The first martyrs of Satyagraha by E. S. Reddy

Gandhiji often stressed that satyagraha is not mere jail-going. He warned, during the first satyagraha in South Africa, as early as 1909:

"A satyagrahi must be afraid neither of imprisonment nor of deportation. He must neither mind being reduced to poverty, nor be frightened, if it comes to that, of being mashed into pulp with a mortar and pestle."1

It was already clear that though satyagraha is a totally non-violent and civilised form of resistance, the oppressors would try to break it by resort to an escalation of brutality, together with "dirty tricks" to confuse and divide the ranks of the resisters.

The satyagrahis in South Africa were at first sentenced to short terms of simple imprisonment. But as the movement proceeded, the courts handed down longer sentences with hard labour, even for women with small children. Prison conditions became harsher. The Government resorted to illegal deportations to India and pressure was exerted by European creditors on Indian merchants to force them into insolvency. At the last stage of the satyagraha in 1913, when Indian workers went on strike, they were subjected to brutal assaults by the army and mounted police, as well as mine and estate managers.

The satyagraha led to the martyrdom of several resisters, and injuries and shattered health to many more.
Gandhiji in Satyagraha in South Africa, and earlier in Indian Opinion, wrote moving accounts in tribute to four martyrs: Sammy Nagappan, a teenager who died of pneumonia after being forced to break stones in bitter cold; A. Narayanaswami, who was not allowed to land for two months when he returned from illegal deportation to India, though shivering on the open deck without adequate clothes; Valliamma, the young girl who refused to seek release from prison despite serious illness and died soon after completing her sentence; and Harbat Singh, an illiterate 70-year-old worker who insisted on serving imprisonment.

One of the last acts of Gandhiji before leaving South Africa was to attend the unveiling of memorials to Valliamma and Nagappan at the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg. I was shocked on my last visit to South Africa, when I wished to pay tribute to them, to hear that the tombstones of these martyrs - precious not only for the Indian community in South Africa but for India - had been removed by the Johannesburg municipality, under United Party management, during the era of apartheid. I hope that the Indian Government and the Indian community in South Africa - as well as the African National Congress - will denounce this act of desecration and ensure the restoration of the memorials.

But there were many more martyrs in the struggle who have been forgotten and deserve to be recalled and honoured.

Gandhiji mentioned in Satyagraha in South Africa that two infants died during the Great March of Indian workers in October-November 1913 - one of exposure and the other of drowning, falling from the arms of its mother while she was crossing a spruit. Little is known of their parents.

Gandhiji, however, did not refer to the workers who were killed in the last phase of the satyagraha while he was in prison. He wrote his account from memory, mostly in Yeravda prison, and did not attempt to write a detailed history of the struggle.

Reports in Indian Opinion, the weekly founded by Gandhiji, indicate that many workers had been killed and wounded, and several may have subsequently died of the injuries. The following accounts are mainly based on reports in Indian Opinion, between November 1913 and March 1914.

Firing at Mount Edgecombe

Five Indians were killed and nine wounded at Blackburn and Hillhead barracks of Natal Estates Ltd., Mount Edgecombe, on November 27, 1913. Those who gave their lives were:

Pachiappen Ragavan

Selvan Guruvadu

Soubrayen Gounden

One more died of injuries in Avoca hospital, but the name was not published. At the inquest, which was held before the Acting Magistrate of Verulam, the doctor who examined the dead said that the five were shot from the back.

Evidence at the inquest disclosed that Colin Campbell, the estate manager, went to the barracks at Blackburn estate, and threatened to shoot the indentured workers unless they returned to work. He shot Pachiappen (aged about 35). Then the troopers (police) fired. Ragavan was killed; Pancham was wounded in the right leg, and Hoosenigadu in the left shoulder.

An hour later, the workers walked towards Hill Head: they had relatives there and were anxious to see what was happening to them. They were met on the main road by the police and by Campbell who fired two shots at them. Campbell then went to the Hill Head barracks and ordered a roll-call. While calling the roll, he asked Selvan whether he was going to work.

