Gandhi, Tamils and the Satyagraha in South Africa

E. S. Reddy


   At a farewell meeting of the Tamil community in Johannesburg on July 15, 1914, Gandhi said that the Tamils bore the brunt of the satyagraha struggle and that he felt he came to the meeting to meet his “blood-brothers.” He said in an interview to a Tamil correspondent in Rangoon on 12 March 1915: “I consider that I have more in common with the Tamil community than with any other.”

   When the Indians in the Transvaal took the vow to defy the Black Act requiring them to carry passes, the merchants, mainly Muslims from Gujarat, were in the lead. But soon most of them dropped out for various reasons or only went briefly to prison once, and it was the poor Tamil minority in the Transvaal, consisting mainly of hawkers, waiters and grocers who sustained the struggle. Gandhi wrote in Indian Opinion on April 16, 1910: “There is hardly a Tamil left in the Transvaal who has not suffered imprisonment in the course of the passive resistance struggle.” Many of them not only suffered in prison but became destitute. But they continued the satyagraha until the provisional agreement of 1911.

   When satyagraha was resumed in 1913, with its focus on Natal which had the largest Indian community, and women were invited to join, seventeen Tamil women from the Transvaal volunteered. They went around the mines and railway barracks near Newcastle, with six infants in arms, and encouraged the workers in the coal mines and the railways, mostly Tamils, to suspend work until the obnoxious three pound tax was abolished. That tax, imposed on workers who completed indenture and their wives and children to force them to sign another contract or return to India, had caused enormous suffering. “The appearance of the brave ladies simply acts like a charm and the men obey the advice given them without any great argument being required,” reported Indian Opinion on 22 October.

   These Tamils were among the twenty-six women satyagrahis in 1913 who spent three months with hard labour in the notorious Maritzburg prison. The six infants were in prison with them. Mrs. Kasturba Gandhi was one of the women prisoners.

   Tamil leaders – above all Thambi Naidoo – organised the strike of the workers not only in mines and railways but also in plantations and municipalities. That was the largest strike in South African history until then.

   Of the four martyrs of the satyagraha–Swamy Nagappan Padayachy, A. Narayanswamy, Harbat Singh and Miss Valliamma Munuswamy Mudaliar – three were Tamil youth. The workers who were killed or injured by their employers during the strike were Tamils.

   The spirit of Thambi Naidoo and the Tamils can be seen in the letter he sent on 4 October 1909 to Gandhi, then in deputation to London. Passive resistance was at an ebb at the time, as most of the merchants were afraid to defy the law for fear of confiscation of their property. He wrote:

   “… I beg to inform you that all Tamil prisoners discharged from the prison during your absence are ready to go to gaol again & again until the Government will grant us our request. I was in Pretoria on the 22nd and 23rd of last month in order to receive the Tamil prisoners who were discharged on those dates and I did receive them with a bleeding heart. I could not recognise more than about 15 men out of the 60 prisoners who were released. The reason for this was that they were so thin and weak, some of them nothing but skin & bone, but in spite of this suffering that they have to undergo they were all prepared to go back to gaol today…”[1]


   Gandhi often praised the Tamils for their sacrifice. He wrote in Indian Opinion (5 June 1909): "No other Indians can equal the performance of the Tamils in this fight.”

   The heroism of the Tamils, especially the poor workers and hawkers, had great influence on Gandhi. He said at a farewell meeting in Durban on 9 July 1914: "In the van of the satyagraha battle were Indians born here and among them particularly the poor and the simple people rendered great services. The rich were busy getting richer." And he declared at a London reception on 8 August 1914:

   "There were 20,000 strikers who left their tools and work because there was something in the air... These men and women are the salt of India; on them will be built the Indian nation that is to be. We are poor mortals before these heroes and heroines."

He said at a public reception in Madras on 21 April 1915:

   ” It was the Madrassees who of all the Indians were singled out by the great Divinity that rules over us for this great work. Do you know that in the great city of Johannesburg, it is found among the Madrassees that any Madrassee is considered dishonoured if he has not passed through the jails once or twice during this terrible crisis that your countrymen in South Africa went through during these eight long years? You have said that I inspired these great men and women, but I cannot accept that proposition. It was they, the simple-minded folk, who worked away in faith, never expecting the slightest reward, who inspired me, who kept me to the proper level, and who compelled me by their great sacrifice, by their great faith, by their great trust in the great God to do the work that I was able to do.”


   This statement reflects not only the modesty of Gandhi, but what he learned from his South African experience. For, Gandhi’s greatest contribution on his return to India was to transform the elite Indian National Congress into a mass movement for freedom in which simple peasants and workers played a crucial role.

   The heroism and sacrifices of some of the Tamil satyagrahis deserve to be noted as they are little known in India and even in South Africa now.


