Synopsis

Satyagraha

Act I Tolstoy
Scene 1 The Kuru Field of Justice

A great battle was impending between two royal families, the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. At a signal from the aged king, the trumpeter blew his conch, loosening the tempest in the waiting armies assembled on the sacred plain. From both sides, warriors and chieftains blew their battle shells announcing their readiness to fight with a din resounding between heaven and earth. And seeing the battle set, weapons unsheathing, bows drawn forth—Prince Arjuna spoke to Lord Krishna, wishing to look more closely at these men drawn up spoiling for the fight with whom he must do battle in the enterprise of war.

Scene 2 Tolstoy Farm (1910)
With only a handful of satyagrahis pledged to resist the Europeans’ racial discrimination, Gandhi initiated the first collective action among South Africa’s Indian residents. No one knew how long the struggle would last, but with Tolstoy Farm, the satyagrahis progressed toward securing an immediate goal. Here, all families would live in one place, becoming members of a cooperative commonwealth, where residents would be trained to live a new, simple life in harmony with one another. Everything from building to cooking to scavenging was to be done with their own hands. The building of the farm drew everyone into an active involvement with the satyagraha ideal—a “fight on the behalf of Truth consisting chiefly in self-purification and self-reliance.”

Scene 3 The Vow (1906)
The British government was proposing an amendment to institute an entire re-registration and fingerprinting of all Indians, men, women, and children. Now they would be required to carry resident permits at all times, police could enter homes to inspect for certificates, and offences were punishable by fines, jail, or deportation. The proposed Black Act became the occasion for a large rallying of the community around a specific issue. At a public meeting attended by over 3,000, a resolution was drawn up stating that all would resist the act unto death. Suddenly, the satyagrahis had come to a turning point. The life-and-death terms of the resolution called for a step beyond ordinary majority vote ratification, and all in attendance listened to the speakers explain the solemn responsibility of taking individual pledges. For only a vow taken in the name of God would support an individual’s observance of the resolution in the face of every conceivable hardship, even if he were the only one left.

Act II Tagore
Scene 1 Confrontation and Rescue (1896)

Gandhi had spent a six-month sojourn in India acquainting the homeland with the settlers’ conditions in South Africa. Thousands of Europeans had read of his speeches and meetings in somewhat exaggerated news accounts cabled by Reuters to South African newspapers, and there was a great explosion of feeling when Gandhi set foot again in the port of Durban. Already angered by his exposing events to the world, the Europeans were further inflamed by Gandhi’s intention to bring back hundreds of Indian immigrants. If the government would not prevent them from landing, then they would take the law into their own hands. Growing larger in numbers and more violent in actions, the excited crowd pursued Gandhi on the long walk through town. The wife of the superintendent of police was coming from the opposite direction and, opening her umbrella for his protection, Mrs. Alexander began walking by Gandhi’s side, leading him to safety.

Scene 2 Indian Opinion (1906)
Central to the movement’s activities was the weekly publication of Indian Opinion. Every aspect of production was considered in light of the struggle, and the paper progressively reflected the growth of satyagraha principles. The decision to refuse all advertisement freed the publication of any outside influence and made its very existence the mutual responsibility of those working on the paper and those readers whose subscriptions now supplied the only source of financial support. In policy, Indian Opinion openly diagnosed movement weaknesses as a means for eradicating them. Though this kept their adversaries well informed, it more importantly pursued the goal of real strength. Setting a standard with a strong internal policy, Indian Opinion could with ease and success inform the local and world community, and thus develop a powerful weapon for the struggle. At its height, there was an estimated readership of 20,000 in South Africa alone.

Scene 3 Protest (1908)
Movement leaders were sentenced to jail for disobeying an order to leave South Africa, issued on their failure to satisfy the magistrate that they were lawful holders of certificates of registration. The community resolved to fill up the jail, and courting all kinds of arrest, the number of satyagrahi prisoners rose to 150 by the week’s end. The government proposed a settlement: if the majority of Indians underwent voluntary registration, the government would repeal the Black Act. But the community was stunned to learn that after fulfilling their part of the bargain, the Black Act was to be carried through legislation. Ready to resume the struggle, the satyagrahis issued their own ultimatum: if a repeal was not forthcoming, certificates would be collected by the Indians, burned, and they would humbly but firmly accept the consequences. On the day of the ultimatum’s expiration, the government’s refusal was sent to the site where Gandhi conducted a prayer meeting before the burning of the registration cards. These were all thrown into the cauldron, set ablaze, and the assembly rose to its feet making the whole place resound with their cheers—even greater than the commencement of the movement, satyagraha now had its baptism of fire.

Act III King
New Castle March (1913)
With two overt, racially discriminatory laws, the government was effectively controlling the influx of new Indian settlers and keeping the old class of indentured laborers under its thumb. A “color bar” restricted the immigration of even those applicants who could pass an educational test, and a special tax was levied against those workers who chose to remain after their seven years, binding them to pay annually the equivalent of six months’ salary for each family member. But the Three Pound Tax and the Asiatic Immigration Law were in effect when the great Indian leader, Shree Gokhale, made a tour of South Africa and secured from the government a public promise for their repeal. The government’s breach of promise gave satyagraha an opportunity to include new objectives within its scope as a fight for truth and, in turn, to increase its strength in numbers. The miners in New Castle were selected to be the first drawn into the expanding struggle and a deputation of satyagraha women traveled there, organizing a strike in sympathy with the movement. It was further decided that striking miners and their families should leave the homes provided by mine owners, and with only their clothes and blankets, join the satyagraha army. Led by Gandhi, who would likewise attend to their provisions, they would march the 36 miles to the Transvaal borer. If arrested at this registration check point, the army of 5,000 would flood the jails, incurring heavy expenses and difficulties for the government. If allowed to proceed to Tolstoy Farm, they would prolong the strike, conceivably drawing all of the 60,000 laborers affected by the tax law into the struggle. And in either event, they were bringing strong pressure for repeal, all within the dictates of satyagraha. Thus the army was instructed to stand any test without opposition and their movements were openly announced to their adversaries—“as an effective protest against the minister’s breach of pledge and as a pure demonstration of our distress at the loss of self-respect.”