Kasturba Kapadia was born on April 11 1869 in Porbandar, in present day Gujarat. She was the daughter of Gokuldas Makanji Kapadia, a wealthy merchant. Kasturba had two brothers, one younger and one older than her. Her father was a friend of Karamchand Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s father. In 1876, Gokuldas Kapadia and Karamchand Gandhi reached a preliminary agreement for Kasturba and Mohandas’ betrothal, both seven years old at the time. In Porbandar, the betrothal and marriage of children was an accepted and common practice. Two main reasons justified child marriages at the time. First, the practice protected young girls from becoming the object of sexual advances, and thus protected their “purity” before marriage. On a more practical level, some believed that since a girl had to spend all her life in the home of her husband, it was best if she learned to adjust from childhood. Despite their early betrothal, Kasturba and Mohandas were married only in 1882, at the age of thirteen. Little is known about Kasturba’s early life. Arun Gandhi, her grandson, went searching for official records that may have given more information on who the Kapadias were and how they lived, but most documents had been destroyed in floods in the 1930s and 1940s.
After her marriage, Kasturba moved to the Gandhi household in Rajkot. In her new home, she assisted her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law in house chores, while her husband went to school. The newly wed couple did not spend much time together, except at night. In the first years of their marriage, Gandhi decided to teach Kasturba to read and write. He wanted it to be a new project for them to carry out together. In his autobiography, Gandhi explained that his ambition was to make her an ideal wife who learned what he learned, and who identified her life and thought to him. However, Kasturba was wary and surprised as this was unconventional and went against tradition. The lessons started but were not successful because Kasturba had little patience late at night, after a long day of work. Furthermore, she was scared that her studies might affect her relationship with other women in the house. She feared they would think she was trying to be superior to them since literacy amongst women was very unusual at the time. Despite Kasturba’s resentment, she never protested openly to her husband’s wishes. She only chose not to master the lessons.
In June 1885, Kasturba became pregnant with her first child. However, the child was born prematurely in November and died a few days later. In the same year, the elder of the family, Karamchand Gandhi, passed away, leaving his sons in charge of the household. Both of Mohandas Gandhi’s elder brothers had small jobs not sufficient to provide for the family. Thus, Gandhi was expected to earn a college degree and become a dewan (court official) like his father. In January 1888, he left to pursue his studies at Samaldas College, 90 miles south of Rajkot. Before leaving, Kasturba informed him that she was pregnant once again. In May, Gandhi quit college, after months of loneliness and poor marks. Soon after, Kasturba and Gandhi’s first son Harilal was born. Gandhi’s return to Rajkot had plunged the family in crisis as their plans for the future were in jeopardy. The family consulted a Hindu priest, who made the startling suggestion that Gandhi should go to England and study law. To pay for his studies, the family mortgaged Kasturba’s jewellery. Gandhi made a vow to his mother that he would not touch wine, women or meat while he was away, and left with her blessings. On August 10 1888, Gandhi set out to Bombay, where he stayed with relatives before leaving for England. However, before his departure, word came that the Modh Vania caste elders disapproved of the trip. No one from the caste had ever crossed the “black waters” and no one could, without compromising their religion. Gandhi refused to cancel his plan to study abroad and was excommunicated from the caste. He left for England on 4 September 1888. Kasturba was deeply affected by her husband’s expulsion from the Modh Vania caste. Being part of his immediate family, she and Harilal were also excommunicated. Hence, she had to disobey caste injunctions if she desired to visit her family in Porbandar.
Kasturba and Gandhi spent the next three years separated. When Gandhi returned from England as a trained barrister, he sought to incorporate western elements in the household. For example, the family started to eat porridge for breakfast, and children were required to wear shoes. However, two years after his return to India, Gandhi was still struggling to find a suitable employment. In the meantime, Kasturba gave birth to their second son Manilal on 28 October 1892. Six months later in April 1893, Gandhi left for South Africa. Dada Abdullah, a Muslim merchant from Porbandar whose trading firm flourished in South Africa, had solicited him to assist the firm’s lawyers in a big case. At the end of his one-year contract, Gandhi decided to remain in South Africa. Throughout the year, he had witnessed and experienced racial and colour prejudice in the country. On the eve of his departure for India, Gandhi had read about the “Indian Franchise Bill”, introduced in the Natal legislative assembly to deprive Indians of their right to vote. He thus decided to remain in South Africa to assist the Natal Indian community in petitioning the government. When Kasturba received her husband’s letter explaining his decision to stay longer in South Africa, she was relieved that her husband had found something to do that he enjoyed and cared about. However, she was also apprehensive because she did not know for how long they would be separated and she was worried about their sons, who had spent very little time with their father.
