to submit to the Ordinance if it became law. I can never forget the scene,
which is present before my mind’s eye as I write. The community’s enthusiasm knew no bounds.
Satyagraha was born. The struggle was to last eight years. There were many ups and downs and more than
one bitter occasion when only Gandhi’s vision kept resistance alive, but in the end it conceived a new
relationship between Indians and whites in South Africa—and a new method of struggling against violence.
What is Satyagraha?
The term was coined after the Johannesburg meeting, when the Indians realized that the prevailing
expression for the campaign they sought to wage, ‘passive resistance,’ failed to convey the active vitality of
their method and could also lead to fatal confusion (as passive resistance, in the manner the term was used at
the time, did not rule out the use of violence). Satyagraha literally means ‘clinging to truth.’ But ‘truth’
(satya) has broader meanings in the Indian languages than it does in English. It does mean truth as opposed to
falsehood; but it also means ‘the real’ as opposed to the unreal or nonexistent, and the ‘good’ as opposed to
‘evil.’ The tremendous work Gandhi would go on to launch in India was based in this vision.
Satyagraha is a kind of force. It changes people for the better through nonviolent persuasion. No matter how
brutal and dehumanized people become, the capacity for what Gandhi calls reason (or a kind of personal
sensitivity) is always there.

Page 2
A friend of Professor Nagler owes her very existence to this fact. Lily’s parents-to-be were Polish Jews who
were in the underground in Warsaw during WWII. One night the Gestapo raided their apartment and found
documents that would have spelled their death; but just at that moment their little boy went up to the Gestapo
captain and started playing with the shiny buttons on his uniform! His parents were horrified, but when the
captain looked down at the little boy he stopped talking and, after a long moment that must have seemed like
eternity he said, in a totally changed voice, “I have a little boy at home just his age, and I miss him very much.”
Then he quietly added, “Your son has saved your life” and ordered his men out of the apartment. Lilian, an
important peace activist today, was born ten years later. Satyagraha is a way to do consciously what the little
boy did in all innocence: to reawaken another’s humane awareness; that is, by acting humanly ourselves, and by
refusing to overlook the humanity of the other, to rehumanize ourselves in another’s eyes.
Basic Principles
Satyagraha can take different forms in different situations—indeed, many nonviolent practitioners believe,
with Gandhi, that there is no situation, however extreme, in which it cannot work. There are certain basic
principles, or enabling conditions, that most activists and scholars agree make up the core of Satyagraha:
Means determine ends: we can never use destructive means like violence to bring about constructive ends
like democracy and peace.
Evil is the enemy, not the person committing it. In Christian terms, ‘hate the sin, but not the sinner.’ The
clearest sign that ‘truth power’ is at work is when your opponent ends up becoming your ally, even your
friend. Indeed, activists often discover that the more they can bring themselves to accept the person
opposing them, the more effectively they can reach common ground.
Our actions have far more consequence than the immediate, visible results. In fact, it is perfectly possible
that our efforts may ‘fail’ to deliver the immediate result we want but succeed in doing more than we may
have dreamed of.
For example, in 1954, at the height of the Korean War, there was a famine in China, and a huge surplus of
food in the United States. The Fellowship of Reconciliation began a campaign to mail to the White House
miniature grain bags with a quote from Isaiah: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him.” There was no official
response from the White House, but 25 years later, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the effect was
revealed. At that time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pressing President Eisenhower to authorize bombing of
mainland China— an act that could conceivably have precipitated World War III. The President sent an aide
to find out how many of the little bags had been received, and when he got the report he said to the Joint
Chiefs, “Gentlemen, 35,000 Americans think we should be feeding the Chinese. This is hardly the time to start
bombing them!” As Gandhian historian B. R. Nanda explains:
The fact is that Satyagraha was not designed to seize any particular objective or to crush the opponent, but to
set in motion forces which would ultimately lead to a new equation; in such a strategy it [is] perfectly possible
to lose all the battles and still win the war.
Conflicts resolved through nonviolence tend to lead to reconciliation of the former “enemies.” India and
Algiers gained independence from European colonial powers at about the same time, the former with largely
nonviolent and the latter with largely violent means. Vastly more casualties were suffered on both sides of the
conflict in Algeria than in India—the Algerians lost nearly 900,000 people while more populous India lost only
a few thousand to the British—and relations remained strained between Algiers and France almost to the
present day while India and Britain immediately entered an era of cooperation and mutual benefit.
The events that began September 11
, 2001 present us with a choice and a challenge: to respond with more
destruction and hate, or to resolve to take our inspiration from that same date in 1906, when a different weapon
to fight for good was conceived, and turned history in a new direction.