On January 9, 2015, the country would begin the centenary celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa. This centenary is an appropriate occasion to examine the formative influence of the South African period and its continued resonance in his later life.
Little over two decades that M K Gandhi spent in South Africa has been one of the least explored and understood periods of his life. It has been largely seen as a period of preparation, of apprenticeship as it were, for his eventual return to India and his role in the larger sub-continental theatre. While there is merit in this argument it tends to reduce the two decades of South African life to episodic re-telling of certain climatic moments. The proposed conference seeks to draw upon recent intellectual engagement with the South African period. This engagement has given us a biography on the South African period of Gandhi’s Life, a study of Gandhi as a Lawyer, a history of Indian opinion and the International Printing Press at Phoenix.
If the South African period is marked by Gandhi’s intense engagement with non-conformist Christianity which began in London, his pronounced religious quest and the by-hearting of the Bhagvad Gita, then it also is a period where he learnt to explore the boundaries of law and jurisprudence that eventually led him to formulate theory and practice of civil disobedience and Satyagraha.This is also the period where Gandhi’s relationship with his own body through experiments in food and diet, fasting, walking, performing bodily labour, celibacy and prison going underwent fundamental changes. This desire to attain mastery over his body would remain a lifelong quest with him.
It is in South Africa that Gandhi began to imagine and create institutional structures that made both politics and non-political engagements with communities possible. These institutional forms are the political organization (Natal Indian Congress), a site where political and spiritual experiments could be undertaken (The ‘Ashram’ like institutions of Phoenix settlement and Tolstoy Farm), and printing press (The International Printing Press and the Indian Opinion.)
The South African period saw the advent of Satyagrahas and the preparations that he and the Indian community had to undergo to become Satyagrahis. This period also marked Gandhi’s deep understanding of the labour question-largely in respect to the movement of labour through the system of indenture.
This period also saw the emergence of the thinker in Gandhi. His readings, experiments in writing through the Indian opinion and his analysis of the ailment of India of India lead to formulation of one of the most arresting dialogues of modern India.
The writing of Hind Swaraj, a text that remains a key philosophical text that seeks to understand the modern civilization through a ground that lies outside it has been subject of scholarly enquiry, and yet the process by which he prepared himself for this work require further engagement.
Gandhi formed deep and lasting personal and political bonds in this period and the contribution of these conversations either as friends, mentors or associates require scholastic engagement.
The contours of the movement for rights and dignity of the South African Indians after 1915 also require to be studied. The South African experiments were to play a large part in Gandhi’s political, institutional and spiritual life after his return to India.
The establishment of Satyagraha Ashram first at Kochrab and later at Sabarmati, the founding of Navajivan, young India and Harijan journals, the work that he along with CF Andrews did on the abolition of the practice of indenture, his life long quest for attainment of perfect Brahmacharya and the constant endeavor to re-formulate the principles and practice at Satyagraha are some of the strands that link organically the South African period to his later life in India.The proposed conference would seek to require participants who would together address some of these strands.
A limited number of participants will be invited for the seminar. Those interested in participating should send an abstract (500-700 words) of the proposed paper to following Email ID:
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