Gandhi’s South African Train Journey Didn’t Change His Life

Gandhi's South African Train Journey

On the seventh or eighth day after my arrival, I left Durban. A first-class seat was booked for me. It was usual there to pay five shillings extra, if one needed a bedding. Abdulla Sheth insisted that I should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy and pride and with a view to saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla Sheth warned me. “Look, now,”said he, “this is a different country from India. Thank God, we have enough and to spare. Please do not stint yourself in anything that you may need.”(emphasis supplied)

I began to think of my duty. 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. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial—only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice. So I decided to take the next available train to Pretoria. The following morning I sent a long telegram to the General Manager of the Railway and also informed Abdulla Sheth, who immediately met the General Manager. The Manager justified the conduct of the railway authorities, but informed him that he had already instructed the Station Master to see that I reached my destination safely. Abdulla Sheth wired to thhe Indian merchants in Maritzburg and to friends in other places to meet me and look after me. The merchants came to see me at the station and tried to comfort me by narrating their own hardships and explaining that what had happened to me was nothing unusual. They also said that Indians travelling first or second-class had to expect troble from railway officials and white passengers. The day was thus spent in listening to these tales of woe. The evening train arrived. There was a reserved berth for me. I now purchased at Maritzburg the bedding ticket I had refused to book at Durban. The train took me to Charlestown.(emphasis supplied)

Read the above paras quoted from the book “My Experiments with Truth” carefully. The real cause for ill-treatment, it seems, was Gandhi’s obstinacy to book a bedding ticket. Albeit, he later compromised. There are also other instances of such obstinacy in Gandhi’s behavior, where he later compromised: In India while traveling third class and not getting a seat, he jumped into the reserved class and declined to pay the fine arguing it was railway’s duty to arrange a seat for him in the third class, but then paid fine and asked for a return; he wouldn’t serve chicken broth to his son even if it meant death, and he persisted, and only luckily his son survived; he wouldn’t drink milk because that’s meant for the calves, but then due to his own illness makes a compromise and starts taking goat’s milk (?); he wouldn’t take off his turban in a District Magistrate’s court, but in the Supreme Court in South Africa, he would oblige.

Basically, Gandhi was a very clever politician, who knew when and how to make compromises. Indeed, in the present age, all these instances would have made him a laughing-stock on the social media. No, I don’t think that particular train journey brought about any revolutionary change in his personality. At that time, he was concerned more about his status as a barrister: proper house, proper salary, acquaintanceship, etc. And his success in establishing a status as a successful barrister in South Africa after a failure in India/Bombay brought him into public service, which was also a compromise of sort: Gandhi was a bad litigation lawyer; in South Africa, he focused first on chamber practice and then entered courts through social litigation (PILs in today’s parlance), which naturally drew him towards politics. Why and when he started traveling third class is not well established. I think it was a political decision. The apparent reason is that he wanted elites to suffer as the poor do so that public services may improve. Frankly speaking, many things he did were completely unnecessary: traveling third class, wearing poor clothes, cleaning up latrines, insisting on Brahmcharya, skipping break fast, etc.

However, this doesn’t take away anything from his contribution to the society. His politics was the most practical. Indeed, nothing else could have worked against the might of the Britishers. And, even more importantly, he had the courage to speak the truth and admit shortcomings. But for his book, “My Experiments with Truth”, I couldn’t have written the above. No…people like Modi have no right to appropriate him.


Copyright 2016 Ankur Mutreja

Featured Image Credit: Adam Jones (

About the Author

Ankur Mutreja
Ankur Mutreja is an advocate-cum-writer, and his blogs are amongst his modes of expression. He has also authored six books: "Kerala Hugged"; "Light: Philosophy"; "Flare: Opinions"; "Sparks: Satire and Reviews"; "Writings @ Ankur Mutreja"; and "Nine Poems"; which can be downloaded free from the links on the top menu.

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