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Sept. 11: Creating history of a different kind

While September 11, 2001, is remembered for its violence, not many remember the same date in 1906, when Gandhiji first used the weapon of Satyagraha against the Natal Government. KAMLA CHOWDHRY contrasts the two.


Desire for Truth... Gandhiji's first satyagraha was on September 11, 1906, in Africa.

A TERRIBLE act of violence and death was executed in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. The whole world was horrified and condemned it. Many thoughtful people all over the world are raising fundamental questions about such violence. Is it connected with the type of growth and development we are pursuing? Is it about justice and peace or about vast inequities that are merging all over the world? Wendy Barry suggests: "we accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good including our homelands and our lives."

But we in the colonised world knew that technology had been used to subdue our people, our forests and rivers. With some of the new technologies we used, we lost our homes and our livelihoods, our communities and our temples. There are those that have gained and have taken pride in the modernisation and development that has taken place regardless of the pain and price others may have paid.

There is the question of means and ends that we have ignored in the development process. In the September 11 terrorist attack too, means were ignored to achieve an end of calling attention to their problems. A slice of humanity was extinguished in the process.

September 11, its brutality and its aftermath reminded me of another September 11, which also created history but of a different kind. It is important to reflect on the differences of how violence and terrorism were dealt with also on September 11 in Johannesburg almost a century ago.

On September 11, 1906, in Johannesburg, Gandhiji initiated his Satyagraha against the Natal Government, which was trying to pass an Ordinance meant to disenfranchise the Indians and if passed would have made life impossible for the Indians in the country. It was on September 11, 1906, when the Indians gathered to discuss how to meet the challenge of the ordinance that Gandhiji thought of facing violence with non-violence, of fighting for truth and justice with suffering. He warned the meeting that pursuit of Satyagraha might mean prison or even cost them their life. Everyone who attended that meeting took a pledge to resist the ordinance with non-violence whatever the provocation.

In launching his Satyagraha movement in Johannesburg, Gandhiji said: "I had no companion. We were 2,000 men, women and children against a whole nation capable of crushing the existence out of us. I did not know who would listen to me. It all came as if in a flash. Many fell back. But the honour of the nation was saved. New history was written by the South African Satyagrahis."

September 11, 1906, was the beginning of Gandhiji's Satyagraha movement — it started in Johannesburg against the ordinance and was later used in India to fight for its independence. "Satyagraha," explained Gandhiji, "is a relentless search for Truth and a determination to search for Truth. Satyagraha is an attribute of the spirit within. Satyagraha can be described as an effective substitute for violence." An eye for an eye, said Gandhi, only ends up making the whole world blind.

Explaining his philosophy of non-violence to the people, he said, "I saw that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of the cross and in no other way. Joy comes not out of infliction of pain on others but out of pain voluntarily borne by oneself. Violent means would give violent freedom and that would mean a menace to the world. Real suffering, on the other hand, bravely borne melts even a heart of stone. Such is the potency of suffering. And there lies the key to Satyagraha."


Another September 11... death and destruction.

Non-violence, he explained, is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man ... just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence so one must learn the art of dying in the training of non-violence.

What happened on September 11 in New York and Washington must not be handled with more violence. It takes courage to reach out to the enemy, to heal their hurt than to pull the trigger. We need to learn from Gandhiji how to transform our enemies into friends.

The end of the road of the events of September 11, 2001, is not in achieving victory by arms and bombs but through reconciliation, peace and non-violence.

In the tumult and shouting since September 11, Gandhiji's voice will have to be heard and understood if this world is to survive.

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