The Martyrs of the Satyagraha


   Swamy Nagappen Padayachy was sentenced on 21 June 1909, to ten days with hard labour for hawking without licence. He was sent to the Johannesburg prison road-camp and ordered to break stone from early morning in the bitter cold. He contracted double pneumonia and was released from jail on June 30th in a dying condition. He died on 6 July. He was given a public funeral by Indian community the next day. Gandhi wrote in Satyagraha in South Africa:

“Winter in the Transvaal is very severe; the cold is so bitter, that one’s hands are almost frozen while working in the morning. Winter therefore was a hard time for the prisoners, some of whom were kept in a road camp where no one could even go and see them. One of these prisoners was a young Satyagrahi eighteen years old of the name of Swami Nagappan, who observed the jail rules and did the task entrusted to him. Early in the morning he was taken to work on the roads where he contracted double pneumonia of which he died after he was released (7 July 1909). Nagappan’s companions say that he thought of the struggle and struggle alone till he breathed his last. He never repented of going to jail and embraced death for his country’s sake as he would embrace a friend.”


   The second martyr of the satyagraha was A. Narayanswamy, a hawker in Johannesburg. He served with the British troops in a non-combatant capacity during the Anglo-Boer War and was granted residence in the Transvaal. He went to jail in 1908 and 1909, and was illegally deported to India in 1910. He returned to Durban with 82 other deportees. He was not allowed to land in Durban and had to go from to port on the deck of the ship. He died on board Gertrude Woermann on 16 October 1910, and was buried in Delagoa Bay.


   Gandhi called his death “legalised murder” and wrote in a letter to the press on 17 October:[2]

   “... When he left this province for India as a deportee, he possessed a healthy constitution, but over six weeks on the decks of different steamers exposed to all sorts of weather evidently proved too severe for his constitution. Mr. Ritch… has stated in a letter to the Cape papers that he found these men (Narayanswamy and fellow-deportees) bootless and hatless and in some cases even without sufficient protection for the body, shivering on the open deck of that steamer. They were refused landing first at Durban, then at Port Elizabeth, then at the Cape, and again at Durban, the last time in defiance of an order of the Supreme Court… The (Immigration) Officer… in indecent haste sent these men to Delagoa Bay with the result that… Narayanswamy is no more.”


   Valliamma, and her mother Mangalam, joined the second batch of Transvaal women who went to Natal in October 1913 to explain the inequity of the three pound tax to the workers and persuade them to strike. (Valliamma’s father, R. Munuswamy Mudaliar, owner of a fruit and vegetable shop in Johannesburg and a satyagrahi in the Transvaal, was recovering from an operation). They visited different centres and addressed meetings. They were sentenced in December to three months with hard labour, and sent to the Maritzburg prison. Valliamma fell ill soon after her conviction, but refused an offer of early release by the prison authorities. She passed away shortly after release, on 22 February 1914.


   Gandhi wrote in Satyagraha in South Africa:

“Valliamma R. Munuswami Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesburg only sixteen years of age. She was confined to bed when I saw her. As she was a tall girl, her emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold.

‘Valliamma, you do not repent of your having gone to jail?’ I asked.

‘Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,’ said Valliamma.

“But what if it results in your death?’ I pursued.

‘I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?’ was the reply.

“Within a few days after this conversation Valliamma was no more with us in the flesh, but she left us the heritage of an immortal name…. And the name of Valliamma will live in the history of South African Satyagraha as long as India lives.”

   On 15 July 1914, three days before he left South Africa, Gandhi attended the unveiling of the gravestones of Nagappan and Valliamma in the Braamfontein cemetery in Johannesburg.


Some of the Other Satyagrahis


   Govindaswamy Krishnaswamy Thambi Naidoo was born in Mauritius where his parents had migrated. He was active in public affairs since he arrived in Johannesburg around 1893. He was the first Tamilian to start business in that city, and was a leader of the Tamil Benefit Society. He immersed himself in satyagraha when it began in the Transvaal and went fourteen times to prison.


   Gandhi wrote to Gopal Krishna Gokhale on 6 December 1909:

   “… perhaps the bravest and the staunchest of all (Indians in jail) is the indomitable Thambi Naidoo. I do not know any Indian who knows the spirit of the struggle so well as he does… He has sacrificed himself entirely…”


   In the last phase of the satyagraha in 1913, he accompanied the Transvaal women satyagrahis from Johannesburg to Newcastle. He worked ceaselessly night and day among the indentured labourers in the mines. The strike on the mines which spread to plantations, railways, municipalities and other locations is largely due to the efforts of Thambi Naidoo and the women from the Transvaal.

       T. Kuppuswamy Naidoo, his eldest son, courted imprisonment several times since he turned sixteen.   In 1913, when it was decided to invite women to join the satyagraha, members of the Thambi Naidoo’s family were in the first batch which proceeded to Natal to encourage the workers to strike. They included Mrs. N. Pillay, mother-in-law of Thambi Naidoo, the oldest of women satyagrahis; Veerammal, wife of Thambi Naidoo; and Mrs. N.S. (Lachimi) Pillay, wife of Veerammal’s brother. They were sentenced to three months with hard labour. N.S. Pillai, brother of Veerammal, was also