“India is the Mahatma’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption.”
The inspiration that the anti-apartheid leader drew from the political struggles of Gandhi has been widely acclaimed. Deeply inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘satya’ and ‘ahimsa’, Mandela often referred to the Mahatma as his ‘role model’.
But Mandela’s connections with India was hardly limited to his admiration for Gandhi. Once he was released from jail in 1990, he visited India many times and considered the country his place of pilgrimage. While much has been written about the Mandela’s devotion to Gandhi, hardly ever do we hear about the influence that other Indians had upon the South African president.
In South Africa, Indians were the first group of people to politically organise themselves in the struggle against European domination. Mahatma Gandhi was in South Africa from 1893 and under his leadership, the indentured labourers from India had been stirred up politically to fight the unfair policies of the colonial rulers.
By the time Mandela stepped into the domain of political consciousness, he was naturally in the company of the more politically active Indian community in South Africa. In his autobiography, “Long walk to freedom”, he spoke at length on the lessons he learnt from his Indian friends.
Mandela recalled his interactions with Ismail Meer, J.N.Singh, Ramlal Bhoolia and Ahmad Bhoolia who were studying with him at Johannesburg. They would meet at Ismail’s apartment frequently to engage in stimulating discussions. Mandela recollected having undergone immense political change under the influence of these friends. In particular, his bond with the Indian fellow students made him realise the unison of political struggles across racial boundaries. He wrote in his autobiography:
“I discovered for the first time people of my own age firmly aligned with Liberation struggle, who were prepared despite their relative privileges, to sacrifice themselves for the cause of the oppressed.”
Another group that had deep influence upon Mandela was the unison among the leader of the African National Congress Dr. Xuma, leader of the Natal Indian Congress Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and the leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress Dr. G.M. Naicker. This was popularly called the “three doctors pact” which came into existence in March 1947 with a resolution to fight for basic human rights and citizenship rights for all South Africans. For Mandela, the doctors pact was the forerunner to the more organised political struggle in South Africa. He wrote about the activities of the pact:
“The Doctor’s pact laid the foundation for the future cooperation of Africans, Indians and the coloured people since it respected the independence of each individual group but acknowledged the achievements that could be realized from acting in concert.”
Apart from Gandhi, the other Indian nationalist leader who had a profound impact on Mandela was Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he considered his ‘hero’. When in prison, Mandela referred to the prison memoirs of Nehru in order to maintain the discipline of reading and writing. He was especially influenced by the works of Nehru, ‘The Unity of India’ and his autobiography. Other than Nehru’s ideas on nationalism, he also drew inspiration from Nehru’s thoughts on socialism and state modernisation.
The strength with which the Indian community had fought for freedom had often amazed Mandela. Commenting upon the will power of the Indian political movements, he had remarked:
“I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could. The Indian campaign became a model for the type of protest that we in the youth league were calling for. It installed a spirit of defiance and radicalism among the people, broke the fear of prison, and boosted the popularity of the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress.”