Gandhi remained in South Africa for three years. During this time, he established a law practice in Durban, and helped in the founding of the Natal Indian Congress. The aim of the organisation was to produce “sustained agitation”, which was essential for “making an impression” on the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In June 1896, he left his law practice and went back to India. Six months later, Kasturba travelled to South Africa with her husband and children. Thus, Gandhi’s fight for Indian rights had started in South Africa. Kasturba, had to adapt to a different country, a different lifestyle in South Africa and her traditional beliefs and principles were challenged on several occasions.
Kasturba’s arrival in South Africa was marked by a disturbing event. The ships Nadir and Courland were place in quarantine, due to the outbreak of plague in Bombay. However, there were more than health reasons behind the decision to put the ships in quarantine. The majority of "white" residents in Durban wanted the ships to go back to India with its passengers, fearing a high Indian population. Furthermore, they accused Gandhi of condemning Natal whites while in India, and of inducing Indians to come to South Africa for the purpose of swamping Natal of Indians. When passengers were finally allowed to disembark, Gandhi was assaulted by a mob, but he refused to press charges.
Finally, the Gandhis’ settled in their new home, Beach Grove Villa. For Kasturba, this was a new challenge as she was now the only woman of the household, and she felt lonely. However, she took interest in her husband’s work and she desired to help him as much as she could.
Gandhi received many guests at their house and a particular event transformed the couple's relationship. One day, early in 1898, Kasturba’s loyalty to her husband and his ideals came into conflict with the traditions in which she had been brought up. A Christian Indian guest of Untouchable parentage did not empty his chamber pot in the morning, unaware of the house rules. Under these circumstances, Gandhi wanted Kasturba to join him in the cleaning of the pots that had not been emptied. Kasturba thus carried the pot outside to empty it but she was filled with disgust and shame, unaware that her husband was watching her. Gandhi was unsatisfied, wanting her to fulfill the chore cheerfully. He told her that he would not “tolerate such nonsense”, to which Kasturba replied “keep your house to yourself and let me go”. Filled with anger, Gandhi took her hand and dragged her to the gates with the intention of pushing her out. She cried: “ Have you no sense of shame? Must you so far forget yourself: where am I to go? I have no parents or relative here to harbor me. Being your wife, you think I must put up with your cuffs and kicks? Behave yourself, and shut the gate”. This event profoundly marked Gandhi, and he was ashamed and scared of almost using violence against his wife. He realised that Kasturba had a strong mind of her own, and could question his beliefs and practices.
Following the birth of their fourth son Devadas, Gandhi decided to practice sexual abstinence. This decision was the result of different reasons. Kasturba, by 1900, had given birth to four sons, and the childbirths were difficult, especially the last two. She remained weak for long periods of time after giving birth. Having witnessed his wife’s agony during childbirth, Gandhi worried about having sexual relations, fearing Kasturba would become pregnant again. He thought about contraceptives, but feared they would make Kasturba the “instrument of his lust”. Gandhi also despised being a slave to his sexual desires. Kasturba was aware of her husband’s anxieties, and when he suggested they slept in separate beds, she agreed. He would take, six years later, a vow of celibacy for life.
In December 1901, the Gandhi family left South Africa for India. However, Gandhi promised the Indian community he would come back if he was needed. A year later, he returned to South Africa for the visit of Chamberlain, following the Anglo-Boer War. He was part of the Indian deputation supposed to expose Indian grievances. However, Chamberlain responded that he would not interfere in the affairs of the colonies. If Indians chose to live among the Europeans they must try to win their confidence by themselves. Thus, Gandhi decided to stay in South Africa to assist the Indian community, and a few months later, Kasturba and her three younger sons joined Gandhi in South Africa, settling in Johannesburg. Before the arrival of his family, Gandhi met with Madanjit Vyavaharik, the owner of a printing press, who suggested starting a weekly newspaper for Indians in South Africa. Gandhi approved of the idea; the journal could be part of the campaign for Indian rights. The newspaper was named Indian Opinion and its aim was to give South African Indians a voice of their own.
