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The spirit of satyagraha

Biju Negi

Valliamma Munuswami Mudaliar, forgotten heroine of the satyagraha movement against racism and injustice in South Africa, died 100 years ago. She was only 16

Valliamma Munuswami Mudaliar, forgotten heroine of the satyagraha

February 22, 2014 marked the 70th death anniversary of Kasturba Gandhi. That was 1944, one- and-a-half years into the Quit India Movement, and she was in prison. She was arrested on  August 9, 1942, the very first day of the Quit India Movement. Mahatma Gandhi had already been taken into custody the previous evening. Both of them, along with some of their closest associates, were shifted to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. That is where she died and was cremated. Her samadhi rests next to that of Mahadev Desai, Gandhiji’s personal secretary, who  also died in the same prison on August 15, 1942.

We don’t often recognise or even recollect Kasturba’s many roles in the country’s independence movement. Even less her critical contribution in shaping Gandhiji’s character and persona, in balancing his inner and outer worlds. Gandhiji, the apostle of nonviolence, put it on record that it was from her that he learnt his nonviolence.

But February 22 is also the death anniversary of another martyr -- a fellow prisoner of Kasturba 30 years earlier, in faraway South Africa. Valliamma Munuswami Mudaliar, who died on this day, exactly 100 years ago -- February 22, 1914.

It was also Valliamma’s 16th birthday!

Born on February 22, 1898 in Johannesburg, Valliamma was the eldest daughter of fresh produce hawker Munuswami and Mangalam Mudaliar (originally from Thalliadi, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu), both active in resistance movements. As a child she would sometimes accompany her father to political meetings. Remembering her sacrifice, Gandhiji writes in his Satyagraha in South Africa, “How can I forget her? Valliamma R Munuswami Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesburg only 16 years of age.”

On March 14, 1913, Justice Malcolm Searle of the Cape Town Supreme Court had pronounced that marriages which were not conducted according to Christian rites and registered with the Registrar of Marriages were declared legally invalid. One of the many anti-Indian prejudicial legislations being enacted in South Africa at the time, this one effectively de-legitimised Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) marriages. Such couples were no longer to be deemed legally wed husband and wives.In fact, such wives were now to be seen as no more than concubines and their children were to be deprived of their right to parental inheritance. This created great heartburn within the Indian community, which was already suffering from and campaigning against the 1995 Three Pound Tax which had been imposed on the ‘free’ Indians who were no longer indentured labourers but plying petty trade or other work. The Searle judgment further inflamed the disquiet amongst Indians.

Gandhiji wrote to the government, seeking its view on the judgment and arguing that the legal validity of marriages conducted according to Muslim and Hindu rites was an existing right and if the imperial authorities in India accepted such marriages as valid, South Africa was unreasonable in denying their legitimacy. He called upon the government to make the necessary adjustment to the Immigration Bill to accommodate Hindu and Muslim marriages. The government’s response, not surprisingly, was in the negative.

Angry as the Indians were, at a meeting called by the Satyagraha Association it was resolved not to make any further appeal to the authorities but resort to stiff satyagraha against what was termed an “unspeakable insult”. Women, who had hitherto remained in the background during the various struggles, now not only joined the passive resistance campaign but, in this case, were at its forefront.

As Kasturba told Gandhiji, “I am bound to join the struggle.”

Gandhiji asked her to think it over once again as she could be arrested and put in jail, to which Kasturba replied, “I have nothing to think about. I am fully determined”, and added that she would rather go to prison than be declared an ‘unlawful wife’.

The women’s participation became a key element in the Satyagraha Campaign of 1913-14. The Searle judgment catalysed them to mobilise and politicise the discriminations and injustices they had been living under then.

At the time, Indians were not allowed to enter or leave Transvaal without permits. So it was decided that the satyagrahis would do exactly that, break the law and get arrested. If they were not arrested upon entering Transvaal, then they would proceed and enter Natal. If they were still not arrested, they would then reach the coal-mining centre Newcastle and urge the indentured Indian labourers and others there to go on strike.

The resisters travelled in separate groups, with Kasturba leading the second group. Upon entering Transvaal at Volksrust station, the passive resisters were stopped though not arrested, as the government felt that this would give the satyagraha campaign uncalled-for publicity. Three days later, the police rounded up the group and deported it across the Transvaal border to Natal. The group, however, promptly marched back into Transvaal and this time they were arrested.  This was in September 1913 and the group, sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour, was sent to Maritzburg prison in Natal.

