‘Gandhi prevented sectarianism in South Africa, but could not at partition’

August 20th, 2008 - 11:22 am ICT by IANS  

Johannesburg, Aug 20 (IANS) The young lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, leading South African Indians on a march 100 years ago to burn registration certificates imposed by the government of the day, avoided the sectarianism that the Mahatma could later not avert during the partition of India in 1947.Internationally-respected academic and veteran African National Congress leader Kadar Asmal shared this view as he delivered an address in the last of a series of events to commemorate the 1908 Bonfire March that saw the birth of Gandhi’s passive resistance philosophies.

The extent to which the agitation by Indians here took place on a non-sectarian basis was a great lesson, Asmal said at the Constitutional Court here, once the Old Fort prison where both Gandhi and later Nelson Mandela were imprisoned.

The event was organised by the Indian Consul-General Navdeep Suri, the Centre for Indian Studies at the University of Witwatersrand and the Gandhi Centenary Committee, headed by the Mahatma’s great-granddaughter Kirti Menon.

“Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Tamil and Telugu were united in their rejection of second class status, thus averting the sectarian blight that afflicted many other resistance movements and which resulted in the tragedy of the partition of India,” Asmal said.

“Good leadership and joint action averted the introduction of the poison that in India had led to the bloodletting of partition.”

Asmal said it was a singular honour for him to be delivering a lecture on home turf on the theme of Gandhi’s relevance in the world today, exactly 40 years after he first spoke on the Indian leader while in exile in Ireland, where Unesco had organised a celebration of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

“Gandhi’s attachment to freedom for India and colonised people in general was part of a larger attachment to self-determination both of the individual and the larger political unit.

“Many of the problems we face today arise out of an attempt to impose a single national identity following the example of the European nation state with its emphasis on French, Italian or German identity as the fulcrum of its existence.

“But Gandhi was accessible to many cultures and drew inspiration from many religions and cultures, though formally committed to his own Hindu faith,” Asmal said.

He added that the success of the mass protest here in 1908 showed that carefully organised and highly motivated protests, with a clear understanding of sacrifices entailed, could evoke the support of labourers, women, coal miners and the unemployed.

“Mass agitation became the preferred method of bottom-up agitation, which was not simply driven by an elite leadership.

“The development of Gandhi’s opinions on discrimination and equality - from an acceptance of an historically ordained caste system to a total rejection of Dalitism - has also brought a greater understanding of the need for unity between the oppressed both in South Africa and in the general worldwide struggle against racism.”

Asmal said that relating Gandhi’s approach to contemporary political thinking involved a dynamic process of reconsideration and development of diverse Gandhian positions.

Although peaceful settlement of disputes was difficult in “fraught military situations” where “parties rely on bigger and more dangerous weapons to maintain a balance of terror, the emphasis on the peaceful settlement of international disputes is now reflected in the UN Charter, force being only allowed in self-defence or in accordance with a collective decision of the Security Council.”

Asmal said for Gandhi, there was a wider dimension of reaching out on a moral and philosophical basis to the oppressor, so that peaceful adjustment could take place.

Returning to Gandhi’s relevance in South Africa today, the academic said that his principles were “sorely needed” in the country because there was still much to be done despite more than a decade of democracy in the country.

“We could say that passive resistance (as in opposing apartheid) should be superseded by its cousin, peaceful protest (against current government policies).

“(Although) there are legitimate reasons for opposition to some government policies, the legitimacy of such protests has been undermined by the violence which has accompanied such actions. The threat to use force to achieve political ends is unacceptable in a democratic state,” Asmal said.

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