In March 1904, disaster struck the Indian community in Johannesburg in the form of the Bubonic plague. Gandhi organised medical assistance for the sick and Kasturba offered to help. She visited women in the Indian location to talk about basic health and hygiene measures, and she explained how to detect plague symptoms. She showed her ability to work with women and to make them trust her. Gandhi found in his wife a newfound ally in his work for the Indian community.
Gandhi had always been a proponent of communal living, influenced by monastic ideals. When he was travelling by train back to Durban to discuss the newspaper’s financial difficulties, he read John Ruskin’s Into this Last. This essay had a dramatic effect on Gandhi and he determined that the logical consequence of the text could only be a form of agrarian communism. Ruskin argued that a functional, balanced economy should be based on moral principles and cooperative philosophy. Gandhi found his own convictions reflected in the book. For him, Ruskin's message represented three main points. First, that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all, which meant that a man serves his best interests by serving the good of the community. Second, all types of work have the same worth because all useful work is equal. Third, a life of labour by one’s own hands is the only life worth living. In his autobiography, he wrote: “I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life”. Thus, when he arrived in Durban, he proposed that a farm should be purchased to house the newspaper and its workers. The idea did not come only from one book; it was a coming together of various influences in Gandhi’s life. Leo Tolstoy was also an inspiration for Gandhi, who drew on his dislike of urban life. Tolstoy considered agricultural labour to be a worthy exercise. Gandhi was also inspired by a Trappist community near Pinetown in Natal that he had visited in 1895.
Gandhi proposed that all residents of the new farm should work for the same wage, and do press work in spare time. Albert West, in charge of the newspaper, accepted the proposal and it was decided that everyone would receive a 3-pound allowance per month, irrespective of colour or nationality. Gandhi believed that living in these conditions would reduce the cost of production of Indian Opinion, and would improve the quality of the workers’ lives. Despite some disagreements, Gandhi and a group of friends who supported the project purchased 100 acres of land.
During October and November 1904, Phoenix Settlement was born and it was transformed to house a small community. The first months following the settlement’s establishment were difficult, and working the printing press was trying. Kasturba and her sons moved to Phoenix in 1906. It was a two-day journey from Johannesburg. By that time, the settlement had developed into a small village, with half a dozen families having settled there. For Kasturba, the move was a change in her life that was more drastic than moving to South Africa. Phoenix was located in the middle of miles of sugar cane. The only link to civilization was the nearest railway station that was more than two miles away. However, it did not seem to disturb her and she set out to make her family comfortable in their new home. In the years to come, people came and went from Phoenix Settlement, but Kasturba gave a sense of permanency to it. Even when Gandhi was in Johannesburg, she stayed in Phoenix with her sons.
The Phoenix community was not without its problems. Harmonious living was not easy for all to achieve. The adults, including Gandhi’s relatives, had difficulties adjusting to one another. Chaganlal Gandhi had trouble sharing meals with the Muslim residents of the settlement. His son also witnessed his mother purifying utensils used by Muslim guests once. In communal living, the idea was to live simply and frugally, but families watched and criticized each other if they felt some people were straying.
In August 1906, the Transvaal government proposed a new law that required all Indians and Chinese over the age of eight to apply for registration certificates. The certificate, with a picture and fingerprints of the holder, had to be produced on demand. This law aimed at controlling the Asian population and identifying illegal immigrants. On September 11 1906, Gandhi spoke at a mass meeting at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg. He encouraged the Indian community and its allies to combat this law, and an oath not to register was taken in the name of God. The Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act was promulgated in 1907 when the Transvaal obtained self-government. On July 1st, permit offices to register were opened, and July 31st was set as the limit for registration. However, this limit was extended to November 30 1907. From July to November, resistors picketed registration offices peacefully. Gandhi and fellow resistors worked hard to prepare the community for the consequences of not having a pass. Indian Opinion played an important role in the resistance campaign, reminding readers of the duty to resist. It also made public the planned resistance activities. Gandhi believed that full disclosure avoided unintended confrontations. The community succeeded in defeating registration; only 545 Indians out of 7000 applied for passes. However, resistors were arrested at the end of 1907, and by the end of January 1908, 2000 Asians had been imprisoned.
