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Mohandas Gandhi and the First Satyagraha Campaign

The first Satyagraha began as an effort by Mohandas Gandhi to protect the rights of groups of Indians in South Africa. According to Gandhi, the definition of satyagraha is to be strong with the strength of a brute. The strength must also have a spark of God. He believed satyagraha to be the vindication of truth. Its goal is to convince an opponent not by crushing him but converting him. The opponent is to be weaned from error using sympathy and patience.

Treatment Of Indians

After the British emerged victorious from the Anglo-Boer War, the treatment of the Indians in South Africa went from bad to worse. Laws were passed by the British placing limitations on the rights of Indians. One law required Indian males over the age of eight to be registered. They also had to have their fingerprints taken and made part of their record. This was known as the Black Act. Laws were also put in place to restrict the right of Indians to reside in certain areas and engage in trade. Indians were also forced to carry passes. A law passed after 1898 even forbid Indians to walk on pavement and more.

Three Pound Tax

This tax was used as a way to remove the voting rights of free Indians. It was a tax placed on all free Indians. Should they not pay it, they were forced to return to being indentured or sent back to India.

First Campaign

There were approximately 13,000 Indians required to register in a place known as Transvaal. The last day people could register and be in compliance with the Black Act was November 30, 1907. At the end of the day, less than 550 Indians had registered. All those who did not register were given official notices to comply with the Black Act or leave Transvaal. Gandhi was arrested on December 27, 1907. When he appeared before a magistrate, he requested the judge give him the strongest sentence. Gandhi was incarcerated for two months. Four others were also sentenced to jail and by the end of January over 150 Indians were jailed with Gandhi.


Gandhi spent his time behind bars reading authors like Tolstoy and Ruskin. He also read the holy books of different religions including the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita and others. One day, Gandhi was given an offer. If he and his supporters voluntarily complied with the law and registered, the Black Act would be eliminated. Gandhi formalized an agreement and was set free. The others jailed with him were set free the next day.

Government Ignores Agreement

It was a short time after this the government reneged on the agreement. In 1908, thousands of Indians who had registered at a Mosque burned their documents in a cauldron. Those who had registered began to engage in peaceful resistance. This included going from one province to another without a permit, trading without a license and more.


People who engaged in this type of resistance were known as Satyagrahis and wanted to be arrested as often as possible. Many of them were taken to jail for crossing provincial boundaries and other things. Gandhi was again imprisoned for breaking the law and spent his time in jail as a cook for his fellow Satyagrahis. The flow of laborers going illegally between provinces continued. Soon, the government began deporting workers without permits. During this campaign, approximately 3,000 people were arrested. There were more than 58 people deported back to India. Eventually, 6,000 Indians left South Africa.

Indian Relief Bill

Gandhi inspired many workers to strike in various business. This led to martial law being declared. Gandhi submitted his list of requests to the authorities in South Africa. The result was the Indian Relief Bill. This provided recognition of Indian marriages. It also did away with the three-pound tax and provided limited travel between provinces and more. Gandhi viewed this as a start and believed other freedoms would be won later.

Gandhi left South Africa in 1918. He remained interested in South African affairs. In the years after his departure, discriminatory laws were again passed in South Africa. His actions did inspire liberation fighters in Africa. When the Pan-African Congress met, it endorsed Gandhi’s passive resistance. This became the preferred method for resisting the colonialism occurring all over Africa.

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