Selvan had completed indenture and was free. He said he would wait until the satyagraha was over before entering into a contract of re-indenture. "The whole of Natal has struck, and when they go back to work, we will start too." Some other workers said that they would not return to work until the £3 tax was abolished.

Campbell decided that Selvan must be the leader. He asked Selvan to hold his horse but as he came near, struck him with a stick. Selvan fell. Then, under orders of Campbell, a Zulu guard handcuffed Selvan and stabbed him with an assegai. As Selvan's eldest son, Antonimuthu, ran screaming to his father, there was firing: Selvan died and his son got three bullet wounds.

Several others were shot and injured. Thathaya and his wife were shot in their hut in the presence of their two small children. Kullen was shot in the left thigh. The troopers then charged the Indians and ran over them.

The Magistrate, however, exonerated Campbell. Instead, 22 Indians, including some wounded, were kept in jail for six months and then charged with public violence. Eight Indians, including Antonimuthu, were charged with perjury. They were discharged after several weeks.

The widow of Selvan returned to India with her children. Gandhiji arranged a small allowance for her; Antonimuthu joined Gandhiji's ashram in Ahmedabad.

The death of Soorzai

On the same day that the killings took place at Blackburn and Hill Head, Soorzai (also known as Amhalaram), an employee of the Phoenix Wattle Plantations, was brutally flogged by the manager, G.J. Todd, who suspected him of leading a strike. He died two weeks later.

Soorzai had been ill for three years; his left arm was paralysed. He was late for work that morning as he waited for the rain to stop - as did other workers. Todd saw Soorzai standing near the doorway of his hut, flogged him several times and kicked him in the presence of his common law wife - Iyamah. He then assaulted several other workers with a whip.

A group of Indian labourers then took Soorzai to the Phoenix Settlement nearby. Todd went there a few days later with constables, threatened A. H. West, who was then in charge of the Settlement, for giving refuge to Soorzai, and took Soorzai away. The latter was jailed on December 3rd and five days later, taken from jail in an unconscious state to Verulam Indian hospital. He died on December 10th.

Four hundred mourners, led by leaders of the Natal Indian Association, followed the funeral procession as the body was taken to the Umgeni Crematorium. Among those in the procession was Miss Elizabeth M. Molteno, sister of the Speaker of Parliament, who had seen Soorzai when he arrived at the Phoenix Settlement and later testified at the inquest on the wounds. Todd was only charged with common assault and acquitted.

Other Cases

During November and December 1913, striking Indian workers in the mining area were being whipped and beaten, and taken down the mines by force. There were several cases of firing on the plantations. But only sketchy information is available in press reports.

In Ballengeich mine, the men were brutally whipped for refusing to work. Some fell unconscious, and 186 were sent to prison.

Narjia, a worker, died at Ballengeich Prison. The government claimed that he died of tuberculosis.

On November 16, police fired on Indian strikers in Durban: one died and 16 were injured.

On November 25, 1913, police fired at strikers at the Beneva Estate, Esperenza. Two were killed and a number of others wounded.

In all cases, the victims of violence - Indian workers - were punished while the criminals went scot free.

Appeal to historians

The violence by the employers and the mounted police was so outrageous that the Indian community in South Africa, and public opinion all over India, demanded an impartial investigation. The Viceroy of India felt obliged to support the demand. The Natal Indian Association collected affidavits and other information on brutality against the satyagrahis.

Under pressure from India and Britain, the Union Government set up a Commission of three members, two of whom were notorious for their hostility to Indians. When demands for a balanced composition were rejected, the Indian community decided, on the advice of Gandhiji (who was released from prison on December 18th, not to present evidence to the Commission.

The records of the NIA, if found, would provide fuller information on the martyrs and the great sacrifices made by the working people in the satyagraha.

I do hope Indian historians and Indian South Africans will undertake research to document the heroism and sacrifices of these early freedom fighters who gave their lives for the honour of India. Let it not be said that they were ignored because they were poor and illiterate;for it was they who inspired Gandhiji to recognise that the future of India depends on workers and peasants - the salt of the earth.

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