In Indian Opinion, readers were invited to find a name for the resistance struggle, since passive resistance was not deemed adequate. The term Satyagraha, meaning “the force of truth”, was born. It emphasized the force coming out of truth and love. Satyagrahis never used violence and physical force, even when they were the targets of violence. Satyagraha, Gandhi explained “postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person”.
Kasturba stayed at Phoenix during the Satyagraha campaign. Gandhi came and went from Johannesburg to Durban, busy organising the resistance movement. Despite her isolation from Satyagraha, she was aware of the importance of the movement, and convinced of the justness of the cause. When Gandhi was arrested on December 28 1908 and sentenced to two months in prison, Kasturba decided to eat the same food her husband had to eat in prison. Since she could not share his hardships in jail, she could at least share his diet. She ate nothing but unflavoured cornmeal porridge until Gandhi was released. On 31 January 1908, all Satyagrahis in prison were released, after an agreement was reached between Gandhi and General Smuts. The latter agreed that the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act would be repealed after the voluntary registration of Indians. Thus, in February, voluntary registration began, and by July, most Indians had registered. However, General Smuts did not respect the compromise. The Satyagraha campaign was revived, and on August 16 1908, 3000 Indians burned their registration passes in Johannesburg.
In the meantime, Kasturba, still in Phoenix, struggled with great losses of blood, which made her very sick. She underwent surgery, but her health remained fragile. At a low point in her illness, her doctor decided that a vegetarian diet could not give her the nourishment she needed to make up for the loss of blood. The doctor thus asked Gandhi for permission to give his wife beef broth. However, he could not make the decision for her. When Kasturba was told about the doctor’s prescription, she vehemently refused and asked to be taken home. Even if her life depended on it, she would not sacrifice her religious convictions.
For Gandhi and his sons Manilal and Harilal, the arrests and imprisonments continued without respite for the next year, as part of the Satyagraha campaign. However, the movement was faltering and Indian resistance was waning down in the face of punitive measures and economic hardships. In June 1909, Gandhi travelled to London to plead the Indian cause in the upcoming Union of South Africa. The Indian community feared that anti-Indian statutes in the Boer provinces could become laws throughout the new Union. However, the trip to London was a disappointment and no guarantee of rights for South African Indians was included in the Union of South Africa Act.
In 1913, the Satyagraha campaign was revived, helped by three specific issues. The first issue came in March 1913, when the Supreme Court issued a judgment, affecting the legal status of Indian marriages. The ruling virtually nullified non-Christian marriages. The second issue was the passing the Immigrant Regulation Act on August 1st 1913. Gandhi opposed this act based on four grounds. First, people with an indentured background dating after 1895 could lose the right to settle in South Africa. Second, the Act removed the right of those Indians born in South Africa to enter the Cape. Third, it did not recognize Hindu and Muslim marriages, so a wife in India could not join her legally resident husband in South Africa. Fourth, it required Indians travelling through the Orange Free State to sign a declaration that they would not settle in the province. The third issue was the failure of the South African Parliament to repeal the 3-pound tax on all indentured-expired Indians over the age of sixteen, after promising it would do so. These three issues aroused the majority of the Indian population, and the Satyagraha campaign was revived in September 1913.
Gandhi came to fully understand the power women could bring to Satyagraha in South Africa. He realised that women could be leaders in Satyagraha, because it required a stout heart that came from suffering and faith. Gandhi however was not sure of Kasturba’s position. He did not want her to enter the movement for his sake or under his influence. He believed that everyone should act by their own volition, relying on strength and courage. However, Kasturba had made up her mind to join the movement and she was prepared to suffer the consequences. She told Gandhi: “What defect is there in me which disqualifies me for jail? I also wish to take the path to which you are inviting the others”. With three other women and twelve men, she crossed the Transvaal border without a permit on 15 September 1913. The group remained silent; men and women were arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. The women were taken to Maritzburg prison to serve their sentence. Kasturba helped her companions to find the will and courage to survive the difficult prison routine. She tried to convince wardens that she and other inmates had special dietary needs and could hardly eat any of the jail food, but with little success. The entry of women gave a new force to the movement. Women went willingly to prison and underwent hard labour.
