(This article was first published on 7 June 2017. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti.)
Contrary to popular belief, Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March against salt monopoly of the British was not his first act of civil disobedience. An incident, 37 years before that, changed the course of history in both South Africa and India.
On 7 June 1893, Gandhi – a young practicing lawyer – was thrown off a train in South Africa for refusing to comply with the racial segregation rules of travel.
Gandhi was travelling from Durban to Pretoria on a first class ticket for official purposes. While he was seated in the first class compartment, a European man called the railway authorities and asked for the man looking like a ‘coolie’ to be removed from the coach.
When the Indian man refused to move out of the coach, he was thrown out by the railways authorities at the Pietermaritzburg railway station.
Why Gandhi Stayed Back to Fight
Gandhi had gone to South Africa with a one-year contract to practice law. But when his contract ended, this incident was instrumental in his decision to stay back and defend the rights of the coloured citizens.
Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation.My Experiments with Truth, MK Gandhi
He remained in South Africa and launched various campaigns against the white regime. He founded the Natal Indian Congress to fight against the discrimination of Indians in South Africa and was soon regarded as their leader.
It was in South Africa that Gandhi honed his skills in satyagraha.
A Station Called Gandhi
While he left South Africa in 1914, Pietermaritzburg honoured him by renaming the railway station after Gandhi on his 142nd birth anniversary in 2011.