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Vol. XXXIII No. 6, July 1-15, 2023

Gandhi’s Madras connection continues

-- by K.R.A. Narasiah

The Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Foundation recently organized the GMK (Gandhi Mandela King) 2023 International Conference, an event that sought to establish peace and justice for all, through the mobilization of non-violent change. It was attended by world-renowned academics, intellectuals, activists, and critical scholars. The Presidents of the Conference were Dr. Ela Gandhi of the Gandhi Development Trust (also the granddaughter of the Mahatma himself); Prof. Clayborne Carson of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University and Ms. Razia Saleh, Director (Archive & Research) of the Mandela Foundation. David Gengan, President of the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Foundation, was the Secretary and Programme Director of the Conference.

The conference was organized on June 7 to commemorate the 130th anniversary of Gandhi’s eviction from the first-class coach of a train travelling from Durban to Natal. When the train reached the capital of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, at around 9 p.m., a white passenger entered the compartment and looked Gandhi up and down, clearly disturbed by the presence of a coloured man travelling in first class. The man left and returned with two railway officials. One of them told Gandhi to get down and accompany him to the van compartment. Gandhi refused, saying that he had a first-class ticket from Durban. The official said that did not matter and insisted he move to the van. Gandhi remained obstinate, saying that he had been allowed to travel in the compartment in Durban and had no intention of getting down. The official brought a policeman who grabbed Gandhi and pushed him out.

Today, the plaque at the same station reads “In the vicinity of this plaque, M.K. Gandhi was evicted from a first-class compartment on the night of 7th June 1893. This incident changed the course of his life. He took up the fight against racial oppression. His active non-violence started from that day.” Indeed, this was a turning point in Gandhi’s life, one that sparked his path to developing the ideals of Satyagraha and leading the struggle against oppression and discrimination in both South Africa and India.

The day was also the 120th anniversary of Indian Opinion, the newspaper established by Gandhi in 1903 in South Africa. The Chairperson of the foundation David Gengen explained the significance of this year’s conference with reference to the three iconic leaders of the last century, Gandhi, Mandela and King Jr.

The National Gandhi Museum also organised an exhibition on Gandhi: The Lawyer at the conference venue. The book Gandhi: The Lawyer, written by A. Annamalai (Director of the National Gandhi Museum at Delhi), was released by Mr. Puneet Kundal, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. A copy was received by Dr. Ela Gandhi. The keynote speaker was Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. The Deputy High Commissioner for South Africa, Smt. Banu Prakash handed over a large collection of books to be added to the 100 volumes of Gandhi’s writings that are already in a Gandhi Corner in the Pietermaritzburg municipal library. Sri Puneet Kundal noted that this year is significant for another reason – it marks the 30th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between India and South Africa after a break of almost four decades because of apartheid.

Among the 26 Indian delegates, two were from the ­Gandhi Museum, Madurai, and four from the Gandhi Study Centre located in Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya campus at T. Nagar in Chennai. A. ­Annamalai presented two papers at the Conference – one detailing how Gandhi used the media for Satyagraha and the second on Gandhi, The Lawyer. Sri. K. Mohan, Chairman of the Gandhi Study Centre, Dr M. Prema, Research Coordinator, Prof. Vijaya Ramalingam and Smt. Vallabhi Chellam participated in the event as delegates from the Gandhi Study Centre.

It may be recalled that it was Mahatma Gandhi who laid the foundation stone for the Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya on Feb 1, 1946. Gandhi’s Chennai connection lives on.

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