At the end of September, twelve women crossed the border from the Transvaal to the Free State, but they were not arrested. They returned to the Transvaal and hawked without a permit but again were not arrested. They then proceeded to Newcastle in Natal to persuade mine workers to strike. When Gandhi reached Newcastle on October 20, the strike was going strong. Indian Opinion reported on 22 October 1913: “The appearance of the brave ladies simply acts like a charm and the men obey the advice given to them without any great argument being required”. By the end of October 1913, 4000 indentured Indians working in nine mines in and around Newcastle had joined the strike. Strikers would only return to work if the government repealed the 3-pound tax. By the end of November, the strike had spread to the north and south coast of Natal and was not just confined to the mining industry. Railway workers, laundrymen, bakery workers, as well as workers in other sectors stopped working. Numerous incidents occurred between strikers and the authorities and many were arrested. A march of 2000 striking persons took place from 6 to 13 November, meant to build consciousness and unity. The march went through the Transvaal, inviting arrest. On November 10, marchers were arrested and deported to Natal. Gandhi was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. By the end of the year, workers began to go back to work gradually.
Events in South Africa attracted attention in India. Viceroy Harding expressed his support for the movement in a speech made on 26 November 1913. London finally communicated its displeasure with the handling of Indian affairs to the South African government. A commission was appointed to look into circumstances of the strike, but was not specifically focused on Indian grievances. However, it was difficult to ignore issues like the 3-pound tax, immigration restrictions, and the non-recognition of Hindu and Muslim marriages, at the heart of the Satyagraha movement. Gandhi was released unconditionally from prison on 18 December 1913 so he could prepare to testify in front of the commission. Kasturba was released on 22 December.
In January 1914, General Smuts and General Botha agreed to sit down with Gandhi to try to resolve Indian grievances. The negotiations went slowly, but in June an agreement was reached. The Indian Relief Bill was a compromise that abolished the 3-pound tax and recognized non-Christian marriages. Immigration laws were relaxed for educated Indians and the importation of indentured labour was to stop in 1920. However, free movement of Indians from one province to another in the Union was not permitted.
Kasturba’s last days in South Africa were spent in celebrations. She stood with her husband in receptions; they were garlanded with flowers, photographed with officials and hailed by cheerful crowds. On 18 July 1914, she sailed for England, before going back to India.
Back in India, Kasturba Gandhi became increasingly involved in India’s political struggle for independence. She assisted her husband in numerous ways, and also adopted causes of her own, appealing to Indian women. Gandhi became involved in his first full-scale campaign in India in 1917, over the condition of indigo farmers in Champaran, Bihar. The farmers were subjected to an oppressive system of land tenure highly profitable to English landowners. Kasturba travelled to Champaran with her son Devadas to assist her husband. She worked with farmers’ wives and daughters and became involved in a district-wide sanitation campaign. An official report on agricultural conditions in Champaran was prepared, and an agrarian reform law was finally passed in Bihar, with the purpose of improving farmers’ conditions.
Kasturba tried to reach Indian women with a special message. She believed that they had to learn to be self-sufficient, by learning spinning and weaving. This way, women could lead to change within their household, and discourage the consumption of foreign products, like cloth. She also joined Gandhi during meetings when she could, sitting next to him and spinning. This influenced other women in participating in meetings. Pictures of her spinning and weaving appeared frequently in Indian newspapers. When Gandhi inaugurated a nation-wide boycott of foreign-made goods by staging public bonfires, Kasturba insisted on burning her favourite sari. Gandhi’s campaigning did not go unnoticed by British officials and he was arrested and tried on 18 March 1922. “The Great Trial” generally refers to this trial because of the power of Gandhi’s arguments. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Following the trial, Kasturba made an appeal in Young India, published on 23 March 1922. She urged Indians to follow Gandhi’s program to ensure its success despite his imprisonment. She encouraged people to give up foreign cloth and to persuade others to do so, women to spin and produce yarn, and merchants to stop trading in foreign goods.
