What is advocacy? Part 3: Gandhi: Advocacy and Non-violence
Gandhi’s introduction into advocacy and non violent action came when he was contracted as a lawyer to work in South Africa. In 1893, on the night of his arrival to South Africa, Gandhi was ejected from a train for repeatedly refusing to leave the first-class compartment when white passengers objected to his presence. This incident not only drew Gandhi’s attention to the plight of Indians in South Africa, but also caused him to join a movement centered around the believe that unjust, discriminatory laws must be challenged. From 1903-04, Gandhi established a weekly magazine, Indian Opinion, which he used to as a platform to highlight Indian’s fight for freedoms in South Africa. It was also used to a platform to challenge racist policies, travesties of justice, racial and class inequalities in prisons. Several events caused Gandhi and his movement to mobilise against local governments between 1906 and 1913. The local governments passed a law that made it mandatory for all Indians register, be finger printed and carry passes, while limiting their freedom of movement. They also broke a promise to get rid of a 3% annual tax on indentured labourers who did not re-indenture or return to India after their labour contracts expire. The Supreme Court passed a judgement that made all non-Christian marriages invalid. Nearly 40 000 people from diverse religious backgrounds and occupations – Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, merchants, professionals, labourers and hawkers – came together using non-violent action as a means of getting these laws repealed. They picketed registration offices, wrote letters, mounted demonstrations, wrote articles, went on strike, and voluntarily went to jail in protest of these unjust laws. They also held community meetings to discuss strategy and to inform supporters that government’s response may be violent and brutal but that this should be resisted non-violently. Gandhi, his colleagues and many others were imprisoned for organising and mobilising the people to resist non-violently. Strikers were beaten and some killed. The Indian and British governments intervened on behalf of the Indians and forced the South African government to negotiate. When Gandhi left South Africa in 1915, many of the demands made by the movement were granted.
Gandhi’s twenty-one years in South Africa demonstrated how non-violent action and continued advocacy could be used to as powerful tools to change policy. Despite sympathising with the struggles that other non-white communities were waging against an unjust and racist system, his political activities and gains were confined to the Indian community. However, the example that he set left an indelible mark on the struggle for equality that would last until the end of apartheid.
When Gandhi returned to India, he continued the advocate for civil and human rights for Indians, particularly the poor and socially marginalised. In 1919, the British sought to extend the restrictions on civil rights in India that were put in place during World War One. This caused much anger among the population. In 1920, Gandhi launched a ‘non-cooperation’ campaign and called for a general strike in an attempt to end British rule of India. He and many of his supporters were arrested and found guilty for inciting disobedience to British laws. Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison.
There were many other personal non-violent acts of resistance to British rule that Gandhi used. He refused to wear western-style clothing, preferring homespun cloth. He also avoided drinking tea and coffee, since he did not approve of the work conditions of the labourers who produced these products. His most famous act of non-violent protest which was also very personal, the Salt March, targeted the British salt laws that made it illegal for anyone to produce, sell or manufacture salt without paying tax to the British government. Gandhi and several of his followers, walked 390 kilometres to the coastal town of Dandi. Once their, Gandhi picked up a handful of natural salt – a symbolic act that encouraged the rest of the country to make and produce their own salt in defiance of the British salt laws. In response, over 50 000 Indians were imprisoned for the simple acts of selling, producing and buying homemade salt. Though independence came to India after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, he remains a key figure in the Indian independence movement, having spent much of his life advocating for the rights of Indians, the poor and the socially marginalised within the former British Empire.