When the world saw only the watertight compartments, Gandhi could see the presence of a wicket gate amidst repression, which made him build on the path of nonviolent struggle. He said, ‘humans are essentially good, susceptible to error and amenable to truth.’
An American missionary, Dr. John Mott, once asked Gandhi what had been the most creative experience of his life. Gandhi recounted his inner struggle on that winter night when he had sat and shivered in the dark waiting room at Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa as he was thrown out of the first-class compartment by a white policeman saying "coolies" had a place only in the van (luggage) compartment. And he told Dr. Mott, “My active nonviolence began from that day.”
In the tumultuous era of globalisation, where borders blur, economies intertwine, and identities meld together, the city of Pietermaritzburg gives a message as profound as any revered pilgrimage site would. It is a message that inspired three remarkable individuals: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Lr King Jr., and Madiba Nelson Mandela, who, through their extraordinary life, propelled civilisation towards greater humanity.
Pietermaritzburg’s message has two parts: First, every architect of wrong carries within oneself the potential for undoing that wrong and offering hope for a better future. Every wall of oppression has a wicket gate within itself. And, second, it teaches us that 'the wrong and the wrongdoer are not one.' We cannot discard the entirety for the transgressions of a few. The second one first. Madiba, King, and Gandhi concurred with the notion that their fight was against the wrong, not the wrongdoer. They directed their efforts against evil, not the evildoer, recognising that the wrongdoer, evildoer and sinner were our own brothers and sisters.
While differences and discord are inherent in human communities, the emerging trend of global living compels us to treat every challenge as an internal matter. Standing at the cusp of an imminent global village defined by pluralism, Gandhi found prophetic resonance in the message of Christ: 'Love thy enemy.' For, in this new paradigm, the adversary is no longer an 'other'; increasingly they are fellow citizens and stakeholders. This realisation drove Gandhi to construct the method of satyagraha, an inclusive post-modern approach to addressing human challenges.
Message of Pietermaritzburg
The first message Pietermaritzburg imparts therefore is, akin to that of a surgeon distinguishing between the disease and the patient. We may learn to wash society of the wrong while seeking to redeem the antagonist from their errors, fostering a harmonious coexistence between both parties.
The other message from this City of Choice is a precursor to the first one. It revolves around how we interpret history and what we choose to take from it. In the tapestry of the Pietermaritzburg incident, we witness prominently those who cast Gandhi off the train and the one who bullied him the following day. However, for those with discerning eyes, the same canvas reveals the benevolent side of these 'antagonists' that is unfortunately often overlooked. The station master, in the morning after Gandhi's expulsion, offered words of comfort and provided him with another first-class ticket. Fellow passengers on subsequent train and coach rides pleaded with the conductor to spare Gandhi. These compassionate souls, all whites, were part of the very 'antagonists' who tormented him.
In a righteous struggle, these few virtuous individuals from opposing quarters form the trump card. Throughout history, the tried and tested strategy for triumph in warfare has been to identify the adversary's weakness and strike at its core. In a righteous struggle too this strategy works; the presence of the 'heart' in the opponent’s camp serves as a weakness to them and a strength to the cause of satyagraha.
Seeing hope in adversity
If we scan the historic occurrences through this premise, we see that even in the era of watertight segmentation, there were evidently few ‘hearts’ among the antagonists, that promised the hope of justice for the oppressed and redemption for the oppressor. The station master, fellow passengers, and the countless Europeans in South Africa whose souls gravitated towards Gandhi, such as the Doke family, the West family, the Pollacks, the Kallenbachs, Sonja Schlesien, and sympathisers like journalist Cartwright, bureaucrat Chimney, police officer’s wife Sarah Alexander, et al., embodied that hope and redemption. When the world saw only the watertight compartments, Gandhi could see the presence of a wicket gate amidst repression, which made him build on the path of nonviolent struggle. He said, ‘humans are essentially good, susceptible to error and amenable to truth.’
We witness a similar dynamic in Madiba's struggle, too. The likes of Denis Goldberg, advocate George Bizos, and writer Alan Paton symbolised that gate of hope. White ministers like Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen, and James Reeb who risked their life by standing on the side of Martin Luther King Jr and his civil rights campaign, exemplify that gate to redemption. The historic event at Pietermaritzburg railway station symbolises both a seemingly impenetrable wall of suppression and a hope for redemption.
In an increasingly complex yet interconnected world, Pietermaritzburg's message reminds us of the dialectical probability of every adversity and the possibility of overcoming it in a manner of winning without defeating and healing without hurting. In a world ridden with violence, it opens a wicket gate for justice, reconciliation, and a sustainable future for all.
(The author is Dean, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, MGM University, Aurangabad, India. The article is based on reflections by the author after his visit to Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa on June 07, 2023, exactly 130 years after M K Gandhi was thrown out of the train compartment on a cold winter night. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)