In 1928, an All-India Satyagraha campaign was proclaimed, the goal being independence in one year. As part of the campaign, Gandhi organised a salt march of 200 miles, from Sabamarti ashram to the sea of Dandi. By gathering salt, the Satyagrahis broke the salt law establishing a government monopoly on the manufacture of salt. With more and more men being arrested as part of the campaign, Kasturba believed it was up to women to continue the civil disobedience campaign. She left the running of the ashram to others and resumed her travels, urging women to take part in a new phase of civil disobedience: the picketing of government-owned liquor store. She believed that women were better qualified than men to lead the campaign because policemen would hesitate to arrest women, and Indian men would be reluctant to cross a women’s picket line. Her pleas were persuasive and liquor sales fell tremendously.
Gandhi left for London in August 1931 for the Round Table Conference, meant to discuss constitutional reforms in India. However discussions were unsuccessful and this sparked protests in India. The government took drastic steps in crushing the civil disobedience campaigns. Civil liberties were suspended and a high number of Indians were arrested in January and February 1932. Kasturba was also arrested at Sabarmati ashram, along with other women. This was her first incarceration in India, but it would not be the last. In September 1932, when Kasturba was in Sabarmati prison, Gandhi started a “fast unto death” to protest the newly proposed Indian constitution. It granted separate electorates to Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and so forth, but also established a separate electorate for Untouchables. For Gandhi, this was unacceptable because it would write caste discrimination in the constitution. By fasting, Gandhi reached his goal and the Yeravda Pact was signed on 26 September 1932. It declared that no one was to be regarded as an Untouchable. This was a significant victory for human rights in India.
Kasturba resumed her duties as soon as she was free and took up the Harijan (Untouchable) cause. On December 1932, she represented her husband at the opening of an anti-Untouchability Conference in Madras. From there, she went on a tour of the region to plead for Untouchable rights. However, by the end of the year, a backlash was in full swing amongst orthodox Hindus, and Kasturba’s espousal of the Harijan cause was criticised bitterly. She was furthermore sent back to prison in February 1933, presumably for disregarding a government warning to refrain from civil disobedience. She was now regarded as much as a threat as Gandhi by British officials because of her ability to involve women.
In 1939, uprisings against arbitrary rule by local princes erupted across India. In Rajkot, protest campaigns were underway. Kasturba became involved in a women’s protest against the rule of the Thakore, the Rajkot local prince. There had been persistent rumours about the prince’s treatment of women. He would kidnap women, take them to his royal summerhouse, molest them, and release them. The rumours were eventually confirmed and women used nonviolent public protests to denounce the prince’s despotic practices. Kasturba urged women in Rajkot to join the protest and stand up for their rights. She was however arrested on 3 February 1939 by the Thakore officials. The conflict reached its climax when Gandhi became involved and started a new fast. What was a regional conflict became a full-scale political crisis. Finally, on 7 March, an agreement was reached. All prisoners were released and a political reform committee was appointed.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Gandhi launched a new civil disobedience campaign against Britain’s refusal to allow Indians to express their opinions on the war. The campaign also called for India’s immediate independence. Within a year, 23,000 persons were imprisoned. Furthermore, when Japan became a threat to South Asia, Britain committed India to the war without consulting Indian leaders and the population. Thus, the Congress Working Committee passed the “Quit India” resolution, which stated that, in order for India to become a partner in the war, it had to become independent. Unless British rule ended, a mass civil disobedience campaign would be launched once again with Gandhi as a leader. The final decision regarding this issue was supposed to be made at a meeting of the All-India Congress Committee in early August. However, Gandhi and other leaders were arrested after the start of the proceedings. Gandhi was supposed to address a mass meeting at Shivaji Park on the evening of his arrest, and Kasturba decided to do it in his place. She delivered her address in front of an estimated 100,000 persons and was taken to prison soon after.
Kasturba was imprisoned in Aga Khan palace with her husband for the last years of her life. Her health had been fragile for many years, and she died in Aga Khan palace on 22 February 1944, after suffering from numerous heart attacks. She was 74 years old.
This article was written by Lorna Mungur and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship
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