Friday, August 15, 2014

Train to FREEDOM

It was to be a journey like any other. However, a chance incident changed the course of history.On August 15, we the people of a democratic republic, have much to be thankful for…first of all for our freedom.

June 7, 1893, Pietermaritzburg,
South Africa
The young man sat in the train compartment, slightly nervous. Outside, the station lights gleamed in the darkness of night; the train had stopped there for a few moments, on its way to Pretoria. Not for the first time, his employer, Dada Abdulla Seth’s warning swam into his mind.
* * *
“This is not India,” he had cautioned, as the young man left Durban on his train journey. “Here, people judge each other according to colour. We Indians are always called coolies .”
“I don’t understand,” the young man objected. “I studied Law in England, after all. I’m well-educated, cultured and come from a prosperous family. Why must anyone put me down because I’m dark-skinned?”
Abdulla Seth shrugged. “No one wants to go against the white people. It’s much easier to just let things be.”
The young man bit his lips, not liking what he heard, but unable to do anything about it. He had a case to deal with in Pretoria and his first duty was to work. Besides, people couldn’t be that harsh, could they? He had a ticket, bought and paid for, after all. Nothing would likely happen.
* * *
In the train, the young man refused to buy bedding for five shillings from a railway servant. “I have my own,” he patted the roll nearby. Thankfully, everything seemed to be quiet. No signs of anything untoward. The young man relaxed a little. The train would be leaving in a few minutes and he would be free to sleep. After that, the hours would flit past and he’d be in Pretoria before he knew…“Out! You!”
The young man jerked out of a half-sleep, and stared around him. At the doorway stood a passenger, resentment and distaste writ all over his face, with two or three railway officials. One of them was eyeing him up and down.
“Cat got your tongue? Or are you deaf too? Get out.”
The young man gathered his courage. “Why should I? I have a first class ticket to Durban.”
“You ought to be in the van, where your kind travel. Now get out, before I get a police constable to throw you out.”
Embarrassment, shame, and the horror of being treated this way made the young man’s face burn.
“No,” he said, quiet courage lacing his words. “If you want me to leave, you’ll have to make me.”
The official gaped at him, while the passenger looked plainly furious.
They’re not going to do it, are they? The young man wondered. I’m a human being. I have every right to be here. They wouldn’t treat me like a cockroach or an insect, would they? No one could be that rude. Just because I’m darker-skinned …
Within seconds, the young man’s luggage was thrown out. A constable practically dragged him by the hand, and pushed him out. The young man was on all fours on the platform, horrified, as the train puffed away, the men within staring at him with contempt.
Pietermaritzburg was at a high altitude; the young man spent all night in the waiting-room on the platform, shivering, unable to even ask for an overcoat, as it was in the luggage the railway authorities had confiscated.
He had always known that there were people who looked down on others because of their skin-colour — but he would never have known just how demeaning the actual experience was. And all because of something nature had created. As people lived closer to the Equator, their skin turned dark, to help them cope with rising temperatures; while people living farther from the Equator were lighter skinned. It was just biology. Nature’s way of helping people adapt to the environment. It was something humans had no control over. And yet, here were people insulting dark-skinned men — over a factor that did not determine what kind of a person you were. Skin tone had nothing to do with your personality; education, or work. Your success or failure. Your character traits; whether you were kind, hard-working, clever, harsh, weak or strong.
But he’d just been thrown out of a train he had every right to travel in … because a white-skinned man thought a dark-skinned man was not worth it.
It was one of the darkest nights in the young man’s life. Should he go on with his work here? Or return to India? Should he stay and fight something that was so clearly wrong? Or run away, leaving this problem for someone else to solve? Should he toil for freedom? Or accept slavery? Flee? Or fight?
When morning arrived, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had made his decision.
Hero of millions
On June 6, 1993, 100 years after the incident which set Gandhi on the path to Satyagraha, his statue was unveiled in Pietermaritzburg, by Nelson Mandela, who delivered this address: “We are unveiling here the very first statue of an anti-colonial figure and a hero of millions of people worldwide. Gandhiji influenced the activities of liberation movements, civil rights movements and religious organisations in all five continents of the world. He impacted on men and women who have achieved significant historical changes in their countries not least amongst whom are Martin Luther King. Mahatma Gandhi came to this country 100 years ago, to assist Indians brought to this country as indentured labourers and those who came to set up trading posts. He came here to assist them to retain their right to be on a common voters roll. The Mahatma is an integral part of our history because it is here that he first experimented with truth; here that he demonstrated his characteristic firmness in pursuit of justice; here that he developed Satyagraha as a philosophy and a method of struggle.”
The path towards India’s freedom from centuries of British rule began with a single train-ride, and Mahatma Gandhi’s decision to fight, not flee.


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