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131 years of Pietermaritzburg incident

  • Context (IE): Gandhiji’s life transformed after the Pietermaritzburg incident.

Pietermaritzburg incident

  • Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in South Africa on 24 May 1893 to attend to a legal matter of Durban-based merchant Dada Abdullah Jhaveri.
  • The incident occurred in 1893 when a railway official demanded Gandhiji shift from his “whites-only” first-class compartment to a third-class compartment.
  • Despite resistance, he was thrown out at the Pietermaritzburg station. Gandhiji resolved to fight this racial discrimination and injustice.
  • He mentioned the incident as “symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice” in his autobiography.

Gandhiji in South Africa

Resistance by Natal Indian Congress (NIC)

  • The NIC (Natal Indian Congress) was the first of the Indian Congresses to be formed.
  • It was established in 1894 by Mahatma Gandhi to fight discrimination against Indian traders in Natal.
  • It was formed to resist a bill by the Natal Legislative Assembly to disenfranchise the Indians.
  • Within a month, a monster petition bearing 10,000 signatures was presented to Lord Ripon, Colonial Secretary, and the agitation compelled the British Government to disallow the Bill.
  • However, in 1896, the Bill finally became law. The act did not mention the Indians but merely disqualified those who were not of European origin.
  • First time that the Indian people had not only participated in but organised an agitational campaign.

Support in Boer wars

  • Gandhi founded an Ambulance Corps in support of the British in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
  • He thought that support for the British would translate into better conditions for Indians in Transvaal.
  • He founded the Transvaal British Indian Association in 1903 in Johannesburg.
  • The British-Boer understanding after the War led to further restrictions on Indians in Transvaal.

Phoenix farm

  • English artist John Ruskin‘s book Unto This Last inspired Gandhi to set up Phoenix Farm near Durban.
  • Gandhi trained his cadres on non-violent Satyagraha or peaceful restraint here.
  • Phoenix Farm is considered the birthplace of Satyagraha. However, it was at Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi’s second camp in South Africa, that Satyagraha was moulded into a weapon of protest.

Path of Nonviolent Resistance

  • He legally defended Indian traders against discrimination, countering efforts to disenfranchise them.
  • He wrote a ‘guidebook’ for Indian students, reflecting his commitment to personal & professional growth.
  • Gandhi both theorised and practised satyagraha in South Africa, including writing letters, articles and petitions to mass mobilisation and seeking imprisonment.
  • Gandhi was sentenced to four terms imprisonment in South Africa during his Satyagraha campaigns.
  • These methods influenced other movements, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement in the United States to Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid.


  • The term ‘Satyagraha’ is derived from ‘satya’ (truth) and ‘agraha’ (insistence or truth-force), and its practitioners are called Satyagrahis.
  • It was his newspaper weekly ‘Indian Opinion’ through which the word Satyagraha was coined.
  • A competition was conducted, inviting readers to suggest a name for the passive resistance campaigns.
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