September 11, 2006

9/11 to US...

What happened on Sept 11, 1906
On September 12, 1906, Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail reported an event that had taken place in the city’s old Empire Theatre the previous day. The report said: “The united protest of the British Indian community against the Draft Asiatic Ordinance constituted one of the most remarkable gatherings Johannesburg has seen. The size of meeting, the enthusiasm of the audience — practically the entire Indian population ceased work for the day — and the depth of feeling displayed, formed a striking testimony to the indignation which the proposed legislation aroused.”
The newspaper was reporting the birth of one of the greatest ideas of modern times: non-violent resistance as a form of public protest. Its architect was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
In an old photograph published in Eric Itzkin’s book, Gandhi’s Johannesburg, Empire Theatre comes across as a stolid, rectangular building resembling a government office. But exactly a hundred years ago, the atmosphere inside was anything but officious. Around 3,000 Indians working in different parts of Transvaal province had gathered there. “The old Empire Theatre was packed from floor to ceiling. I could read in every face the expectation of something strange to be done or happen,” writes Gandhi in the book, Satyagraha in South Africa.
Many of these Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, had arrived as indentured labourers in South Africa. They were Gujaratis, Tamils and Telugus. Over the years, many had become successful businessmen and traders. Yet the proposed ordinance required every Asian to register their fingerprints and carry registration certificates . Or else, they could be deported. This, as Gandhi wrote, virtually equated them with criminals. A shocked Gandhi immediately met some influential members of the Indian community. This set the stage for the 9/11 meeting which was presided by Abdul Ghani, chairman, Transvaal British Indian Association.
The most important of the several resolutions passed at the meeting said: “Indians solemnly determined not to submit to the Ordinance in the event of its becoming law and to suffer all the penalties attaching to such non-submission.” Gandhi outlined the course of action and its consequences: “We might have to endure every hardship that we can imagine, and wisdom lies in pledging ourselves on the understanding that we shall have to suffer all that and worse. If someone asks me when and how the struggle may end, I may say that if the entire community manfully stands the test, the end will be near. If many of us fall back under storm and stress, the struggle will be prolonged. But I can boldly declare, and with certainty, that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can only be one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”
Historian Robert A Huttenback in Gandhi in South Africa writes, “With a roar of enthusiasm, the Transvaal Indians rose to take the pledge and a new political technique was born.”
Strangely, Empire Theatre was destroyed in a fire the next day. Writes Gandhi: “Friends brought me the news... and congratulated the community upon this good omen, which signified to them that the Ordinance would meet the same fate as the theatre.”
It did. But only after a long struggle where satyagraha was put to stern test.