A few weeks later, in October, the first group, which comprised only women from the Tolstoy Farm, who were not arrested till then, was taken into custody, given the same sentence and sent to the same prison. Shortly after their arrest, towards October-end, a third group of women which included Valliamma crossed over into Orange Free State. The group, comprising 11 women (six of them with infant children alongside), began hawking fruit and vegetables, without permits, determined to be arrested, but in vain. Then they crossed over to Natal and addressed meetings in Newcastle on the Three Pounds Tax and non-recognition of Indian marriages, mobilising the coalmine and plantation labour population to support the satyagraha. This was something the authorities could not accept and the women were eventually arrested. Valliamma, though, was not among them.

The arrest led to a strike by the labourers in many mines, which also spread to the plantations. The ‘Great March’ that had begun in November with over 2,000 men, women and children seeking to court arrest by crossing the Natal border into Transvaal, gathered great momentum. Valliamma, this time with her mother, was again in the forefront, crossing the border at Volksrust. Both were arrested on December 22, 1913. They were sent to the same prison in Maritzburg, with the same sentence of three months with hard labour.

Valliamma was already a bit unwell at the time of her arrest and life inside the prison was so harsh that her condition began to deteriorate rapidly. Gandhiji even talked to Gen Jan Smuts, the country’s Minister of Interior, to release Valliamma on medical grounds. Gen Smuts agreed but on condition that she seek forgiveness and vow not to take part in such protests. Valliamma categorically refused the offer.
With strikes spreading, Gen Smuts eventually set up a commission of inquiry into the causes of the strike and following its recommendations, he and Gandhi met and negotiated a deal in mid-January, which ended the Three Pounds Tax and restored the validity of Indian marriages.

Valliamma was released from prison, as were the others. But she was in an emaciated state. In Satyagraha in South Africa,Gandhi recollects meeting her and asking her if she repented having gone to prison, to which Valliamma said that she was ready to do so again.

“But what if it results in your death?” Gandhi asked.

Valliamma replied, “Who would not love to die for one’s motherland!”

It took a few weeks before she could reach home in Johannesburg. She and her mother arrived there on February 20, and only two days later – on February 22 – Valliamma died.

On July 15, 1914, three days before he left South Africa, Gandhi attended the unveiling of the memorial stone of Valliamma (and another youth Sammy Nagappan, who died in 1910 in one of the earlier campaigns) in the Braamfontein cemetery in Johannesburg. He later wrote of her, “The name of Valliamma will live in the history of South African Satyagraha as long as India lives.”

Unfortunately, the cemetery went into disuse, and Valliamma’s now unmarked grave (along with Nagappan’s) was only rediscovered in 1994 after several years of search by the Tamil Federation of South Africa with support from the Indian High Commission, after democracy dawned in that country. Incidentally, the search also located the grave of Enoch Sontonga, the composer of Nkosi Sikilele Afrika, the basis for the national anthems of several African countries, besides South Africa. All three graves are now important heritage sites where the Federation lays special wreaths each year on June 16, celebrated in South Africa as Youth Day.

In 2012, celebrated South African author Aziz Hassim (1935-2013) brought out a book on Valliamma’s life and called for her bust to be installed at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which is being developed as a centre to record the history of the struggle against racialism in South Africa.

In a tribute to Valliamma in April 1997 at a memorial ceremony at Braamfontein cemetery to honour Valliamma and Nagappan, then Indian High Commissioner Gopalkrishna Gandhi said, “You were no longer a child and not yet a woman and you had the will to dare, the will to die….I am reminded particularly today of one person who was with you in the Maritzburg jail: Kasturba. Both of you were prisoners together and she too became a martyr. Coincidently, she was to die on the very same date, February 22, exactly 30 years later, in 1944. Both of you were Maritzburg co-prisoners and your deaths are not deaths, but proclamations of the indomitable spirit of satyagraha.”

If one of Gandhi’s major achievements in India’s freedom struggle was to get the women out of their homes and into resistance and political movement, its seed was laid in the Satyagraha Movement in South Africa in 1913-14, with the sacrifice of the likes of Valliamma.

(Biju Negi is a writer, sustainable agriculture consultant and member of Beej Bachao Andolan)

Infochange News & Features, February 2014