Gandhi - Advocates Non-violent Resistance to Racial Law

Gandhi referred to South Africa as his second home and it was there, in the late summer of 1906, that the young lawyer decided to non-violently oppose a racially motivated law which discriminated against Indians.

At the time, many Indians were living in the Transvaal Colony (present-day Limpopo, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga) of South Africa.  They, or their families, had first arrived around 1860 (as indentured servants). 

On the 22nd of August, 1906, the Transvaal Government announced (in a government newspaper) an "Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance" which, among other things, required the fingerprinting of every Indian above the age of eight.  Under the law then in effect, only criminals were subject to fingerprinting.

Gandhi viewed the Ordinance as criminalizing all Indians living in South Africa and opposed it: 

  • Not only did he oppose it, he announced to a crowd of 3,000 Indians, who had gathered in Johannesburg, that he would not obey it
  • Not only would he not obey it, he urged all those gathered to also disregard the Ordinance. 

They agreed, and pledged to do as he did.

The following is one of the memorable statements he made that day - September 11, 1906 - at the Empire Theater meeting:

How can one be compelled to accept slavery? I simply refuse to do the master's bidding. He may torture me, break my bones to atoms and even kill me. He will then have my dead body, not my obedience. Ultimately, therefore, it is I who am the victor and not he, for he has failed in getting me to do what he wanted done.

And ... these admonitions to the 3,000 gathered men:

We may have to go to jail, where we may be insulted. We may have to go hungry and suffer extreme heat or cold. Hard labor may be imposed upon us. We may be flogged by rude warders. We may be fined heavily and our property may be attached and held up to auction if there are only a few resisters left. 

Opulent today we may be reduced to abject poverty tomorrow. We may be deported. Suffering from starvation and similar hardships in jail, some of us may fall ill and even die. In short, therefore, it is not at all impossible that we may have to endure every hardship that we can imagine, and wisdom lies in pledging ourselves on the understanding that we shall have to suffer all that and worse.

As a lawyer, Gandhi knew that laws are not always moral. That is why he would remind people that obeying "the law" was not always the right thing to do:

There is a higher court than courts of justice, and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.

This clip, from the film Gandhi, recreates the scene in Johannesburg where Gandhi urges everyone present to disregard the Ordinance if it became law.  (It did.)  Gandhi is played by Ben Kingsley.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5189stories and lessons created

Original Release: May 28, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Sep 21, 2016

Media Credits

Referenced quotes and information, from South African History Online.


Clip, from Gandhi (1982), online courtesy American Rhetoric.  Copyright, Goldcrest Films, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the production.


Director:  Richard Attenborough

Screenplay:  John Briley

Release Date:  December 8, 1982

Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

The film won eight Academy-Awards, including those for Attenborough, Briley and Kingsley.


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