The Indian leader’s concept of satyagraha was originally developed in South Africa while protesting unjust taxes.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Non-Violence and the Tai Ji Men Case” organized on October 1, 2021, by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers in preparation of the 2021 International Day of Non-Violence (October 2).

An article already published in Bitter Winter on October 8th, 2021.

Gandhi mural in Dakar, Senegal
Gandhi mural in Dakar, Senegal. Credits.

Last month, celebrating on September 21 the International Day of Peace, the shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, stated that “the essence of a culture of conscience is the prevention of war and the resolution of any form of conflict and confrontation by non-violent means.” He traced the ideal of non-violence back to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the Mahatma Gandhi, noting how Gandhi’s “nonviolent ideology impacted the global movement for peaceful reforms.”

In 2017, dizi (disciples) of Tai Ji Men who served as volunteers at the 18th International Conference of Chief Justices of the World in Lucknow, India, visited the Mausoleum of the Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi and celebrated non-violence there.

Dizi and judges at the Mahatma Gandhi Mausoleum, 2017
Dizi and judges at the Mahatma Gandhi Mausoleum, 2017.

There is little doubt that the modern concept of fighting for truth and justice avoiding violence, something he called satyagraha, originated with Gandhi. Without him, we would not have tomorrow an International Day of Non-Violence. Gandhi was a devout Hindu, but he was aware that other religious traditions had also promoted non-violence, none more than Jainism, one of the three great religions born in India together with Hinduism and Buddhism. Indeed, non-violence (ahimsa) is the very cornerstone of Jainism. A Jain would not intentionally hurt any living being, and Jain monks walk with masks like those we use for COVID to avoid inadvertently inhaling and thus killing small insects.

Jains have formed organizations to promote ahimsa, beyond the borders of their religion. The largest of them is Anuvrat, and I find it significant that its president, T.K. Jain, rang Dr. Hong’s Bell of World Peace and Love in Melbourne on August 20, 2010.

Anuvrat’s president T.K. Jain ringing the Bell of World Peace and Love, 2010
Anuvrat’s president T.K. Jain ringing the Bell of World Peace and Love, 2010.

While the religious roots, including those in Jainism, of Gandhi’s non-violence are generally acknowledged today, many do not know that his model of satyagraha was originally developed in South Africa rather than in India, and that the fight against tax injustice, so important for Tai Ji Men, was an essential part of it.

When the first COVID quarantine confined all of us at home in 2020, my wife and I had just come back to Europe from New York. We missed the opera, and particularly the Metropolitan (Met) Opera in New York. Happily, during the international lockdown, the Met Opera decided to broadcast operas for free. One of the operas from the Met we watched in our home was Satyagraha, created in 1980 by American composer Philip Glass.

Stefan Cifolelli as Gandhi in the Berlin performance of Satyagraha, 2017
Stefan Cifolelli as Gandhi in the Berlin performance of Satyagraha, 2017. Credits.

That this opera was, and remain, successful came as a surprise to many. It is a long opera sung in Sanskrit language, and Glass is a minimalist composer whose postmodern music is based on repetitive structures, something as far away as possible from the classic operas of Verdi, Puccini, or Wagner. Yet, audiences throughout the world understood the message.

In the opera, the characters sing religious songs, mostly from the Bhagavad Gita, which underline that Gandhi’s struggle was indeed rooted in religion. We see Gandhi, who works as a lawyer in South Africa, gradually awakening to the need of defending the human rights of the Indian community in general, not his clients only, and developing the principle of non-violent protest and resistance, while the spirits of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and American activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (the latter not yet born at the time of Gandhi’s South African protests) silently keep watch on him.

In the third act of the opera, and in real history, Gandhi finally celebrates his triumph and the victory of the non-violent satyagraha in 1913, when he leads a march of 20,000 Indians and their supporters from Newcastle, in Natal, where many Indians worked as miners, to his Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg in Transvaal. During the march, Gandhi was arrested three times, but the movement kept growing and he was always released.

A rare image of the 1913 march
A rare image of the 1913 march. Credits.

ompetitors of white South Africans. The power that be then tried to discriminate against the Indian minority in the usual way, through taxes. Indian merchants were harassed through illegal tax bills, and a special tax was created for the Indians, first of 25 pounds and then, after international protests, of 3 pounds per year per person. Even 3 pounds meant that a family of four engaged in petty trade or farming would pay more than fifty percent of what they made in taxes.

Gandhi in his South African law firm’s office
Gandhi in his South African law firm’s office. Credits.

As he later explained in his autobiography, Gandhi was persuaded that taxes were being used to discriminate against a minority the government did not like, launched his satyagraha against the discriminatory taxes, and won. The 3-pound tax was revoked, and the unjust tax bills against the Indians were cancelled.

Gandhi moved to India in 1914, armed with his experience and method of non-violence. His legacy remains universal. Tai Ji Men who fight against persecution and discrimination through taxes may be inspired by the fact that it was a reflection on how taxes may be used to discriminate against minorities that led Gandhi to create the model of non-violent protest, a model Tai Ji Men dizi cherish and practice to this very day.